High on a hill on South Pearl Street, overlooking Albany’s bustling waterfront, stands the yellow Georgian mansion known as Historic Cherry Hill. This house was built in 1787 by Colonel Killaen Van Rennsselaer for his wife, Maria Sanders (a distant relation of Philip Schuyler.) Though Cherry Hill is a Georgian mansion, an English architectural style, it boasts a gambrel roof as a reflection of the Van Rennsselaer family’s Dutch heritage.
Killaen Van Rennselaer was a merchant, as well as a transporter of cargo who also assisted the Northern Department of the Continental Army in various ways during the Revolutionary War. He was also committed to public service in Albany, serving on the Committee for Public Safety. The Van Rennselaer family preserved their wealth through sponsoring emigres, many of whom were members of the aristocracy fleeing France during the French Revolution, and having them inhabit and maintain their land. By the time of Killaen Van Rensselaer’s death in 1798, the family owned over one thousand acres of land. Additionally, Cherry Hill was populated with many children and grandchildren, as well as boarders and slaves.
Possibly the most notorious event to take place at Cherry Hill happened in May of 1827. Elsie Lansing Whipple, a relation of the Van Rennsselaers, was boarding at the house with her husband, John Whipple, when she began an affair with a hired hand by the name of Jesse Strang. After a few unsuccessful attempts on John Whipple’s life that were perhaps orchestrated by Elsie herself, Strang shot and killed Whipple through a second story window. The ensuing investigation led to Jesse Strang’s conviction and Elsie’s release. Strang was sentenced to death, and his was the last public hanging in Albany’s history.
In the subsequent century, generations of Van Rennsselaers continued to inhabit Cherry Hill. However, after the opening of the Erie Canal led to the growth of both industry and population in Albany, the family lost much of its land and fortune. The last inhabitants of Cherry Hill were Catherine Putnam Rankin and her daughter, Emily, who worked to preserve the home. When Emily died childless in 1963, she decreed in her will that Cherry Hill was to open to the public as a museum, which it did just one year later in 1964.