200 Years of History

The Albany Institute of History & Art has collected art and historical materials from the Upper Hudson Valley for more than 200 years. The richness of the collections and the careful documentation of ownership allow works of ­art, historical objects, photographs, and manuscript collections to tell insightful and intriguing stories about the people and events of the region. At the Albany Institute, art and history connect. Follow us on a journey through the collections.


Stephen Van Rensselaer II (1742–1769)

Thomas McIlworth (active 1757–1768)
Oil on canvas in original carved and gilded frame
Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase, Rockwell Fund, 1981.10

The well–dressed young man in this portrait, Stephen Van Rensselaer II, had just turned twenty-one years old a few months before his likeness was finished in October 1763. Perhaps it was painted to commemorate his coming of age—his entrance into adulthood. Stephen’s striking indigo blue suit accented with silver thread on the buttons and buttonholes denotes a young man of wealth, someone of prominence in the community. Indeed, Stephen was heir to the accumulated wealth and vast land holdings of the Van Rensselaer family, holdings that consisted of 700,000 acres of land around Albany, New York.

This portrait by New York artist Thomas McIlworth accompanies manuscript collections, furniture, household items, and paintings in the Institute’s collections that document the historically important Van Rensselaer family.

Van Rensselaer Manor House, Front Exterior

Unidentified photographer
Albumen photographic print on card
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, Ser 25/26a

In 1765, at the age of twenty-three, Stephen Van Rensselaer II began constructing a grand house north of Albany on Patroon Creek, near present-day Manor Street and Broadway. Built in an updated Palladian style known as Georgian, the symmetrically balanced house made a striking and elegant statement. Stephen’s ancestors had built at least two earlier houses on the site, but Stephen’s new manor house reflected his family’s increasing wealth and social status in the mid–eighteenth century.

Taken about 100 years after its initial construction, this photograph shows the Van Rensselaer manor house set within a wooded garden. The one–story wings, visible on each side of the house’s main block, were later additions. The Albany Institute’s library contains several photographs that document the house’s exterior and interior rooms as they existed in the 1860s or early 1870s.

Wallpaper Panel “Fire” from Van Rensselaer Manor House

Unidentified photographer
Silver gelatin photographic print on card (later print)
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, Ser 25b/15a

Several photographs at the Institute illustrate the elaborate and certainly expensive hand-painted English wallpaper that must have amazed guests in the entrance hall of the Van Rensselaer manor house. The section shown here depicts Roman ruins set in a fictitious location. Known as a capriccio, such scenes referenced classical art and architecture and alluded to the Van Rensselaer family’s educated and refined tastes.

Van Rensselaer Manor House, Entrance Hall Side Door

Albion W. Floyd, Albany, NY, photographer
Silver gelatin photographic print on card (later print)
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, Ser 25b/3a

Rich wood carvings surrounded doorways in the entrance hall of the Van Rensselaer manor house, while neoclassical pillars and molding provided an air of distinction and elegance. Despite the promise of a comfortable life in sumptuous surroundings, Stephen II died in 1769 at age twenty-seven, having enjoyed his new house for only a few years.

Stephen Van Rensselaer III (1764–1839)

Gilbert Charles Stuart (1755–1828)
Oil on canvas
Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase, 1986.7

Following the premature death of Stephen Van Rensselaer II, the manor house passed to his son, Stephen III, who inherited it and the family landholdings upon coming of age in 1785. When Stephen III sat for this portrait in 1795 he was lieutenant governor of New York. He actively participated in State government and also advocated for greater suffrage and for internal improvements, especially for a canal across New York state.

In 1986, the Albany Institute acquired this portrait of Stephen Van Rensselaer III painted by Gilbert Stuart, the preeminent portraitist of the early American Republic. Stuart painted many of the prominent families and political leaders, including President George Washington, who guided the United States through its early years as a new nation.

Map and Profile of the Proposed Canal from Lake Erie to Hudson River

E. Brinckerhoff
c. 1817
Ink and watercolor on paper mounted on linen
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, MAP 211

After years of public debate, legislation, and land surveys, the Erie Canal that Stephen Van Rensselaer III supported was approved. Construction began in 1817. The canal eventually linked the Hudson River at Albany with Lake Erie near Buffalo. The canal opened trade between the rich farmlands of the west and the growing commercial port of New York City. The hand-drawn map dated 1817 shows the proposed route of the canal and the multitude of locks needed to overcome differences in elevation. The mysterious E. Brinckerhoff who drew and colored the map most likely copied an engraved map that accompanied the official reports of the Canal Commission.

Governor DeWitt Clinton (1769–1828)

Ezra Ames (1768–1836)
Oil on canvas
Permanent deposit by the City of Albany, 1971.12.5

In 1825 the Erie Canal opened with much fanfare. Governor DeWitt Clinton, a staunch supporter and canal commissioner, presided over festivities in New York City during the month of October. As part of the ceremonies, Clinton dumped a barrel of water from Lake Erie into New York harbor, symbolically uniting the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean, which the Erie Canal had accomplished.

Painted during his first term as New York state governor, this three-quarter-length portrait of DeWitt Clinton accompanies several other portraits of New York governors placed on permanent deposit with the Albany Institute. Six are currently on exhibition in the Hall of Governors at the New York State Capitol.

The Entrance of the Canal into the Hudson at Albany Taken in 1823

James Eights (1798–1882)
Pencil, ink, and ink wash on wove paper
Gift of James Eights, 1836.1.5

This original drawing of the Erie Canal at Albany, like many objects in the Institute’s collection, came directly from an early member, in this case the natural scientist James Eights. Eights’s ink drawing shows the eastern terminus of the canal where it ran parallel with the Hudson River. Here the canal cut directly through Stephen Van Rensselaer III’s property, separating the manor house and gardens from the Hudson River. Eights, in fact, included the manor house on the right-hand side of his drawing. On the left side stands the Philip Hooker-designed townhouse built for Stephen Van Rensselaer IV in 1818.

Van Rensselaer Manor House

Thomas Cole (1801–1848)
Oil on canvas
Bequest of Miss Katherine E. Turnbull, 1930.7.2

Stephen Van Rensselaer III lived at the manor house throughout his life, enjoying the gardens and probably watching the traffic flow along the Erie Canal. When Stephen died in 1839, his son William Paterson Van Rensselaer commissioned the Hudson River school artist Thomas Cole to paint views of the house and gardens as mementos for his mother, Cornelia Paterson Van Rensselaer, and sister, who planned to move from the house. Cole rarely painted strict topographical views, but he felt a commission from the Van Rensselaer family too important to decline.

Gardens of the Van Rensselaer Manor House

Thomas Cole (1801–1848)
Oil on canvas
Bequest of Miss Katherine E. Turnbull, 1930.7.1

The Albany Institute holds more than 500 items created by or associated with Thomas Cole, including paintings, drawings, sketchbooks, correspondence, and personal possessions. His paintings of the Van Rensselaer manor house and gardens are the two earliest accessions of Cole’s work at the Institute, a bequest in 1930 from Stephen III’s granddaughter, Katherine E. Turnbull.

Stephen Van Rensselaer IV (1789–1868)

Stephen Van Rensselaer IV (1789-1868)

Francis Alexander (1800-1880)


Pastel on paper in original wood frame with gilt oval mat

Gift of Stephen Van Rensselaer Crosby, 1957.70.19

As Stephen III’s eldest son from his first wife Margarita (Schuyler) Van Rensselaer, Stephen IV inherited the manor house and grounds upon his father’s death in 1839. The following year, 1840, he and his wife Harriet began transferring personal belongings and furniture from their North Market Street house, depicted in James Eights’ drawing of the canal (slide 9), to the manor house. Many of the couple’s personal possessions have come to the Institute within the last one hundred years, as donations from direct descendents.

French Clock

Unidentified maker
c. 1813
Marble, ormolu, metal, and glass with enameled metal dial
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Cogswell, 1967.37

Acquired while traveling through France in 1812 and 1813, this elegant French clock was one of Stephen Van Rensselaer IV’s possessions that he took to the manor house in 1840, when he and his wife Harriet moved in. Its surface—richly ornamented with gilt metal olive branches, military cartouches, and a figure of the Roman goddess Minerva—complemented the couple’s neoclassical furnishings, although the neoclassical style was becoming outmoded by the 1840s.

French-Style Bedstead

Charles–Honoré Lannuier (1779–1819)
c. 1817
Mahogany, burl elm veneer, ash with gilt and vert antique decoration, eastern white pine, soft maple and hard maple, cherry, rosewood veneers, cut brass inlays, and ormolu mounts
Gift of Constance Van Rensselaer Thayer (Mrs. William) Dexter, great granddaughter of Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, 1951.61

The Albany Institute owns one of the finest and most elaborate neoclassical–styled beds produced in early America. Crafted by French immigrant cabinetmaker Charles–Honoré Lannuier at his New York City shop, the bed may have been commissioned by William Bayard, Sr., as a wedding gift for his daughter Harriet and her husband Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, who married in January 1817, or it may have been ordered directly by Stephen. Regardless, it was one of the pieces of furniture moved to the manor house in 1840.

Lannuier designed and constructed the bed in a distinctively French style that reflects his training in France and the influence of Napoleon’s personal architects and decorators Charles Percier and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine. Unlike the English custom that positioned the headboard against the wall, French beds were placed parallel to the wall, exposing one side and hiding the other. The exposed side of this bed displays finely executed gilt metal ornaments and highly patterned burl elm veneer that instantly signify luxury and refinement.

Map of the Albany Lumber District

Printed by Hoffman, Pease, and Tetley, Albany, NY
Lithograph on paper
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, MAP 50b

This detailed map of Albany’s north end shows a landscape in transition from a sparsely settled, semi–rural location to a busy commercial district. Set in the heart of that landscape was the Van Rensselaer manor house and gardens, which appear in the middle of the map. The Erie Canal, which runs directly through the area, brought about much of the change as its waterway provided a ready means for hauling and transporting goods like sawn lumber. The area around the manor house, in fact, became known as the Albany lumber district because many dealers and wholesalers of lumber settled in the area. Other maps in the Institute’s collection show the city at both earlier and later periods, allowing researchers and visitors to see how the north end grew and changed, street by street.

Frank A. Jagger Lumber Boat at Albany Lumber District

Unidentified photographer
c. 1875
Albumen photographic print on card
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, PA 19/13

Among the more than 100 photograph albums in the Institute’s collection, a rare volume containing dozens of photographs of Albany’s lumber district reveals the enormous extent of the commercial activity that characterized Albany’s north end in the 1870s. Lumber merchants such as Frank A. Jagger, whose canal barge appears in this photograph, stockpiled large quantities of sawn boards along branches of the Erie Canal. This lumber would have been visible from the Van Rensselaer manor house.

North Elba

David D. Coughtry
Oil on canvas
1984 Mohawk–Hudson Regional Exhibition Purchase Prize, 1984.25

Artist David Coughtry has captured both the serenity and the power of nature that visitors now find in New York’s Adirondack Park. In the nineteenth century, however, the Adirondack region was a battleground for the early environmental movement. Many of the logs that supplied Albany’s burgeoning lumber market came from the Adirondacks, floated down the Hudson River to Glens Falls, where the logs were sawn and transported to Albany.

The Albany Institute purchased Coughtry’s large landscape painting as its purchase prize during the 1984 Exhibition of Artists of the Mohawk–Hudson Region, a juried regional art exhibition founded by the Albany Institute in 1936 and still held annually.

Van Rensselaer Manor House, Front Exterior

Albion W. Floyd, Albany, NY
c. 1890
Silver gelatin photograph print on card (copy print)
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, Ser 25/25c

With commercial and industrial development surrounding the Van Rensselaer house and gardens, the family eventually moved out sometime after Harriet’s death in 1875. The photograph from about 1890 depicts the house denuded of its once lush gardens. In 1893, Albany architect Marcus T. Reynolds dismantled the house and incorporated much of the building into his design for a fraternity house at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. That building was eventually demolished in 1973.

Where Art and History Connect

Two centuries of strategic collecting have allowed the Albany Institute to assemble historical objects, paintings, photographs, and furnishings that make connections and tell the story of Stephen Van Rensselaer II’s grand manor house. From its original construction in 1765 to its ultimate disappearance from Albany in 1893, the story of the house reveals the history of the Van Rensselaer family, the commercial growth of Albany’s north end, and the creation of New York’s famous Erie Canal. This is just one of many stories the Institute’s collections can tell.

Albany: One of America’s First Cities

Text by Anthony Opalka, Albany City Historian

The city of Albany traces its roots to the voyage of English explorer Henry Hudson sponsored by the Dutch East India Company in 1609. Seeking a water route to China by sailing westward, Hudson instead sailed up the river that now bears his name to the interior of New York State. Five years later, the New Netherland Company established Fort Nassau on the island that now houses the Port of Albany but within a few years, this fort was washed away. In 1621, the Dutch West India Company was chartered and three years later, the company built Fort Orange, the trading settlement that would eventually grow into the city of Albany. This early date makes Albany the longest continually occupied European settlement in the eastern United States.

The fort was populated by fur traders who did not expect to establish permanent residence in the fort, but rather, gather their beaver pelts and return to Europe where they were highly prized. In 1629, in a move to encourage permanent settlement, the Dutch established the “patroon” system, wherein tenant farmers would settle and cultivate the land and pay the patroons an annual land rent. The most successful of these medieval land-holding systems was established by Amsterdam pearl merchant Kilean Van Rensselaer, whose colony surrounded Fort Orange and comprises most of what are today Albany and Rensselaer counties on either side of the Hudson River.

Soon after the two systems were established adjacent to each other, conflicts arose as to who owed allegiance to the Dutch West India Company and who was a tenant of the Van Rensselaers. The dispute was settled in 1652 when Governor Pieter Stuyvesant of the Dutch West India Company shot a cannon in three directions from Fort Orange, establishing a boundary between the VanRensselaer colony and the new village to be called Beverwyck (place of beavers). In 2002, the anniversary of this event was marked in a celebration marking 350 years of municipal government in Albany.

In 1664, all Dutch claims in North America were turned over to the English without dispute. The New Netherland colony was renamed New York, New Amsterdam was to be called New York (city) and Beverwyck was renamed Albany, in honor of James, Duke of York and Albany, who would eventually become King James II.

Thomas Dongan, governor of the New York colony representing the British crown, granted a charter to the city of Albany on July 22, 1686. This charter still governs the city, making this the oldest charter still in force in the United States. At the time, approximately 500 residents called Albany their home, and by 1714, 1,128 lived in Albany, including 113 African slaves. Residents of Albany traced their roots at this time to Germany, Scotland, France, and the West Indies, but Dutch culture continued to predominate well into the eighteenth century. As a frontier settlement, Albany became strategically important as a trading hub and military supply center.

In 1754, at the Stadt Huys (city hall), leaders of several colonies met to develop a common defense against the French. The document, known as the Albany Plan of Union, was drafted with Benjamin Franklin as one of its primary authors, but was never adopted by the parliament.

Between 1757 and 1763, Albany played a significant role in the French and Indian War, although the city was never attacked. As economic and political tensions developed between the colonies and England in the 1775, the citizens of Albany supported the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia and Albany native Philip Livingston was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Albany’s strategic location along the Hudson and the eastern end of the Mohawk Valley made it a target of military operations during the American Revolution. The goal of British forces to the west and north was to attack Albany, but they were stopped at Fort Stanwix in the Mohawk Valley and at Saratoga, the turning point of the Revolution, north of Albany in 1777.

After the Revolution, Fort Frederick, which had replaced Fort Orange more than one hundred years earlier, was removed, and all remnants of the stockaded settlement disappeared. Albany was the sixth largest city in the United States in 1786 and had already planned for westward growth with a grid of streets at the top of the hill above the old stockade.

Albany became the capital of New York State in 1797 and by 1800, contained 5,349 residents, including 157 free persons of color and 526 enslaved. It retained some its Dutch culture, but increasingly became a more English-American place.

At the end of the eighteenth century, New York State passed a law allowing for the construction of privately-built toll roads called turnpikes, and Albany became the center of a wheel of such roads radiating in all directions. Of particular importance were the Columbia, Mohawk & Hudson (also known as the Albany and Schenectady) and the Great Western Turnpikes, carrying goods and people from the east (along the Columbia, from Massachusetts) to the west along the Mohawk & Hudson and Great Western. Many of those moving westward from New England chose to stay in Albany, further diluting its Dutch character. At the same time, many of the Dutch buildings in Albany were replaced with more up-to-date English-derived styles, leaving contemporary Albany with only a few buildings from its Dutch period.

In 1825, one of the most important events in Albany, New York State, and the United States of the nineteenth century occurred, with the completion of the Erie Canal, beginning at the Hudson River in Albany, and ending more than 300 miles to the west in Lake Erie at Buffalo. The canal solidified Albany’s position as the transportation and commercial hub of upstate New York and made New York City the premier port of the eastern seaboard. It opened the trans-Appalachian United States to settlement and commercial exploitation and Albany’s population grew by leaps and bounds in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Less than ten years later, another revolution in transportation took place in Albany with the chartering of the first railroad in New York State. In 1831, the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad inaugurated service between Albany and Schenectady, sixteen miles to the west, and within the next twenty years, railroads radiated in all directions from the city in the same way that turnpikes had around 1800. The railroad in some ways eclipsed the Erie Canal in importance because it was able to operate during all seasons, but the canal remained an important element in Albany’s development as well.

As Albany was developing as a transportation crossroads, it was also developing as an industrial center. Industries such as breweries, iron foundries, stove manufactories, and concerns related to shipping and railroading provided employment for the city’s growing population.

At the same time, some residents of Albany became interested in the anti-slavery movement that was sweeping the nation. (Slavery had been abolished in 1827 in the state of New York.) The city assumed a cosmopolitan air at this time, with people of all races travelling through either by canal, steamboat, railroad or road, and it quickly became an important stop on the Underground Railroad that stretched from the American South to Upstate New York and Canada. The most important figures in Albany in this movement were African-Americans Stephen and Harriet Myers, who were active from at least 1830 up to the time of the Civil War. This couple and their colleagues assisted hundreds of freedom-seekers in this period and the Albany “station” was said to be one of the best-run in the region, according to their contemporaries from outside the area. The building where they lived and operated the local Vigilance Committee is an individually-listed site on the National Register of Historic Places recognized with national significance.

Albany’s citizens fought in the Civil War, including a unit of Zouaves, and several regiments.

As a major city, and one that had a diverse population from its earliest European settlement period, Albany received a significant number of immigrants throughout the nineteenth century. The ethnic background of the immigrants generally corresponded to national trends, with Irish and German families arriving shortly before the Civil War, followed by German and Russian Jews, Italians, Eastern Europeans and many other smaller groups in the second half of the nineteenth century and beyond.

After the end of the Civil War, the state of New York decided that its small Capitol building was not adequate to the governmental needs of the state and was not fitting for what had become the largest state in the union. Beginning in 1867 and ending in 1899, a new Capitol was constructed in Albany, with four architects, including Henry Hobson Richardson and Leopold Eidlitz, and grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Architecturally unique, the present-day Capitol was also the place where three of the four New York State Governors who became presidents of the United States served the people of the state: Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt.

As the twentieth century opened, Albany continued to remain a major United States city although its relative size diminished as cities in the Mid-West and West grew in size and importance. The city continued to be the home of various immigrant groups and its industries continued to provide employment for its growing population. Recognizing the continued importance of water transportation to the economic health of the state, New York State rebuilt its canal system in the opening years of the twentieth century with the new Barge Canal system, replacing many parts of the Erie and adjacent canals that relied on horse- and mule-driven boats. The city established the first municipal airport in the United States in 1927 and greatly expanded its Hudson River Port at the same time.

The Great Depression took its toll on residents of Albany, but it was also the place where Franklin Roosevelt experimented with state-funded relief efforts as state governor between 1928 and 1932, ideas that his administration further developed and refined on a national scale after he became president in 1932. The city also supplied soldiers and industrial products to the national effort following the outbreak of World War II in 1941.

The post-war period in Albany was one of significant changes to the city’s industrial base, its population, and its physical development. The city reached its highest population of nearly 135,000 people in the 1950 census, but its population and industries declined in the period following that. After the war, a large African-American migration from the South increased the black population of Albany and other northern cities, but the city’s population in general declined over the years to fewer than 100,000 today.

The most significant physical change in the city came in 1962 with the announcement by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller of the construction of the (now) Empire State Plaza adjacent to the State Capitol, which cleared 98 acres of buildings and streets for a new complex of state offices and assembly spaces, as well as a new state library and museum.

After completion of the project in 1978 and a new interest in urban living on the part of young people and “empty-nesters,” the neighborhoods surrounding the Plaza were rehabilitated in large part with the assistance of federal Community Development Block Grant funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. At the same time, the national historic preservation movement took root in Albany with the incorporation of Historic Albany Foundation, an advocacy group dedicated to the preservation of the built environment in Albany.

Perhaps as a result of losing so much of its historic heritage over the years, many residents of Albany have dedicated themselves to preservation of its remaining building fabric and showcasing its history. Albany has had a historical museum since 1791 and the New York State Museum since 1870, as well as historic house museums for 100 years. Interest in the history of the city has grown, however, in the last 40 to 50 years and the understanding that Albany’s history reaches beyond traditional historical figures has given rise to groups whose mission is to recognize others whose contributions to the city’s history are as notable as those already celebrated.

The text above is one of the first drafts prepared by the Partners for Albany Stories, of which the Albany Institute is an active member. Partners for Albany Stories (PAS) is a collaboration of historical and cultural organizations working to develop a comprehensive and compelling story of Albany’s rich history. Our goal is to expand the public’s understanding of Albany’s important role in the past and present development of New York state and the nation.