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Rescue and recognition at Albany’s Historic Cherry Hill

by Ann Morrow on September 19, 2013

 

During a reception at Historic Cherry Hill on Sunday (Sept. 15), invited guests were given tours of the 1787 mansion that highlighted the crucial restoration efforts saving the house from serious damage. Structural stabilization included repairing walls that had buckled under the accumulated weight of the site’s vast depository of artifacts, stored for generations in the attic, and repairs to the original windows, many of which face pollution assault from I-787, and humidity changes severe enough to crack hardwood antique furniture.

The new Collections Center at Cherry Hill Historic Site, photographed by Ann Morrow

Until recently, however, the very existence of the house—one of the most significant in the region, and as the home of the Van Rensselaers, one of America’s first families, a house with national importance—was in jeopardy. Last spring, its funds depleted, Historic Cherry Hill was facing the possibility of closure and the loss of its uniquely intact collections.

But as the reception celebrated, that didn’t happen. Following the publicizing of Cherry Hill’s plight in the Times Union and social media, an outpouring of donations resulted in the site exceeding the goal of $200,000 needed to prevent its demise. The yellow Georgian mansion on South Pearl Street is now past the halfway point of a four-phase renovation plan that will not only restore its residential elegance, but will ensure its preservation for the future.

The house has a ways to go, however. According to director Liselle LaFrance, the immediate challenge is to maintain cash flow during grant delays while continuing fund-raising momentum for the more than $500,000 needed to finish the restoration. A grant from Museums for America for $33,427 is allowing the staff to complete the arduous task of transferring tens of thousands of family possessions and documents to its center for collections and research, set at the end of a garden walkway in the rear grounds. The move will make these rarely seen objects accessible for viewing, and research and education in American social, political, and economic history.

During the reception, an informal exhibit and talk filled the center to overflowing, as guests viewed objects illustrating the collection’s uniqueness: Because the house was lived in by a single extended family for almost 200 years, each artifact relates intimately to their daily lives. Among the items on display were a rare Chinese porcelain acquired by Catherine Bonney, a Van Rensselaer who worked as a missionary in China; a fashionable 1890s wedding dress; and imaginative storybook diaries created by the children.

As an indication of the rarity of many of Cherry Hill’s possessions, one item is currently in New York City: a painted-cloth palampore (wall hanging) included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s landmark exhibit, Interwoven Globe: the Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800. The 18th-century palampore was featured, with photo, in a rave review of the exhibit by The New York Times. Historic Cherry Hill is organizing a bus trip and special tour of the exhibit on Oct. 17. On Oct. 27, the house will debut its own exhibit, Uncovered: Historic Cherry Hill’s Textile Treasures. Public tours of the restoration are also scheduled. For more information, call 434-4791 or visit historiccherryhill.org.