The Rice Mansion

The Rice Mansion from Dove Street

When we began our career in Albany not quite 30 years ago, a group of young and hungry (literally) Senate Fellows sometimes found lunchtime solace with a touch of imagined elegance in the quiet confines of the Rice Gallery of the Albany Institute of History and Art. Every now and then we wondered how it had come to be named, as the name Rice didn’t ring any particular bells. Of course, it turns out that it did, quite literally – William Gorham Rice, an expert in carillons as well as a prominent government official, was responsible for the installation of the City Hall Carillon. He was also associated with the Albany Institute, and knowing that it would be no surprise that some portion of the Institute might bear his name. In this case, it turned out that it was more than an association – the Rice Gallery was, in fact, Rice’s former home.

The lot on the corner of Washington Avenue and North Dove had once been the site of the home of Alfred Billings Street, noted writer, poet, and New York State Librarian. If Times-Union columnist Edgar S. Van Olinda is to be believed, Street’s home was “hallowed sanctuary around which hung pleasant association touching the cultural life of Albany. To this salon came Henry W. Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, George William Curtis and Oliver Wendell Holmes to hold communion with Albany’s Poet of Nature.” It’s not clear when Street’s home was demolished but Rice’s home was built in its place in 1894. Diana Waite, in her “Albany Architecture,” says that Rice and his bride commissioned America’s most fashionable architect, Richard Morris Hunt, to design their first home in 1894. Hunt, particularly known for his mansions in Newport, R.I. and the Biltmore estate,  died the following year, but his son continued the work. “However, Harriet Pruyn Rice credited her husband, not the notable architects, with the finished palazzo that they first occupied in 1895; she wrote that ‘William went almost daily to it and it stands in its perfectness in every detail as a result of his tireless watching.’” Van Olinda said that it was one of the first homes in Albany to install electric illumination. While the house faced Dove Street, it had a Washington Avenue address carved into it. Although they almost immediately went to Washington, DC for three years, they then returned to Albany and lived there for some 40 years.

Van Olinda wrote that the salon tradition of Street was continued by the Rices, “who entertained many visiting European diplomats, leaders in the realm of art and literature and other world famous personages. The Rice home … was the International House of its era.” He said that nearly every world and national figure who came to Albany was invited to the Rice home. The home appears with great frequency in the society notes of the time, as Mrs. Rice was a very active hostess. In fact, it’s pretty clear that Harriet Langdon Pruyn Rice deserves considerably more investigation, as some have raised the idea that she was at least an equal in her husband’s enthusiasm and research on carillons. She wrote a book of her own on Harmanus Bleecker, and was every bit what a woman from a prominent family should have been in those days.

It may have simply been age that led the Rices to leave their home. In 1936, the Times-Union reported that the building was going to be turned into the home of the Appellate Division, third department. Legislation was to be introduced to buy the land for $35,000, and “it was reported on reliable authority that Col. and Mrs. Rice are willing to donate the residence building to the state, in order that it may be preserved as a memorial.” Perhaps they knew the time of these old private mansions was passing, and were concerned their home would be lost entirely. But for whatever reasons, it didn’t become part of the court system.

Instead, it went to the dogs – the home was sold to the American Humane Association, founded by Albany doctor William Olin Stillman, which built an annex on the north end in 1938 and moved from its old location, the old county jail on Howard Street. Blue Cross and Blue Shield bought the building in 1955 and occupied it for a decade. In 1966, it was acquired by the Albany Institute of History and Art, which was, of course, next door on the old Rathbone estate. They planned to lease it for three years to the State of New York, which used it for temporary office space while the Empire State Plaza was under construction. After that, it would be incorporated into the Institute’s operations. In 1968, the Institute gave serious thought to leaving its location; a study showed that even including the Rice building combined with the Institute building was only 25% of the space that would be optimal. The report said the Institute’s storage facilities ranged from “poor” to “disastrous.” Mercifully, that site was not abandoned, though it would be a number of years before another significant expansion, and the Institute continues to contribute greatly to Albany’s downtown culture.

Waite reports that in 1937, the Rices moved into the DeWitt Clinton Hotel. Harriet Langdon Pruyn Rice died in 1939. William Gorham Rice lived until 1945, dying at the age of 88.

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