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Capitol tour takes visitors through a history of New York

Capitol tour takes visitors through a history of New York

There are 17 steps leading up to the western entrance of the New York State Capitol, and 77 on the l
Capitol tour takes visitors through a history of New York
Stuart Lehman, director of education at the State Capitol in Albany, talks about the 1802 Ezra Ames painting of New York's first governor, George Clinton, during a tour of the building last week. (Bill Buell/Gazette reporter)

There are 17 steps leading up to the western entrance of the New York State Capitol, and 77 on the lower or eastern side.

That’s just one of the many fast facts Stuart Lehman throws around during his guided tour of the Albany landmark, which attracts around 30,000 visitors a year. Even more show up in school groups, for special events and self-guided tours, and if you happen to miss a visit with Lehman, you’re still getting quite a bargain. The tours are free.

“There are 17 steps out back, 77 on the front, and 1777 was the year that New York threw out the royal government and became a state,” said Lehman, who is the Capitol’s education director. “We don’t think it’s just a coincidence.”

Just sitting and listening to Lehman talk about the Capitol building would be enjoyable enough for lovers of historical architecture. Actually going on the tour with him, seeing the Senate and Assembly chambers, the Million Dollar Staircase, the Hall of Governors and other intriguing sights is a special treat.

“I think the Million Dollar Staircase is the thing that really gets the most attention,” said Lehman, who was born in Albany, grew up in Voorheesville and went to Hartwick College, where he studied American history. “It’s such a beautiful wide-open area with an amazing array of stone carvings.”

In the same space as the staircase are 77 — there’s that number again — images of various people, some famous, some not so famous.

“The first 30 elected governors of New York are up there up to but not including Teddy Roosevelt,” said Lehman, who is not related to the 45th Governor of New York, Herbert H. Lehman (1933-42).

“Then there are many others, some obvious choices and the others, well, we’re not sure why they’re up there. We don’t know why they ended up choosing some and not others.”

The number 77 was not only important to those building the Capitol, who did their work from 1867-1899: It’s also a number very important to Lehman.

“Before I came to the Capitol, now 14 years ago, all the sites I worked at were associated with 1777,” he said. “I started out with the National Park Service at the Saratoga Battlefield, and I also worked at the Schuyler Mansion, the Senate House [in Kingston] and the Herkimer Home. All these places in the Mohawk and Hudson Valley were closely related to the American Revolution and the year 1777.”

Managing the past

When Lehman isn’t leading a tour, he’s busy making sure every other history-related item is taken care of at the Capitol.

“I do a lot of research to develop special tours and programs, and if somebody has a question about the history of the Capitol building it will end up on my desk,” he said.

“I manage our collections, do all the inventory, send things out for conservation and I oversee anything related to the artwork in the Capitol.”

For art lovers in particular, the Capitol’s War Room, located on the second floor, should be particularly intriguing. You might think that one item on the ceiling, an image of the Confederate flag, would be an issue, but Lehman said it’s simply history.

“I haven’t heard anyone complain about it being up there,” he said. “I generally interpret it as a captured trophy. It was something the Union veterans would have enjoyed seeing when they returned home to New York from the Civil War. It’s certainly not anything meant to glorify the Confederacy.”

As for the Hall of Governors, almost everyone is there, including Schenectady native Joseph Yates, whose portrait by Harold Mott-Smith has been on loan from the Schenectady County Historical Society since 2007.

“Andrew Cuomo, of course, hasn’t left office yet, and Elliot Spitzer’s hasn’t been received yet,” said Lehman.

“One former governor, Nathaniel Pitcher, filled in after DeWitt Clinton died before there was photography, and if anyone ever painted a portrait of him, it hasn’t survived. So, we’re never going to get that one.”

Along with the history inside the Capitol, there’s plenty to look at around downtown Albany. The Historic Albany Foundation is holding a Walkabout Wednesday and a Strolling Sunday this month, two tours that will give visitors a close look at Albany’s Center Square neighborhood.

“It’s the area bounded by Swan, Lark, State and Jay streets, and it’s basically the area between the Capitol and Washington Park,” said Albany City Historian Tony Opalka.

“It might take an hour and a half, depending on how many questions people have, and there is a bit of walking involved. It’s not for the faint of heart, but last year we had a woman who was 94 and she was still going strong at the end.”

The tours cost $5 for members of the Historic Albany Foundation, and $10 for non-members.

“There might be a few houses from the 1850s, but most of them were built as single-family dwellings from the 1860s through 1915 or so,” said Opalka.

“It was mostly residential, but there was a lot of mixed use, and many of them have been broken up into apartments.”

This month’s two tours will be held this Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. and Sunday, July 27 at 2 p.m. The Historic Albany Foundation will also hold a Wednesday and Sunday tour in August focusing on section of the city known as The Pastures.

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]

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