Certainly one of the most exciting facets about being a historian is that I get to dig into old records and conduct investigations. When I give tours here at the Department of History & Archives, I tell people that our archives looks like the last scene from the television series “Cold Case Files” when the detectives are standing among stacked rows of boxes. When I do research, it is like searching a “cold case” although the case is usually more mundane than a murder, but nonetheless gripping.
Recently, we made repairs to a set of blueprints that were tucked away in our archival collection. The blueprints were labeled “Mrs. Van Vlack’s house, Palatine Bridge.” No further information, no date. The nine sheets provided front, rear and side views of an extravagant residence. Floor plans for the first and second floors along with the attic, cellar and roof. Having grown up in Canajoharie and Palatine Bridge, I could not recall such a palatial structure that would have certainly stood out among the more modest homes there. I know that a few of the larger homes on Grand Street have been taken down to make way for Stewart’s and Roosevelt’s Garage (now site of Rite Aid).We had no idea who “Mrs. Van Vlack” could have been or even when she might have lived since we had no first name for her. Who was her husband? Was the house in these plans ever constructed? If so, where was it located and whatever happened to it?
A wonderful database online, http://fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html , has digitized newspapers from Central New York. A search for “Mrs. Van Vlack” gave me all of the information that I needed. It seems that she was quite a prominent individual in Montgomery County as evidenced by her home. According to an article that appeared in the Utica Morning Herald on July 3, 1896, “one of the finest residences in the Mohawk Valley has just been completed on the hill overlooking the Mohawk River, just south of the depot at Palatine Bridge for Mrs. Van Vlack.”
Frederick Hamilton Gouge, of Utica, was Mrs. Van Vlack’s architect. Around the turn of the century, Gouge designed a number of buildings for the Colgate and Hamilton College campuses. E.J. Ellithorp, of Palatine, supervised the construction of the Van Vlack home.
The article went on to detail specifics about the “colonial style” residence including the dimensions of rooms such as the parlor, 28 by 16 feet, on the west side of the first floor entryway. Opposite the parlor, across the hallway, was the sitting room, “23 by 15 feet, finished in imported sycamore.” Each of these rooms was adorned with large mantels and fireplaces. To the rear of the sitting room and the parlor, were the dining room and a library, both finished in oak and wainscoted. A kitchen, butler’s pantry, cold storage room, servants’ quarters, and back hallway to the upper floors completed the first floor plan.
The front staircase, also finished in oak, consisted of three landings leading to the upper floors. The second floor contained six bedrooms while the third floor was occupied by billiard room with “in one corner a round bay window about 12 feet in diameter,” a sewing room, two more bedrooms, and a general storeroom. Located in the attic were tanks that supplied both “hard and soft water, forced by an Ericsson hot air engine in the cellar.”
A stone porch extending across the veranda adorned the front of the home, reportedly “one of the costliest in construction in the Mohawk Valley.” So comes the question again, who was Mrs. Van Vlack and how did she come by the money to build such a lavish home?
Anna Van Vlack, widow of George W. Van Vlack, was the daughter of the late Senator Webster Wagner, railroad agent and inventor of the sleeping car. Born May 19, 1850, Anna and her twin sister Annette were the third and fourth of five children born to Wagner and his wife Susan Davis.
In 1874, Anna F. Wagner wed Van Vlack, a ticket agent for the New York Central Railroad, in a lavish ceremony across the river from her childhood home at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Canajoharie. The Syracuse Daily Courier reported, “an elegant reception was given” at the Wagner home. The numerous wedding guests included “the best families along the valley and a large number of magnates from other portions of the State.”
Soon after their marriage, the Van Vlacks removed to Manhattan where Van Vlack worked as a flour merchant. The couple bore four children: Anna (died in infancy), Adeline Bromley, George W., and Wagner.
Sadly, the Van Vlacks’ happiness did not last. The senior George W. Van Vlack committed suicide at the family hotel, the Hotel Wagner, in Canajoharie in September, 1889 as a result of, as indicated by the Buffalo Morning Express, “poor health and despondency.” He was 41 years old.
Although she spent a great deal of time in the New York City area, Mrs. Van Vlack must have been drawn back to her childhood home in Palatine Bridge. Newspapers carried, in great detail, reports of festivities at the Van Vlack residence. Such events must have been quite the social affair as the house seemed to have been designed for entertaining. One particular occasion in 1903 had the house “daintily decorated with green vines and shrubbery,” and the “large veranda was an inviting treat and popular for promenades, tete a tete, etc.” Minch’s Orchestra from Amsterdam provided music at this event.
According to the society pages, Mrs. Van Vlack and her children were well traveled. For a time, Mrs. Van Vlack made arrangements to have the residence occupied while she was away from her Palatine Bridge home.
Anna Wagner Van Vlack passed away in New York City on October 7, 1923 at the age of 73. Her daughter Adeline Bromley Van Vlack predeceased her in 1912. The sons, Wagner and George W., lived well into the 20th century. The entire family and some of their descendants are buried in the Wagner plot at the Palatine Bridge Cemetery on Tilton Road.
The Sanborn Fire Insurance maps and the 1905 New Century Atlas both contain drawings of a residence of similar design to the Van Vlack home on the present site of the Stewart’s Shop on Grand Street at the corner of the drive up to Dutchtown Plaza. At this point, we are not sure how long Mrs. Van Vlack occupied the elegant home or when (and why) it came down. There is no available photograph of the home in the collection at the Department of History & Archives.
When investigating even the most mundane of questions, historians must delve into a number of sources in order to find answers. Newspapers, census, deeds, maps, cemetery records, local histories, etc. all contribute even the smallest pieces of information so that we, as historians, can make a complete picture. I think it is the “thrill of the hunt” that makes even the most ordinary search exciting.
~ By Kelly Yacobucci Farquhar, Montgomery County Historian/RMO Feb. 2008
Written for “Looking Back” column (Montgomery County history), Leader-Herald newspaper
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