A tennis court, a sunken rose garden and a beautiful view of the Mohawk Valley are just some of the things that made Stephen Sanford’s home on Forge Street in Amsterdam a wonderful place to behold. Then, there’s the house itself.
The Sanford Mansion, now minus the tennis court, has been serving as Amsterdam City Hall since 1932. Back in the early 1990s, there was talk of finding a new site for the mayor’s office as well as the various other municipal entities housed in the large, three-story structure.
The prospect of that happening makes city historian Robert von Hasseln bristle.
“Just about everything that’s essential to Amsterdam’s history is represented in this building and this location,” said von Hasseln. “You look over there you can see the mills. Right over there is the Chuctanunda Creek, which was the source of water power that brought people here. It’s a great site. This building is special. Moving was a bad idea.”
While there was a house on the lot probably as far back as the early 19th century, it was Joseph Cornell who in the 1850s built his home along what is now Church Street (Route 67 eastbound) and sold it to Stephen Sanford in 1869. Sanford’s father, John, had moved to the area in 1821 and was a schoolteacher in Fort Johnson, Mayfield and Glen. In 1842, he left the profession and moved into the carpet industry. In the 1850s, John Sanford handed over the reins of the company to Stephen, and that’s when the business of rug-making really took off.
“Stephen had gone to West Point and become friends with Ulysses Grant, and later served as a congressman during the Grant administration,” said Bob Cudmore, an author and radio personality who writes a history column, “Focus on the Mohawk,” for The Daily Gazette. “But when he was younger, his father kind of plucked him from a military career and lured him back to Amsterdam to run the family business. And while they had some reverses, Stephen was the guy who really made the business hum.”
Soon after he bought the Cornell House, Stephen Sanford rebuilt the building in the French-inspired Second Empire Style, with a mansard roof and belvedere tower.
“There had been a log cabin, then a clapboard house, and then a guy named Cornell moves in from Long Island and builds his house here,” said Von Hasseln. “We’re not really clear what Stephen did; did he put up his own house or just change and enlarge the Cornell house? But in the basement you can see the different foundations for all the different houses that have been here, so I lean more toward the sense that Stephen just added on to the Cornell house.”
Then, when Stephen died in 1913, his son, another John, made a few more major changes to the house, including adding on a major wing in the rear of the building and a colonnaded portico in the front. Gone were the mansard roof and belvedere tower, replaced by a complete third floor. Albert W. Fuller, who designed the Fort Orange Club in Albany, was the chief architect.
“John really changed it to the neo-Georgian mansion it looks like today,” said von Hasseln. “It took four years to finish the work and the Sanford family actually moved out of Amsterdam while the work was being done. When I show people photos of the old house, they’re flabbergasted. They can’t believe its the same home.”
Three generations of Sanfords (John, Stephen and John) served in the U.S. Congress, and it was Stephen who got the family involved in horse racing. The Sanford Stakes, held at Saratoga Race Course each summer, was named after Stephen.
When Stephen Sanford died in February 1913, his will stated that each of his nearly 3,000 employees should receive an extra week’s wages in their paycheck. For many of the workers in the Sanford Mills at the time, the bonus probably came as a surprise.
“He was actually something of a dour guy who probably suffered from dyspepsia,” said von Hasseln, referring to the frequent bouts of stomach trouble that plagued Sanford. “But he was philanthropic to a fault. He and his wife did a lot for Amsterdam and the community.”
Stephen’s grandson was also named Stephen and nicknamed Laddie.
He was the last Sanford to live at the house before the family moved out of the area in 1932.
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or firstname.lastname@example.org.