Those of you who live in New York's Capital District know that the Historic Cherry Hill Association has just averted disaster: last week, the Albany Times-Union reported that if it could not raise $152,000 before July 31, it would be forced to forfeit $736,000 in state and federal grant funding and might be compelled to cease operations altogether. Fortunately, the story prompted an outpouring of support, and the Historic Cherry Hill Association is out of the red -- at least for now. As glad as I am not to have to write a desperate plea for immediate donations, I must emphasize that the Historic Cherry Hill Association, which has a phenomenally talented and dedicated (they voluntarily took a 20 percent pay cut!) staff, still needs your help. Please consider donating to this fine institution and helping to ensure that it attains long-term fiscal stability.
The house was occupied by Van Rensselaer descendants until 1963, when it became a house museum. And what a house museum! All five generations of the family were collectors, and they kept everything: the 16th-century Dutch furniture their forebears brought to New Netherland, the silver they purchased before the American Revolution, the vast collection of Chinese antiques assembled by a family member who did missionary work in the 19th century, the magazines and tins of tooth powder they bought in the 1920s, the Tupperware they used in the 1960s, and tons -- literally -- of other stuff. They also kept a vast number of letters, diaries, detailed records of their furniture and other purchases, and a wide array of other family papers. As a result, Historic Cherry Hill's collections are an invaluable resource for anyone studying the colonial and early republican era, the evolution of American material culture, or the rise and fall of America's colonial elite.
Port of Albany facility. The streets surrounding the mansion are now occupied by industrial facilities and 19th-century working-class homes, and the filled-in riverfront features not only the port but also a rail line and a six-lane interstate loathed by my landlord and almost everyone else who lives in the South End, myself included. However, the house is built on a hillside looking over South Pearl Street, the centuries-old road that connects the South End to Albany's downtown. When viewed from South Pearl Street, the house's pastoral past remains quite apparent -- despite the constant hum of interstate traffic in the background.
At present, the house is undergoing extensive reconstruction: the family's incessant amassing of furniture and other heavy objects ultimately compromised the house's foundation, and the bulk of the objects in the museum's collections had to be moved to a purpose-built collections storage facility. Once the reconstruction is complete, some of the collections will be moved back into the house and it will look as it did when the last Van Rensselaer descendant, Emily Putnam Rankin, lived there; Rankin was extremely proud of her family's heritage and made extensive use of its 18th-century furniture decorative object collections.
(Incidentally, the second-floor bedroom pictured above was the site of one of Albany's most notorious crimes. In 1827, John Whipple, a successful businessman who had married into the Van Rensselaer family and was living at Cherry Hill, was murdered in this room. His wife, Elsie Lansing Whipple, was having an affair with Jesse Strang, a drifter who was employed as a servant at Cherry Hill, and the two of them plotted to kill her husband. After a poisoning attempt went awry, Strang shot Whipple in this bedroom. After a trial that fell far short of current standards of fairness -- the district attorney was related to the van Rensselaers and the Lansings -- Strang was convicted of murder and became the last person who was hanged publicly in Albany. Elsie Lansing Whipple was tried as an accomplice and found not guilty -- in large part, many people throughout the city and the nation believed, because the city's elite could not believe that a woman who moved within their own social circles could do such appalling things.)
If you ever get the chance to visit New York's fair capital city, I hope that Historic Cherry Hill will earn a spot on your itinerary. And if you live around here but haven't visited it yet, what on earth are you waiting for?