The political career of 52-year-old John L. Schoolcraft was cut short in 1860 after the Guilderland native suffered a heart attack and died while on his way back home from the Republican National Convention in Chicago. His house, however, at 2299 Western Turnpike (Route 20), has quite a promising future.
Built in the 1840s as Schoolcraft’s summer home, the building was falling into disrepair until a group of concerned citizens, led by town of Guilderland historian Alice Begley, convinced the town to purchase the property in 1994 and restore it.
It’s been a long process, with plenty of stops and starts, but the restoration work is proceeding in earnest this spring, and on Saturday, from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., the Friends of the Schoolcraft Cultural Center will host the Schoolcraft House Lawn Fest to show off the building.
“All the things we’ve been working on for so long are coming to fruition,” said Begley, who sees the home as some kind of community center for the town. “We hope that eventually it will look pretty much like it did when John Schoolcraft was living here. There’s been a lot of work done, but there’s a lot more to do. We’re holding the lawn fest, not just as a fundraiser, but more so to get people interested in the project and to show everybody what’s been done so far.”
The house, built in the gothic revival style, is quite distinctive according to Marc Huggins, who has worked on the house as both a town employee and a member of the friends group.
“The ornamentation on this house, such as the finials on the corners, makes it quite unique,” said Huggins. “The base of the finials are made of wood, but the tips are all cast iron. It’s one of the few houses in the country with that kind of cast iron ornamentation, and the reason is that John Schoolcraft had a foundry right around the corner.”
Many of the cast iron finials are currently in a room on the second floor waiting to be reattached to the house. The second floor also needs a lot of renovation, and much of the house is without furniture.
All in due time, says Huggins.
“We did a lot of work on the outside about 15 years ago, and then we had to totally gut the interior,” said Huggins. “The restoration has been tabled by the town at times due to the economy, but in the last six years we’ve done more work on it. The town has been very generous and given us resources when they can, and the friends group has also done a lot. We’re moving in the right direction.”
Huggins thinks it might take another two years to finish the house, but Begley is hopeful that at least the first floor will be ready for some kind of occupancy by this fall. A family by the name of Magill lived in the house in the early 20th century, and at some point it was split up into apartments before it became vacant.
“There was no electricity, no plumbing, no heating, no air conditioning, and now we have all of that,” said Huggins. “It’s climate controlled. There are power boxes in every room, and we’ve installed a refrigerator and a dishwasher.”
Schoolcraft was born in 1806 in Guilderland. His father died when Schoolcraft was just three months old and his mother remarried and moved to Michigan, leaving John behind to live with his grandparents. The family owned over 1,000 acres in Guilderland, ran a tavern and hotel on Route 20, and helped John get established in the Albany’s business community as a wholesale grocer and banker. Politically he was a member of the Whig Party but as the country raced toward the Civil War, Schoolcraft found himself aligned with two of New York’s most powerful figures in the new Republican Party, future Secretary of State in the Lincoln Cabinet, William Seward, and Albany newspaper publisher Thurlow Weed.
Begley recently came out with a book on Schoolcraft published in November of 2013.
“I said, ‘If we’re going to save his house, then shouldn’t we look more into the man that built it,’ ” she said. “So I started researching him, reading a lot of his letters. He was a congressman and a very prominent man in New York state politics in the first half of the 19th century.”
Schoolcraft perhaps wasn’t as eloquent as William Seward or as politically savvy as Thurlow Weed, but he was still a key figure in the development of New York’s Republican Party just prior to the Civil War.
“Seward was Seward, Weed got everything out in the newspaper and got things publicized, and I think Schoolcraft was the guy with the money,” said Begley. “He was right there with those two guys, working with them. He was sort of Seward’s right-hand man.”
Schoolcraft married Seward’s niece, Caroline Cornelia Canfield, and the couple had three children. Caroline remarried after Schoolcraft’s death, moved to the East Greenbush area and lived until 1922. She married Schoolcraft in 1853 when she was just 19 and he was 47.
Schoolcraft’s house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. He is buried at Albany Rural Cemetery.
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or email@example.com.