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Tri-City Crusader

Like a certain other onscreen archeologist who wears a fedora, Don Rittner makes adventures out of history

by Ann Morrow on March 15, 2012 · 1 comment

Where are the George Gray murals? Long ago, there were four large historical paintings—the Battle of Saratoga, Yankee Doodle, Uncle Sam, and the Battle of Bataan in WWII—by the famed muralist hanging in the Hendrick Hudson Hotel. When the Troy landmark closed, the paintings disappeared without a trace.

Photos by Leif Zurmuhlen

Where, and how, the murals were found will be revealed in the debut episode of History on the Road, the latest project by Don Rittner, Schenectady historian, film commissioner, and soon-to-be TV sleuth.

“It’s like a dream come true to be doing this,” Rittner says, who has been an extra in several locally filmed movies. He describes the show as a cross between Indiana Jones and Charlie’s Angels, as he and three comely assistants unearth, reenact, and solve local mysteries that have defied detection for decades.

Yet Rittner, a protean author and activist, could just as easily be referring to another dream come to fruition: his latest book, Legendary Locals of Troy, which hit area bookstores last month. “I’ve known these people a long time,” he says of the collection of short biographies of the innovative—and infamous—personalities of his hometown, cheerfully making little distinction between the dearly departed and the living. The book was already in progress before Rittner’s longtime publisher, Arcadia, requested just such a collection.

And then there’s the vision quest of the Onrust, an authentic replica of the first Dutch sailing ship to be built in New Netherlands, a recreation that Rittner helped envision and to helm. The 1614 schooner, reconstructed by newly discovered 17th-century building techniques on the Mabee Farm historic site, and launched as an ambassador for the Dutch-settled Mohawk Valley, earned media attention in several countries when it sailed to New York City for the Hudson River quadricentennial.

The travails and triumphs of the ambitious project are the subject of Rittner’s next book. “It’s a unique story,” he says of the project that grew out of a cancelled museum exhibit (in a ship’s hull created by Dutch history scholar Greta Wagle, one of Rittner’s two partners on the project).

“I think it will be an inspiration to people who say, ‘I have an idea but I don’t think I can make it happen,’” he continues. “Because even with all our adversities—when we started we had no money, no people, and no place to build it, and then there were 300 volunteers who came together.” And a master shipwright, donated materials, a construction site and the support of the Dutch government. “And now there’s this beautiful ship.”

The 44-foot-long schooner will be open to the public in May when it docks at the Waterford Visitor Center, and where work will continue on bringing its interior up to museum quality. By that time, however, Rittner may be on the big screen, as well: He makes an appearance in the soon-to-be-released major-studio movie, The Place Beyond the Pines, a film shoot he was instrumental in bringing to Schenectady.

While talking about the film, Rittner admits to a rare instance of disappointment, describing with mock bewilderment that after having dinner with star Eva Mendes, she threw him over for co-star Ryan Gosling. Usually, however, Rittner’s chance encounters—such as meeting Wagle at the Quackenbush archeology site—result in books that enrich the culture of the Capital Region. His influential first book, Pine Bush: Albany’s Last Frontier, and his interventions with Mayor Corning, rescued the rare pine barrens from certain doom at the hands of a developer. He was just 19 when he wrote it. “You can’t argue with the facts,” he says, which is why he put them into print.

Rittner credits historian-activist John Wollcott, whom he met at the New York State Museum (a favorite haunt of his teen years), with introducing him to the then-unknown wild space. “John said, ‘I’ve got a little project for you.’ Yeah, little as in 25 years,” continues Rittner in feigned exasperation, adding with a laugh, “Sometimes I blame John for everything. I could’ve been a biochemist.”

Another mentor was Lou Ismay, pioneering professor of the Environmental Forum during the 1970s at the State University of Albany, where Rittner studied environmental science.

“Don’s always been right-on,” says Ismay. “His Pine Bush book, that really shook things up in this part of the world.”  The professor continues: “Everything interests him in the way of history, and he’s got determination, he accomplishes things.” Ismay adds, “He’s always been curious about all kinds of things.”

And Ismay would know: He first met Rittner when the Troy wild child was eight years old, and he was the director of the Junior Museum. Ismay says meeting the young Rittner was easy to remember since he was wearing a medieval helmet at the time. “I’ve been wearing hats ever since,” says Rittner.

As to having a knack for being in the right place at the right time, Rittner attributes it to serendipity. The author of 35 books on history, natural science, and computers is being rather modest however; it was more than serendipity when as a 23-year-old city archeologist for Albany (the first such position in the country), he contacted famous author and Karner Blue butterfly expert Vladimir Nabokov to help him save the still imperiled Pine Bush. “I remember his wife wasn’t happy that I called,” Rittner says. “It was midnight in Switzerland.”

Rittner began his career as a historian writing a column called Heritage on the Hudson for the Troy Record, which he did from 1999 to 2005. Shortly after, he was recruited by Schenectady County to be historian. His office is in the city’s grand City Hall, in the archives room, where the man in the fedora seems a bit out of place among dusty stacks of publications and artifacts. “The historian always goes either in the basement or the attic,” he says of his top-floor domain.

His author’s bibliography of local history books now ranges from Images of America picture books (his personal collection contains over 1,000 photographs) to the Then & Now series, for which he covered Troy, Schenectady, and Albany.

“Then & Now are my favorites because I show what used to be there, and what’s there now,” he says. “It’s kind of depressing, what’s not there anymore, but those books had the most impact—they made people aware of the devastation of our resources. They knocked down whole neighborhoods for no rhyme or reason,” he continues. “And I lived in some of those vibrant neighborhoods that are now gone with no vestige left. It doesn’t make economic sense,” he adds, “driving people to the suburbs, and leaving nothing but patches of grass.”

One of Rittner’s early architectural preservation battles was over 52 Second Street. Part of the city’s vaunted historic streetscape, it almost became a parking space for a bank president’s Cadillac. “That was my first demonstration, and we won,” he says. “That beautiful building is still there.”

“He is one of the originals of the local preservation movement,” says Susan Holland, executive director of Historic Albany Foundation. “He really has a grasp of the facts. A huge part of what preservation organizations do is education,” she adds, “and we have a core audience, but his books really bring it to a mass audience.”

“I believe in activism by education,” says Rittner. “The great thing about being a historian is I have a perspective. And the advantage of having a historical perspective is to understand how things work.” He then adds with a chuckle, “In high school my worst subjects were history and English.”

Rittner’s restless intellect has encompassed the Internet—his 1992 computer book, Ecolinking: Everyone’s Guide to Online Environmental Information is considered the first of its kind, and he also wrote, among other computer science books, a Mac games book that was a smash success in Japan. His interest in science also began early, he says, describing how as a child he would throw magnets at the decorative iron railings of downtown Troy, and was fascinated by how they would stick. “I just thought it was so cool,” he says, adding, “The building owners didn’t seem to think so, though.”

A visionary who sees the future most clearly while looking to the past, a natural scientist who writes about technology, and an educator who spends his leisure time exploring and photographing little-seen areas of the region: Rittner seems to be contradiction on all fronts. But what it comes down to, he says, is mostly about preserving the resources of the region’s historic cities.

“What I’m most proud to be part of is saving unique architecture, saving pieces of nature, of our natural and human history, so that people 100 years from now can enjoy these things as we do now,” he says. “I’ve been everywhere else, but I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

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