Sunday, November 13, 2016

Stabilizing the Stairs

by Ian Mumpton

In 1765, when the Schuyler family’s mansion home was first completed, family and guests could have stood atop a gently sloping hill looking Eastwards across open pastureland all the way to the Hudson itself. Today, the mansion is surrounded by the historic South End community of the city of Albany. The house is still on raised ground, but the gradual slope of the hill has been replaced with a stone retaining wall, and the streets around the house have been cut much deeper. For a long time, from the 19th century onward, the mansion grounds were accessible from Clinton street via a stone staircase and gate kiddie-corner to the Howe library.

The Clinton street stairs at Schuyler Mansion
when it was an orphanage, circa 1905.
From the Albany Postcard Project
These stairs underwent many different forms over time. When the house was run as an orphanage by the St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum Society under the supervision of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, the appear to have run straight up from the street front, with an elaborate entrance surmounted by a cross. Later images show the stairs after the site had been opened as a museum, with the top portion of the solid stone wall replaced by an iron fence.

For many years, the stairs sat in a dilapidated condition, deteriorated to the point of being unsafe to use. As part of the restoration for the museum’s 100th anniversary, however, the old Clinton street stairs are being completely restored and will be open again for public use. In addition to restoring an important part of the historical property, it is hoped that this project will promote accessibility and further the relationship between the site and the community as, by this Spring, you will be able to walk out of your local library and right into history!
View of the restoration work being done on the stairs with the Howe Branch of the Albany Public Library across the street.

The Clinton street stairs aren’t the only stairs being restored at Schuyler Mansion. For over two hundred years, visitors have entered the house by climbing a set of brown sandstone stairs with iron railings into the hexagonal brick vestibule added to the home in about 1815. The earliest mention of these stairs comes from Philip Hooker’s evaluation of the home in 1818, created as an advertisement for his client, John Bryan, then the owner of the estate. According to Hooker, “Mr. Bryan has…added an hexagonal vestibule to the front, of singular beauty, with an elegant flight of stone steps & ornamental iron railing to the entrance.”

1818 image of Schuyler Mansion by Philip Hooker, showing vestibule and front stairs.
Original in the New-York Historical Society
Since then, thousands of feet and two hundred years’ worth of weather have worn the old stones to the point of needing serious restoration. Given the historical nature of the surviving stonework, this is a delicate process. The first step is disassembly. Currently each stone block in the staircase has been marked with a number so that they can eventually be returned to their exact original position. Next they will be removed, stabilized, and eventually reassembled to offer access to the home once more, hopefully for another two hundred years!

Schuyler Mansion is currently closed for the Winter, but special hours of availability are listed on our Facebook page as well as the Friends of Schuyler Mansion and the site’s NYS Parks pages. Get in touch to arrange a visit this Winter to see our restoration work in progress! 
Front Stair restoration at Schuyler Mansion.

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