Stanwix Hall stood on the east corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane. .It was built by the sons (Peter and Herman) of Peter Gansevoort. Gansevoort* was the “Hero of Fort Stanwix”; he lead the patriot resistance at the British siege of the Fort in 1777**. Colonel Gansevoort was instrumental in guarding against British encroachment on Albany from the west through the Mohawk Valley, and setting the stage for the defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga a year later.
The Hall was built on the land on which Gansevoort’s Dutch great grandfather settled in the 1600s and on which he established a brewery. In 1832 the brewery was destroyed by a fire and the next year Peter’s sons, Herman and Peter, built the Stanwix in the same location on Broadway (then North Market St.). It was marvel- 5 stories and constructed from marble. It housed offices, stores and meeting rooms. It was crowned by a huge awesome dome (48’ in diameter), which covered what was said to have been the largest ballroom (60’ wide) in the world at the time.
The year it opened it became the home of Mr. Whale’s Dance Academy for the sons and daughters of Albany’s elites. Classes were $12 for the season- lessons were provided Wednesdays and Saturdays and evenings. Over the next 30 years the Stanwix was the site of glittering balls, assemblies, receptions and concerts with elegant catered suppers. We have visions of women in huge crinolines stepping out of a row of carriages in the gaslight and whirling the night away in the ballroom with the men of the Albany Burgesses Corps in full dress military uniform.
By the mid-1840s the Hall was transformed into the most elegant hotel in Albany. It was, by all accounts, the classiest of joints. It was located close to the train station and was the preferred destination of hundreds of travelers, including the rich and famous (and infamous). When Abraham Lincoln came through Albany in 1861 on his trip to Washington D.C. for his inauguration, John Wilkes Booth was performing in the city and his rooms at the Stanwix would have overlooked the Lincoln parade down Broadway.
The Stanwix also was the site of an infamous murder that created a tabloid frenzy. On the evening of June 4, 1868, in the main reception room, George Cole took out his pistol and shot L. Harris Hiscock dead. Cole was a Syracuse physician who served with gallantry and bravery in the Civil War. He’d been wounded and promoted to Major General. L. Harris Hiscock was a leading Syracuse attorney, a founder of the law firm now known as Hiscock and Barclay and Speaker of the NYS Assembly. Cole and Hiscock were close friends. During the War, Hiscock, a widower, and Mrs. Cole had an affair. Cole was tried twice. The defense was insanity; there was a hung jury and the case was discharged. In the second trial, in NYS Supreme Court the jury found reasonable doubt and acquitted Cole by virtue of momentary insanity.
The Infamy of the case seemed to enhance the Stanwix reputation.
In the 1870s the Hotel was acquired by the Lansing family and continued to be the most splendiferous of its kind. In 1878 it was completely remodeled; the dome removed and 2 stories added. It was retrofitted with modern’ conveniences; steam heating and up-to-date plumbing. Even with the opening of Adam Blake’s Kenmore Hotel on North Pearl St. in the early 1880s the Stanwix maintained its social cachet and was the most expensive hotel in Albany. It continued to provide superior service, excellent cuisine and a superior wine list. Even into the late 1890s it was the still tip top – offering both an American (with meals) and European (without meals included) plans and still very expensive ($3 per night was very steep.)
But in the early 1900s it met stiff competition by the new Ten Eyck Hotel on the corner of State and N. Pearl streets, and then the Wellington and Hampton Hotels on State St. were built. By 1920, it was more of a banquet and convention venue and had become somewhat down at the heels. In the 1920s itwas the bus terminal in the city.
In 1933, a hundred years after it was built, the hotel was razed to make way for a new federal building and post office. (It’s now the Foley Courthouse.) In the basement of the present building, at the end of the corridor, is a small piece of stone and a plaque inscribed, “This stone was salvaged from the debris of Stanwix Hall and placed here, the exact location where it originally rested in its former home.”
* Peter Gansevoort also had a daughter Maria who was the mother of Herman Melville. While a teen in the late 1830s Melville was president of an Albany debate club that held its meetings in the Stanwix.
** The first time the Stars and Stripes ever flew in battle was over Fort Stanwix. It was made from red flannel petticoats from officer’s wives and the blue coat of a soldier from Duchesss County
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor