John Stafford

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 sustenance.

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 lie buried.

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)

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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.