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Chapter 6: The Clarkson Legacy in the Built Environment

The 600 acres on the hill were owned by three Clarkson families. The estate included three houses, barns, a racetrack, a conservatory where flowers were grown year-round, a caretaker’s house, a gazebo, barns and other outbuildings. Stone pillars marked the entrance, welcoming villagers, who were allowed to drive through the estate. The two remaining original buildings, Holcroft and Woodstock, are now part of Clarkson University, itself a major part of the Potsdam built environment. The other important buildings the Clarksons were responsible for are churches.

Trinity Episcopal Church

Trinity Episcopal Church on Fall Island in Potsdam was formed in 1835. The first church in Potsdam was not Trinity but rather the Presbyterian church. John Charlton Clarkson and his family had attended the Presbyterian church until enough Episcopalians had arrived to create their own congregation. Trinity Church parish was formed with “the following officers elected: church wardens John C. Clarkson and Augustus L. Clarkson; and vestrymen David L. Clarkson, Zenas Clark, Theodore Clark, Myron Munson, Noble Strong Elderkin, Frederick Miller Jr., Samuel Partridge and Aaron T. Hopkins” (Chapman, 8).The land was donated to the church by the three proprietors in Manhattan (T. Streatfeild, Levinus Clarkson and the children of Gerrit Van Horne, who was deceased. The Potsdam Clarksons donated the lumber and the sandstone. “A building committee went to work immediately to erect a church 64 by 44 feet, to be built of sandstone after the design of Trinity Church, New York City” (Chapman, 8).

The design they used was not that of the current Trinity Church in Manhattan, which was not built until 1840. The design was that of the second Trinity Church built after the Revolutionary War. The first had burned in the New York City Conflagration of 1776. Gen. Matthew Clarkson was instrumental in fundraising to build the second church. Unfortunately, it suffered structural damage in a snowstorm and was torn down in 1838-39 (“History”). The specific intention to design the Fall Island Trinity Church after the Manhattan Trinity Church reveals the Potsdam Clarksons’ orientation toward Manhattan. The eldest Levinus Clarkson, who died in Potsdam in1845, was buried in the Manhattan Trinity Church cemetery. The Clarksons had played key roles in the Manhattan Trinity Church since its founding in 1698. For example, a burial ground (no longer in use by the church) is at the end of Clarkson and Leroy streets.

While the current Potsdam Trinity Church no longer bears any resemblance to the Trinity Church in Manhattan, it has its own magnificence. The Clarksons commissioned five Tiffany windows, two of which are thought to be of Tiffany’s own design. They gave a silver alter service, a pipe organ and the clock in the tower. The Clarksons funded at least two complete renovations, including floors, ceilings and pews, as well as additions like the memorial chapel in honor of Elizabeth Clarkson (1810-83) (Chapman, 17-9). An original church wall built in the slab-and-binder style can be seen behind the newer ashlar façade. Detailed information can be found in The History of Trinity Church, Potsdam, New York, 1835-1896, written by Annie Clarkson in 1896.

Two other books were published for the church and for wider circulation by David L. Clarkson in 1855. Aid to Domestic Worship is the size of a pulpit bible with tooled leather covers and gold trimming. The other book is The Christian’s Companion to the Sick and Afflicted (Chapman, 16).

Bayside Cemetery

In 1899, the Clarksons built the sandstone lodge and gateway to Bayside Cemetery. The following family members are interred in the Clarkson vault (in order of internment):

  • Thomas S. (T.S.) Clarkson (1799-1873)
  • Levinus (1835-76), son of T.S. and Elizabeth 
  • Lavinia (1798-1881), daughter of Levinus and Ann Mary Van Horne 
  • Elizabeth (1810-83), daughter of Levinus and Ann Mary, wife of T.S. 
  • Thomas S. (1837-94), son of T.S. and Elizabeth 
  • Ann Mary (1831-95), daughter of T.S. and Elizabeth, wife of T. Streatfeild, mother of Annie and Emilie 
  • T. Streatfeild (1824-1902), son of David and Elizabeth Streatfeild, husband of Ann Mary, father of Annie and Emilie 
  • Frederica (1846-1909), daughter of T.S. and Elizabeth, Clarkson College trustee 
  • Elizabeth (1833-1918), daughter of T.S. and Elizabeth, Clarkson College trustee 
  • Lavinia (1842-1926), daughter of T.S. and Elizabeth 

Also buried in Bayside Cemetery, but not in the family vault, is Emilie Vallete Clarkson Moore (1863-1946), daughter of T. Streatfeild and Ann Mary (Chapman, 27). 

Other Episcopal Churches Funded by the Clarksons

The Clarksons funded St. Thomas Church in Lawrenceville, Zion Church in Colton (in memory of their mother Elizabeth) and St. Philips Episcopal Church in Norwood (Chapman, 17-18). 

Thomas S. Clarkson College of Technology

Clarkson College, now Clarkson University, is the best known legacy of the Clarksons in Potsdam. Clarkson College opened in 1896 in the beautiful sandstone building called Old Main.

Elizabeth and Annie Clarkson had taken a hand in the design, and the Clarkson quarries contributed the sandstone. The third floor, once used by the students to gather for chapel or convocation, is now an open meeting space available for public events. Old Main is just across the road from the other remarkable sandstone building belonging to Clarkson College, Old Snell. Old Snell had previously been the Potsdam Normal School, which had been built upon the site of the St. Lawrence Academy (built in 1810). The Clarkson “Techers” mingled enthusiastically with the Normal students. In 1953, Potsdam Normal sold the land for $1 and the building for $150,000 to Clarkson because it was moving to its current campus, now called SUNY Potsdam (Broughton, 302). Old Snell is being redeveloped for multiuse.

From 1896 to 1970, Clarkson’s Downtown Campus was in development. Clarkson Hall, named for Trustee Robert Livingston Clarkson, is still used for classes. Three other buildings (Damon, Peyton and Lewis halls) serve as incubator spaces for entrepreneurs. Congdon Hall is awaiting redevelopment. The shift to the current Hill Campus didn’t begin until the 1970s. The trustees had planned an ideal “campus on the hill.” However, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 left the College without the funding to pay for buildings (162-3). Instead, Emilie paid to have the extant structures remodeled to house students (146), equipment and clubs.

The first new buildings on the Hill Campus were dormitories and the gymnasium. The first new academic building was the Cora and Bayard Clarkson Science Center, begun in 1970. By 1996, the centennial of Clarkson College, the center of gravity had shifted to the Hill Campus. All the engineering departments were on the hill, as were the student services. Clarkson University even had its own zip code.

Holcroft House has been constantly in use, whether for student housing, lodging for visiting sports teams or as an infirmary. In 1966, the house was remodeled into a women’s dormitory, but following a fire in a similar housing unit at Cornell University in 1979, the College repurposed Holcroft as the Office of Admissions. The house was eventually restored to its 1850s glory and is now a showpiece of the Hill Campus (Broughton, 146). The fountain out front, a restoration of the original fountain on the Clarkson estate, was a gift of the Class of 1985.

Since the 1970s, Holcroft has hosted a sad female ghost in late 19th-century garb. She has been blamed for mysterious openings and closings of shutters and drapes, as well as for the turnings on and off of lights and copiers (Broughton, 666).

Woodstock Lodge was uninhabited from 1888 until it was reopened in 1935 as Woodstock Club, a cooperative boarding house for Clarkson students. In 1943, the building was closed and used for storage. Vandals targeted the empty building, so in 1954, staff from Clarkson moved in with their families. One of the children, Tim O’Brien, remembers that the basement had a large kitchen with baking ovens and a dumbwaiter to the living room. Also underground was a store room and root cellar.

In 1967, the building became the student center, with meeting rooms and a pub in the basement. By then, Woodstock had been completely renovated; the foundation and walls were strengthened and structural steel was positioned throughout (Broughton,190). Since 1987, it has functioned as the Alumni House (191). 

A few other buildings no longer standing deserve mention: In 1938, the barns were used as a rifle range for ROTC and the Potsdam Gun Club, as well as to store engines, including an old Wright “Jenny” airplane engine, for Clarkson’s mechanical engineering department. On April 10, 1940, just after Clarkson students had left for spring break, the barns burned down. Over 800 townspeople people gathered to watch and help save some of the antiques. Firefighters were hampered by the spring thaw, which made the ground too soft for their trucks (Broughton, 225). The conservatory was used by the Outing Club until it was demolished in 1970 for construction of the first new academic building to be built on the hill.