Volunteers and staff at Historic Cherry Hill in Albany’s South End have been struggling to restore the colonial home of the Van Rensselaer family for years. But there is hope renovations will be done by the end of the year. The museum opens for behind-the-scenes restoration tours in May.
The yellow Georgian mansion on South Pearl Street in Albany was constructed in 1787, and housed five generations of the Van Rensselaers and Rankins before its last resident, Emily Rankin, bequeathed it to “the people of New York State” and it opened as a museum in 1964. Executive Director Deborah Emmons-Andarawis says the estate was started by Philip Van Rensselaer, a wealthy merchant who became part of Albany’s elite.
"Philip Van Rensselaer was not from the branch of the family that owned the great patroonship of Rensselaerswyck, but he still had the benefit of the familial connections and the business connections just from being a Van Rensselaer," she explains. "He was also an early supervisor of the town of Bethlehem — the first supervisor actually."
The museum boasts a collection of 70,000 objects, textiles, books, and more once owned by the family. It’s one of the largest such collections in the country, and gives researchers a 300-year window into American history and life. Unfortunately, the sheer weight of it in the attic also threatened to bring Cherry Hill down. Emmons-Andarawis says after museum staff started noticing buckling walls and crumbling plaster in the 1990s, a structural engineer was eventually called in.
“The attic was probably built to hold approximately 30 pounds per square foot, and was holding in excess of 100 pounds per square foot. And so his main recommendation was, in order to save the structure, you need to get those things out of this building," she says.
“Those things” now rest in the nearby Edward Frisbee Center for Collections & Research, nestled within dozens of compact shelves that Emmons-Andarawis moves at the crank of a lever. The Historic Cherry Hill organization oversees the family’s entire estate, from the smallest pamphlet and oven manual to numerous trunks.
"This is one of my first projects when I came in as curator back in 2008," she points to an assortment of trunks. "The trunks were all stored one inside of another, like a Russian doll — you open up a trunk and there's a trunk inside! And that was just to conserve space in the attic."
After moving the collection to a new location, staff and contractors were able to begin restoring Cherry Hill itself. Emmons-Andarawis says structural stabilization began around 2010, with contractors rebuilding the building’s sill and stone foundation, and sealing leaky windows.
“The historic house, it's not just the setting for our tours, it’s also, you can say, our gallery space," she notes. "It’s the environment for our collections. And so the fact that our windows were so leaky, was certainly not good for the long-term preservation of our collections.”
That first round of restoration wasn’t easy. In 2013, efforts stalled due to a lack of funding. Emmons-Andarawis became acting director in 2017, took over as executive director in 2019, and says Cherry Hill is now structurally stable, and restoration can transition to a more visual phase. She credits the progress to personal donations and grants from the New York State Assembly and Environmental Protection Fund.
“We are a museum with an operating budget less than $200,000. So if you think about what that means – for us to accomplish a restoration that is almost $2 million – it’s almost a miracle that we have accomplished this," she says. "And it’s not surprising that it’s taken us 10 years to get there.”
In a way, the restoration has mirrored maintenance efforts by the Van Rensselaers and the Rankins themselves. The family treasured it history, and often built around old structures rather than replacing them. Upstairs, patches of floral wallpaper pasted by Cherry Hill’s fourth-generation mistress, Catherine Rankin, still holds strong. When the family lost everything in the 1880s – including the house – Rankin and her husband lived as tenants in Cherry Hill for 12 years until they could afford to buy it back. Emmons-Andarawis says Rankin worked tirelessly to restore Cherry Hill to what she called its “colonial splendor.”
“To somebody like Catherine, this was her statement of what the ‘real’ America was, this is what it ‘really’ meant to be American," she notes. "And this was an image that was held up to the many immigrant groups that were coming into America during the late 19th and early 20th century.”
Of course, by that time Rankin’s “colonial splendor” was no longer the “real” America – if it ever was. The real America was next door, in Albany’s immigrants and “new money” upper-class families. Emmons-Andarawis says this is why the Van Rensselaers were packrats obsessed with heritage – they saw themselves as a dying breed. She says Cherry Hill’s story is one of stubborn preservation in the face of change, and while visitors shouldn’t idealize the family’s story and worldview, they can certainly learn from it.
“You know, their opinions expressed toward the immigrant communities surrounding them were not all that positive – and so we’re able to look at their words and their experiences, and even think about our times today and think about how people respond to change," she says.
The museum opens for the season following the Albany History Fair on Sunday, May 5. Visitors will be able to tour Cherry Hill behind-the-scenes to see its restoration progress on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 1 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m.