When the idea first germinated in his mind, there was no space on the campus where he could build his dream. But in 1876 Mrs. Ida Kenyon, the widow of the school's first president, abandoned the construction of a stone house near the campus after only the foundation had been laid.
Allen bought the property and from its foundation, in a seemingly erratic and unplanned manner, the castle-like structure began to grow.
Allen spent four years working on the structure, gathering over 8000 rock specimens that he combined to form the walls of the building and 700 samples of local and foreign wood he used for the internal framework.
He envisioned the structure as a "geological cabinet" where a wide range of rocks native to the Alfred area could be seen as an integral part of the walls. Granite and quartzite from the Canadian shield, sandstone, limestone and fossil rock from Rochester and flint, limestone and fossil coral from Honeoye Falls were incorporated in the design.
When he was finished with his creation, its main tower rose 66 feet above ground level and it covered a space 49 by 84 feet on the ground.
Allen placed within the museum an exhibit of articles which mirrored the variety of the materials used in the building's construction. An extensive shell and coral collection contained more than 1000 specimens, there was a herbarium with botanical examples of most of the flora of Western New York and a bird collection of stuffed fowl that encompassed most of the species that might be viewed in the Alfred area — including four passenger pigeons.
That era has ended now, however. Though Steinheim may have hoped for the building to be a showcase of his memorabilia for a thousand years to come, he had been more of a visionary than a practical architect. Though his intentions were honorable in using the walls of the structure themselves as a geological showcase, the idea was faulty in that some of the sandstones used weathered faster than the harder gneiss specimens around them and the walls began to deteriorate. Inside, the floors were not properly secured, roof beams were placed randomly and time quickly began to claim the old structure.
In the early 1950's the Steinheim closed its doors for the last time as a museum.
Architects, museum people, builders and other interested parties were brought to the campus to attempt to develop a plan to save the building. None was developed.
In 1967 a representative of the New York State Museum and Science service said, "The interior of the building is poorly designed and currently unsafe."
In 1970 a committee at the University received a grant to study ways of possibly saving the building. They, in turn, hired a New York City architect who suggested that the floors be shored up as the first measure toward renovating the museum. This, however, necessitated removing the Allen collection from the building.
Meanwhile, new subfloors were placed in the building, replastering was done, the unsafe spiral staircase was sealed off and other necessary repairs were made.
University officials now say that the deterioration has stopped, but the building is still not usable for much more than the temporary music instrument practice booths that are now temporarily housed inside. There is need for heating and wiring, as well as repairs to make the upper floors usable.
The Alfred University student newspaper, "Fiat Lux," recently reported that in the Master Plan for University renovation developed by the Massachusetts firm of Kosacki, Dawson and DeMay, to be subjected to final approval by the Board of Trustees next month, it was suggested that the inside of the Steinheim be renovated for suites of offices for the University Relations department.
Fiat Editor in Chief Donald A. Streed wrote: "We, the students of Alfred University, the future alumni and possible trustees, plead with (the Board of Trustees) to put off your plans of renovating the Steinheim to place offices in it. We feel that it could best serve this campus as either a museum or perhaps a rare book library, which this campus badly needs."
Whatever the fate of the museum, it is at least to be preserved. It was nominated this week for listing in the national register of historical buildings, a designation which, if approved by Albany and Washington, would mean no funding or even a plaque on the door, but which would prevent it from being torn down by a governmental agency for at least a year and forever recognize the structure as the unique creation Johnathan Allen dreamed of 100 years ago.