This work focuses on the unique architectural and historical significance of the building at 96 Madison Avenue, built for John Stafford about 1811. To do so introduces us to some of the most privileged of Albany’s residents in the city’s early 19th century history. First-generation immigrant families eventually owned and occupied the Stafford House and operated various stores there before 1900. Thereafter, owners made drastic changes and left it in startlingly poor condition by the time Historic Albany Foundation, Inc., bought the house in 1985.

Overall, what is left looks to most unfamiliar with the house like a major disaster. Why should the house be restored rather than just renovated to modern standards? Hopefully the following chapters will illustrate the value of going the extra mile for this building. This is not an exhaustive study. Although considerable research has been conducted, it is intended as an introduction to various people and ideas not previously discussed at any length - all associated with a building that by some miracle is still standing. Perhaps it will lead to more discussion and a happy ending.

Yankee Changes

The story of the John Stafford house begins in one of the most active transitions in Albany history. Before the Revolutionary War, the influence of the mostly Dutch and Flemish-descended settlers of Albany gave it the social and physical character of small towns in Northern Europe. By 1820, Albany was the state capital, a transportation hub and a site of commercial and industrial enterprise. There was a progressive city suddenly emerging in the wild reaches of the Hudson Valley.

The split between England and the American Colonies played a large part in this change. East Coast ports paid a price in widespread financial depression for being so entwined with the British economy. After the British gave up their land claims in the American Midwest in the Treaty of Paris, a great migration of families from the coast scattered settlers across New York state and westward toward the Mississippi River. Sited between the Catskill, Heldeberg and Adirondack Mountains, much of this exodus was funneled through Albany, beyond which travelers found relatively flat ground out to the Great Lakes. Contemporary accounts say that on some days as many as 500 wagonloads a day of immigrants and their possessions, mostly from New England towns, passed through Albany in the 1790s. Many recognized that Albany was an ideal place to start a new business. The process was not without its drawbacks. Although people of various nationalities lived in Albany since its founding in 1652, the city clearly was dominated by the Dutch. New Englanders had a different social and cultural background, and friction between the old Albany families and the newcomers was inevitable. A tongue-in-cheek reference to the matter was made by a newcomer who wrote “The people were Dutch, the houses were Dutch, and even the dogs were Dutch… The Yankees were creeping in…and the unhallowed hand of innovation was seen pointing its impertinent finger at the cherished habits and venerated customs of the ancient burghers …Before they awoke new swarms had arrived and a complete and thorough revolution had taken place…Even the dogs began to bark in broken English.”(1)

The opportunism of the newcomers was tempered with good intent. Elkanah Watson, an entrepreneur who came to Albany in 1789, recounts in his journal “ street was paved, no lamps, no library; not a public house of any decency; and water spouts projecting from the eaves of the houses deluged unwary night travelers sunk in mud and darkness.”(2) He goes on to say that “Just after State Street had been paved at a heavy expense [at his own instigation], I sauntered into it immediately succeeding a heavy thunderstorm, and whilst observe the cellars filled with water, I heard two women in the act of clearing their invaded premises from the accumulation…cry out ‘Here comes that infernal paving Yankee!’ They approached me in a menacing attitude...Prudence dictated a retreat to avoid...the infuriated Amazons, although I did not run as some of my friends insisted, but walked off at a quick pace.”

Leaders in Albany’s growth were such out-of-towners as Watson, who also co-founded the New York State Bank (Albany’s first); Ezra Ames, an accomplished portrait painter; Aaron Burr, a prominent lawyer; Philip Hooker, the region’s first resident architect; Eliphalet Nott, founder of Union College; the Websters, who started their far- reaching book concern on State Street hill, and the Stafford family, who found great success in making and selling hardware. Among the Dutch “burghers” were several men who shared in the vision of a more culturally developed city, including scions of the Van Rensselaer and Schuyler families.

Only with this germination of a very different city was the stage set for the creation of John Stafford’s elegant and stylistically mysterious house at 96 Madison Avenue. It is not just a rare physical artifact of early 19th century Albany. With its successive occupants, it was part of the social drama as the small Dutch town dissolved into memories. The following chapters will first introduce the major players involved with the Stafford House during its period of architectural and historical prominence, then open a discussion about the architectural significance of the house and the role in it that Philip Hooker appears to have played.

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1. Gorham A. Worth, Random Recollections of Albany from 1800 to 1808 (Albany:J. Munsell, 1866), p. 27.
2. George Rogers Howell, Bi-centennial History of Albany County, N. Y., from 1609 to 1886 (Albany:W. W. Munsell & Co., 1886), p. 509.