During my second tour of the Schuyler Mansion this past October, as our guide ushered our little group into the vestibule, she remarked that many visitors to the site are surprised at the size of the home. She noted that, in particular, young students on school field trips are often disappointed when they get their first glance at the building since many of them live in much larger, more extravagant houses. Their reaction is not surprising: houses in the United States just keep getting larger. At a median size of 2,467 square feet, today’s houses are 61% larger than houses built 40 years ago and 11% larger than those built only a decade ago (Sparshott, wallstreetjournal.com). It follows that, as our homes have become larger, we have felt compelled to fill them with lots of stuff, and as the piles of stuff have grown, we have had to move into even bigger spaces. So many of our possessions themselves have gotten bigger too, especially our furniture and our TVs. (I recently tried to buy a couch for my modestly-sized living room in my 1960’s-era house, but I emerged from the furniture store with very few choices. None of the monster sofas would fit through the door, much less leave space to walk around them!)
The student visitors to the Schuyler Mansion were likely also influenced by today’s expectations of what constitutes a “mansion.” Media images of sprawling estates, like this one (right), belonging to Oprah Winfrey (with its 23,000 square feet, 14 bathrooms and a home theater) or Beyonce’s Hampton hangout make the Schuyler home seem downright ordinary. Now, it’s pretty evident that Oprah and Beyonce don’t need 14 bathrooms or a tennis court, so at least part of the motivation for building these behemoths would appear to be status.
To some degree, status was certainly on the mind of Philip Schuyler as he chose the location, size, design and furnishings for his family home. As a member of one of the most prominent families of Albany, Schuyler wanted his home to reflect his standing in the community. He was also keenly aware of the trends beyond his provincial homeland since he traveled to England during this period, so he chose to model his house on the Georgian mansions he saw on his journey. The home he built, therefore, stood in stark contrast to the small, Dutch-style homes of the town—one or two-story simple residences with characteristic stepped or “gambrel” roofs. Peter Kalm, a visitor to Albany in the mid-1700s, described the typical Dutch homes as “very neat, and partly built of stones covered with shingles of white pine…The front doors are generally in the middle of the houses and on both sides are porches with seats, on which during fair weather the people spend almost the whole day” (Mcenery 67). Our Schuyler mansion tour guide explained that, while the Schuyler Mansion may not fit our modern, preconceived definition of the word “mansion,” for the mid-1700s it was considered glorious and grand since two of the standard colonial Dutch Albany homes would have fit into the Schuyler Mansion’s hall alone!
According to records of Schuyler’s purchases for the home, he chose opulent fabrics, exclusive wallpapers, and luxurious carpets. Aware also that he would host many of the dignitaries of the time, he spared no expense when it came to silver and crystal. The illustration below is an accounting, in his own hand. of some of Schuyler’s purchases for this new home, shown beside a selected piece of wallpaper.
The epergne, an elaborate, multi-level serving piece atop a mirrored platter, shown below, adorned the Schuyler dining table, displaying an array of fruits and nuts for delighted guests.
Philip Schuyler selected a choice plot of land only a half mile from the center of town, yet remote enough to feature a distant view of Albany to his left and a commanding view of the Hudson from his front window. From this vantage point, one could gaze “upon the grassy fields sloping to the fertile plains along the river, cows grazing in the pastureland, and travelers upon horses cantering along the King’s Road” (Mcenery 67). In fact, Schuyler called his home “the Pastures.” An artist’s rendition of the Hudson River view from the mansion follows:
At the back of the house beyond intricate gardens was a barn and tilled fields, behind which was dense forest bordered by a deep ravine. Here, the Schuyler children had room to play and picnic. According to Chernow, Eliza was no “pampered heiress” and on one such picnic one of her companions, Tench Tilghman, remarked on her ability to scale a steep hill while other girls needed the help of their male companions. “An athletic woman and stout walker [who] moved with a determined spring in her step” (Chernow 130), Eliza and her siblings found the 42-acre plot that their father had purchased provided recreational space as well as utility.
One of the best descriptions of the house is found in Allan McLane Hamilton’s The Intimate Life of Alexander Hamilton. He writes:
The house…it built of yellow brick. On each side of the hexagonal vestibule are three windows; above these are seven windows, measuring the unusual breadth of the house. Within is a spacious hall sixty feet long, to which the windows on each side of the door give light. It is a noble room, wainscoted in white. Doors lead on one side into the sitting-room, on the other into the drawing-room, splendidly lighted, with deep window-seats and broad mantels handsomely carved. (136)
The drawing room, or “blue parlor,” so-called because of its original blue wallpaper, was the formal living room situated in the southeast corner of the house and overlooking the formal gardens which Philip Schuyler patterned after the aristocratic gardens of England. Here is the room where important guests were received and where critical political discussions shaped the revolutionary trajectory. The blue parlor also featured a mahogany pianoforte, a typical piece for upper classes and an instrument played by at least one of the Schuyler sisters for the enjoyment of visitors. It was also in the blue parlor that Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth were married in December 1780.
The sitting room was a place for family to relax and chat with one another and provides a glimpse of what life was like for the Schuyler children. It would not be unusual for Eliza and her sisters to gather here to embroider or play a board game. Popular colonial board games entertained as well as taught one moral principle or another, such as this one, the “Game of Goose.” Even later in life, Eliza enjoyed playing backgammon, a game taught to her by Benjamin Franklin during one of his visits to the mansion.
”Behind the sitting-room is the dining-room, the scene of forty years of generous hospitality. On the other side the drawing –room leads to a private hall and a room that was used as a nursery. Behind this was the library,” (Hamilton 137), which contained 200 volumes—an exceptionally large collection of books on history, science, mathematics, philosophy, government and business. Beyond the dining room was the kitchen and other “outbuildings.” It is presumed that these may have housed the Schuylers’ slaves, who helped to care for children, tend the garden, and serve the many needs of the large family and regular visitors—among them, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Benedict Arnold, and even British General Burgoyne after his defeat at Saratoga. The regularity with which important patriots and dignitaries visited the home inspired in Eliza a keen interest in the world around her. She and her sisters were well-versed in the political affairs of the day and became easy and knowledgeable conversationalists.
While it is strange to think that Schuyler and his family wined and dined Burgoyne –he was the enemy after all!—Schuyler welcomed him out of respect and the honor he felt should be bestowed on a General, even in defeat. The children, however, seemed to have a harder time with housing the enemy. At one point, Philip Jeremiah surprised Burgoyne and his attendants, jumping out from his hiding place and shouting, “You are all my prisoners!” and making clear to their visitors that he, for one, understood the Patriots were the victors. Later, out walking one day with Eliza’s sister Peggy, Burgoyne could not get her to warm up to him. In an attempt to win her heart, he asked he if there was any gift he might give her. Peggy didn’t answer, instead continuing to stare down at her shoes, so Burgoyne decided he would give her his rhinestone shoe buckles (above, left), just the same.
The presence of so many visitors, along with an ever-growing family—Catherine, Philip’s wife gave birth to 15 children, 8 of whom survived—was undoubtedly another reason that Philip chose to build a relatively large home. Still, the limited space per person engendered a communal atmosphere that we cannot even fathom. With a great hall, or “salon” for dances and balls comprising the bulk of the second floor, bed chambers were always shared. They also contained chamber pots, especially useful during the winter when retreating to the outhouse would have been difficult; basins and pitchers served as the “sink,” and with no “medicine cabinet,” medicines were stored on night tables.
It is difficult for us to imagine the close quarters in which Eliza Schuyler grew to adulthood. With our even larger homes, our private bedrooms, multiple bathrooms, our “mancaves,” rec rooms, and walk-in closets—all kinds of spaces where we may retreat alone– and our ever-increasing reliance on technology for social interaction, we seem to cherish–even nurture –social isolation that was unthinkable in colonial times. Colonists—even the wealthy ones—must have cultivated exceptional patience and a spirit of cooperation. And it seems that this physical closeness bred an emotional closeness as well.Through letters, mostly those written to Eliza by her sister Angelica, we observe the uncommon bond they enjoyed, an understanding and loving attachment that endured even into adulthood, even when separated by an ocean.
Considering the emotional ties that grew out of physical necessity during those early times and how far we as a culture have moved toward individuality and privacy, it is no wonder that we find we have to remind ourselves to be “present.” I wonder about the last time I was fully present with another person, without the Pavlovian compunction to respond to the incoming text message “ding” or the vibrating phone. Not a day goes by that I don’t lose my or someone’s attention when a message distracts me or another person’s phone makes that familiar rattle on the desk. I have sat through countless meetings where people only inches away, laptops open, were mentally as far away as the next incoming message. I have watched a smile cross someone’s lips as they read a funny email rather than listen to the person in front of them. I have continued typing away when an email response seemed more important than the person who took time to stop by and see me. If I, who did not grow up with these multiple technologies, find myself held captive by them, it is all the more important to gauge the effect on our children for whom cell phones and laptops have become an appendage. Personal, one-on-one interaction involves reading body language, gestures and expressions that help us understand each other more deeply. And with that understanding comes empathy and compassion, emotions that can’t be generated through interactions with machines. The colonists serve as models of endurance and human cooperation that we may all emulate, as we work toward being less connected, more present.
Chernow, R. (2004). Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin.
Dwyer, M.M., ed. (2001). Great houses of the Hudson River. Boston: Little, Brown.
Hamilton, A. M.(2015–reprint). The intimate life of Alexander Hamilton. London: Forgotten Books.
Mcenery, J.J. (1998). Albany: Capital city on the Hudson. Sun Valley: American Historical Press.
Schuyler Mansion Tour. (2016, October 6). Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site. Albany, New York.