The Yates Dollhouse

The Yates Dollhouse

Generations of children have visited the impressive Yates’ dollhouse over the forty-five years it has been at the historical society. Constructed in 1834, by J.R. Wendell, a local cabinetmaker, the house mimics the Federal style of architecture that still prevailed in popularity in Schenectady. To finish the effect of a stylish townhouse painter Victor D.A. Browere created a faux finish marble brick exterior along with a simple painted trim and brick interior end chimneys. Their names and their contribution to this piece of history were preserved in a plaque located in the front right window of the dollhouse. Commissioned by Governor Joseph C. Yates for his granddaughter Susan Watkins, the dollhouse remains a remarkable example of early American dollhouses.
Its furnishings, many of which have survived in a remarkable state of preservation, depict the popular Empire style that dominated American decorative arts in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Small replicas of the stylish gilded furniture, possibly seen in the home of Governor Yates or in other area homes, were created to adorn the interiors with no detail spared. The piano’s bookcase top contains the decorative folded fabric, which in its full-sized counterpart protected delicate books from fading, gilded paw feet decorate the bottom of the mahogany sideboard, and a drop leaf table has working leaves, for easy storage when not in use.
The Empire style mirrored American’s interest at the time in French fashion. After the War of 1812, Americans depended heavily on France for their decorative arts and fashion. Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power as the Emperor of France in 1804 marked a new style that recalled the classical ruins Bonaparte witnessed on various military campaigns. This style gave birth to reproductions of classical furniture and architecture but also created items that were inspired by the period although unique and original. The Yates’ dollhouse, although meant for a child, was as sophisticated as the most fashionable homes in Schenectady.
Surviving in the Watkins family for over 125 years, the dollhouse was donated to the historical society on July 8, 1960 by Mrs. Delancey Walton Watkins and her daughter Helen Delancey Watkins. Little was done to document or conserve the dollhouse until 1981 when, guided by then curator Marilyn Freitas and trustee Katy Kindl, students from the Cooperstown Graduate Program for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, researched and conserved the dollhouse. Through their efforts, the dollhouse was restored to its former brilliance, lost items located, and what was once an oral tradition of Governor Yates’ connection with the dollhouse was authenticated. Since the grand “re-introduction” of the dollhouse in the early 1980’s, it has had a prominent place on the second floor of the museum.

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