Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sunday at Schuyler Mansion

Schuyler Mansion, Albany, N.Y., 4 October 1930. New York (State). Conservation Dept. Photographic Prints and Negatives, [ca. 1904-1949], 14297-87_3706. Image courtesy of the New York State Archives.

Last Saturday's visit to one of my neighborhood's overlooked gems, Historic Cherry Hill, prompted me to visit the treasure situated half a dozen blocks away from my home: Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site. This stately home -- which was for several decades Albany's tallest building and most opulent residence -- was built in 1761 by Philip Schuyler, who went on to become a noted Revolutionary War general and U.S. Senator.

Schuyler and his wife, Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler, were both third-generation descendants of elite Dutch colonists, but the Schuylers were fluent in both English and Dutch and the house, which Schuyler himself designed, is thoroughly Georgian.  (Schuyler, who had served as a Commissioner of Indian Affairs, also spoke an Iroquoian dialect and had reading knowledge of several other languages.)

The Schuyler home, which the family called "The Pastures," sits upon a steep hill overlooking the former grazing commons of the Reformed Church. It was originally surrounded by an 80-acre working farm.  However, the agricultural operations adjacent to The Pastures were dwarfed by those of the Schuyler family's farm in what is now Schuylerville, Saratoga County. Slaves performed a significant amount of the work on both properties, and slaves were moved north to Saratoga County when extra labor was needed on the farm and south to Albany when the social season began.

Georgian homes tend to have large center halls, and The Pastures is no different. I've always loved this space, which the family used to receive visitors who might not merit entry into the other rooms of the house.  The parquet-seeming floor is actually painted oilcloth -- a practical, inexpensive choice for heavily used spaces.

As one might expect given the family's elite status and Philip Schuyler's military career, the list of the family's houseguests reads like Who's Who in Colonial America: Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, George Washington, the Compte de Rochambeau, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Baron von Steuben all stayed here. After the British were defeated at the Battle of Saratoga (1777) British General John Burgoyne -- who had ordered the burning of the family's country home in Saratoga County -- was taken prisoner and brought to The Pastures.  These luminaries and members of the local elite were entertained in the formal parlor that occupies the southeast corner of the first floor.

One guest ultimately became a member of the family. Alexander Hamilton, who studied at Trinity College with one of the Schuyler sons, came to Albany after graduation to study for the bar exam and ended up courting two of the Schuyler daughters. Angelica Schuyler, the oldest child, was his first choice, but she eloped with merchant John Barker Church in 1777.  Hamilton married her younger sister Elizabeth in this room in 1780.  (Family records indicate that this room originally had flocked blue wallpaper and an ornate carpet, and the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation plans to have reproduction wallpaper manufactured and produced at some point in the near future.)

As is often the case, the formal parlor really was reserved for guests. The family spent of its time in the less formal parlor in the house's northeast corner, and only relatives and close friends were allowed to join the Schuylers in this room.

In winter, the family crowded around the fireplace in order to keep warm. However, the ladies did not wish to have their faces warmed by the fire -- a ruddy complexion was a sign that one was a member of the laboring classes -- and they used fireshades to keep their faces cool.  This embroidered fireshade, which depicts a monkey reaching into a fishbowl, was almost certainly made by one of the Schuyler daughters.

The formal dining room situated in the northwest corner was used only when distinguished guests were present. Most late eighteenth-century Albany homes were modest vernacular Dutch structures that consisted of a large single room and a sleeping loft, and even the homes of the area's elite were quite simple by later standards. The idea of reserving an entire room solely for dining would have seemed quite odd to anyone who had not spent a significant amount of time in upper-class homes in Europe or in cities such as Boston, New York, or Philadelphia.  The Schuylers themselves were not particularly comfortable with the concept, and they took most of their meals in the family parlor.

The ballroom that comprises the center of the second floor was the center of the family's social life.  The wallpaper is not period-appropriate: the State of New York decided shortly after it acquired The Pastures approximately 100 years ago that this grand space needed an equally grand wallcovering.

 As in appropriate as it is, the wallpaper, which depicts historically significant buildings located throughout the world, is nonetheless fantastic.

During the late 18th century, the windows of the ballroom would have had a commanding view of the Hudson River.  However, the landscape has changed substantially.  None of Philip and Elizabeth Schuyler's children wanted The Pastures, and after Philip Schuyler's death in 1804 the house and the surrounding farmland was auctioned off in parcels.  Modest homes occupied by the families of the men who worked in the South End's brickyards and other industrial concerns soon surrounded the house.  The lowlands between Philip Schuyler's lands and the Hudson River were filled in during the nineteenth century, and a rail line and a six-lane interstate now stand between The Pastures and the riverfront.  In an effort to give visitors a sense of what the view was originally like, transparencies reproducing an historically accurate painting of the eighteenth-century view have been installed in the ballroom windows.  The house on the eastern shore of the Hudson is Crailo, another Van Rensselaer family home that has since become a state historic site.

The bedroom that occupies the northwest corner of the second floor was used by the three surviving Schuyler sons. Family records indicate that all of the other bedrooms originally had ornate carpets but make no mention of purchasing a carpet for this room; it's possible that the record of purchase has been lost, but it's also possible that Philip and Catherine Schuyler opted against installing a carpet in a room shared by four boys.  In addition to being somewhat crowded by our standards, the boys were often displaced; if guests needed the beds, the boys slept on featherbeds that were placed in the ballroom just outside the door.  (The five Schuyler girls who survived infancy -- three were born in the late 1750s and two were born in the late 1770s and early 1780s -- shared an adjoining bedroom).

If a guest were truly distinguished, he or she was installed in the bedroom that Philip and Catherine Schuyler otherwise used. General John Burgoyne -- who was treated as a gentleman during his imprisonment -- was among the dignitaries who stayed in this room.  (Can you spot the chamber pot?)

If you ever find yourself in New York's capital city, be sure to visit the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site.  You won't be able to stay the night, but you certainly won't be confined to the center hall.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You should see the renovations to the the Faubourg St. John single (its actually a side hall single) shotgun house that you noted in your post as being unoccupied. it recently sold for around half a million (the sellers only accepted all cash offers - i know because i bid on this house). Since the sale the new owners raised the original house and built a full first story under it. its beautiful and probably worth over a million now.