Johnson Hall hits historic milestone at 250 years

JOHNSTOWN – Sir William Johnson built his grand baronial home in Johnstown as a tribute to the claim he staked in the new frontier. Local, national and international visitors 250 years later still revel in its majesty.

The state Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation owns the Johnson estate, referred to as the Johnson Hall State Historic Site, at 139 Hall Ave.

State and local officials are celebrating the 250th anniversary of Johnson Hall this year with events running from mid-May through mid-October. Events already planned will include plantings, a 5K run and walk, a lecture series, walking tours, “The Building of Johnson Hall” weekend celebration and a cricket tournament.

Several buildings are located at the state site, but the 250th anniversary of Sir William Johnson’s actual home is being celebrated.

“Really, what we want to do is to focus this year on the construction of Johnson Hall,” said site Manager Wade Wells. “It was the pinnacle.”

Sir William began plans in February 1763 for a house that would reflect his position. By December of that year, builder Samuel Fuller finished the home.

“It’s really the first great American success story,” Fulton County Historian Peter Betz says of Johnson Hall.

Betz said a child visiting Johnson Hall usually doesn’t come away with any immediate impressions.

“As a small child, you’re taken there,” Betz said. “You see this really significant building, but it usually doesn’t mean too much to you.”

But Betz said Johnson Hall represents a symbol of what can be achieved even today on American soil. He said Johnson Hall is significant to pre-Revolutionary War history and area tourism.

Officials say the meaning of Sir William Johnson’s home to Johnstown never has been taken for granted.

“It’s such a unique piece to have a state historic site within the city,” said Mayor Sarah Slingerland.

Johnson is buried in downtown Johnstown.

Johnstown City Historian Noel Levee said Johnson Hall represents “the drawing card for bringing a lot of tourists in.”

Levee said he personally is from Montgomery County, but was drawn to living in the city that Sir William named after his son, John.

“I’ve always liked Johnstown,” Levee said. “Johnstown still has a downtown that has a historic mystique.”

Levee said the Johnstown Historical Society will work closely with the state to promote this significant year in the history of Johnson Hall.

The site also is aided by the Friends of Johnson Hall support group.

Coming to America as a 23-year-old Irishman in 1738, Sir William Johnson oversaw his Uncle Peter Warren’s land holdings south of the present- day city of Amsterdam. Johnson purchased a tract of land north of the Mohawk River in 1739. He moved there, building a house in 1743 called Mount Johnson.

Johnson won military fame as a major general of the provincial militia and a commander when the French forces under Baron Dieskau were defeated at the Battle of Lake George in 1755. Largely as a result of this victory, Johnson was made a baronet by King George II.

In 1759 and 1760, Sir William Johnson won greater renown for military achievements at Fort Niagara and Montreal. During the long years of conflict, which culminated in the French and Indian Wars, Johnson rose from the rank of colonel in 1745 to major general. He eventually was appointed superintendent of all the affairs of the Six Nations and other Northern Indians, a position he held until his death in 1774.

According to the state Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation website, as the largest single landowner and most influential individual in the settlement of the Mohawk Valley, Johnson had prestige and leadership that extended beyond the region. The site says his “genius” in dealing and trading with the Indians had a lasting effect on their relationship with the English, and influenced England’s victory in the struggle for control of North America.

Johnson began plans in February 1763 for a house that would reflect his position. A Georgian house of wood made to look like stone, Johnson Hall became the nucleus of a working estate designed to encourage settlement and further Johnson’s control of his land. A mill, blacksmith shop, Indian store, barns and other buildings were added, as well as housing for servants.

In 1774, during a tense conference with 600 Indians at Johnson Hall, Johnson collapsed and died.

Upon his death, Johnson Hall passed to his son, John. During the American Revolution, John chose to remain loyal to the crown and fled to Canada. Johnson Hall was confiscated in 1779 by New York state as Loyalist property and was subsequently sold at auction. The house remained a private residence until 1906, when New York state acquired it as a historic site.

Visitors are encouraged to walk the grounds and gardens. House tours continue to be offered.

Events planned

Johnson Hall will open May 15 for the season, which ends Oct. 13. These are among the various events scheduled this year at Johnson Hall as part of the 250th anniversary celebration:

Saturday – I Love My Parks Day: Volunteers are needed. Several projects will be undertaken to prepare the historic site for the new season, including planting shrub seedlings along Hall Avenue, removing and replacing the soil in the herb garden and raking and repairing areas of the walk path. Individuals or groups interested in volunteering are asked to contact the site to pre-register and receive additional event information. Lunch will be provided to all volunteers as well as a complimentary tour of the historic house.

May 18 – Second Annual Johnson Jog 5K Run/Walk sponsored by Friends of Johnson Hall to benefit the preservation and education programs of Johnson Hall. For information and registration, visit

June 1 – Anniversary Lecture Series at 11 a.m., “In the English Manner: Pattern Books and Georgian Building Traditions in the Colonial Mohawk Valley.” Retired State Museum Curator of Art and Architecture Ron Burch will examine the use and influence of architectural theses and books of designs published in England and readily available to American colonials in the 18th century. Men of stature, including Sir William Johnson, exhibited substantial “pattern book” influence in their mid-18th century houses, a news release said.

June 8 – Beyond the Mansion: A Walking Tour of the Johnson Hall Estate and Outbuildings, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Johnson Hall Senior Historic Site interpreter Aaron Robinson will guide a tour of the historic grounds and outbuilding locations of Johnson’s 700-acre estate, highlighting how the crafts people, guests, servants and slaves used these spaces to make Johnson Hall function.

July 6 – Anniversary Lecture Series at 11 a.m., “This Day I agreed with Mr. Samuel Fuller: Building Johnson Hall.” Walter Wheeler, senior architectural historian at Hartgen Archeological Associates, will detail construction practices of the mid-18th century, with particular focus on the construction of Johnson Hall and its builder, Samuel Fuller. Johnson Hall will be contextualized through an examination of vernacular and high-style dwellings of the period. Contemporary documents, including Fuller’s account book for construction of the house, will be presented.

July 13 and 14 – Mortar, Stone and Timber: The Building of Johnson Hall, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. In celebration of the 250th anniversary of the building of Johnson Hall, this weekend event highlights traditional building crafts demonstrations, exhibits, military reenactments and an open house.

July 25 – Beyond the Mansion: A Walking Tour of the Johnson Hall Estate and Outbuildings from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

Aug. 3 – Anniversary Lecture Series at 11 a.m., “Archaeology at Johnson Hall” with retired state Bureau of Historic Sites Archaeologist Lois Feister-Huey. She directed many of the archaeological projects carried out at Johnson Hall. The results not only found missing outbuildings, but also developed a better understanding and interpretation of the material culture of the Johnson family, their slaves and servants, and visitors, the news release said.

Aug. 17 and 18 – 18th Century Cricket Tournament from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 17 and 10 a.m. to noon Aug. 18. Teams from the British Brigade will compete in an 18th-century version of cricket on the lawns of Johnson Hall. Spectators are encouraged to bring lawn chairs and lunches, and will be invited to participate at points in the tournament.

Aug. 22 – Beyond the Mansion: A Walking Tour of the Johnson Hall Estate and Outbuildings from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

Sept. 7 – Anniversary Lecture Series at 11 a.m., “Colonial Johnstown, According to the Daybook of Robert Adems, Sir William Johnson’s Bookkeeper,” with Gayle Ann Livecchia, a researcher of the Mohawk Valley Revolutionary period and a former college instructor. She has done extensive research on Robert Adems, storekeeper for Sir William Johnson and his son Sir John. By examining Adems’ record-keeping, a picture emerges of the residents of Johnstown from all social classes. For most people in the ledger, Adem’s notation of their visit is the only documentation of their lives, the news release said.

Sept. 21 – Beyond the Mansion: A Walking Tour of the Johnson Hall Estate and Outbuildings from 1 to 2:30 p.m.

Oct. 5 – Anniversary Lecture Series at 11 a.m., “Georgian Opulence – in the Wilderness, above the Hudson, and on the Seacoast.” Judy Anderson, a historian, lecturer and former curator at the Jeremiah Lee Mansion, will explore the architecture and interiors of Johnson Hall in relation to Schuyler Mansion, the van Rensselaer Manor House and the Lee Mansion. She will focus on the textiles, wall coverings and decorative finishes that would have embellished these 18th-century houses. Signed copies of “Glorious Splendor: The 18th Century Wallpapers in the Jeremiah Lee Mansion” may be purchased after the lecture.

The hall’s 2013 Visitor Season will run from May 15 through Oct. 13. The last tour of each day begins at 4 p.m.

The site also is open Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day. Admission to the residence is $4 for adults, $3 for senior citizens and students, and free for children ages 12 and younger.

Preregistered groups and special events may alter the regular tour schedule.

Johnson Hall State Historic Site can be reached at 762-8712

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