For almost 30 years, Karen Chaplin has been getting to know John H. Starin and the home and property he loved high above the Mohawk River a few hundred yards east of the village of Fultonville.
“He was an incredible man who built this incredible estate for himself and his family,” said Chaplin, who bought Starin Place in 1983 and has been slowly restoring the Victorian mansion along with the other buildings on the grounds.
“I fell in love with it, and I knew it had to be saved. But over the years, it’s been misused. It needs kind of a gentle approach.”
Chaplin, a native of Salt Lake City and a longtime resident of Westchester County, moved to the town of Glen in 1983 after seeing an ad in the Wall Street Journal about Starin Place. With 100 acres of land housing the 1878 mansion, an earlier 1780s Colonial home and many historic outbuildings, the site has the potential to become a major tourist attraction.
Chaplin, however, has other ideas. She’s thinking more along the lines of a quiet and understated artists’ community like Yaddo in Saratoga Springs. In fact, a few well-known artists, such as Ron Gorchov of Brooklyn, have already made visits to Starin Place and used it to help them focus on their work.
“I see it as a Yaddo-like place where artists can come and work,” said Chaplin. “We don’t have a lot of money, we don’t have a huge endowment, so we can’t afford to open it up for public use. We’ve had a few artists up here already and we’re excited about having more. That’s what I’m looking to do. We don’t want a lot of people trampling around. We want to ensure that we have a very gentle use of the premises.”
She offers group tours of the mansion and property, and tries to be as welcoming as she can if uninvited guests drop in.
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“If there’s a family member, an artist or a historian that’s really interested in the place, then I’ll show them around,” said Chaplin, who served as the town of Glen and village of Fultonville historian for a couple of years soon after moving to the area. “But I’d appreciate a phone call first.”
People can contact Chaplin by visiting her Web site, www.fortroyal.org. The Fortroyal Foundation is the not-for-profit group she formed soon after moving to Starin Place. She lives in what was the gardener’s home in the rear of the property, while the huge mansion just off Route 5S continues to undergo restoration.
When Starin lived there, he had 600 acres of land, including a children’s cottage as well as many other outbuildings, an aviary, two ponds, a 3⁄4-mile oval for horse racing, a zoo, an apple orchard and many trees and other plants imported from around the world. Evidence of all that remains, although the property now only covers about 100 acres.
John Henry Starin was born in August of 1825 in Sammonsville on the north side of the Mohawk, when the Erie Canal was in its infancy. His father, Myndert, had a tavern along the river, and his grandfather John was a farmer who had served in the military during the American Revolution. The family was successful and had some money, but Starin would become one of the richest men in America as president of the Starin City River & Harbor Transportation Co. and as director of the North River Bank in New York City and the Fultonville National Bank.
“His father became an entrepreneur in the business community in the early 1800s, and was pretty successful,” said Fultonville village historian Ryan Weitz, who earlier this month finished up his sophomore year at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
“So, Starin was surrounded by that business mind-set when he grew up, but he really made most of his money on his own. He started off working in the village, he took over his brother’s drugstore, and then headed to New York just prior to the Civil War and got into the shipping industry. That’s where he made his real money.”
Starin became a two-term U.S. representative (1877-1881) and was reputedly good friends with Ulysses S. Grant and Chester Arthur, two U.S. presidents with close ties to the Capital Region. Grant spent his last days writing his memoirs in a small cottage on Mount McGregor in the town of Wilton, and Arthur was a Union College graduate and is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery. Arthur was a regular visitor to Starin Place, while Grant also came to Fultonville, but may have stayed in the Starin Hotel there.
“When Grant had cancer, Starin and some other friends, fellow millionaires, located the cottage and set Grant up there so he could finish his memoirs,” said Chaplin. “Grant didn’t have a lot of money, and that’s why he was writing his memoirs. Starin helped fund that project, and he was also on the committee of 100 to build Grant’s tomb.”
As for Arthur, the statue that now stands on the Union College campus near Jackson Gardens was once on the grounds at Starin Place.
“Daisy Spraker, Starin’s granddaughter, donated Arthur’s statue to Union College in 1941, and the Lawrence the Indian statue that’s in Schenectady was also on the grounds here,” said Chaplin. “Starin had hundreds of statues on the property, and the grounds were gas-lit. It was a wonderful place, and he would love to entertain his rich friends from New York City.”
While many of Starin’s business partners were referred to as “robber barons” during the Gilded Age in the second half of the 19th century, the term doesn’t seem to have been associated at all with him.
“From all I’ve read about him, you never really see anything that was negative,” said Weitz. “He seems to have been very well-liked in his time. I think Fultonville was very proud of him, they liked him and appreciated him because, number one, he ran water into the village from Starin Place and kept it open, and he gave back plenty to the area.”
“He was one of the 20 richest men in America, but his nickname was St. Nicholas because he gave back so much,” Chaplin said of Starin, who also owned Glen Island, an amusement park in the Long Island Sound, and the 12 steamboats that carried passengers back and forth from the island to New Rochelle.
“He used to give young boys and veterans free tours of Glen Island, and that free tour might include a steamboat ride from New York to the park. “He also formed benevolent societies to help protect women and the poor. He was a very creative and gifted man, and he did a lot to help people in trouble.”
Sold to church
Starin died in 1909 at the age of 84. The property remained in the family until Spraker sold Starin Place to the Roman Catholic Church in 1941. A group of nuns used the main house until 1955, when a group of Capuchin friars took over the residence. Along with the basement, there are two floors, a tower and 24 large rooms in all.
“I think the nuns and the priests were a little embarrassed by the opulence of the place, so they painted over everything they thought was too decorative, they lowered the ceilings, and they took away the stairway railings which had been black walnut,” said Chaplin, a sculptor who has a master’s degree in art from Hunter College.
“The original windows in the doorways were etched portraits of Mrs. Starin, but they smashed those and put in clear glass. There was a lot done, but it’s still a beautiful house, and we’re doing our best to slowly restore it.”
Chaplin’s Fortroyal Foundation has a fleet of volunteers helping her maintain the property, and she’s also hopeful of starting a Starin Place Garden Club to help beautify the grounds.
Work in progress
“We apply for grants and take donations, and this place is always going to be a work in progress,” she said.
“But I feel like the community does care, and I have wonderful volunteers. When you think of all the prayers that have been said here with the nuns and the priests, it really does seem like a sanctuary, and that’s the way I want to keep it. As a sanctuary for artists.”