One enchanted evening

Albany mansion opens its doors for an exhibit of art and architecture

JOSEPH DALTON Staff Writer
Section: Preview,  Page: P18

Date: Thursday, March 3, 2005

On July 1 of last year, the influential child psychologist and locally renowned humanitarian Lenore Sportsman Miller died in the first-floor library of her cavernous red brick home at 1 Englewood Place on the northwest corner of Albany's Washington Park. She was 97 years old.


Dr. Sportsman, as she was known, had deeded the 1879 house to the Episcopal Cathedral of All Saints. Within a week, the property was snatched up by George Fisette, a 39-year-old businessman from Charleston, S.C., who plans to make it his second home. Tonight, in a grand gesture of Southern-style hospitality, Fisette opens the 10,000-square-foot house - including all seven bedrooms, plus servants' quarters and full basement - for an exhibit of 100 new paintings, photographs, sculptures and installations.


In addition to being the latest one-night-only showcase of local grass roots artists, the free event is also a rare opportunity for the public to view one of Albany's architectural treasures.


"This space is a piece of art in itself," says painter Tommy Watkins. A founder of the Albany Underground Artists, Watkins organized the event with the Community Arts United collective. "This is the kind of place that our art should be viewed."


Fisette, who talks about the lavishly appointed house like a proud papa, concurs. "It's going to be fun," he says of both the art show and the imminent restorations. "I just thought `Why not?' - before I sand the floors and refinish the walls."


Youthful spirit


In spite of its vintage and the advanced age of its previous occupant, the mansion remains imbued with a youthful spirit.


The original owner, furniture manufacturer Benjamin W. Wooster, commissioned the building from 28-year-old architect William M. Woollett, whose father - also an architect - had emigrated to Albany from Great Britain in the mid-1800s. Woollett died just two years after completing the home.


"He was young enough and hip enough that he was picking up on the aesthetic movement from Europe about five years before it became popular over here," says Fisette. "So you've got this kind of Oscar Wilde sunflower thing going on."


The home's European, art-for-art's-sake sensibility can be seen in the flower motif in the fireplace tiles (designed by William Morris, a founder of the Arts and Crafts movement), the stained-glass windows and the wrought-iron fencing that surrounds the prominent lot.


Joseph Woollett, the architect's great-grandson, pursues the same vocation in California. "William M. was a master at single-family homes for wealthy people," he says via e-mail. "My guess is that 1 Englewood is as fine a legacy of (his) work as there could be. Also, it represents a flamboyant and important period of the life of the city."


Fisette is in discussion with Joseph Woollett to assist in the building's renovations, including the replacement of the missing 120-square-foot skylight which once carried the sunflower motif into the building's fourth-floor cupola. (Joseph Woollett, alas, appears to be the last in his family's five-generation run of architects. Neither of his two sons has taken up the trade. One of them, an actor, performs with Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass.)


Sportsman's legacy


The most recent occupant of 1 Englewood Place was as singular as her house. Among her many accomplishments, Lenore Sportsman Miller was the first married woman to graduate from Albany Medical College; in 1949, she founded the Albany County Child and Family Guidance Clinic, which in 1982 merged with the Parsons Child and Family Clinic.


What would Dr. Sportsman think of a tribe of young artists turning her home into a gallery of contemporary art? "She would have been ecstatic," says Raymond Schimmer, Parsons' director.


Even during Sportsman's final years, when she lived only on the first floor, young people were nearly always in the home. According to Schimmer, Sportsman allowed students and proteges to take rooms and they often ended up contributing to her care.


"People loved that woman," says Schimmer. "She just never stopped being youthful, though she stopped being young at some point."


Her legacy continues also at All Saints Cathedral. According to the Rev. Marshall J. Vang, dean of the cathedral, Sportsman's generosity during her life made possible the restoration of the sanctuary's large east window two years ago. A plaque near the window will be dedicated in her honor in April.


During her decades in the mansion, Sportsman contributed to its flower motif by gardening. "She was a doctor of roses too, as far as I was concerned," says Schimmer.


Distinctive architecture


Although Fisette speaks with a slight Southern drawl, as of tonight he'll be adopted by Yankees - or at least those in Albany's arts and culture community.


It was the city's distinctive urban architecture that first caught Fisette's attention. During business trips in the late 1990s, he would stay at the Morgan State House on Washington Park.


"Part of my job was regularly going to all these (Northeast) cities, and Albany was the one I liked the best," says Fisette, who is president of BarterOne, a company that facilitates cash-free exchanges of goods and services. (See story at right.) "It was downtown, Washington Park, Lark Street and the State House - that's the part of Albany I liked."


Involved with historic restoration since his college days, Fisette waited patiently for the right Albany property. Although he'd never been inside the house on Englewood, immediately upon word of its availability he faxed in a contract from Charleston. He offered the Episcopal cathedral's full asking price: $525,000.


"You always bring your real estate bias from another town. ... This house, in Charleston, (would be) $8 to $10 million," says Fisette, who expects to spend $200,000 in restorations and improvements; he already has a full-time painter ensconced in the house.


"It seems like he has done extensive research on the history of the building and is interested in maintaining its historic character," says Erin Tobin Bearden, director of technical services for the Historic Albany Foundation. "Albany can always use people who are interested in investing," she says. Members of Historic Albany were given a preview of the art show.


Whether an arched doorway, a marble hearth or the mighty central staircase, any detail you point to elicits a gush of information and stories from Fisette, who's still discovering his home's many secrets.


"I've got a whole bowl of keys," says Fisette, eyebrows raised at the prospect of adventure. "In between phone calls and such, I'll go around and try the keys and see what they work."


Tonight, he's putting a key into the two-inch-thick front doors and welcoming the city into his new home.











Joseph Dalton can be reached at 454-5478 or by e-mail at jdalton@timesunion.com.





****FACT BOX:****


HOUSE OF ART


What: The historic 1879 mansion near the intersection of State Street and Western Avenue is the site of a one-night-only show of paintings, sculptures, photographs and installations by some of Albany's young and cutting-edge artists.


When: 6 to 10 tonight


Where: 1 Englewood Place, northwest corner of Washington Park, Albany


Admission: Free; most of the artwork will be for sale, with prices ranging from $50 to $2,000


Info: 256-9480