The Staffords, particularly brothers John and Spencer, were
prominent in the changes brought on the New World Dutch town of
Albany in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Their father, Job
Stafford, moved from the Rhode Island coast to the Berkshire
Mountain town of Cheshire, where he became a wealthy landowner.
Job was appointed to oversee the division of New York State land
grants after the Revolution and thus settled with his family in the
unofficial state capital city of Albany in 1783.(1)
In their young adulthood, John and Spencer were attracted to the
hardware business. John was apprenticed to his cousin Thomas
Spencer and had his own business by 1793.
The drawing above shows “Hardware Row,” which is now
Broadway south of State Street.(2) The Dutch Reformed Church,
shown the center of this drawing, epitomizes the medieval character
of this scene - the heart of Albany - and gives an idea of what the
Staffords and other transplanted Yankees found when they settled
there. John and Spencer Stafford's stores are the two on the far left.
About 1797, John joined Spencer in his firm.
The Staffords and Spencers shared several businesses under the
organization of Staffords, Spencer & Co. Account books for the
company reveal a vast range of metal goods being made or dealt.(3)
There were stoves of many types as well as industrial parts, farm
implements, kitchen utensils and other household items. There was a
branch operation in Ballston Spa, New York, and they had clients in
Buffalo and New York City.
Of the Staffords' businesses, Henry Benedict says “On this small
frontage on the east side of South Broadway between State and
Beaver streets, long known as Hardware Row, the heaviest business
in this line north and west of New York was transacted ... At the
close of the war [of 1812] which assured the fortunes of the brothers,
John left the firm.” They were “…men of extensive business
connections” and “…principal merchants of the city - those who
gave life and character to its business interests.”
In personal matters, John Stafford was far less fortunate. His first
wife was Margaret Denniston, the daughter of a local inn-keeper. She
died shortly after giving birth to their daughter Margaret. This may
have led John to leave his baby and his business interests to embark
on a sea voyage. He is said to have been shipwrecked on a barren
island, where he slept under a boat and managed to catch seals for
John returned to Albany having survived his mysterious venture,
and in 1802 he re-joined Spencer in the hardware firm. He married
again and had a son whom they named John, Jr. The second Mrs. John Stafford died several months later. A letter
to Staffords, Spencer & Company from Citizen Edmond Genet, the
French diplomat and inventor, reports that a city-wide sickness at the
same time prevented him from paying a debt to the company. Within
a space of only ten years, John found himself twice widowed and with
two small children. He then married Catherine Smith, who did not
bear any children and lived to be John's widow.
With his children growing and a “fortune” gathering, John
decided to build a new house. In October of 1810 he
bought land at the corner of Lydius and Frelinghuysen Streets. The
names of these streets honored colonial era Albanians, but
changes in Albany in the early 1800s included renaming streets
to reflect a new national patriarchy. Thereafter, that corner was at Madison Avenue and Franklin
Street. Spencer Stafford and George Spencer, John's partners, had
already built houses on Madison Avenue. This was a newly
developing part of Albany, once a communal grazing area owned by
the Dutch Church called "The Pastures." Streets there were laid out in
1794 in the familiar grid pattern of planned development, but
substantial houses appeared only after Spencer Stafford and George
Spencer built there in 1807.(5) John Stafford followed, but made a
much bigger impression on the landscape. In this effort he probably
worked with the local architect-builder Phillip Hooker.
George C. Spencer House
The concept of John Stafford's house was in the tradition of
attached British townhouses that were large and elegant, but also
space-conscious in an urban area - in a sense, a highly glorified
rowhouse. Wealthy families apparently chose to build such houses to
be closer to their mercantile or governmental concerns in town
rather than (or in addition to) free-standing houses in the country.
Although The Pastures had a rural character, it was a stone's throw
from downtown Albany, and Stafford surely thought that a wave of
construction would soon come. He didn’t even bother to have
windows put in one side
of the house. He owned the adjoining lot and may have planned to
develop the property himself.
Stafford's optimism was clearly indicated by his house. Unlike the
two relatively modest but ample homes of his partners next door, John's rose some
sixty feet above the street. Narrow as well as tall, this towering
presence on the floodplain was like a gauntlet thrown down to
challenge others to join him.
The impressive mass of the house was pervaded by a sense of
style not previously seen in Albany. Oval, round and rectangular
windows were masterfully combined in the wall facing Franklin
Street. Benefiting from the corner location, those windows make the
rooms unusually bright for a “rowhouse.” On the facade, floor-to-
ceiling windows fronted by wrought iron railings were probably a new
element of domestic luxury in the city, and the crisply carved brownstone trim
reflected a contemporary English fashion more than any other known
structure in this country by 1811.
The size of the Stafford House had some specific advantages.
Attached rowhouses in general had a front and back room beside a
long entry hall on the first floor. Due to the great depth of the larger
of these houses, dividing walls created a narrow space between the
two rooms, allowing, perhaps, for cabinets and other functional
spaces. In the Stafford House, an oval window in the Franklin Street
wall occurred in that intermediate space. The affect may have been
partly intended as an element of surprise for the Staffords' guests
when they passed through from one room to the next, since it would not have been fully evident otherwise.
The size of the Stafford House allowed for other luxuries. As
noted in the previous chapter, the front room on the second floor
was probably a multi-purpose room for the family, leaving the first
floor rooms unruffled by constant use and ready for entertaining.
The floor-to-ceiling windows (shown above, railing design based on other Stafford-type houses)
in this room would have let in a range
of cooling breezes during the hot days of summer. When
entertaining, the Staffords may have used this as a ladies sitting room
while the men used the front parlor downstairs. The back, first-
floor room was likely the dining room. The doors between the front
and back rooms could be opened to provide a linked area for events.
What a stir this apparent premiere of urban sophistication must have
caused in decidedly non-metropolitan Albany. Wealthy families built houses emulating
the Stafford House, but rarely in The Pastures, where floods are said
to have reached eight to ten feet high. Despite its towering nature,
such a flood would still reach beyond the sills of the Staffords' first-
floor windows, and that house remained the area's largest for sixteen
years. Particularly severe floods in 1818 and 1819 spurred the
Common Council to order the streets raised.(6) The park in front of the
newly built Albany Academy on Capitol Hill was excavated (which,
according to a local newspaper, became a "perfect pond" after a rain
shower(7) ), and the soil was used on flood-plain streets. For that reason
the present curb-level downtown is about two feet above that of
1811, and part of the Stafford House and some of its neighbors still
John Stafford didn't have a chance to dismay over the
disappearance of part of his home. He contracted tuberculosis and
died in October of 1819. He was buried in the Second Presbyterian
Church graveyard under the grim epitaph “be ye also ready.” He left
a legacy of extensive debts to his heirs. The wealth that allowed for a
sumptuous townhouse and the “fortune which was assured” during
the War of 1812 had quickly vanished. John, Jr.'s, education at the
Albany Academy ended abruptly in the year his father died, and he
and his mother moved out of their house. The family was forced to
rent all of their major property holdings, and the situation worsened
in 1828 when the heirs divided into two opposing camps.(8) The courts
ruled that the properties would be sold at auction to settle the matter.
With the apparent aid of Phillip Hooker, a lot of money must
have gone into creating the grandeur of the Stafford House, but the
Staffords had only eight years in which to enjoy it. In the mean time,
variations of this house were appearing all over Albany and Hooker
was surely associated with most if not all of them. When Gov.
Joseph Yates of Schenectady rented the Stafford House in 1822 for use as his official residence in Albany,
the style of the changes he made to the house point once
again to Hooker. A great enigma in Albany's history, Hooker was
nevertheless prominent in molding the physical appearance of the city
as it changed in the early 1800s, funded by the Stafford family and
their fellow mercantile and political elite.
detail from the baseboard still extant (under many layers of paint) in the front, second-floor room (prob. 1811)
1. Biographical information and quotes are from Joel Munsell, ed., Collections on the History of the City of Albany..., (hereafter "Collections") vol. 3 (Albany:1865), pp. 452-453. Also printed separately as: Henry M. Benedict, A Contribution to the Genealogy of the Stafford Family in America (Albany:1870). The drawing of the Staffords Benedict store is from Munsell's Collections, vol. 3, p. 447.
2. Collections, vol. 3, p. 446.
3. Stafford family business papers, New York State Archives.
4. Benedict, Stafford Family,
5. Albany city tax assessments give an overview of structures in this period.
6. Collections, vol. 3, p. 447.
7. Joel Munsell, Annals of Albany, vol. 7 (Albany:J. Munsell, 1856), p. 138, quoting The Daily Advertiser, issue of 24 May 1819.
8. probate file, John Stafford, Albany County Surrogate's Office, Albany County Courthouse.