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Casino museum is a sure bet

John Morrissey,
a street-tough Irish immigrant who grew up in Troy and rose to fame as a prizefighter and Tammany Hall politician in New York City, took a gamble when he built a clubhouse and casino overlooking Saratoga’s Congress Park in 1870. He put the most lavish building in the most well-traveled part of town and then decreed it off-limits to local citizens, who were left to admire the handsome Victorian Italianate structure from without and grumble about the sinful activities within.

The Saratoga Club has long been known as Canfield Casino, after Richard Canfield, who bought it in 1894 and added the magnificent Beaux Arts ballroom in the back. From the grand double-arched windows and immense chandeliers of the parlor to the stained-glass windows in the barrel-vaulted ballroom ceiling, the casino was built to impress. And it still does.

Owned by the city and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Canfield Casino today is home to the Saratoga Springs Historical Society, the George S. Bolster Collection of Saratoga photographs, and the Beatrice Sweeney Archive of documents and business records (named for Bea Swartfigure Sweeney ’37, longtime city historian).

Visitors to the Historical Society’s museum begin in
an orientation gallery on the first floor, which offers a brief sweep of Saratoga history and displays the 1802 Gideon Putnam Tavern sign, gambling and mineral-water ephemera, and historic photos, such as the Saratoga Springs High School graduation class of 1874 (four girls and two boys) and the 1895 cohort of 20 cooks from the United States Hotel. Upstairs is the preserved High Stakes Room, where chips went for as much as $100,000 back in the day.

The Walworth Memorial Museum on the third floor features the 19th-century furnishings of New York State Chancellor Reuben Hyde Walworth and family and also depicts their saga of tragedy and triumph.

For tragedy, there was the chancellor’s son Mansfield, a successful author and less-than-successful husband, murdered by his own son Frank. Mansfield’s widow (and stepsister), Ellen Hardin Walworth, trumped tragedy with a life of civic virtue, working to preserve Saratoga history and cofounding the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Lining the stairways are inductees into the “history hall of fame,” begun in 2005—icons such as Lucy Skidmore Scribner, Yaddo’s Spencer Trask, author Frank Sullivan, folk-music maven Lena Spencer, and, yes, gaming entrepreneur John Morrissey.

Morrissey’s elite gambling establishment thrived into the 20th century, but Richard Canfield’s luck ran out when anti-gambling pressures forced him to close its doors in 1907. He sold the building, and the Italian gardens he had created behind it, to the city in 1911. In Morrissey’s day the casino catered strictly to gentleman high-rollers from out of town. These days it’s the locals who book their weddings at Canfield Casino, where the opulent setting and warm shadow of history offer the perfect ambience for taking a chance on love.

If you’re on one of those wedding guest lists, you can admire the casino’s grand parlor and ballroom for free. Otherwise you’ll have to pony up a few bucks and attend the annual summer antique show, an Albany Symphony concert, or any of a number of charitable events booked there throughout the year (here’s a calendar). It’s a safe bet you will be impressed. —KG