Earlier this week, the three actresses - Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Cephas Jones, and Phillipa Soo (aka "The Schuyler Sisters") - from the original Broadway cast of Hamilton: An American Musical were reunited for the Kennedy Center Honors program. Of course they sang the Schuyler Sisters song, a glorious performance that you can watch again here.
But did you notice the street scene serving as their backdrop? While it wasn’t New York during the American Revolution, it was a street that the real Schuyler sisters would have known well. The image used in the backdrop was taken from a watercolor of Albany, NY, by James Eights (1798-1882), and depicts North Pearl Street from Maiden Lane North, not far from The Pastures., the estate of General Philip Schuyler, and the childhood home of the three sisters.
Although painted c1850, the street is shown how it would have appeared about 1814. The artist, a naturalist and draughtsman, had lived on the street as a child, and was painting the scene from memory, and from research of older maps and documents. Pearl Street in 1814 likely hadn’t changed much from the 18thc when the Schuyler girls lived in Albany. The houses and shops are a mix of English and Dutch architectural styles, reflecting the two major cultures blending together in the 18thc city. And despite how small the scale of the buildings might seem here, Albany was a major city in 18thc America, the second-largest in the state of New York .
Another version of the watercolor was annotated to describe some of the buildings shown. The large yellow house to the far left belonged to a doctor, with the smaller one of wood beside it his office. The three shops in the center are brick or stone, and feature the stair-step rooflines popular with the Dutch. The middle one with the carved pineapple sign over the door was occupied by a pastry cook. The shops’ doors are open to encourage customers, and two have half-doors (what we today still call a “Dutch door”.) The house to the far right is the most elegant of the scene, and likely the newest, too (probably after 1800), a fashionable Federal-style home with taller windows, a decorative balustrade along the front of the roof, and a fanlight over the door. The spire of the new (built c1814) Presbyterian church is visible in the background.
While the watercolor features several people, Pearl Street was a busy thoroughfare. Perhaps the artist chose to focus on the buildings, and leave out the wagons, carriages, horses, and numerous pedestrians which surely would have been there at the time.
And, of course, all the painting needs is Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy strolling along the street….
“North Pearl Street from Maiden Lane North as it was in 1814” by James Eights, c1850. Albany Institute of History and Art. The Institute will be hosting a special exhibition, “The Schuyler Sisters and Their Circle” from July 20-December 29, 2019: see here for more information.
Read more about Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton and her life in 18thc Albany in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton.