THE MORNING WAS MISTY AND COLD as only spring in Albany can be. I stared down at State Street from my grimy office window wondering how the greenery could look so gray and decided that this might finally be the year I would have to clean the soot from the panes.
|Van Rensselaer Manor, |
as painted by Thomas Cole in 1841
I gave her my devil-may-care rumble, although I know she is never impressed. “Send him in.”
Robbe Stimson was a tall, lanky fellow with sandy hair, tinted eyeglasses and a big, broad smile, a country gentleman in jeans and corduroy jacket. His Tennessee Walking Horse was probably parked outside.
“A detective’s office right out of Raymond Chandler,” he said, examining my dingy room with amusement.
“Mysteries are a sort of hobby of mine,” I replied, trying to sound like I’d breakfasted on whisky.
“You write them?” he asked, eyeing my battered Underwood and the piles of manuscripts on the desk.
“I wrote one,” I confessed. “Nobody seems to want to buy it, though. But I asked you here about your book.”
It was a routine newspaper assignment — a review of his newly published Hudson River Villas — so I pulled out my notepad and we got down to work.
Stimson brought out a copy of the oversize volume, issued by Rizzoli, and co-authored with John Zukowsky. “John covered the estates in the New York City area, while I wrote about the northern part of the river,” he told me and went on to describe the process of compiling the history and photographs necessary to such a work. And as I leafed through the book, he told me tales of the particular houses — stories of railroad tycoons and bootleggers living in the kinds of rock piles only a robber baron can build. I took dutiful notes as my brain fogged over. The trouble with history is that you already know how it’s going to turn out.
Or you think you do. A few pages from the end Stimson began talking about a mansion that had stood near Broadway and Tivoli Street in North Albany, built in 1765 by Stephen Van Rensselaer. I was staring at my notes: third patroon ... last heir died late 19th century ... going to be torn down in 1893, but moved to Williams College ... Then the fog began to lift.
“They actually moved the whole thing to Williamstown?” I couldn’t believe it. The pictures showed a huge stone mansion that would have been absurdly expensive just to take down carefully, much less to move.
Stimson was excited too. “It was going to be razed in 1893 but Marcus Reynolds, an architect from Albany who was also a Williams graduate, raised the money to move it – or at least most of it – to the college grounds as a frat house.”
Now I smelled a story. Historic house saved by famous architect, scene for 100 years of hazings and brotherhood. “I’d love to see it,” I said.
“Oh, but it’s not there any more:’ Stimson declared. My heart sank. “It was taken down again in 1973 to make way for a new wing on the Williams College Library. But they say that the house was moved back to Albany and is stored right now somewhere in the city.”
Stimson turned and gazed out the window before he went on. “The mystery is that nobody seems to know where it is.”
After Stimson left, I sat back in my chair and stared at the photo in his book. I saw a massive, three-story Georgian structure with a center portico and side wings along a curving, tree-lined drive. Lintels, cornices and balustrades of carved stone all over it. I tried to picture the procession needed to carry the huge pieces — they must have weighed hundreds of pounds each — over Mount Raimer along what is now Route 2.
Why did it end up at Williams? And why did the college later get rid of the building? I buzzed my secretary. “I’m off to do some research,” I told her. “Cancel all my appointments for tomorrow.”
“You don’t have any appointments for tomorrow,” she said.
WILLIAMSTOWN is in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts. The scenic approach includes a twisty passage over a once-popular ski spot. This time of year the fields and farms far below were wearing their bright spring greens.
Williams College dominates the town and supplies much of the New England atmosphere with an appealing collection of older Colonial-style buildings. The former site of Van Rensselaer Manor now holds the Sawyer Library, built in 1974 and named after the man who was president of the college for the preceding decade.
For information on the Manor, I was directed to the library’s Williamsiana Collection and curator Sharon Band.
The house was constructed by Stephen Van Rensselaer in 1765 under the guidance of General Abraham Ten Broeck as a place to bring his new bride, Catherine Livingston, daughter of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The Georgian mansion was built of wood in colors of cream and white with marble trimming, and sported some unusual octagonal wings at either end of the five-bay structure.
That was a year of mounting unrest in the colonies. In November, as the Stamp Act went into effect, an effigy of the state’s lieutenant governor was burned in the streets of New York City.
But those revolutionary stirrings did not stop the aristocratic Van Rensselaer family from surrounding itself with splendor in its new abode. The furnishings represented the best of what New York City merchants had to offer the wealthy. The great entrance hall was a room, 24 by 46 feet, featuring hand-painted wallpaper of scenes copied from Vernet, Lancret and Pannini, a gift from Philip Livingston. The hall was preserved — the paper carefully removed for the reconstruction — and is now in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Another architectural hand went to work on the house in 1843. Richard Upjohn, founder and first president of the American Institute of Architects, lived outside of Syracuse and in New Bedford, Massachusetts. A few years before rebuilding Trinity Church in Manhattan, Upjohn was commissioned to work on the Albany mansion. Among other things, he changed the octagonal wings to more conventional rectangles and replaced the outside wood with brick and brownstone.
|An 1893 photo of the manor in its |
original Albany location
Soon after that, the D&H Railroad made plans to run a new line where the west wing stood and the whole building was slated for demolition.
Enter Marcus T. Reynolds, noted Albany architect who would later design some of the city’s most beautiful buildings, including the D&H headquarters (now housing the central administration of SUNY), and what are now the First American Bank and Home and City Savings Bank buildings.
In 1890 Reynolds graduated from Williams, where he had been a member of the Sigma Phi fraternity. Because of a colder-than-normal winter in 1893, a fire at the frat house burned unchecked. Reynolds heard about the impending demolition of the Van Rensselaer house and raised the money necessary to move it over the mountain.
In a bound volume on the library shelf I found a copy of The Williams Weekly of November 9, 1893, which reported:
“Preparation work of removal has been begun: the various portions of the building being labeled and catalogued for order in re-erection:”
Time had already been unkind to the building and some portions of it were unsalvageable. But the resourceful Reynolds was able to design a house that would utilize all he could move.
The wings were left to the wreckers but their pedimented windows with four pilasters and small balconies were mounted as side windows. The windows at the front of the house became doors to a porch expanded to the full width of the building. The central gable was different — one window where three had been — and the back porch was completely changed.
These adaptations saved the mansion at the time, but later provided ammunition for those who wanted to demolish it. In the late 1960s, when fraternities were dying at Williams and many other colleges, the Sigma Phi society gave the Van Rensselaer House to the college with a proviso that house and grounds would revert to the club in ten years if frats were reinstated, if the building had any use other than educational, or if it were used as a residence.
John Sawyer was ending his twelve-year term as Williams College president in 1973 and anxious, I suspected as I read this account, to build himself a monument. The Sigma Phi site was chosen for the new library wing and Sawyer justified razing the old building by calling attention to its architectural inconsistencies. And the fraternity put up no resistance. Its alumni voted in a mail referendum to remove the “reverter clause’ and demolition was slated to begin on June 12, one day after commencement.
An art collector named Lawrence H. Bloedel, formerly associated with the college, was quoted in the North Adams Transcript as saying: “Floor plans and interior are totally new and do not resemble the Manor house in any respect. Reynolds himself said that no more than that ‘the stone and timbers were transported to Williamstown ... [to construct] a building which in many ways resembles the Manor House.’”
Sawyer added that it is “a building of charm and grace but one that clearly was neither the original Manor House nor the Upjohn reconstruction of 1843. This not only made the cost of trying to move it even more questionable, but considerably eased the pain of the decision for all of us with a feeling for both history and architecture.”
But Joseph Tasker, a senior art major who circulated a petition to save the building, didn’t buy those arguments. “The differences between the original and this building were dictated almost completely by not having been able to save sufficient trim and brick from the original,” he wrote, and he insisted that Reynolds’s own reputation as an architect be considered. But his protestations fell on deaf ears.
Winthrop Wassenar, now the head of the college’s building and grounds department, recalled the controversy. “The site was chosen by the master planner for the new library because it was adjacent to the old library, where many faculty offices were located. And it was important that the new library be central to the campus.
“In the process of moving the building here, a lot of significance was lost. The great staircase and a large chandelier had been removed years ago. So there were many reasons why we felt there was no urgent need to hang on to the building for historic reasons.”
In May, in an 11th-hour appearance, an Albany physician named D. Joseph Demis announced that he had enough money to save the building (or most of it), and in all likelihood would have it rebuilt in Albany in time for the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976.
The Williamstown Record Advocate reported on June 10 that “selective removal” had begun. “In careful, piecemeal fashion each part has been numbered for reassembly in the Albany jigsaw puzzle. Ornamental railings, pediments and foundation stones are crated on the front lawn ... ”
I got back from Williamstown on a balmy April afternoon with a bad case of spring fever and decided to wash the grime off the office windows while I thought things over. Layers of paint had locked the sashes to the sills. I tapped a putty knife into the dividing point and worked the bottom sash from side to side, mentally sifting what I had learned so far and telling my secretary the story.
Manor condemned, disassembled, moved and reassembled as a frat house. Times change, customs vanish. House again condemned, again dismantled. “Where did all the pieces end up?” she asked.
“That’s still the mystery. Something went wrong with the plans, I guess.” The paint snapped apart and I pushed the window open — for the first time in many years by the look of the filthy sill.
“You should pull the whole window out and put an aluminum one in,” she suggested sensibly.
Perhaps. But I’ve grown very fond of these old double-hung sash-weight windows. They’re well designed and if the old rope sash cords are replaced with polyester or a chain and the path of the weight is isolated with a plastic pipe, you can pack enough insulation in this pocket to seal the window as tight as anything that’s new on the market.
“See if you can get hold of this Dr. Demis for me. I’m going to find out what happened.”
A row of tulips, survivors of a surprise April cold snap, stood cheerfully outside Dr. Demis’s Delmar office. Across the street Saturday traffic thronged Delaware Plaza.
The doctor, a soft-spoken man with a youthful face under his graying hair, ushered me into the reception, area where he listened to my saga.
“So my question is,” I concluded, “where is Van Rensselaer Manor?”
I wasn’t the first to ask; his smile indicated that he had handled people like me before. “I’d really rather not say,” Demis answered. “I’m sure you know what souvenir hunters are like. Even as we were dismantling the building, alumni fraternity members came by and chipped off pieces. We’ve been able to protect what we have for 13 years by not disclosing the present location.”
My face fell, and we sat in silence for a minute, both feeling uncomfortable. “What if I wear a blindfold on the way there?” I suggested. He smiled. I really wanted to see it. [This blindfold business is crazy-editor nonsense. I was given the address and drove there on my own.]
Some days later, I sat in Demis’s car with a black scarf over my eyes, going somewhere, and listened to more tales of the Doctor and the Old House.
“I grew up in the Adirondacks’ he said, “and I went to Union College. I’m also a history buff, with an interest in the anti-rent wars that took place in this area. That started me looking for the homes of the various patroons and, like yourself, I made a trip — in fact, several trips — to Williams College when I discovered that Van Rensselaer Manor was there, with the hope of preserving the building.”
But in March 1973, Demis got a call from a friend whose son was a student at Williams, with the news of the Manor’s impending demolition. The doctor immediately called the college. By then time was short. The college planned to begin knocking it down right after classes ended and was committed to begin work on the new library the first week in July. That gave Demis about three weeks to dismantle the house. So in April, an ad hoc committee of individuals Demis had organized signed a contract with the college.
MANY LEADING PRESERVATIONISTS thought Demis was out of his mind. Ada Louise Huxtable, the revered architecture writer for The New York Times (who had been awarded an honorary degree by Williams only a month before), echoed the college president’s feelings in a Times article of July 8, 1973:
“Williams is taking down, brick by brick, after a drag-out battle, the bastardized remnants of an 18th-century house,” she wrote. “Once moved, twice altered by other architectural hands, it has a value not as any special kind of architecture anymore, but just as a good old building ... The arduous job of rebuilding it is reverence misplaced.”
But to Demis, this was just another insult to a building once recognized as one of the area’s most important examples of Georgian architecture. As if a century of beer parties wasn’t enough.
“The argument that the structure must be completely original is worthless,” Demis said in frustration, “when you consider that historic buildings like the Kremlin or the White House undergo a continuous process of remodeling. Nobody thinks that diminishes their significance. And she doesn’t take into account the names of Upjohn and Reynolds, the ‘other architectural hands.’”
A completely different tone was taken in a letter from Dr. Roderic Hall Blackburn, assistant director of the Albany Institute and curator of the current Dutch exhibition, who declared that the old Van Rensselaer Manor “is the finest residential structure of the pre-Revolutionary period that exists in upstate New York.”
(I later asked Dr. Blackburn how the work of Upjohn and Reynolds would alter his opinion. He held to his statement, adding, “Reynolds was a remarkable architect. If he tried to preserve the Manor when he redesigned it, I’m sure he succeeded. When somebody doesn’t like a piece of architecture, he will find some reason to do away with it and never think what the next generation might get out of the structure.”)
In the meantime, the college had unaccountably stepped up its construction schedule, Demis told me, and he and his crew were forced to hasten their project. Hard feelings (and probably harsh words) passed between college and committee. Students were roped in to help.
ACCORDING TO A CLIPPING from the Berkshire Eagle dated July 16, 1973, the city of Albany was offering a “magnificent” piece of land at the corner of Van Rensselaer Boulevard and Lawn Avenue, about a half mile from the site of the original address, overlooking the Wolfert’s Roost Country Club.
“We were too late for Bicentennial money,” Demis said. “That had to be applied for three years in advance, and we missed the deadline by a few weeks.” Albany, I remembered, had used its Bicentennial money to paint the city’s fireplugs red, white and blue.
But Demis’s committee wanted to restore the Manor as an accessible, functioning building, perhaps to use as a library of the city’s Dutch colonial past. So the location Albany Mayor Erastus Corning 2d offered was therefore declined. A lack of adequate parking was cited, as well as concern about the security of the building. The location is now the site of low-income housing.
“Next we approached the mayor with the idea of putting the building in Washington Park, but Corning wasn’t in favor of that and I’m still not sure why,” Demis mused. “And, ironically, back in 1893, Mrs. Van Rensselaer had offered to pay to move the house to the park and provide a bequest for the upkeep of the place in perpetuity. But the first Mayor Corning had turned down her proposal.”
Now the story began to take on the twists so dear to the hearts of those who like a little mystery in their history. In 1974 a woman came forward with a million dollars to reconstruct the house on the RPI campus as a home for the president, a fitting gift to the college founded by Stephen Van Rensselaer. But a faculty committee rejected the offer because the architecture was not in keeping with the style of the campus.
“We didn’t pursue the RPI disagreement as actively as we might have because another possibility suddenly appeared,” Demis remembered. “A PR man from [then-]Governor Rockefeller’s office came to us with the proposal to reconstruct it as a new governor’s mansion.”
There was a possibility that brought with it an exciting picture: the Eagle Street mansion has its friendly Victorian charm, but what could top a reconstruction of Georgian splendor at its most magnificent?
But Rockefeller resigned to run for Vice President, Governor Malcolm Wilson let it drop and Governor Hugh L. Carey was too busy with the New York City fiscal crisis to think about a new house. Demis and his supporters have never approached Governor Cuomo. They figure that if he were interested, he would have been in touch.
And every now and then Demis gets a phone call from someone like me who is interested, or just curious. As recently as last Mother’s Day, a run-through of the story appeared in the Albany Times-Union.
You might as well take off the blindfold,” the doctor said, and I blinked in the bright afternoon light. We turned into a narrow road and wound along through empty countryside. Demis handed me a photograph. It was from the North Adams Transcript and showed the building partially dismantled with numbers painted on all the brownstone and window sections lying on the grass.
“We saved it all, as Reynolds did,” Demis told me as we continued along the road. “The brick on the outside was not original. According to Reynolds, it crumbled when the Manor was first taken down. But we found a brick company in Coeymans that would replicate the early Dutch material.” Another missed opportunity. He had lined up volunteers from the local unions; masonry people had offered to do the excavations for the basement and install the foundation. “You can’t imagine what a job it is to work with a house of this size,” he sighed. “But here, take a look.”
And there it was: Like the last scene of Citizen Kane, piles and piles of stones on wooden pallets. At one time, the blocks were fastened with straps of flexible metal; now the metal was rusted and broken.
He pointed to a piece of baluster, about two feet by two feet, made of decorative puce stone in the shape of two ovals joined at the middle. “That’s hand-carved. You can see the damage on the side where someone, possibly an alumnus, chipped off a souvenir piece. Feel the weight of it.” It must have weighed 80 pounds; I put it down with a grunt.
“They took it down block by block,” Winthrop Wassenar of Williams had said, “and put it on big flatbeds to haul it off over the mountain into Albany.” They did the whole job in about three weeks with a local contractor, 30 people and four or five trucks. It took about 50 loads.
We walked among the piles and the doctor pointed out the bits and pieces of his vast puzzle. Stone cylinders from the front columns, about a yard long and eight inches in diameter, stood and lay sadly at our feet. “You can see my painted number here,” he showed me, “and if you look closely, you can also make out Reynolds’s chiseled marking system. He used wood to join the pieces, most of which has rotted away.”
The top of a balustrade was a long stone slab; a window capital showed intricate hand carving. The most beautiful sculpture was on the acanthus leaves of a Corinthian capital. The top of a chimney, a large block with a blackened hole in the center, had a tiny Indian head carved in relief on one side.
The French window casements had a lily-of-the-valley bell sculpted in a spiral. And inside a large button carved into one of the columns was the ornate signature of the stone cutter.
AS THE DOCTOR AND I drove back to his office, I asked how much he thought it would cost to restore the building now.
“To tell you the truth, we didn’t even have any idea 13 years ago. It really depended on the amount of volunteer labor we could get. We were very naive and enthusiastic then.”
In a sense, my search was over. I had seen the building. But when I said good-bye to the doctor, I realized I was still left with the far more difficult puzzle of why nobody in the city or the state had taken enough interest in the Manor to reconstruct it.
As I drove home, north on 787, 1 looked down at the site of a completely vanished Dutch settlement, now only a matter of record and museum display, like the one Dr. Blackburn has put together for the Albany Tricentennial. I wondered what he would think about restoring the old Van Rensselaer Manor?
“Oh, it’s a nice, romantic idea to do,” he told me with a smile. “Of course, the preservation people would be mad if that happened. They’d hate to see money go to a restoration project when there is so much to save that’s still standing. But 1 don’t take much issue with the idea.”
The Albany Institute has arrived at the happy compromise of displaying many items of furniture from the Manor, among them a beautiful, uncomfortably short bed built by renowned furniture craftsman Charles-Honore Lannuier in the 19th century. “They slept in something of an upright position back then,” Mary Dickerman, the museum’s public-relations director, told me. “We have some side tables and many chairs, but it’s impossible to find any more furniture now. There are many, many descendants of the Van Rensselaer family, and each one likes to hold on to an item: a chair here or a snuffbox there.”
I stopped at a hardware store and bought a length of polyester sash cord. And back at the office, I stared out my dismantled window at the streets of Albany and the countryside beyond. Out there were the pieces of a puzzle. Fit them together with creativity and skill and you could step back into a grand reminder of the city’s past.
That vast hall in which the Van Rensselaers lived and entertained and collected rents really was absorbed into a wing of a huge museum in Manhattan. So for my final trip in this crazy quest, I went to see the Metropolitan’s reconstruction of the setting for a lost way of life.
In silence, watched by a silent guard, I walked beneath the high rococo archways and admired the hand-painted wallpaper. It had been custom-designed for these walls with views of classical Italian ruins wreathed in leafy nostalgia. I guess the longing I felt was hardly unique – the 18th century had ruins to mourn too. But it seems that the historically minded are outnumbered by those who neglect and destroy.
– Capital Region, July 1986