Rose Hill elegance intact after 172 years

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Sitting pretty: Lynne and Joseph Golonka, with their Irish setters, Madelyn and James, enjoy a sunny spring day on their front porch. They have lovingly maintained their historic Rose Hill home for thirty-four years.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Readying his rope, Chris Undorf has strapped spikes to his legs as he prepares to climb a white pine tree that stands more than 130 feet tall. “I’m an adrenalin junkie,” he says of the rush he gets scaling a tree; he says he’s climbed redwoods as tall as 300 feet on the West Coast.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

A cut above: Chainsaw in hand, Chris Undorf watches a branch he has cut fall more than 100 feet to the ground below. Undorf has climbed, without belay or safety net, the century-old white pine on the grounds of Rose Hill in Guilderland to trim ailing limbs to improve the tree’s health.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Hand-laid stone forms the walls and floors of the basement level of Rose Hill. This spacious and well-lit room once served as the waiting area for patients of Dr. Miller Lee who used the basement level of Rose Hill for his medical practice and lived upstairs with his wife in a home filled with antiques.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Sweeping view: The parlor opens off the dining room — both have wide-plank pine floors topped with antique oriental carpets. The grandfather’s clock between the parlor windows and the corner cupboard in the dining room belonged to the previous owner of Rose Hill, Dr. Miller Lee. The other furnishings — along with the grand chandelier — are treasures collected by the current owners, Dr. Joseph and Lynne Golonka.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Harmony prevails in the parlor: A six-panel door with its original grain painting in mint conditions opens to a massive rosewood square piano with beautiful hand-carved legs and ivory keys. The piano was the first of many antiques Lynne and Joseph Golonka purchased to furnish their historic home. Mrs. Golonka has fond memories of her father playing the piano at Christmastime when the house was filled with friends and family.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

A hand-forged latch guards the passageway to the attic level of Rose Hill. The house is topped with a widow’s walk.

— Photo courtesy of Lynne and Joseph Golonka

John P. Veeder built Rose Hill in 1842, when he was in his early thirties; he died there in 1879 at the age of 70. Appointed under Abraham Lincoln and dismissed under Ulysses S. Grant, Veeder discovered fraudulent dealings in the Navy Department.

— Photo courtesy of Lynne and Joseph Golonka

Little has changed at Rose Hill since this photo was taken close to a century ago. The original clapboards, windows, shutters, and latticework are all in place. Tall pines still stand, at left, behind the hillock of dirt mounded over a cistern.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Timeless treasure: Rose Hill, built in 1842, has had only four owners, and is preserved in mint condition. The Federal house is on both the state and national registers of historic places.

— Photo courtesy of Lynne and Joseph Golonka

Ethereal: Branches of old maples lining Western Avenue in Guilderland form a veil over Rose Hill in this long-ago photo. Route 20 is now a rushing torrent of traffic and many of the maples are gone.

GUILDERLAND — Sawdust rains down from the tall white pine.

The tree, more than a century old, towers in a stand of pines next to Rose Hill, the mansion that John P. Veeder built in 1842 on the Great Western Turnpike.

Sitting on the portico, laced in white lattice as it has been for more than a century and a half, sit Lynne and Joseph Golonka and their two Irish setters, James and Madelyn.

It is one of the first warm days of spring, and the dogs are basking in the sun, their eyes closed.

The Golonkas, however, are alert, their gaze fastened near the top of the 130-foot pine. The parents of six children, they have loved and cared for the Federal-style house and its 6.6 acres of grounds since they moved here in 1980.

Mrs. Golonka recalls sitting in her rocker on the porch, as she is now, watching the world go by as she waited for her husband, a doctor, to return from his day’s work. The traffic has increased on Route 20 since they moved in but it is just a distant hum, heard from the porch. Mrs. Golonka has planted a screen of different kinds of pine trees, and the Golankas have erected a solid board fence between their house and the road.

“She’s always planting something,” says her husband.

The Golonkas’ children have grown and gone, and they are now in their seventies, hiring others to do some of the upkeep.

Today, the Golonkas have hired a crew from A+ Trees R Us to take down an aging maple plagued with carpenter ants. The business is owned by Charles Zanghi who quit school at 16, and got a job working on trees. He’s 71 now and his son, Brian, works with him.

“The best learning is hands-on,” says Brian Zanghi as a broad gap-toothed smile spreads across his tanned face.

Mrs. Golonka is concerned about a small red maple she planted among the aged rock maples in the front yard. But, when the sick tree falls with a crack like thunder, it misses her tiny tree. She smiles.

Charlie Zanghi spots the white pine, taller than all the others, with some broken branches and some yellowed needles, and tells Dr. Golonka, if it fell, it could hit the house.

“I have insurance,” he replies. “If it falls on the house, so be it.”

He gazes at the tree awhile, and comments on its stature and long history. “It would take a hurricane to take that down,” he says

Zanghi talks to Mrs. Golonka about the tall pine. She confers with her husband. They agree to have its lower branches cut off and to have it fed to strengthen it.

Zanghi taps Chris Undorf for the job.

Undorf hefts a 90-foot coil of thick rope over one of his broad shoulders and straps spikes to his legs.

At 44, he still relishes climbing trees. “I like the adrenalin,” says Undorf. “I’m an adrenalin junkie.”

He says he’s climbed trees as tall as 300 feet, redwoods on the West Coast.

How did he get started in the business? “I saw a guy climb and said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

Undorf goes on, “Trees are beautiful. I hate cutting them down.” He’d quit if he knew any other way of life. “I don’t know anything else,” he says. “Otherwise, I’d get out.”

But, on this day, at this moment, he won’t be felling a tree; he’ll be saving one.

Undorf stands at the base of the tall pine, getting ready to climb, taking a long look up. He is going to climb without being belayed, without a safety net. What will he do if he falls?

“I hope I can flap my arms fast enough to stay up,” he says with a grin, holding his muscular arms wide and flapping them up and down like a bird’s wings.

Then, suddenly, he swings his arms around the tree, hugging the trunk tight.

He throws his legs against the tree — first one, then the other. He makes a rhythmic grunting sound as he climbs, higher and higher.

The noise disappears as he does.

Those down below crane their necks to watch him. His massive form gets smaller until finally his red shirt is just visible here and there — like the flash of a male cardinal — among the green pine needles.

Undorf stops and takes a rope he has anchored at his waist, swinging it, again and again, trying to circle the girth of the tree.

“Goddamn it,” comes a voice from the treetop.

Then Undorf swings the rope once more and catches it around the other side, fastening it to a ring at his waist.

Brian Zanghi grabs the long rope Undorf has dangled and loops it through the handle of a chainsaw.

Hand over hand, Undorf lifts the chainsaw to his perch and fires it up.

“I need a chainsaw that cuts,” he shouts down, and lowers the saw to the ground.

Zanghi fetches another from their truck and fastens it in the same way.

Undorf starts to saw.

“Yo!” he shouts before the first branch falls, tumbling to the ground with a whoosh.

He continues his work, cutting as he descends, branch by branch.

Sawdust falls like rain — sometimes gently, other times in a torrent. The sweet and pungent smell of pine fills the air.

The buzzing sound of the saw is followed by silence before the thud of each branch hitting the ground.

His work finished, Undorf uses a ragged sleeve to wipe his brow. He is now about 20 feet above the ground. He then holds up his remaining bit of rope.

“I don’t have enough rope to get back to the ground,” he says matter-of-factly.

Asked what he’s going to do, Undorf says, “Hook back down” — and he does.

At a rapid pace, he jams one spike in and then the other, descending a step at a time, until he stands on the ground.

The crew clears the branches, feeding them into a machine that grinds them to chips.

“That will take a lot of weight off,” Mrs. Golonka nods approvingly from her perch on the porch.

Storied history

Not all the tasks of maintaining the historic property are so arduous. But they are myriad and many.

Dr. Golonka used to enjoy mowing the four acres of grass on his lawn tractor but now the couple hires Jake Shank of Altamont’s Jake and Rake to mow the lawn every 10 days.

Forty screen windows wait in the barn to be installed to let in the warm spring air. That means removing 40 storm windows, many of them from a ladder.

The Golonkas are steadfast, though, in maintaining the details that make their home worthy of its listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and so wouldn’t consider installing new windows.

“One thing I’m proud of,” says Mrs. Golonka of their home, “it has the original windows…So many historical houses are ruined.”

The pine bush surrounds three sides of the Golonkas’ property, so that their backyard feels like a nature preserve. They’ve enclosed a large run, with attractive wrought-iron fencing, to protect their beloved setters from Western Avenue traffic.

The yard boasts a gazebo and arbor. And the property has a barn that once kept a horse for their daughter but now serves as a garage and rustic retreat, complete with a deck that looks out on a wooded stream with a pond beyond.

A red tin hip roof, complete with a balustraded widow’s walk, tops the house, which is painted white with forest green shutters.

In its long history, the house has had only four owners. John P. Veeder built Rose Hill in 1842 when he was in his early thirties; he lived there until his death in 1879 at the age of 70. According to research done by Guilderland’s town historian, Alice Begley, and published in The Enterprise more than a quarter of a century ago, Veeder was born in 1809 to Pieter C. and Maria Myderse Veeder, and was the descendent of Volkert Veeder an agent for the patroon Stephen Van Rensselaer.

The New York State census shows that John P. Veeder was 39 years old in 1850. He lived at Rose Hill with his 38-year-old wife, Sarah (née Batterman) Veeder, and their three daughters — Elizabeth, 17, Mary, 14; and Sarah, 3. In the 1850 census, Veeder is listed as a farmer with an estate valued at $4,000 at a time when most Guilderland residents had holdings of $350.

The census lists five other people living at Rose Hill — Patrick Kenna, 22, a gardener; William Siver, 21; Margaret Emerson, 54; Mary Bergan, 21; and Rolta Collins, 51, a man from Ireland.

A draft commissioner, Veeder was appointed during President Abraham Lincoln’s administration to investigate fraudulent dealings in the Navy Department. He was kept on through Andrew Johnson’s administration, but dismissed under Ulysses S. Grant.

Veeder’s investigations incriminated many of Grant’s high officials, according to a Sept. 28, 1872 edition of The Albany Argus. The Golonkas keep three ledgers in their Rose Hill library that came with the house. One of them is filled with newspaper clips that tell the story of the Navy scandal and Veeder’s role in exposing it.

Veeder wrote in a Sept. 22, 1872 letter, published a week later in The Argus, “Under Lincoln’s administration, and for a short time under Johnson’s, a strong disposition was manifested by the heads of those departments, to ferret out frauds and have the guilty parties punished; but during the latter part of Johnston’s rule and all the time under Grant, bold and audacious robbery has been the rule, and honesty a rare exception.”

Articles carefully pasted in the ledger describe “a complete system of favoritism” in Navy purchasing with such headlines as “Ravages of the Great Washington Plague” and “Carnival of Corruption.”

Veeder’s second ledger contains issues of The Atlas, a weekly newspaper published on Wall Street with worldwide news.

His third ledger has a variety of practical articles on running a household and farm. Its index includes listings for agricultural, domestic, medicinal, moral, political, and scientific news.

The agricultural pages include articles, for example, on proper methods for planting gooseberries and strawberries, and on ways to avoid potato rot.

On the domestic pages are recipes for cottage beer, cucumber chow-chow, baked beans, and pickled tongues as well as advice on cleaning paint, preserving stovepipes, and making glue for mending glass.

Under medicine is a cure for “botts” in horses, which is also good for colic — made of sage tea sweetened with molasses; a treatment for mosquito bites — penny royal: a “Diarrhia cordial” made of blackberries, allspice, cinnamon, and cloves in a half-gallon of brandy; “General Twigg’s Hair Dye,” made of sulphur, sugar of lead, and rose water; and a cure for rattlesnake bite — half a wine glass full of olive oil, taken internally and applied to the wound.

The moral pages are filled with clips of Biblical quotes and psalms, and religions poems and stories.

The scientific pages include directions on making potash, cleaning iron, preserving meat in hot weather, and making paint for wooden buildings.

Mrs. Golonka describes Veeder as a “gentleman farmer.” She gently taps a portrait of him with her forefinger and says, “He’s the one that kept us here — until we find the next family.”

When Veeder died in March 1879, he was buried in nearby Prospect Hill Cemetery, and Rose Hill was passed on to his middle daughter, Mary Frances Veeder DeGraff, and her husband, Dr. Abram DeGraff.

Rose Hill remained in the DeGraff family until 1944. In the 1980s, Begley interviewed several of the people who had lived at Rose Hill while the DeGraffs owned it.

As a little girl, Glendora Jacobsen lived there with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Ebert. Her father kept cows on the land and had a milk route. She remembered the house being very cold, with a huge black iron stove in the living room supplying the heat.

When the Eberts moved out, the Russell Millers moved in with four children. One of those children, since grown, Mrs. Ray Merrifield, told Begley that, in the 1930s, “There were no conveniences when we lived there and the water in the outside pump use to freeze up once in awhile.” Her grandfather, John Andrews, was the groundskeeper for Dr. DeGraff.

In 1945, Rose Hill was bought by a country doctor from Schoharie, Miller Lee. He installed running water in the house, and electricity and plumbing. The basement level served as his doctor’s office and the upstairs was filled with antiques collected by Dr. Lee and his wife.

“We belong here”

In 1980, Lynne Golonka spotted a “for sale” sign as she was going to church one Sunday. Her family had lived in Guilderland since 1968 and was happily ensconced in a newer suburban home on Bonnie Drive.

“I came up the next day to see it,” said Mrs. Golonka. “I loved the house. It was the land that sold us, though. If we could beg, borrow, or steal, we were determined to be here. We belong here,” she said.

She had to convince the kids — they liked where they were, she said. “We made an offer that Wednesday,” she recalled, and the deal was clinched by Friday. “It was meant to be,” she said.

“It’s a joy to be here,” said Mrs. Golonka, adding, “Now we need help to keep it up.”

The Golonkas put Rose Hill up for sale last year at a price she termed “reasonable” — $595,000.

A real-estate agent told them that anything selling in Guilderland priced over $500,000 was built in the last five years. The Golonkas have since taken the property off the market.

“I wanted someone that would love it like I did,” said Mrs. Golonka. “Most people want modern houses…Now we hope to be here another 20 years — God willing and the creek don’t rise.”

The combined municipal and school taxes are hefty, at about $13,000.

“They don’t give you any break on taxes” for maintaining a historic building, Mrs. Golonka said. “They should be grateful, we’ve kept it and preserved it. This is the heart of the hamlet.”

The Golonkas have coped with high heating costs by placing attractive natural-gas heaters, which look like old-fashioned wood-burning stoves in many rooms, often in front of the historic fireplaces. The Golonkas heat just the rooms they are using, and have back-up electric baseboard heat, which is also zoned.

The house has five bedrooms, which the Golonkas still call for the names of their children who once occupied them; three full baths; and two half-baths.

The spacious first floor has a kitchen, laundry room, breakfast room, formal dining room, parlor, a library, and a newer sunroom in back, looking over the sweeping landscape. The doors in the main part of the house have their original grain painting in mint condition.

The basement level, which has a side entrance once used by Dr. Lee’s patients, has two large rooms with fireplaces and two small one-time examining rooms, all with hand-laid stone walls and floors.

The upstairs floors are all original wide planks of pine. They are covered with antique oriental carpets.

“I think the house has a spirit,” said Mrs. Golonka, hastening to add it has no ghosts.

“It’s a very welcoming house,” she said.

Her furnishings have made it more so. The Golonkas acquired a few of Dr. Lee’s antiques when they purchased Rose Hill — a grandfather’s clock, which keeps time in the front parlor; a corner cupboard, which displays china in the dining room; and a vivid silk Chinese tapestry sewn with gold thread, which they’ve recently had refurbished.

“Dr. Lee was in his eighties when he sold the house,” said Mrs. Golonka.

The Golonkas owned just one antique when they bought Rose Hill, an oak hoosier cabinet, which still graces the place.

The first piece they bought for Rose Hill, at Doug Cater’s Fox Creek auction arena in the Hilltowns, was a massive rosewood piano with beautiful hand-carved legs and ivory keys. A square grand piano, in perfect working condition, the Golonkas got it for just $300.

Dr. Golonka played it, and Mrs. Golonka has fond memories of her father, playing the piano at Christmastime when the house was filled with friends and family.

On the wall nearby hangs artwork depicting steamboats on the Hudson River. In the center hallway, Dr. Golonka points out paintings, from a museum, of World War I fighter planes in the midst of a 1918 battle.

The dining room is centered with a grand brass chandelier, its outstretched arms reaching further than the edges of the table beneath. Like most of the light fixtures, it is an antique bought by the Golonkas and seamlessly installed at Rose Hill.

Either end of the library has floor-to-ceiling bookcases. A room-length mural depicting a historic river scene graces one wall and a fireplace centers the wall facing it. Dr. Golanka brings the cozy gas fire to life with a touch of his hand.

The bottom floor doesn’t feel like a basement as it is bathed in light from full-sized, small-paned windows. The stonework is stunning in a small room, once a patient’s examination room, and now a workshop for Dr. Golonka. He has his name on a brass plaque on the door.

Throughout the house, Mrs. Golonka has created vignettes, grouping artwork and historical finds creatively together.

In the hallway, for instance, a large bowl surrounded by punch cups rests on a floral runner beneath a painted seascape. In one corner of the parlor, a bell pull of needlepointed birds hangs above a marble-topped table where a teacup sits beside to a painted porcelain lamp topped with a silken shade — the vine motif of one complementing the next.

Many of the items she has collected are handmade. “I like things people make. I appreciate the time they spend,” she said.

In a small upstairs bedroom, toward the back of the house, snug under the slanted eaves of the roof, Dr. Golonka has fashioned a ladder-like holder out of birch.

The bedrooms in the front part of the house are spacious and lit from wide windows.

The Golonkas are ceaseless in their care of Rose Hill, both inside and out.

The mound to the left of the house was for a cistern to catch rainwater, said Mrs. Golonka. In the 1960s, in the midst of the Cold War, the unfounded rumor in Guilderland — townsfolk have long had an interest in Rose Hill — was that Dr. Lee had built a bomb shelter there. Over the years, others had hypothesized it was an Indian burial ground. Dr. Lee had archaeologists take borings in the hillock, Begley reported, but no artifacts were found.

Rather, Mrs. Golonka said, a woman who had once lived in the house said that horse-drawn cartloads of dirt were brought in to cover the cistern, and a fountain was placed on top, in Victorian style.

Mrs. Golonka has plans now to turn the hillock into a “rain garden,” selecting plants that will absorb water. She hopes to plant “hummingbird bushes and something for butterflies,” she said, “so I can look at them out the window.”