Mauer, David. "Constable Hall: one family's mosaic." Classic American Homes Vol. 26, No. 2 (April/May 2000): 94-99, 132.


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n 18th-century America, wealth usually was amassed by one means alone--ownership of land. By this measure, William Constable was a very wealthy man indeed. The four million acres of land he owned in upstate New York was larger in size than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. However, the real estate axiom of "location, location, location" applied even then, making the value of his property significantly less than its size might indicate. For Constable reigned over a vast, empty wilderness, inhabited only by Indians and trappers. Constable's descendants established a fiefdom of sorts in that wilderness, building an impressive manor house to anchor a small village called--what else?--Constableville. Today, this house, restored and open to the public, offers a look at how a family of means found solace and beauty far from the comforts of "civilization."

William Constable arrived in America as a boy in the company of his father, and Irish surgeon in service to the British during the French and Indian War. They made their way from Montreal to Schenectady, then to Philadelphia where William later made a name for himself in the import/export trade. His sharp mind for business later attracted the attention of other luminaries in pre-Revolutionary---end page 95, start page 97---Philadelphia, particularly Benedict Arnold and Governeur Morris (later framer of the Constitution and Minister to France), who were his business partners. During the war, Constable served as aide-de-camp to the Marquis de Lafayette, a highly visible position.

Such activities served him well after the war, when he joined ohters speculating in land and government bonds. Partnered with Alexander Macomb and Daniel McCormick, Constable helped arrange the Macomb Purchase, which allowed the three men to acquire about a tenth of New York State--virtually all the northern Adirondacks. Later his partners went bankrupt, leaving Constable title to four million acres.

Over the years, Constable sold off huge lots of his land holdings in the north. While these sales opened up the North Country to others, he never built a house there, choosing to divide his time between his townhouse on Wall Street in New York City and his county house, Bloomingdale, where Yankee Stadium now stands.

After William Constable died, there was still enough land left for his son, William Jr., to inherit 10 townships. On a portion of this land, due north of Rome, New York, William Jr. decided to build a fine summer house. Work began in 1809. Limestone blocks were hauled in by ox team; handblown glass for the windows was sent up the Hudson by boat---end page 97---from New York City; and choice native woods were cut and shaped for the interior woodwork by artisans from as far away as the Hudson River valley. Because of interruptions form the War of 1812, severe winters, and the logistics of transporting materials to the remote site, the house was not completed until 1819.

The result was a 14-room mansion that became home to five generations of Constables. The house consisted of a main two-story block with appendages on each side that included a land office and a combination pantry/chapel. It featured the latest shallow fireplaces developed by Thomas Jefferson, a "fireproof" office with a ceiling lined with sand, and two wine cellars. Outbuildings included a washhouse, stables, a small farmhouse, a barn, coachhouse, and servants' quarters.

William Constable, Jr., was never able to fully enjoy his new house: he was supervising the setting of a 10-ton stone for the floor of the (Turn to page 132)---end page 99---front portico when it slipped and fell on him, resulting in serious injuries that led to his death two years later in 1821. His widow, Mary, decided to make Constable Hall her year-round residence and remained there until her death 49 years later. Her son, John, took over the estate in 1870, living a quiet life as a gentleman farmer and sportsman. Many of the game trophies in the house were brought back from his hunting trips.

The next heir, John's son, Casimir, was a successful engineer who is credited with helping bring the Bessemer process--a chemical procedure that helped transform the steel industry--to the United States. The money he earned helped keep Constable Hall in top shape throughout the first quarter of the 20th century. But he and his wife had no children, so in 1923, full title went to his nephew, Hohn, chief engineer for Thomas A. Edison. John installed electricity and central heating in the house, but was killed in a trolley accident in 1926, leaving behind his wife and a 10-year-old son, John JR.

The loss of the breadwinner meant a rapid decline in the family's standard of living and the house suffered for it. John Jr. received full title in 1936, but kept the house for only 11 more years. At this time, it was sold out of the family to Harry Lewis and his sister, Mrs. H. D. Cornwall. Luckily, the new owners restored the house and later presented it to the Constable Hall Association, which opened it to the public in 1949.

The grounds are well worth exploring. The house sits on a knoll overlooking the Black River Valley. Just to the east is a one-and-a-half-acre formal garden that is formed into a representation of the cross of St. Andrews. The blackthorn hedge that surrounds the entire garden was nurtured from seeds brought from Ireland in 1810. The lilies and roses are said to be descended from original stock as well. Constable Hall is a fascinating record of how a family managed to bring civility to the wilderness.

Constable Hall is open to the public from the last weekend in May until October 15th. Admission is charged. For details, call (315) 397-2323.


See also:

Rome NY. "Points of Pride: 74 Constable Hall." Daily Sentinel. (rny.com)