History is never settled at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany
With many school districts and even entire states moving to limit unflattering but factual accounts of American history, including maltreatment of indigenous people and slavery, curators at the Schuyler Mansion Historical Site in Albany are heading in the other direction.
“We start talking about slavery here in the visitor center, because many people, many of our visitors, coming here from out-of-state don't even know that slavery existed in New York. And so, we want to get that question out of the way, so that we can have good conversations throughout the house about these people's lives - not just the work they did - but about their lives.”
Heidi Hill is historic site manager of the Schuyler Mansion. She begins our tour in the visitor center, once the carriage house.
That Philip Schuyler, a general in the Revolutionary War and U.S. Senator, owned slaves is an unavoidable fact while visiting the brick mansion. The house sits on a hill overlooking the Hudson River on a relatively small lot compared to the original 125 acres, but remains largely intact. But Hill says a key piece missing is the courtyard behind the house that once housed the family’s slaves.
“We know that they were eating differently than the Schuylers were eating. We know that they were sleeping in different spaces than the Schuylers were sleeping. We know that their movement was confined. They traveled, yes, away from the property, but they couldn't do that without a pass. So, we can talk with visitors about this and really think deeper about these people's lives.”
In June, New York Governor Kathy Hochul nominated the Schuyler historical site as one of 23 properties to be added to the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
Following a national movement of removing statues and monuments of problematic historical figures, Mayor Kathy Sheehan announced the city will remove Philip Schuyler’s statue from in front of City Hall. Hill says they don’t take a stance on the issue.
“I will say, it's a work of art created at a certain point of time, for a certain person or a certain type of person. People in power in 1925 decided that that's what should be there at that time. And things change.”
Another change to the thinking around the Schuylers happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, when one of the employees at the historic site found a receipt from Philip Schuyler when he sold a slave to Founding Father and son-in-law Alexander Hamilton – who has soared in popularity after the Broadway smash “Hamilton.” Hill says it has also more than doubled visitors to the mansion.
“The site has gotten some constructive criticism – no, criticism - and some of the descendants aren't entirely happy that we have brought this to bear and they have argued against these documents. So, it's been an interesting conversation, and we welcome that conversation.”
When visitors enter the mansion, they first see a rectangular room with two doors on each side and a large table in the center of the room that displays possessions of enslaved people who once worked at the mansion.
“When people come in, we give an introduction here. We say that this is the front hall, the doors of these other rooms would probably have been shut and the door may have been answered by Prince, the butler. And he would have escorted you in and had you wait for your host or hostess. This house was probably very intimidating for most people who came here and I think that the Schuyler’s might have liked it that way.”
While opulent and grand at the time, the mansion and its rooms are quite small compared to modern standards. Hill says the first door to the left in the entryway is typically the most popular of the tour.
“It's the space where Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler were wed in December 14, 1780. Oh, my, where did all the people go? Well, we don't think there were more than 13 people in this room. But, we have probably about 45% of original Schuyler things throughout the house. All of the books that you'll see throughout the house are Schuyler books. So, this house was saved, like many others, in the Colonial revival time. 1911 the Catholic Diocese that was running an orphanage here sold it to the State of New York and it was opened in 1917. There were descendants. Descendants were the main impetus for saving this house and so they had the things. They had the chairs and the tables and the paintings. And so that's why we have so much of it to show today.”
The three other rooms on the first floor contain two sitting rooms and the library.
At the back of the house, a stairwell leads to the second floor and a large open space between the bedrooms.
“So, this space is called a saloon. That was a French term that translates to space for fine entertainment.”
Notably missing is a dining area. Hill explains they weren’t common until the French made creating a separate space for dining fashionable, which happened after the house was originally built.
“We think that the Schuylers often dined or they couldn't be seen. So, they didn't have to invite people to dinner. So, I think depending on the day, they'd be moving furniture all around this house. And it wasn't the Schuylers, of course, it was the enslaved people.”
The other bedrooms contain clothing and personal items belonging to the Schuylers. Hill says Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler, the family’s matriarch, gave birth to a total of 15 children.
“There were only 13 pregnancies because there were triplets and there were twins. They didn't live beyond the week they were born. Two others died when they were infants. So, eight of the 15 lived to adulthood. They were spread out over 25 years. So, you don't have more than four of those children living together in this house at one time. But, Mrs. Schuyler was pregnant for over 25 years or for 25 years and I'm sure she spent a lot of time in the space. It was a space she didn't have to leave if she didn't want to, because she was waited on. And we show the chamber pot there. We show the place to wash up. We show a dining space. You could visit with your doctor there. You could have friends or family into the space. And, yes, you could sleep here.”
There is an attic and cellar, but they are not accessible to the public for safety reasons. Hill says they were definitely spaces of enslavement. She says the attic is a large space with no ambient heat.
“There are these walled off spaces, living spaces on each end, the south and the north end. The windows are on the east and the west. So there are dormer windows up there. I have a feeling that in really hot temperatures or really cold temperatures, enslaved people were sleeping in the cellar.”
Hill says learning more about the enslaved people living in this kind of historical site isn’t just about correcting a wrong or increased public scrutiny on the issue.
“I don't know that we were doing this because of other states pressing it down. No. We're doing it because we want to learn more and we're not just doing it on this subject. We're doing it in women's history. We're even really trying to show the loyalist perspective now. We are most definitely doing more about Native American history.”
You can see the mansion yourself May through October 31st, Wednesdays through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.