The local mansion called Brookside, today home to the Brookside Museum, was one of the first resort hotels in the United States, having opened in 1792.
It was, one contemporary writer said in the early 1800s, “the first respectable house” for visitors in the burgeoning mineral springs resort of Ballstown, built before the Medbery, San Souci, and other early hotels.
Writer Washington Irving stayed there in 1803, and James Fenimore Cooper was a guest in 1825, in the midst of writing “The Last of the Mohicans.”
But the fortunes of the hotel eventually declined along with those of the village and its springs, to the point where it was at risk of demolition in the late 1960s, just before the Saratoga County Historical Society bought it.
A new permanent exhibit at the museum tells the story of the unique building, which has evolved through more than a half-dozen different uses in the last two centuries.
“We’re pretty lucky that it’s even here,” said Kathleen Coleman, curator of the exhibit.
The big white mansion on the west side of the Gordon Creek near Old Iron Spring Park is today considered the oldest building in the village.
It has a long association with Ballston Spa’s history: It was the site of the first village board meeting after the village incorporated in 1807, of the centennial village board meeting in 1907, and of the bicentennial board meeting last year.
Coleman spent six months putting the exhibit together, writing separate narrative histories for the building, the people who owned it and of what was going on in each era in the surrounding community.
“I wanted to talk about the changes over time and how the building fit into what was going on in the community,” Coleman said.
The exhibit has been discussed by museum officials since 2005.
“We did a visitor survey that indicated people were disappointed that there was nothing on the building,” said museum Executive Director Joy Houle.
Coleman drew on research done by historian Field Horne, a former director of the museum, for his earlier book, “The First Respectable House,” and on original documents.
She had access to letters written in 1800 by Abigail May, a 24-year-old woman from Boston who spent that summer at the hotel, and whose nearly daily letters home were saved.
A separate permanent exhibit on the museum’s second floor shows what her guest room might have looked like 208 years ago, when the hotel business was booming.
“She writes about how there were 80 people staying in the building,” Coleman said.
In its most successful years, from 1795 to 1836, the hotel was owned by Joshua Aldridge, and was known as The Aldridge House.
The original owner, Benajah Douglas, bought 100 acres near the mineral springs in 1787, at the beginning of the commercial use of the mineral springs that were discovered in what was a wooded valley. He built a log cabin that his family shared with people visiting the springs. He then, in 1792, built the front part of the current building to better-serve people coming to the growing resort.
Douglas sold it to Joseph Westcot and a partner in 1795. Westcot died shortly afterward, and his widow married Joshua Aldridge, who sought to expand the business and by 1800 had put on two additions.
“Aldridge is the one who really wanted to go for the well-to-do tourists,” Coleman said.
By the 1830s, though, a railroad line from Schenectady to Saratoga was making travel easier, but Saratoga Springs was offering more exciting recreation for visitors (like gambling). Also, some of the local springs were failing due to over-drilling, and that also hurt business at the local hotels.
In 1836, Aldridge sold the building to stepson Reuben Westcot, but the hotel closed in 1844, and Westcot lost it to foreclosure that same year.
In 1845, Episcopal priest Deodatus Babcock leased the building and opened a school, called The Ballston Spa Institute. In 1858, it became a military school, a use that continued into the Civil War.
In 1865, the building became the private residence of local industrialist Henry Mann. He was Saratoga County treasurer from 1860 to 1875, but a discrepancy in the sale of Civil War bonds resulted in a scandal that ruined Mann, who was forced to sell the house to satisfy debts in 1888.
Coleman said the name Brookside was first used for the building in 1893, about the time it first went into use as a boarding house.
Following another foreclosure in 1907 and then purchase by a Charles Cole in 1910, it was operated briefly as sanitarium by Dr. Howard A. Gibbs. But Gibbs closed the facility within a year.
Brookside was leased to private tenants from 1911 to 1950. In 1951, fashion photographer Bradford Smith and his family bought the house and moved in, and they modernized electric wiring and other utilities, then divided the building up into eight apartments. Smith sold the building in 1960 to William Musinger of Albany, who continued using it as an apartment building until 1968, when it was abandoned.
The Historical Society bought the building for $13,500 in 1971, and opened the museum of county history. In recent years, the society has taken measures to ensure the building’s structural stability, but maintaining the massive old structure is an ongoing issue, Houle said.
The exhibit, called “On Gordon Creek,” is on the museum’s second floor. Museum admission is $2.
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