A Show of Hands
Capturing the spirit of a stately Elizabethtown home
by Elizabeth Folwell
ELIZABETHTOWN’S HAND HOUSE, with its Greek-temple austerity and reserved side-street demeanor, looks every bit the country lawyer’s place. Impressive but not ostentatious, the structure’s only frivolous touch is the color itself, beet red. In another setting, a heavily landscaped lot on a downtown corner, those bright-painted bricks would be raked by the sun, exuberantly vivid. Here, under the shade of 150-year-old maples, the house holds back modestly, its charms discreet.
“Stepping back into time” is a tired old phrase, but that’s exactly what you feel when you enter the house. The white-columned porch facing the road is the formal front door, but nowadays you walk in via the kitchen, like any true Adirondack home. From there you’re drawn to the wide center hallway flanked by parlor and sitting rooms, and then your eyes rivet to a gracefully curving staircase leading upward. The stuff of prosperous, everyday nineteenth-century life—wasp-waisted dresses, a beaver top hat in its bespoke case, leather-bound books, a hide-covered hobbyhorse with glass eyes—from five generations of Hands is all around. There’s nothing twiggy or rustic here, but this house relates an important part of regional history.
In 1831 a young lawyer named Augustus C. Hand moved to town to serve as postmaster and surrogate court judge, and established a one-story law office. “His career was more important than creature comforts,” according to Hand descendant Arthur Savage, who spent childhood summers at the family home and used the office. (This structure, a remarkably preserved artifact, stands west of the brick house.)
Eighteen years after arriving in town, Hand, leading attorney, one-term congressman, state senator and soon to be a revered state judge, began construction of a new home to replace his plain clapboard house. Born in Vermont, educated in Connecticut and a frequent traveler to Washington and New York City, Hand knew trends and fashions. Acting locally—buying bricks and timbers nearby, hiring town carpenters—but thinking globally, studying pattern books for house design and acquiring fine marble fireplaces, enormous windows, elaborate plaster ceiling ornaments, he built a physical representation of his personality and status. The rooms have high ceilings and exceptional woodwork; restoration specialists Jim Kinley and Mary Bell surmise that shutters, window trim and other details may have been supplied by legal clients in lieu of cash payment.
Augustus and his wife, Marcia Northrup, had three sons: Clifford, who became an attorney in New York City; Samuel, who began his law practice in Albany and later presided over the state Court of Appeals; and Richard, who likewise had an illustrious legal career. Daughters Ellen and Marcia did not study law, but all the children were sent to private schools, played tennis on the family court and became involved in local affairs. Samuel, as a teenager, accompanied Lady Amelia Murray, Queen Victoria’s maid of honor, on her 1855 Adirondack expedition. Richard, at age twenty, was one of several local men who watched over the body of John Brown in December 1859 at the Essex County Courthouse, the last stop on the trip from Harpers Ferry to North Elba. Richard lived in the fine house on River Street until his death, in 1914.
The dynasty of respected jurisprudence flourished through succeeding generations. Regarding cousins Augustus N. and Learned Hand, whose federal careers spanned more than eighty years and more than five thousand cases, Hannelore Kissam, executive director of the Bruce L. Crary Foundation, says, “Law students all over the country still study decisions rendered by them. They had parallel careers and a lasting impact on the legal community.”
Through more than a century of family ownership, the home was refurbished and enlarged. A conservatory was installed off the dining room, a place to grow fuschia, heliotrope, hibiscus and scented geraniums throughout the winter. The cherry staircase, scrolling up to a paneled landing with stained-glass clerestory windows, was built late in the nineteenth century. Imported tiles were applied to hearths and mantels; the dining room paneling was painted wine red, dark olive and sage green, with wallpaper picking up the color scheme. A two-story wing was attached to the rear of the house, with pantries, food preparation areas and servants’ quarters. Although the original structure had a sand closet—an indoor privy—bathrooms were installed as soon as the technology arrived. Elizabethtown had a public waterworks in the 1880s; telephone service and electricity came to the house in the early 1900s.
For a grand wedding in the 1920s pocket doors were removed downstairs, creating a double parlor nearly forty feet long. This alteration proved problematic more than fifty years later, when the building was acquired by the Bruce L. Crary Foundation as its headquarters. Other tenants included the fledgling Adirondack Nature Conservancy, the Adirondack Council and attorney Richard W. Lawrence, whose wife was a Hand. The first Adirondack Park Agency chairman, Crary Foundation president and a founder of Adirondack Life, Lawrence helped bring the dormant Hand House to its new life as a vital community asset.
He envisioned the building’s potential and began the groundwork for documentation and preservation. The house and law office, along with the nearby Hale house and outbuildings, were accepted on the National Register of Historic Places. Joan Youngken, who had been registrar at the Adirondack Museum, in Blue Mountain Lake, was hired to inventory artifacts. Mary Bell and Jim Kinley, from Willsboro, assessed the structural condition and worked for more than two years stabilizing the building. The missing parlor wall, which had supported rooms overhead, required construction of a long bearing beam and supports that distributed the weight to the foundation. “We rebuilt upstairs walls and engineered a ‘ring around the house’ to make the huge room sound,” Kinley explains. Achieving the proper nineteenth-century look was a priority too: He and Bell discovered original color schemes behind radiators and by sanding carefully through layers of paint.
“We were so lucky that the house hadn’t been ‘remuddled,’” comments Bell. “The bones of this place were fine after all those years, and important parts were intact.”
A casual visitor to the house can’t help noticing the spirit of the place, but researchers and overnighters have encountered the place’s spirits. Mike DiNunzio, who lived and worked in the house from 1980 to 1982, when he was writing Adirondack Wildguide, says for many years the unoccupied house was vulnerable, yet it was unmolested. “Local kids thought it was haunted.”
The late seventies and early eighties were busy times inside the old house. The nonprofit groups had numerous staff members and interns. Youngken spent spring through fall 1978 cataloging Hand family clothing, artwork, decorative items and kitchen utensils. She spent her days describing the objects left on tables, hung from walls, placed in drawers and hidden in plain sight. One day she was in the servants’ wing, writing notes about nineteenth-century dresses. When she took a break downstairs, she looked in a desk drawer and found a letter that described the costume she had just examined. “I began to feel like I was being led to these things. There were just too many coincidences,” she says. “I never felt truly alone there.”
Others caught glimpses in mirrors of nonexistent people when they entered empty rooms. Doorknobs turned and stairs creaked when no one else was there.
One uncanny episode repeated itself: When a woman staying in the house came back from lunch, she would leave her handbag on her bed and lock the door. However, when she returned at the end of the day, her things would be carefully placed on the dresser. But the door would be locked. At first she thought she was mistaken, that she had put her purse on the chest of drawers. But when walking through the house one day with William Savage, whose wife was a Hand, the mysterious action was clarified. She unlocked the door, tossed her jacket and purse on the nicely made coverlet, and Savage said, “Mother would never stand for that. Once a bed was made, you did not put things on it.”
In summer 1998 two young clergymen were staying in the house. During the night, one sensed that a person had entered the room and then felt the pressure of someone sitting on the bed. Then, to his horror, the full weight of a body bore down on him. This terrifying sensation lasted for several minutes, then the presence departed, closing the door.
Hannelore Kissam, who’s led the Crary Foundation for more than a decade, has had a few encounters, not sightings so much as the barely perceptible scent of another person. She doesn’t dwell on these episodes, counting them as part of working in a house with a lively history.
These days, rooms upstairs are vacant but furnished with the original bedroom sets: bird’s-eye maple chairs styled to look like bamboo, elaborate mirrors, sentimental Victorian prints and other cherished items. The Crary Foundation, operating from offices on the first floor, is busy granting some five hundred scholarships a year. Nonprofit groups use the grand double parlor for meetings. Grade-school students tour, hunting for artifacts and architectural details. The Hand House may not be anyone’s residence anymore, but it carries on the family’s deep involvement in community affairs.
Tags: Adirondack ghost stories