A Home of Our Own, 1952-1975
In 1948, Albert E. Cluett and his wife, Caroline Ide Cluett, challenged the Historical Society, now 20 years old, to raise sufficient funds to support the operation of their Troy townhouse as a museum. In 1952, the building was turned over to the Society by Mrs. Cluett after a successful campaign was completed. RCHS had a building with great potential as a historic house museum and repository for the county’s historical artifacts and archival materials. Collecting began in earnest. By the mid-1950s, it had become clear to the Trustees that professional help was needed to bring their vision of a museum to reality. In 1957, H. Maxson Holloway, formerly a Curator at the New-York Historical Society and other prestigious museums, was hired as the Society’s first director. Holloway’s immediate plans included the careful acquisition of fine and decorative arts as well as period furnishings to fill the fourteen rooms of the house. The slow process of raising money and acquiring objects continued over a decade. The highlights of this effort were objects and furnishings from the Hart and Cluett families and their descendants, such as the Hart family dining room chairs, circa 1816 and furnishings from the master bedroom of Albert and Caroline Cluett, which were “returned” to the house.
At the same time that the museum collections grew in number, the library and archival collections expanded to include local business records, genealogical information, and personal papers. Educational programs and exhibitions were held in the Hart-Cluett House’s converted carriage house. Upon the death of Max Holloway in 1967, a successor was soon appointed. The second director, Archie Strobie, also trained in the museum profession, hired the Society’s first Curator, Marcia Starkey, in 1968, to catalogue and preserve its diverse and growing collections. In 1970, Breffny Walsh, a graduate of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies, became RCHS’s third director and made significant progress for the institution during the next 20 years. One of her first tasks was to guide the organization through its first accreditation by the American Association of Museums in 1972.
While the Hart-Cluett House and the museum collections were growing, other areas of the organization’s mission were also being addressed. Once the house was opened to the public in 1953, a number of other groups met and had programs at the site. In 1954, the Junior League approached RCHS with the idea of using the basement level for a children’s museum. From 1954 to 1959, the Junior Museum operated at RCHS, often using the carriage house space as well. Local artists also met for classes in rooms in the house, as did the Birchkill Arts and Crafts Guild, until the establishment of the Rensselaer County Council for the Arts in the early 1960s. In 1972, the Hudson-Mohawk Industrial Gateway was founded by members of RCHS’s Preservation Committee to focus on the rich industrial history of the area. As historic preservation became an issue in the community and the nation, RCHS took an active position in favor of preserving the built environment. There were many battles to fight as the pressures of suburbanization, the loss of Troy’s heavy industry and beginnings of urban renewal programs became a part of daily life.