In its checkered history at Williams, Van Rensselaer House has seen an amazing variety of human events, from fraternity rites and formal parties to earth week luncheons and cramming for exams. It has offered both grandeur seldom found today and unimposing intimacy. And throughout has been present a character that extends beyond bricks and mortar, that has made it a place for people. Now that change has caught up and Van Rensselaer is decamping for Albany, we may take consolation in the knowledge that it is simply another step in the history of the house; somehow, Van Ren has always managed to survive as a testament to man’s care for the best of his heritage.
— Joseph D. Tasker, Jr. (Class of 1973)
For nearly eighty years, the Van Rensselaer House–home of the Sigma Phi Fraternity until 1963–stood on the site of the present day Sawyer Library, its footprint roughly overlapping with the northwest corner of the present day building. The house’s namesake was the Van Rensselaer family, Dutch patroons who operated a feudal manor near the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers near Albany, New York. The last and largest manor house on that site had been built in 1765 by Stephen Van Rensselaer I. Stephen Van Rensselaer III had the most significant Williams connection, having provided financial assistance to several Williams students and been appointed as a trustee, although he never actually attended the College. The manor house underwent several renovations in the 19th century, most notably between the years 1840 and 1843. Towards the end of the century, the estate was placed into greater proximity with the growing railway system in Albany. Soon after the death of Stephen Van Rensselaer IV in 1868, the house was handed down to the next generation of the Van Rensselaer family who chose not to reside there.
William Bayard Van Rensselaer initially planned to remove one wing of the house to make room for the New York Central Railroad, but his cousin, Marcus T. Reynolds (Williams Class of 1890), convinced him that it would be better to remove the house completely rather than alter it so significantly. Reynolds was a newly trained architect who devised a way of preserving the House and providing a home for his fraternity, Sigma Phi. He transported exterior pieces of the old Van Rensselaer manor house to Williamstown and designed a new Sigma Phi house using these elements. Historical interior details of the original manor house were given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Construction was completed and the house opened in 1895. The new house was named after Van Rensselaer not only because of the material used, but also because the new Sigma Phi residence was designed to incorporate elements of the original Van Rensselaer manor house. The prohibitive cost of transporting the various parts of the old building makes it likely, however, that very few elements of the original house were actually used in the “reconstruction.”
For a decade after the abolition of fraternities in 1963, the Van Rensselaer house served as a general student residence (1963-1967) and as the Center for Environmental Studies (1967-1973). It was demolished in 1973 to make room for the new Sawyer Library. Opposition arose, but President Sawyer and trustees determined that the library must be located on the Sigma Phi site in order to maintain the kind of centrality appropriate for a college library. Additionally, the library committee declared that the structure lacked historical value because the renovations and reconstruction had not preserved the original 1765 version of the house. The College was unwilling to use $400,000-$500,000 of the $8 million library project budget to move the house to another location, as it has done for numerous other college buildings.
Demolition began in June 1973, after which time many of the original sandstone blocks were transported to a doctor’s private barn in the Capitol Region; this doctor planned to reconstruct the original 1765 house in Albany as soon as provisions could be made and funds raised. Twenty-two years have not seen this plan come to fruition, however. The only remaining on-site memorial to the Van Rensselaer House is a large painting on the first floor wall of Sawyer Library.
By Matthew Jeffers (Williams Class of 1998)
“Historical Memorabilia.” Gulielmensian (1895): 91.
Palmer, Louis H. “History of the Alpha of Mass.” May 1934. Sigma Phi papers. Williams College Archives.
Walsh, James V. “Williams to demolish Van Rensselaer House for Library.” The North Adams Transcript . 1 March 1973.
“Decorous, Full-dress Waltz Evening.” Williams Alumni Review . (Spring 1973): 28-29.
Samuels, Nada. “Albany Physician Plans to Move Van Rensselaer.” The North Adams Transcript . 7 May 1973.
“Toward a New Library.” Williams Alumni Review . (Winter 1973): 2-9.
Nilsson, B.A. “The Maddening Mystery of the Dismantled Manor.” Capital Region . July 1986.
Lewis, R. Cragin, ed. Williams 1793 – 1993: A Pictoral History . Williamstown: Williams College Bicentennial Commission, 1993.