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Historic Cherry Hill Unpacks After 10-Year Restoration Project

After more than a decade, volunteers and staff at Albany’s Historic Cherry Hillare nearing completion on a three-phase restoration project. WAMC’s Jesse King stopped by for a sneak peak of the museum’s next season. 

I picked a good day to visit Cherry Hill. Barring the cold, Albany is devoid of its usual wintry doom-and-gloom. The yellow, Georgian mansion in the city’s South End is bright against a snowy backdrop, and sunlight is streaming through its (newly restored) windows. Executive Director Deborah Emmons-Andarawis weaves me through boxes of artifacts and antique furniture soaking it all in. 

"We did a very, very good job, I'm patting myself on the back now," Emmons-Andarawis laughs. "It's been interesting, the unpacking. Just today I discovered one of my packing notes that had very specific instructions about how to unpack safely, and I just chuckled to myself." 

Cherry Hill is just like this precious time capsule in a sense, and what makes it such a special experience is that it's so very real. It feels like the family just walked out.

Built in 1787, Cherry Hill boasts one of the country’s most extensive collections of American artifacts. More than 70,000 objects span three centuries and five generations of the city’s storied Van Rensselaer family. The Van Rensselaers (and their descendants, the Rankins) kept everything, from the smallest toothbrush to the biggest stone fireplace. By the 1990s, however, the weight of the collection threatened to bring it all down. Emmons-Andarawis says museum staff found buckling walls and water damage. 

“Some major support members were no longer able to be load-bearing because there was significant rot at their base. We had some posts that were hanging in mid air," she explains. "Our sill on one side had some serious rot, on the other side it had been replaced previously, but that replacement hadn’t been done properly.” 

Thus began a long effort to shore up Cherry Hill. Once staff relocated the collection to a new, air-controlled facility uphill (a daunting task itself), crews finally began construction in 2010. Phases One and Two restored the mansion’s sills, secured its windows, and implemented a new HVAC system — all while staff kept doors open via “behind-the-scenes restoration tours.”

Emmons-Andarawis says funding for the nearly $2 million project was pieced together with personal donations and grants, meaning construction was often off-and-on. Work stalled completely for a bit in 2013, and while there’s certainly a light at the end of the tunnel, some parts of the project are still on hold. 

"We have not yet painted the house, and that's going to have to be in a future phase of work," Emmons-Andarawis notes. "We also still have to rebuild the porch, and those are things that we look forward to taking on as we're able to acquire the funding to do that." 

Historic Cherry Hill
Credit Jesse King / WAMC
The formal parlor at Cherry Hill. The front section of the house includes two parlors — one for guests, and another for family.

The fun part started in earnest last year, when a small group of masked-up volunteers and staff began refurnishing the home to the tastes of its fourth-generation mistress, Catherine Rankin.

Rankin and her family lived at Cherry Hill from 1884 to 1963, and she went through her own struggles in restoring it. The aristocratic Van Rensselaers often felt at odds with the new millionaires and immigrants who increasingly made up Albany in the 19th and 20th centuries, and when the family suddenly lost everything in the 1880s, Rankin and her husband lived at Cherry Hill as tenants until they could afford to buy it back. From that moment on, Emmons-Andarawis says Rankin was determined to return the mansion to its “colonial splendor,” and the museum, like Rankin, went to lengths to maintain that aesthetic vision.

"In some cases the wallpaper that was there was just so severely damaged that we installed reproduction wallpaper," Emmons-Andarawis adds. "Some of it was put up at the last minute in Cherry Hill's household history, and didn't truly reflect the vision of the occupants of the fourth and fifth generation, so we went one layer back." 

Cherry Hill typically opens for tours in May, but given the pandemic, Emmons-Andarawis can’t say for sure whether it will open on time this spring. Even then, there’s no “Grand Reopening” in the works: in-person tours will remain small, under COVID-19 restrictions.

That said, you may soon be able to visit the home online – Cherry Hill began digitizing some of its collection last year, and is working with Siena College to establish 3D, virtual tours. Emmons-Andarawis adds the tours themselves are getting a facelift to include more stories from the mansion’s Black residents. 

Historic Cherry Hill
Credit Jesse King / WAMC
A pair of winter landscapes commissioned by the family to honor Herbert Rankin, who died of influenza while traveling to Europe for World War I.

"As we delved into the collections that we had and the stories that are represented there, we realized how very rich they are," she explains. "Stories not only of enslaved people, but continuing on into the 19th century, there was a family of African-American children that were adopted and raised as wards of different members of Van Renssealer households, including Cherry Hill, but also raised as servants." 

Until then, Emmons-Andarawis is unpacking Cherry Hill, room by room, box by box. At the end of my visit, she points out a pair of winter landscapes hanging in the family’s personal parlor to honor Catherine’s son, Herbert, who died of the Spanish flu while preparing to fight in World War I.

“It was a very unexpected experience to feel so moved at the sight of them in their space once again," says Emmons-Andarawis. "Cherry Hill is just like this precious time capsule in a sense, and what makes it such a special experience is that it's so very real. It feels like the family just walked out." 

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."
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