Rensselaerville Historic District
The Rensselaireville Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [† Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The hamlet of Rensselaerville is located in the northeast quadrant of the town of the same name in Albany County New York. It is approximately twenty-seven miles southwest of the city of Albany, via NYS Route 85. The village site at the edge of the Helderberg Hills (part of the Appalachian Uplands) and is ensconced in the narrow, forested valley of Ten Mile Creek. This valley is surrounded by steep sloping hills that rise to a height of 2000 feet above sea level, the highest elevation between the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys to the north and east and the Catskill Mountains to the south. The Catskills themselves command the entire southern view from Rensselaerville. On clear days, the Berkshires of Massachusetts and the Green Mountains of Vermont are visible to the east from Old Albany Hill Road and occasionally the Adirondacks can be seen on the northern horizon.
The Helderberg hills and ridges represent the remnants of a dissected plateau that was once a broad plain sloping upward to the west into the Catskills. Continuous weathering and glaciation have created a region of bare rock or rock thinly covered with soil, particularly in the area about Rensselaerville. The region as a whole, therefore, is not fertile, a significant factor in the historical development of Rensselaerville.
The Helderbergs are notable, however, for their scenery and Rensselaerville is no exception. Ten Mile Creek, for instance, a tributary of Catskill Creek which drains this entire region, is a splendid example of a hanging valley, entering the main valley through steep ravines and a series of falls exposing beautiful rock sections. The most impressive of these waterfalls is that at Rensselaerville. Once important as a source of industrial water power and the initial impetus for settlement, it is now part of a nature preserve which surrounds the hamlet.
The Rensselaerville Historic District includes most of the buildings within the hamlet of Rensselaerville. It consists of approximately ninety structures and related outbuildings situated along Main Street and three intersecting roads entering from the north and east. Main Street is a long, winding avenue which runs in a general east-west direction just north of the ravine of Ten Mile Creek. It connects a number of regional highways including routes 351 and 353, which enter Rensselaerville from the south and southwest, Route 85 out of Albany, which joins Main Street at its west end, and Old Albany Hill Road, formerly part of the Delaware Turnpike from Albany, which intersects at the east end of Main Street.
The architecture of this rural community presents unusual variety even though the majority of structures date to the first half of the nineteenth century. While the Greek Revival style predominates, many buildings exhibit elements of transition from both the Federal and Georgian periods. The Palladian motif of the Jenkins House and the Stevens House, for instance, reflects an earlier, colonial era. In contrast, the delicate tracery in the fanlights of the Rider House and the slender classical features of its doorway provide distinctive examples of the Federal style.
But it is bold classical ornamentation and Greek form and proportion which largely characterize the architecture of Rensselaerville. Such features include massive columns and pilasters, broad simple moldings, pedimented projections, heavy cornices and unadorned friezes. There are a number of Greek Revival forms in the Rensselaerville Historic District. Classic Greek Revival style doorways, flanked by pilasters and sidelights with horizontal transoms above, also appear on dozens of structures from the very modest to the most highly ornamented.
Though a relatively small community throughout its history, the hamlet was, nonetheless, able to employ a resident architect-builder for nearly half a century. Ephraim Russ is identified as the designer and builder of all of the village's church buildings: Presbyterian Church, Episcopal Church, Methodist Church, and Baptist Church. He also constructed at least half a dozen of Rensselaerville's finest residences during the first four decades of the 19th century. Examples of these are the Jenkins House, the Stevens House, and the Rider House. Little material survives concerning Russ's activities and it is not known if he worked in areas outside the hamlet.
Buildings in Rensselaerville are primarily constructed in wood on low slate or stone foundations, reflecting the abundance of these resources locally in the early 19th century. There are a few brick structures in the Rensselaerville Historic District, however; a number of brick facades, including the row houses on Main Street and a few brick foundations such as the old Methodist Church.
Most of the buildings in the Rensselaerville Historic District are situated at or slightly recessed from the street, but a few are set back and attractively landscaped. Conspicuous examples include the yard and stone fence adjacent to the Stevens House, the stone terracing in the hill behind houses on the south side of Main Street, and the Jenkins House, situated among a grove of trees.
At one time, Rensselaerville served as a commercial center to the farmers of the surrounding region. They came to the village to have their wheat, corn, and rye ground at the grist mill, to have their milk processed at the local creamery, and to select needed building materials at the saw mill (since demolished). They purchased a variety of goods from local businesses and supported various professional services. The shops, offices, and inns which were located on Main Street between Route 85 and Methodist Hill Road no longer exist as such. Over the years they have been almost entirely converted to residences and, though remnants of many storefronts remain visible, most have been eliminated or altered. There is only one apparent original storefront remaining in the Rensselaerville Historic District.
The declining regional importance of Rensselaerville in the late nineteenth century resulted in a steadily declining population. Consequently, even before the mid-twentieth century, a number of houses began to serve only as summer residences, a situation that prevails today. There has been no construction here during the twentieth century with the exception of two homes, one on Methodist Hill Road and one on Main Street.
The architectural development of the Rensselaerville Historic District began with the establishment of the community in the early nineteenth century, then continued through its expansion and prosperity as a commercial center, its economic decline and physical stagnation in the late nineteenth century, and its revitalization as a summer residential community and retreat in the twentieth century.
The Rensselaerville Historic District is historically and architecturally important as a rare surviving example of an intact early nineteenth century hamlet in a dramatic natural setting. Settled by New England migrants who were attracted by farming opportunities and the development of regional turnpikes, the hamlet quickly became a business and financial hub for the region and a small manufacturing center supporting its own laboring class. By 1832, Rensselaerville was one of the most prosperous villages in the state and this prosperity was reflected in the construction of many substantial residences exhibiting regional interpretations of the most sophisticated architectural fashions of the period, in its support of four religious congregations, and in the development of many local businesses. The regional importance of the hamlet declined after 1850 with the advent of railroads and canals which by-passed this remote location, and by the late nineteenth century, Rensselaerville had reverted to a quiet rural village. Today a wealth of intact residential architecture from the first half of the nineteenth century, as well as examples of early village industry, recall a prosperous era. The subsequent genteel additions and modifications to the village as it evolved into a primarily summer residential community have made a contribution to the significance of this now remote retreat in the Helderbergs.
The town of Rensselaerville obtained official status within Albany County in 1790. It was a large, rambling entity and consequently gave way to other towns from within its own boundaries, including Berne in 1795 and Westerlo in 1815. The town of Rensselaerville formerly comprised the southwest corner of the manor of Rensselaerswyck. The origin of the manor dates to the establishment of patroonships under the "Freedoms and Exemptions" granted by the Dutch West India Company in 1630. Subsequent grants in the late seventeenth century from the English government to the Van Rensselaer family, proprietors of the manor, gave sanction and definition to their holdings which encompassed thousands of acres on either side of the Hudson River near Albany.
Although Rensselaerswyck was the only successful manorial estate in New York, it remained largely unproductive prior to the Revolution. When proprietor Stephen Van Rensselaer III came of age in 1785, he undertook the task of settling the more remote parts of the manor. This included Rensselaerville, which was at that time considered the least accessible and least valuable part of the patroon's grant. Van Rensselaer commissioned a survey of his holdings and the Helderbergs were subsequently divided into 160-acre lots. He offered free use of land for seven years and, therefore, perpetual leases subject to payment of goods or in-kind services.
Lot 249 in the town of Rensselaerville included most of the land that was to become the village of Rensselaerville. This subdivision was probably set aside as a "village lot" at an early time and, consequently, deeded in parcels much smaller than the designated 160 acres. No inhabitants resided within the bounds of lot 249 at the time of the Van Rensselaer survey in 1786. A number of individuals had settled in the vicinity, however, even before the survey was undertaken. These settlers apparently built their houses upon the highest points of land. "Tree marked paths were the guide from one cabin to another and were the beginning of...present roads from hilltop to hilltop. This attraction to the hilltops concentrated in an area about two miles west of the present village of Rensselaerville at a spot referred to locally as Mt. Pisgah. The original hamlet had its roots here as early as 1788 but soon relocated to the site of the present hamlet in the valley of the Ten Mile Creek.
The first settler in Rensselaerville was Samuel Jenkins from West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He came in 1788 and built a grist mill the following year on the site of the present mill structure. Other migrants from Massachusetts and Long Island, Connecticut, and Rhode Island came within the next few years and built in other parts of the village. During the early years of the 1790's, the granting of leaseholds by the patroon multiplied and large numbers of farms were cleared not only in Rensselaerville but in all parts of the Helderberg region. Abundant hemlock forests furnished resources for leather making and, before the end of the decade, there were tanneries in every quarter of the town. The hamlet itself grew as a consequence of these activities and additional mills, tanneries, and factories appeared along Ten Mile Creek.
The construction of the Delaware Turnpike in Albany County in 1805 and other adjunct roads and turnpikes, however, probably contributed most to the growth and prosperity of Rensselaerville. The Delaware Turnpike originated in the city of Albany and ran directly through the hamlet of Rensselaerville. The hamlet's position along the road made it a convenient stopping place for coaches traveling to and from the western part of the state. As the hamlet prospered under these conditions, its architecture acquired a distinctive quality unsurpassed in the region. Numerous pretentious residences were built such as the Stevens House and the Rider House. Four grand churches create an exceptional scale in the tiny community. The Episcopal Church was erected in 1814; the first village Baptist Meetinghouse in 1836; a Methodist Hall in 1839; and the second village Presbyterian Church in 1842. Ephraim Russ, a resident architect-builder, is responsible for the design and construction of all the church buildings and at least a half dozen of the hamlet's most attractive homes.
By 1843 the hamlet was at its peak. At that time, the population was estimated at between seven hundred and one thousand. Within the hamlet there were eight schools, three clergymen, three lawyers, four doctors, sixteen merchants and grocers, hotel keepers, one tanner, one hatter, and numerous mechanics, artisans, and farmers.
The position of Rensselaerville in the first half of the nineteenth century reflected a general regional and even statewide prosperity. The years following the Revolution in New York witnessed a remarkable growth and expansion. This was a time during which thousands of villages were established and a period during which the resources of forest and stream were comprehensively tapped. By 1825, the rural regions of the state were by no means completely filled but every district had been entered. No large blocks of farmland remained unsold and in general the basic pattern of farms and villages had been set. Rensselaerville was no exception to this trend.
The early nineteenth century was also a time of the great New England migration occasioned by the forces of an increasing population outgrowing an available land supply. The proximity of New York State to the eastern seaboard made it an attractive destination for many. With the exception of a few German and Scottish families, the settlers in Rensselaerville were from New England They built the mills and tanneries. They dammed the Ten Mile Creek to ensure a more constant and reliable source of power. They established churches and worked the thin rocky soil of the region. They came as farmers, tanners, millers, storekeepers, and even professionals. Many came as poor men but within less than a generation they prospered.
This spirit of expansion, improvement, and prosperity which characterized the early nineteenth century probably caught the imagination of the young patroon, Van Rensselaer. His development of the ancestral estate no doubt contributed to prosperity in the Helderberg towns and in the hamlets such as Rensselaerville. But equally important, a primitive transportation system persisted throughout the early decades of the nineteenth century. Migration into this marginally fertile region, therefore, occurred less for the opportunities it offered newcomers than for the fact that pioneers could migrate little further west and still maintain transportation links with regional market centers.
The agricultural importance of the Helderbergs and the central function of the village of Rensselaerville were short lived once improvements in transportation began to take effect. Rural decline commenced as early as the 1830's. The canals and railroads that opened the west to settlement and exploitation completely by-passed Rensselaerville. Transportation difficulties, tolerated in earlier times because of their universality, became a distinct economic disadvantage. At the same time, depletion of hemlock forests crushed an important local industry. The shallow soils of the region were completely exhausted after only a few decades of unscientific management. And, by mid-century, competition from the wheat and corn belts of the west accelerated the pace of rural decline in southern and western Albany County.
A twenty-seven percent decline in the population of the Helderberg towns occurred in the forty years following 1840. The town of Rensselaerville itself declined by more than 1000, leaving fewer than 2500 inhabitants by 1880. The village experienced a similar decline. A population of more than seven hundred in 1843 fell to only slightly more than five hundred in 1873 and many of the mills and factories subsequently closed.
In an effort to stem this decline, a manufacturing concern was undertaken on the Upper Falls at Rensselaerville as late as 1870. F.C. Huyck, a village storekeeper, and his partner, Henry Waterbury, hoped to manufacture felts for use in the paper making industry. The Huyck Felt Mills are a thriving concern today but the operation lasted only eight years in Rensselaerville before relocating in Albany. The closing of this mill marked the end of active manufacturing in the village. The grist mill and buttery served the small regional farming population through the 1930's. Shops and hotels continued a bit longer, but all are now closed. The village serves a strictly residential population today and now attracts people seeking picturesque rural environments and summer residences.
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† Botch, Judith, Rensselaerville Historical Society, Rensselaerville Historic District, nomination document, 1983, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.