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New and improved: an exhibition gallery at the Rensselaer County Historical Society.

Forward Into the Past

Last week, a “behind the scenes” walk-through of the Joseph B. Carr mansion in Troy, the home of the museum of the Rensselaer County Historical Society, revealed a state-of-the-art facility filled with artifacts from the region’s many towns and neighborhoods, as well as evidence—such as the fantastically designed iron stoves lining a corridor—of Troy’s heyday as an industrial powerhouse whose products were sold internationally. Above the Carr’s three galleries are storage spaces equipped with sophisticated climate and lighting controls and moving platforms for antique furniture. Within the enameled steel cabinets can be found whole collections of wedding dresses, portraits, military uniforms, jewel-like buttons, and shelves piled high with Victorian-era paisley shawls. The tour was held in anticipation of the society’s Special Diamond Anniversary Party, to be held today (Thursday). For a history buff, it was akin to being a kid in a candy shop.

The renovation of the Carr building, completed in October 2001, included reinforcement of the floors with steel beams to hold the weight of 50,000 artifacts. “Paper is the heaviest,” says Donna Hassler, RCHS’s executive director, as she gestures to the interior of a large room stacked from floor to ceiling with documents. The society’s research library, its fastest growing component, receives requests from around the world, and has been utilized by the History Channel and Hollywood movie crews. Last year, the film crew for Bill Moyers’ PBS documentary on the Hudson River spent days at the library and used several archival photographs in the footage.

Yet a mere 75 years ago, the society began with just a box of genealogical materials and an idea. The box belonged to Louise Brown of Troy, who wanted to memorialize her father, Daniel Van Antwerp, a descendent of one of the early Dutch families to settle in New York state and a member of the local chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution. The SAR suggested that Brown use her memorial fund to set up a county historical society. The idea was championed by the Troy Record, which pointed out that such an organization would correct “a deficiency that was amazing in view of the rich historical value of the county, and especially in view of similar societies that have long flourished in Albany and Schenectady.” The paper also lamented how “more than one valuable collection has gone to Albany or elsewhere for want of a suitable organization here.”

RCHS was incorporated in 1927, but according to registrar Kathryn Sheehan, the society’s longtime historian, Brown’s organization did not acquire its first artifact until two years later, when a donation was made of an 1835 guest book from the Mansion House, an illustrious inn that occupied the site of the Hendrick Hudson Hotel. “The Marquis de Lafayette stayed there when he was on his grand tour,” says Sheehan. “The register reads like a Who’s Who.” (The guest book, along with paintings, photographs, and other objects illustrating the society’s progress, are on view in the 75th Anniversary Exhibit through Dec. 23).

By the late 1940s, however, RCHS had 200 members and was outgrowing its archives at the Troy Public Library. The society became a real museum in 1952, when it received the Hart-Cluett House, an architecturally innovative 1827 mansion previously occupied by two of Troy’s most entrepreneurial families. But it wasn’t until 1976, with the acquisition of the Carr building next door, that the society could begin its evolution to a full-fledged facility with space for changing galleries, community programming, and collections storage.

“[Renovating] the Carr building was such a huge project, every phase that was completed brought us higher visibility,” says Sheehan. “Before that, people always thought of us as a Troy historical society, because of the [Hart-Cluett] house. We’ve spent a lot of the last 20 years trying to change that perception, and to making people understand that we are a county organization, and that we’re extremely conscientious about doing our exhibitions to include the entirety of Rensselaer County.”

“We’ve been on this track for 30 years,” says Hassler. “The vision to have a dynamic facility for regional art, history and culture was drawn up in 1971.” Five directors, two mansions and several large-scale renovations later, the society is close to its goal. “As we’ve become more known,” she says, “we’re reaching a wider audience.”

RCHS will celebrate its 75 years with a Special Diamond Anniversary Party today (Thursday, Dec. 19), from 5 to 8 PM. Admission is free for members; nonmembers who wish to join ($35) will receive a copy of The Marble House of Second Street. The party will feature a champagne toast, a cake in the form of the two buildings, a raffle for a diamond pin, and giveaways of tickets to the Troy Music Hall and the New York State Theatre Institute. RCHS is located at 57 Second St., Troy. Call 272-7232 for more information.

—Ann Morrow

Buy the Books

It may fall short of the criteria for an official Christmas miracle, but local bookworms are more than just a little pleased that the struggling Bryn Mawr Book Shop on Albany’s Lark Street will not be closing its doors, as had seemed likely.

Last week, a trio of neighborhood investors—Mark Brogna, Bill Pettit and John McLennan—purchased the store’s inventory and announced their plan to lease the space under the new moniker the Lark Street Bookshop. And though the store has had trouble making rent payments in the past, in the days since the announcement, the apparent level of community support for a revitalized book store has been promising.

“There’s been an outpouring of support,” says Brogna. “We’ve gotten flowers and letters, and lots of well-wishers. Lots of business owners and people from the neighborhood are grateful and happy that it’s staying put.”

According to Pettit, that goal—simply preventing the closure of a much-loved, if underpatronized, local literary establishment—was the motivation for the purchase: “None of us is in this for the money; we just wanted to keep it open.”

So, fans of the intimate and personal space can be confident that no rapacious corporate bottom-line mentality will be imposed, and the new owners are keeping on manager Matthew Bach; that being said, some changes are already underway: The once-erratic hours of the store have been expanded (not to mention stabilized), some décor changes are in process, a Web site has been developed (www.standardweb. com/larkstreetbooks), and an entertainment program is being devised.

Discussing the type of musical entertainment likely, Pettit mentions folk and Irish/Celtic music; Brogna explains that the programming decisions will be made with an eye (or ear) toward preserving the mellow, comfy atmosphere of the store.

“We’re trying things to draw the neighborhood in,” he says. “Something laid-back and quiet, not like a nightclub but something in keeping with the feel of the store. We want it to be a place where people can browse and listen,” he says.

“And buy,” Pettit adds with a laugh. “Browse and listen and buy.”

—John Rodat

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