Exploring Albany's inglorious past and dubious future

Joseph K. “Fritz” Emmet and the Building of Wolfert’s Roost

roost
While not mentioned anywhere in the official history of the Club, the original Wolfert’s Roost was actually built by Joseph K. Emmett, a comedic stage actor. Emmett had bounced around variety acts and minstrelsy for years until he struck upon a character who would define his career: Fritz, “Our Cousin German.” The act centered around “Fritz’” dialect with yodeling, and included a bevy of singers and dancers.
fritz (2)

From the mid-1800’s to his heyday in the 1870’s, Emmett amassed a fortune with his act.

fritz 1878 opera

As time passed, he also acquired a reputation for chronic inebriation (“he made matters lively by suddenly appearing in front of the hotel in his undershirt and drawers of a flaming red and running around the block, through the snow, which was several inches deep,” his manager recalled in a post-mortem interview) that eventually spiraled into critical scorn. Seeking stability and peace (and after being committed to an inebriate home in Kings county), he married into Albany society and decided to build his dream house here. The main house was built in 1880, with out-buildings continually being added and improved over the next decade. The cost was estimated at $310,000 (over $7 million in 2013 equivalent).

Although nominally inspired by villas Emmett saw while touring Germany, the house itself was a capricious, architectural mess. There wasn’t a square room in the house; walls were covered in gold cloth and red plush. Author Washington Irving called it “all gables and nooks.” Emmett called it “Fritz Villa.”
fritz granddaughter

(pictured: Fritz and his granddaughter)

When coherent and physically able, Fritz continued to ply his German bumpkin act. With his fame and fortune, he became the toast of the town, despite his declining sobriety. By 1890 the scribes were lamenting that Fritz had “fallen into a sore and yellow manner of performance” (one of the best quotes a small newspaper item saying how Emmett was “too inebriated to perform at the Grand Opera House [in St Louis ]. He will be kept a prisoner in the theatre until he becomes sober.”). His wife divorced him 1891; several weeks later, just after announcing his engagement to his leading lady, he died. The ex-Mrs. Emmett renamed the estate “Huhnah Villa” and put it up for sale.
fritzvilla
It was purchased the next year (for a bargain-basement $20,000) by Senator (and ex-Governor) David B. Hill, who rechristened it “Wolfert’s Roost,” from a short story of the same name by Washington Irving.

Upon its new ownership, there was a feature story on the unusual structure in the New York Sun, September 18, 1892:

HUHNAH ON THE HUDSON
THE COUNTRY SEAT ONCE J.K. EMMET’S
NOW OWNED BY SENATOR HILL

“A Costly, Queer, and Erratically Arranged Residence Set In Spacious Grounds – Whims of the Genial Actor who Built Fritz Villa – Odd Nooks, Mounds, Rockeries, Strange Trees, and Statuettes.

“Albany. Sept. 17. – If the inscription “Huhnah Villa,” written over the iron gateway leading into the grounds of Senator David B. Hill’s recent real estate investment were mentioned few would know what place was designated. But if “Fritz Villa” were spoken of all would recognize that the Senator’s new residence was none other than the costly, fantastic structure which merry, large-hearted “Fritz” Emmet commenced to build a little over a decade ago and vainly tried to make a home. “Fritz Villa” it is called to-day, notwithstanding that the divorced wife of Emmet effaced the familiar “Fritz” and substituted the Indian word ‘Huhnah” as soon as the place became hers.

“Senator Hill in buying this place has bought the queerest, most erratically arranged residence in the country. Fritz bought the fifteen acres surrounding his villa in 1880. The land is situated on top of the bluff which extends along the west side of the Hudson, between Albany and Menands. Van Rensselaer avenue, or the Northern Boulevard, a carefully constructed but very sparsely settled street extending from the edge of Tivola Hollow to the Rural Cemetery, constitutes the front or eastern line of the villa lot. The house and lot are barely within the limits of the city of Albany, and about a mile and a half from the centre and business portions. The grounds that surround the villa were originally laid out by the landscape gardener of Washington Park, assisted by Fritz’s whims, and are full of odd nooks, mounds, rockeries and rookeries, strange trees and statuettes, which are encountered so unexpectedly in walking about the grounds as to startle the visitor. A gully in front of the house, by means of a fancifully constructed windmill, which pumps the water from a natural spring on the place, has been transformed into a small lake, on which even now floats the Venetian gondola which Fritz brought from the very waters that splash about the Doge’s palaces and the Bridge of Sighs. The pumping apparatus for this lake idea alone cost Fritz $7,000. Soon afterward Fritz built another artistic windmill and set it to pumping water from the lake into the house. To prevent intrusion when he had his villa built he put up a tight board fence seven or eight feet high around all but the front, where he had an equally high fancy iron fence with and old-country stone gateway and gatekeeper’s lodge. Back of the house he built a queer rustic stable, costing $7,000, and the next year he enlarged it by building another just like it and slapping the two together.

“But the house itself is the oddest conceit of this most whimsical of American actors. The original villa idea Fritz picked up piecemeal on his travels, and the first plans he drew himself and he even constructed a working model of what he wanted out of paper. This was to cost $25,000 and was about half the size of the present structure. To arrange the grounds with its lake, rustic bridges, nooks, and mounds cost $20,000. No sooner was the house completed than Fritz began to alter it by the addition of a tower or a room or a gable or some other odd-shaped extension, and he kept the architect, F.W. Woolett, in a ferment, though he added largely to his income. The first year he put two roofs on the house before he secured one that suited him. As he traveled about this and other countries he would see a gable, tower, mantel, a fireplace, or an odd room or window, which he would hastily sketch, color up, and send to the architect with instructions to put it on such a corner or in such a room, regardless of general continuity or expense. These alterations cost the actor all the way from $15,000 to $25,000 a year.
fritz newspaper article picturee

“The house as it stands to-day, and as it was deeded to Mrs. Emmet in 1890, has probably cost, with the grounds, between $200,000 and $300,000. It has not been changed in four years, save where the divorced wife has erased “Fritz” and substituted “Huhnah” in the name over the gateway and in the costly stained glass Tiffany window which once occupied the bay window in her boudoir. This window represented Fritz in a lover-like Romeo-and-Juliet attitude before his wife, and according to report the form of Fritz has since the divorce been altered into a resemblance of a later admirer, while Mrs. Emmet appears as an angel, with an angelic halo about her head.

“The general lines of the house itself are so irregular as to be in a degree shapeless. The central plan is that of an octagon room, with the other rooms grouped around it, and all destitute of doors or barriers, so that in stepping into the main room one gets nearly a complete vista of the whole interior. The building may be said, in a general way, to be two stories and an attic high. On the first floor the principal apartment is the octagonal central room; in Fritz’s lifetime it was used as the musical room, and contained his orchestrion and other instruments. The windows are stained glass, with designs of musical subjects, musical notes, and selections from the songs of Fritz scattered over them. On the left of this is the parlor, with its vaulted ceiling, and back of this the dining room. On the right is the library, decorated with white and gold frescoing. It formerly contained few books and many knickknacks and articles of bric-a-brac. Back of the library is the billiard room with its fancy and costly table. Beyond the dining room on the left was originally the conservatory, but Fritz wearied of this because it interfered with his Turkish bath, which was extravagantly fitted up in marble and onyx, so he tore it out and made a dressing room of it. In the extreme rear on this floor, and out of sight, is the kitchen. The length of this entire lower floor is 125 feet. The rooms on this floor are all finished in hard woods, principally cherry, highly polished, with the exception fo the white and gold library. The floors are hard wood inlaid.

“A carved hardwood staircase winding round the octagon centre leads to the upper floor, which contains, first of all, a similar octagonal room, used as a smoking room. In this Fritz, during his odd moments of leisure, built himself a mantel out of old cigar boxes, which he carefully saved and varnished, and used labels and all. This is probably one of the queerest pieces of decorative whims in the whole house. The smoking room, like the music room below, leads into all the others on this floor. This upper floor constituted the family apartments. Mrs. Emmet’s boudoir was the principal one, extending along the front of the house, and it is the only carpeted room in the building, being also richly upholstered and furnished in blue silk. It is directly over the vaulted ceiling of the parlor, and as this ceiling protrudes into the room, Fritz utilized it by building a species of dais or throne on the apex, reached by a flight of three steps and surmounted by a richly comparisoned seat for the queen of the place. In this room was the Tiffany window referred to before. In the northeast corner or tower was located the room of young Joe, who now treads the boards as Fritz, Jr. Along the northern side were the guest chambers. A second winding stairway leads to the attic, which, by reason of the fantastic gables, towers, and oddly sloping roofs, is full of queer angled and corner rooms, having windows of all sizes and shapes. They are furnished to represent different national customs in house furnishings, the ideas of which Fritz picked up in his travels abroad in England, Holland, France, Italy, and Germany.

“Such is the new home of the bachelor Senator and erstwhile bachelor Governor of the Empire State, David B. Hill.”

With Hill’s death in 1910, Wolfert’s Roost went to his estate, who sold it to a group who turned it into a country club. Wolfert’s Roost Country Club doubled the property’s footprint to 36 acres and added a golf course. After extensive renovations, the original building burned to the ground in 1926 and was replaced with a new structure. That one was replaced by a new club house in the late 1980’s; it stands today.

Emmet’s mausoleum now occupies this space at Albany Rural Cemetery (thanks to Paula Lemire for the info and the photo).
fritz tomb
POSTSCRIPT: A song Emmett wrote for his play became a huge popular hit, and endures even today. Here’s a link to a [relatively] modern-day recording of it:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJAB3zh4RiE

3 Responses to “Joseph K. “Fritz” Emmet and the Building of Wolfert’s Roost”

  1. brian pobocik

    I liked this article as it provided an interesting glimpse into Joseph K. Emmet [ perhaps the most famous entertainer for whom there is NO wikipedia entry]. Anyway, I wanted to comment that the Washington Irving quote should be edited as it suggests Irving made this quote upon having observed the building. Irving died in 1859. He never saw this building.

    Reply
  2. Dan Axtell

    I’m a J.K. Emmet fan and I haven’t seen this information on Wolfert’s Roost elsewhere, so thank you for this webpage.

    One correction about his famous Lullaby: The Robert Earl recording of “Go To Sleep, My Baby” is a song by Eddie Pola and Franz Steininger, not J.K. Emmet. Judy Garland also recorded that song and it has no yodel in it. Emmet’s lullaby is called either “Emmet’s Lullaby” or “Brother’s Lullaby.” You can see the sheet music at these webpages:
    http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:1143925
    http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:1140056

    I can’t find any recording online (and Emmet was never recorded). You can hear Billy Costello’s (first voice of Popeye) rendition of the yodel in the chorus in the Popeye cartoon, “Sock-a-Bye Baby” at 2 minutes and 6 seconds into the cartoon. It’s on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0fdMXKfbKE . Of course, it’s comical to have a yodel in a lullaby and sometimes it’s called Emmet’s “Lullaby” with quotes around lullaby. Emmet was a comedian foremost.

    Helpful hints for others researching J.K. Emmet. His name is often spelled with a double t. His son, J.K. Emmet, Jr. was also an actor in musical theater and also an inebriate and also had a front-page divorce. So, it’s easy to conflate the two, and I congratulate the author for avoiding that problem.

    Reply
    • alcue

      Appreciate your feedback. It’s an ongoing project for me, albeit a casual one. I recall finding a library somewhere rather far away having some of his personal papers, which I can’t access from here. Emmet’s fame was predicated on entertainments and comedies in an era whose entertainments and comedies are so far removed from today’s culture that they hardly make sense, and his big-fish-small-pond fame in Albany is likewise hard to fathom without an understanding of our area’s enduring provincialism. Nonetheless, a fascinating character. I’ll update the blog entry soon to reflect your information. Thanks again.

      Reply

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