It takes a family to restore an Albany mansion to its High Victorian splendor
by Ann Morrow â€¢ Photographs by Randall Perry
When David and Mary Dively attended an estate sale in a historic mansion on Albany’s Washington Avenue, the couple — at the time both elementary school teachers in Greene County — had no inkling that within a year they would be the home’s proud owners. After all, it had just been sold. But when the four-story Romanesque Revival came back on the market, their seemingly low bid was accepted, possibly because their offer had no strings attached. “We simply wanted to restore it,” David says.
There’s nothing simple about restoring a heavily altered 1890s mansion, especially on a budget. Yet the couple have other things going for them, namely, energy, ingenuity, and taste. “Some people walk in here and think we have an unlimited amount of funds,” says David. It’s an easy presumption to make. In the foyer is a floor-to-ceiling, carved-oak fireplace with a scrollwork mantel and a mirrored overmantel topped with a sea dragon on a foliage perch. A grand stairway with imposing posts is decorated with fish scales and other motifs; the balusters alone contain four different designs, an eagle among them. This bounty of highly ornamented golden oak is perfectly set off by beige wallpaper in a delicate festoon pattern with gold highlights.
And that’s just the foyer. The formal first floor has a parlor with double-framed windows and a striking brass surround in the fireplace. The dining room features rosewood panels and stained-glass banners over a tri-part window. In the rear conservatory, David replaced a 1950s picture window with French doors that open onto a mahogany patio with a whimsical fence. A mere three years after the couple moved in (in 2001), enough of the mansion’s Victorian grandeur had been reclaimed for the house to host fund-raising events for the Historic Albany Foundation.
“The secret is, we did so much of it ourselves,” says David, who even removed, cleaned, and stabilized a stained-glass skylight at the top of the stairs, using an old dresser as a lever for his homemade scaffolding. He mentions that he was restless and looking for a new project (he built the couple’s previous home) before he was offered early retirement from his teaching job. “It was always his dream to restore an old home,” says Mary. “But never in my wildest imagination did I think it would be like this one.”
The house — one of the few single-residence mansions left in the area — had had only four owners. The biggest challenge to its restoration was that at least two of the owners were doctors who used the building for their practices, resulting in some unusual modifications, among them partitions in the dining room, which was converted to an exam room with three areas. Fluorescent lights ruined the plasterwork ceiling, and holes were made in the floor to accommodate equipment. “The dining room was by far the worst, and the most expensive, room to renovate,” says David. “When I started taking out the main partition, I uncovered gas lines, electric lines. The plumbing from the second-floor kitchen [another alteration] came down through the same wall and had to be rerouted.”
The Divelys had their three children, Jason, 30, Kevin, 27, and Christine, 24, move in ahead of them to serve as a demolition crew. Other duties included stripping paint from a chair rail carved in an intricate fruit pattern, a job so exacting it required dental tools. “The entire downstairs was a shambles,” says David, who removed layers of linoleum, glue, and tar paper from the hardwood floors. “We’re so glad the woodwork wasn’t destroyed,” says Mary.
The dining room floor was patched and sanded and the moldings and paneling made to gleam with lemon oil mixed with warm water — a tip Mary observed at Mohonk Mountain House. The mansion was also full of happy surprises: after ripping up the carpeting in the parlor, the Divelys discovered that the floors were quarter-sawn oak with a mahogany fret along the borders. To their delight, they found many original elements stored in the basement, including missing doors and the mantel to the second-floor fireplace.
The mansion was originally a brick schoolhouse built in 1838. It was acquired by James Holroyd, a knitwear manufacturer who made his fortune with a line of full-figured worsted underwear that became popular across America and Europe (one devoted customer was the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII). In 1891, Holroyd transformed the school to the height of Victorian fashion. A new Richardsonian-Romanesque faÃ§ade was created out of pink sandstone, with three sculpted-stone arches, and above them, two richly foliated bay windows. A fourth floor was added for servants’ quarters, and the rear was expanded with a conservatory. On the east side, fanciful balconies and a small pavilion (later enclosed) looked out on formal gardens.
In all probability, the craftsmen responsible for the stone carving and woodworking were some of the same master craftsmen brought over from Europe to work on the State Capitol, located a couple of blocks down the avenue. The mansion’s ornate entranceway, especially, shows the influence of H.H. Richardson, one of the Capitol’s architects. The faÃ§ade also has another distinguishing characteristic: sea dragons. In addition to the foyer dragon, there are dragons in the masonry and a painted dragon hidden underneath the lower bay. The sea dragons may have had significance for Holroyd: born in England, he crossed the sea as a young boy when his family emigrated.
The Divelys accented the bays by painting them in yew-hedge green and highlighting the window sashes with a lighter green. For the interior, they worked with decorator Jan Sherard, from Glens Falls. Yet the foyer wallpaper is just one example of how the couple substituted a sense of aesthetics for lavish spending. “Jan had picked out a hand-painted wallpaper; the sides weren’t even precut,” says David. “It was a couple of hundred dollars a roll. For four floors. And I couldn’t do it myself: I would’ve had to hire someone. And then you think, â€˜What if something happens to it?’ ” After deciding to go with standard wallpaper, it took the Divelys a full year to find the right pattern. Mary says they knew they’d made the right choice when visitors asked if it was the original wallpaper.
For the parlor, a favorite room, a friend suggested that Mary pick out an object that she loved and use it as a starting point. She chose an antique vase in robin’s-egg blue. Since David and their children were doing all the painting and paper hanging, the couple was able to splurge by hiring painter-designer Claudia McNulty to achieve the same beautiful shade of blue on the walls, and to add gold faux picture rails — an idea that Mary got from a book on Irish mansions.
The Divelys have plenty of praise for Sherard, who was instrumental in the paper and paint selections for the rest of the house. “Working with an interior designer requires compromise, and she learned to work with us,” says David. It was Sherard who found the grandly romantic pattern for the dining room. The blue wallpaper with red rose bouquets and peach garlands continues the blue of the parlor as well as picks up the colors in the stained-glass banners. “Jan taught us about flow,” says Mary. “That what you do in one room has to flow into the next.” The pale peach in the dining room reappears on painted brick in the conservatory, which has green trim and red-and-peach wallpaper. Upstairs, new tiles (installed by David) for the damaged fireplace are also green and red, while the bedroom is done in powdery shades of the blue and peach downstairs.
“It takes time and patience,” says David of their efforts. “And you have to have a bit of perfectionist in you, too,” adds Mary. They both give credit to their children: “We couldn’t have done it without them,” says David. The third floor, once the domain of Mrs. Holroyd, is now occupied by daughter Christine, a college student. A wing that was built on as a dentist’s waiting room has been adapted by son Kevin as a restaurant — the Iron Gate CafÃ©, named after the mansion’s ornamental iron railings. The Divelys’ next project is to turn the marble-floored basement, originally a summer kitchen, into a billiards room.
“It’s really neat how the whole family came together on this,” says Mary. “What I like,” adds David, “is having a house like this to bring back.” ■