SCHENECTADY — When Marilyn Sassi was in fourth grade, her class visited The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, where she fell in love with the history on display and the feeling of connecting to how people once lived.
“I got off that school bus and I was transported,” Sassi said in a recent interview. “I felt like I had died and gone to heaven.”
She has been living with — and in — history ever since.
Sassi, a Schenectady native and longtime regional history expert, lives in the Johannes Teller House in the Stockade, an 18th-century mix of Dutch and English styles and home to a massive collection of antiques dating as far back as 1620. The antique collection — including clocks, furniture, portraits, earthenware, tiles, dolls, clothes and so much more — turns the house into a museum of sorts. But Sassi, who has been studying and collecting the historic items for decades, said it still feels like home.
“I really believe to understand this stuff, you need to live with it,” she said.
The original house, which still remains, existed on the lot in the early 1740s, she said, with an addition built around 1760. The addition created a home divided by a center hall — in the English Georgian style — creating a mix of Dutch and English styles. In 1975, the home’s owner completed a thorough renovation of the house, preserving much of the original wood and brickwork.
Standing outside the Front Street home, Sassi pointed out how the bricks above one of the front windows were set higher in the wall than those above the other windows. That used to be where the front door was.
“The brickwork tells a story,” she said.
The house lot, which sits at the corner of Front and North streets, used to back up all the way to the Mohawk River and extend to Erie Boulevard, Sassi said. When a previous owner cleared out the house for a sale, he found a “fish for sale” sign, suggesting previous homeowners used to take advantage of the river access.
Sassi grew up in Schenectady and has worked as a museum curator, historical society director, Proctors historian and professor at SUNY Schenectady and Hudson Valley Community College. She and her late husband had lived on a 40-acre farm near Fort Plain, but looked to move back to Schenectady. She said it took them six months to convince the previous owner to sell the Teller House.
“We wanted an 18th-century house,” Sassi said.
She and her husband, who worked as an antiques dealer, have grown their collection for years, outfitting the home with period pieces and works of art. She said the collection is effectively uninsurable, so she has invested in good security.
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Walking through the home every item, big and small, evokes a new story from Sassi about where it came from and the history behind it.
“What I’ve tried to do is put as much early material in this house as possible,” she said. “I try to keep it as close to 18th century, or earlier, if possible … to furnish the house to give an example of some of the things people would have lived with very early on.”
The center hall includes an English tapestry from the 1650s and a rare 17th-century Flemish clock with exposed works and weights used to adjust the swing of the pendulum. A silk-on-silk embroidery, an example of English needlework dating to roughly 1670, depicts the “Allegory of Spring” and showcases young women in see-through gowns, a symbol of fertility, along with a unicorn and lion, symbols of royalty.
The original brickwork remains around a pair of fireplaces flanking each side of the home, and wide hardwood floorboards — the widest measuring 17 inches across — of varying widths also date to the origins of the home. On the second floor, exposed wood ceiling beams include hand-cut nails — all original work of long-ago builders.
In her kitchen, Sassi showcases a print of watercolors from James Eights, who in the 1800s documented old Albany architecture in paint, including careful listings of the residents of the homes he documented. The State Museum includes a collection of Eights’ paintings.
“We would not know what Albany really looked like — or New York — because so much was torn down,” she said of the paintings.
The oldest pieces in the home date to as early as 1620, Sassi said. The small ceramics are glazed with lead and were found in the Netherlands. “Very crudely made,” she said of a small cooking pot. She called the items “utilitarian redware glazed in lead.”
In a main sitting room full of historic items, Sassi showcases jewelry and cribbage boxes handmade by English prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars; the small boxes are carved from both animal bones and, Sassi said it has been determined, human bones.
“You can’t replace a lot of this stuff,” she said of the antique collection. “You absolutely can’t.”
The home includes scores of Dutch artifacts, ceramics, brass and copper. She has tobacco pipes and boxes sitting on a table in the front hall, beneath the Flemish clock.
“Every Dutch man in the 18th century smoked a pipe,” she said. The pipes were dug up in the Stockade area, remnants of the historic neighborhood’s deep roots.
Around every corner and in every room, antiques tell the story of how things once were, how people used to live. In the bedrooms, the historic dollar chests of young women sit at the foot of four-poster beds. A carefully detailed chest was labeled “Marie Petrie’s Chest.” Girls and young women would have used the chests to store quilts, coverlets and gowns, Sassi said, items they might have hoped to wear in marriage. A sister chest, “Rachel Petrie’s Chest,” is housed at the State Museum, Sassi said.
“It’s like a hope chest,” she said.
Sassi said the antique collecting has stopped, and she has shifted to caretaker of the home and collection. She has to find specialist contractors to maintain the historic integrity of the home, and constantly has new projects to get to.
“I’m just trying to take care of what I have,” she said.
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