The historic Schoolcraft House needs a purpose

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
At her home in Avila, just over the border of Guilderland in Albany, retired town historian Alice Begley talks about the Schoolcraft House, the renovation of which was her signature project. 

GUILDERLAND — Since Alice Begley retired as Guilderland’s town historian at the end of 2016, not much has been done with the Schoolcraft House. Begley was the mover and shaker behind fundraising for renovations and planning for special events, such as lectures or open houses, held there.

But recently Councilwoman Rosemary Centi, who is the town board’s liaison to the Guilderland Historical Society and the Guilderland Garden Club, asked those two organizations to begin to make some use of the house, because the town wants to draw attention to it, said Mary Ellen Johnson, president of the Guilderland Historical Society.

The town is interested in finding more uses for the Schoolcraft House, Centi said.

The Gothic Revival mansion was built in the 1840s by John L. Schoolcraft, who was a Congressman and a wealthy banker and wholesale merchant. He was born in Guilderland and built the house on Western Avenue as a summer residence. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The house had been slated for demolition or removal in the 1990s as the neighboring Hamilton Union Presbyterian Church, itself an historic structure, sought more parking space. But Begley and a group of committed citizens convinced the town to purchase the property in 1994. The town paid half of the $140,000 purchase price while half was covered by a state grant.

Then, in 1997, the restoration project received a grant of $29,000, which was matched, for a total of $58,000. The project later received a $50,000 member-item grant from then-Assemblyman John McEneny.

Friends of the Schoolcraft House organized numerous fundraisers, which generated over $7,000. Individual businesses made donations, too. For instance, in 2000, Caldwell Banker Prime Properties donated a percentage of every house listed in Guilderland, for a $10,000 contribution.

In 2013, Kenneth Runion, who was Guilderland’s supervisor at the time, said that over two decades the town had spent about $99,000 on the house, while the total spent by the town and state combined was $248,000.

The Friends of the Schoolcraft House has now effectively disbanded, since its members have died or moved away.

“It belongs to the town”

Centi spoke to Johnson and to the Guilderland Garden Club, she said, telling them, “It isn’t anyone’s house in particular; it belongs to the town.” She said that she told the leaders of both organizations, “There’s nothing to stop you from having a meeting there.”

“Hopefully the garden club and our parks department will be able to come up with some sort of modest plan,” Centi continued, that would involve planting and maintaining some greenery or landscaping in front of the Schoolcraft House that would be visible to drivers passing by on Route 20.

The historical society and the garden club rose to the occasion and attracted a large crowd to an open house they jointly held at the Schoolcraft House on Saturday, Feb. 23 from 2 to 4 p.m.

“We had quite a number of people,” said Johnson. “I couldn’t tell you how many. I talked steadily to people about John Schoolcraft and the house for two hours.”

Linda Miller, the president of the garden club, estimated the number at over 100.

But the leaders of both organizations are daunted by the task of trying to take on one more historical house, since both take responsibility, together, for another restored historical home the town owns, the Mynderse-Frederick House, at 451 Route 146 in Guilderland Center.

Built in 1802 by merchant Nicholas Mynderse as an inn and a tavern, the center-hall Colonial is on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1803, Mynderse was elected the first supervisor for the newly-formed town of Guilderland, a post he held for just one year.

Mynderse died in the 1820s, and the inn was purchased by Michael Frederick, a descendent of one of the area’s early settlers. The house was used as a tavern until 1900 and remained a private family residence until 1940.

The Mynderse-Frederick House recently received a $50,000 grant, through Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, said Centi. The grant money will be used for exterior renovations such as painting, repair or replacement of shutters, and replacement of windows.

The historical society holds its monthly meetings and lectures at the Mynderse-Frederick House, and the Guilderland Garden Club takes care of its garden.

“It’s a beautiful garden, award-winning,” said Miller this week of the garden at the Mynderse-Frederick House.

Volunteers needed

Miller said she was grateful that four members had offered to serve on a committee to take charge of the work of planting some kind of greenery or perennials at the Schoolcraft House, in conjunction with the town’s parks and recreation department.

“There’s not a lot of people,” Miller said, “who are interested in being on a committee for the Schoolcraft House. But they’re going to try to do their best. It’s a lot, to take care of both,” she said, referring to the Schoolcraft and the Mynderse-Frederick houses.

The garden club is currently at its maximum membership, of 45, said Miller. “At our next meeting, we’re trying to change our constitution, and raise our membership to 59, which is the next level.”

“The problem is,” Johnson said this week, “we just have a very limited number of active volunteers. We have a number of members who enjoy getting our newsletter and coming to events, but I wish we had more active members,” willing to help organize or run events.

Johnson estimated the historical society’s number of active volunteers at “about 10 at most.”

“In June, we’ll have another event,” said Johnson. The historical society and the garden club will be involved in A Path Through History, which Johnson described as a statewide event in which historical groups from across New York explore local history through special events.

“I am sure the town would like us to do it at the Schoolcraft House,” Johnson said of A Path Through History. “We will definitely be doing it at the Mynderse-Frederick House,” she continued. “If we could get a few more volunteers to open the Schoolcraft House at the same time, that would be great. We will try, but it’s not definite yet.”

Last year, the historical society had not only the Mynderse-Frederick House open during A Path Through History, but also the nearby Cobblestone Schoolhouse, which is owned by the Guilderland school district At the same time, the Guilderland Center Fire Department also had its antique pumper on display, Johnson recalled. But those three sites are all in close proximity, “and people could walk between them.”

Johnson has also committed to making a presentation at the Schoolcraft House in September — no date has been set yet — on John Schoolcraft, who built the house.

Begley did a great deal of research into John Schoolcraft, Johnson said. But less is known, Johnson said, about the building of the house and whether, for instance, it was constructed all at once, or whether Schoolcraft built an addition upon his return from several years’ travel in Europe, to display the paintings he had bought there.

Johnson hopes to learn more this summer by going to the New York State Museum and looking through microfilm editions of the now-defunct Albany Evening Journal, which was edited and published by Schoolcraft’s close friend, Thurlow Weed. Johnson hopes that she may find stories there about the process of constructing the house.

The garden club plans to have at least one of its meetings at the Schoolcraft House this year, said Miller.

Miller says she recently  asked the new town historian, Anne Wemple-Person, to ask the State Museum about loaning some period furniture that the museum might have in storage, for use in the Schoolcraft House.

Wemple-Person said she plans to ask the town’s supervisor, Peter Barber, if that would be all right and to get back to Miller in a few weeks.

Dennis Feeney, a Guilderland resident and the majority leader of the Albany County Legislature, said this week that he got a grant in 2017 for $6,000 for painting the exterior of the Schoolcraft House — it is currently a faded chocolate brown — or doing other needed work. He recently started trying to find out if and how the money had been spent, he said, but has not yet heard anything.

Town Supervisor Peter Barber wrote in an email, “As I recall, the County grant was used for refinishing baseboards and doorways, trim work, and small painting jobs. The next steps include painting and restoring the finials on the outside.”

Begley, the former town historian who now lives at the Avila in Albany, just over the border from Guilderland, said she wished the town would assign one or two employees to do their office work at the Schoolcraft House and to be on hand to talk about the house to any visitors who stop in.

Begley donated an antique desk to the home, she said, that sits in the room she had thought would be appropriate for town employees to use as an office.

The home’s first floor is nearly finished, she said.

But little has been done on the second floor, Begley said. The second floor is never opened to visitors.

Begley said she wished that, instead of relying on the town to finish the house, town businesses could donate materials and labor to complete the needed renovations; their names could then go up on a commemorative plaque on the wall.

“It’s such a beautiful and such an unusual house,” she said. “It should be finished.”

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