Nestled in a southern corner of the city of Albany is a small neighborhood called Mount Hope that encompasses the Mount Hope housing complex on a hill and at the base of the Hill, parallel to the River on South Pearl, are the Ezra Prentice Homes, another housing development.
Ezra Prentice – Mogul
Ezra Prentice was born in 1797 in New Hampshire. In the early 1830s Prentice and his brothers came to Albany. Like many Yankees they were drawn to Albany for its business opportunities generated by the new Erie Canal and the burgeoning railroad system. Albany was fast becoming a national hub of commerce and trade.
They made a fast fortune selling wholesale furs. Then the fur trade was sold and Ezra moved on to railroads and banking. He was one of the organizers of the Albany &Susquehanna Railroad, and later served as president of the National Commercial Bank.
However, one of Prentice’s great interest was agriculture (especially the breeding and improvement of cattle stocks); he was a founding member of the New York State Agricultural Society. In 1834 he bought 103 acres from Solomon Van Rensselaer of Cherry Hill, from his Mount Hope Farm, part of the Cherry Hill estate. The Prentice Mount Hope estate was built on a steep hill, in a heavily wooded area, where it could catch cool breezes and overlook the Hudson.
(At this point Albany’s city limits ended just south of Catherine St.; Mount Hope was Albany’s first “suburb”.)
The area of Mount Hope was a “resort” destination of sorts in the late 1820s and the 1830s. It was in the country, away from city core where there was a population explosion. Summers were hot and filled with smoke and heat from industrial furnaces. (Later the real estate became too valuable and by the 1840s it was a brickyard.)
Initially Prentice built a farmhouse and then his great Mount Hope estate. He lived there with his wife Philena and their eight children. Ezra died in 1876 and Philena passed away 2 years later.
Later generations made their home in New York City, but continued to use Mount Hope as a summer residence. By the middle of the 20th century, however, the mansion had fallen into disrepair and a few rosebushes struggled to survive in its once famous, but now abandoned gardens. Stripped of everything except its fine marble mantles, the mansion was eventually demolished and the land redeveloped for housing.
But what about the creepy rumors?
“The old Prentice Mansion on Mount Hope Drive, in Kenwood, was long the subject of ghostly tales. Most of these concerned the Prentice burial vault, which was somewhere on the estate — no one knew where. The most popular tale was that there were particular times during the month, when the moon could only be discerned faintly behind thick shrouds of cloud, passersby might see in the vicinity of the vault, used as a temporary resting place for some members of the Prentice family, the specters of those people, clad in their cerements, discussing matters of days long past.”
In the forties, the vault was rediscovered by some Albany boys. When the earth was cleared away and the rusting padlock removed, the massive hinged slab covering the entrance was lifted, and the chamber was entered. It was found to be empty. Whether or not this dispelled the ghost stories in not known.” From “Traveler’s Tales – Rumors and Legends of the Albany-Saratoga Region”, Mark MacGregor Steese and Sam McPheeters, 1981
The old vault was left empty on the grounds and, eventually, hidden by weeds and overgrown bushes, until March, 1947 when a group of boys exploring the area stumbled across the crypt.
The lid was raised and they were able to enter the old burial chamber along with a reporter from the Knickerbocker News who took a photo of the boys inside.
(At some point, the remains originally interred in this vault were removed to the Albany Rural Cemetery and reburied in a family plot on the South Ridge. The massive boulder that stands in the center of the plot was hauled to the Cemetery from Mount Hope. )
An interesting story persists about the two stone lions that used to be at the gate. The sculptor who carved them forgot to give them tongues. When the error was called to his attention, his chagrin was so keen he committed suicide. That’s the tale that has survived all these years. Later, it is reported the lions were removed to Williamstown, Mass., to adorn the grounds of Elm Tree, part of the Mount Hope estate of Mr. Prentice’s grandson, Ezra P. Prentice, who married Alta Rockefeller, daughter of John D. Rockefeller. (The house is now part of Williams College)
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor