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Hall of Governors update expands stories of two centuries of leadership

ALBANY -- Gov. William Sulzer's term in office was brief and ignominious, beginning in March 1913 and ending nine months later with Sulzer's impeachment at the hands of his former Tammany Hall cronies.

Sulzer's portrait, however, is spellbinding. Slightly larger than life, it depicts the onetime congressman in evening dress, hand in pocket, half-turned to peer at the viewer with a gaze that's equal parts Casanova and Karloff.

Incredibly, Leo Mielziner's oil painting has been out of public view for decades after Sulzer donated it to the New York Historical Society. Now it has come to Albany, as one of 11 gubernatorial portraits soon to take up residence in the Hall of Governors, the Capitol's executive branch office corridor.

Work begins Monday with the temporary removal of the portraits currently on the walls. They'll go back up in chronological order, accompanied by biographical information and supplementary historical markers placing each governor in the context of their era. The timeline will begin outside the executive offices with the monumental portrait of New York's first governor, George Clinton, and run clockwise through more than two centuries of state history.

While these changes -- expected to be completed by the end of December -- will be less extensive than the work currently being done in the Capitol's upper floors, it's likely to attract larger crowds, including art aficionados, history buffs and students.

"We want people to be on the second floor," said state Director of Operations Howard Glaser, who on Wednesday gave the Times Union and WMHT's "New York Now" a preview of the improvements.

The project was undertaken at the request of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who on his first day in office opened the previously locked-down Hall of Governors to the public with a symbolic ribbon-cutting.

"He particularly wanted it to be not only accessible but attractive and informative for young visitors," said Harold Holzer, an acclaimed historian and vice president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art who was tapped to assist the project.

Holzer noted the current display -- from the arrangement of the art to the lighting and lack of legible information -- falls well below modern presentation standards. "It really looks like a museum in Bavaria or something, without insulting Bavaria," he said. " ... The governor looked at it and said it's not cohesive, and it's not even visible."

That last complaint will be addressed through the installation of a state-of-the-art lighting system, designed at Troy's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, that will be easier on the eyes and the art. Glaser said it will also be roughly 90 percent more energy-efficient, allowing the state to defray most of the cost of the upgrades -- roughly $80,000 -- with federal funds.

Matthew Bender, who chairs the commission overseeing the larger renovation of the Capitol, helped secure corporate funding for other aspects of the work, including $30,000 from General Electric to cover the restoration of three of the returning portraits that were in the collection of the Albany Institute of History & Art. Bender himself picked up the cost of restoring the grand image of William Marcy.

For Glaser -- whose first year in office has included fiscal distress, labor tension and natural disasters -- the development of a timeline that literally runs past his office door has been "really reassuring in some ways. ... One of the things people will notice is that there's not that much new under the sun."

New York's past "is a fantastic story of the rise of problems and the solving of problems," said Holzer, a Civil War scholar who is most excited about the addition of the portrait of William Seward, who went on to serve as Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State.

"Whatever the momentary debates are, you see that there is a steady progress from the days of Clinton to today," Holzer said. "That's staggering. And how much New York led is staggering, and it's a great story for kids."

In the modern era, former governors have raised the funds to produce their official portraits. Gov. George Pataki is the most recent executive to make a contribution.

From Clinton through Pataki, there will be only two missing portraits in the hall: Nathaniel Pitcher, whose 1828 service lasted only a month longer than Sulzer's (no images of him have been discovered), and Mario Cuomo, who since leaving office in 1994 has expressed zero interest in sitting for his portrait, much less fundraising for its completion.

The elder Cuomo's blank space will sit between the portraits of Hugh Carey and Pataki. (There's real estate set aside for Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson, as well.)

Asked if this project might prompt the current governor's father to move ahead with his own portrait, Glaser said that was entirely up to the former governor.

"I know not to get between the governors Cuomii," he said.

Back in town

Portraits of these governors will be added to the Hall of Governors in coming weeks:

John Jay (in office 1795-1801)

Morgan Lewis (1804-1807)

Daniel Tompkins (1807-1817)

Enos Throop (1829-1832)

William Marcy (1833-1838)

William Seward (1839-1842)

Washington Hunt (1851-1852)

John Hoffman (1869-1872)

John Adams Dix (1873-1874)

Samuel Tilden (1875-1876)

William Sulzer (1913)

For more on the project, see this week's installment of WMHT's "New York Now," airing at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

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