Heather Behnke didn’t think twice. She saw the big fireplace in the big kitchen and she knew.
“We came for an open house, and when I saw this fireplace in the kitchen that was it,” said Behnke, who lives with her husband, Dave, in what is called the Knower House at 3921 Altamont Road (Route 146) in the town of Guilderland, just east of the village of Altamont. “That was my first reaction. I knew that I wanted it. Dave, he was the practical one.”
The house was built sometime around 1800 by Benjamin Knower, a prominent banker and businessman from the Albany area. A two-story frame house in Georgian Colonial style, the home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. A Palladian window and another fireplace in the main living room are among the pleasant features on the first floor, while the second floor includes a barrel vault arch ceiling and built-in hat pegs. A three-sided stairway that gets you to the second floor is also a charming aspect put in by Knower, who made most of his money in the hat industry.
200 years old
But when the Behnkes showed up 13 years ago to take a look, Dave was a little concerned about buying a house that was 200 years old.
“I only hesitated because I’m an engineer and well, I could see there might be some questions about the house,” said Dave Behnke. “But we had an architect look at it and an inspection engineer. There were some issues, and there are still some things that we should do, but it’s worked out very well. It’s in pretty good shape.”
The house shows an influence of new world Dutch construction techniques, according to Walter Wheeler of Hartgen Archaeological Associates, Inc. Wheeler’s office is in the John Evert Van Alen House, another late 18th century Dutch Home, in Defreestville.
“The Knower House bears some similarities to other contemporary homes, like the Van Alen House,” said Wheeler, who visited the Knower House in 2010. “In that neck of the woods [Altamont], not in an urban area, it’s a house that represents a fairly prosperous person. But it’s a bit shallower than the larger houses, like the Schuyler Mansion, which has four full-sized rooms on each floor. The Knower House was planned to be only a room and a half deep.”
Knower became such a prominent figure in the Altamont area that the town was originally named Knowersville after his death in 1839. The town changed its name to Altamont in 1887, and the place was incorporated as a village in 1890.
Along with being president of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank in Albany from 1817-834, Knower was New York state’s treasury secretary from 1821 to 1824. A major contributor to the building of the Erie Canal, Knower was married twice and had nine children. One of his daughters, Cornelia, married state comptroller and future governor William L. Marcy at the Knower House on April 28, 1824. A native of Southbridge, Mass., Marcy was a U.S. Senator from New York in 1831 when he resigned to become governor. He also served as U.S. secretary of war under President James Knox Polk, and secretary of state under Franklin Pierce.
“People from Albany would come out to Altamont by train to spend the summer, and Knower was here even earlier, settling in what we now call ‘the old village,’” said town of Guilderland historian Alice Begley. “He did very well selling hats and became a very prominent person in the community.”
The house remained in the Knower family throughout most of the 19th century. Since then it has had a few different owners, and in 1911 and 1912 Schenectady pastor-turned-politican George R. Lunn rented the place as a summer getaway.
A former minister at the First Reformed Church in Schenectady, Lunn ran for mayor of Schenectady as a Socialist in 1911 and won. He spent part of the summer of 1912 at the Altamont home recuperating from an appendicitis attack before running for Congress that November, an election he lost.