Harry Pettee was the major stockholder and the chief executive of one of the carbonic gas companies that flourished in Saratoga at the turn of the last century. His company had been pumping the water south of the village, (Saratoga was a village at the time) extracting and bottling the carbon dioxide and sending the bottled gas to New York City. There, local bottling companies added the gas to the city’s water to make soda. Unfortunately, the pumping of the water in Saratoga lowered the water table, causing the natural springs in the city to go dry. Without the springs, the city lost one of its most precious resources. Out of desperation, the city used the power of eminent domain to take Pettee’s property. That property is now a portion of the State Park.
The story of Harry Pettee is one in which lore has replaced the truth. It is said that he was the mayor of the city who embezzled the city’s money and disappeared – a great story but, unfortunately, it’s not true.
The truth is that Pettee was the second mayor of the city (Saratoga was a village until 1915) and as the house was being completed he was in the process of embezzling money from his own company. Perhaps because many of the stockholders were prominent citizens of the city, it felt like he stole the city’s money.
It all started in May 1923 when the local newspaper broke the story that Pettee had disappeared with an estimated $320,000 (a sizable amount for 1923.) His salary at the time was $25,000 per year. The next day the story was in the New York Times and within days the story of the missing executive who absconded with his company’s money was covered in newspapers all across the country.
When Pettee disappeared, he left a note saying that he was boarding a European bound ship and was going to jump overboard. The police investigated every option. Even though Pettee lacked a passport, they checked with the various cruise lines. The police checked with the various plants he operated across the country. They even followed his mistress. Pettee simply could not be found. It appears his wife was the only one to believe the note – though it was probably wishful thinking on her part.
It is from Wiswall Alley that the most unique aspect of the house can be seen. Looking over the stone fence that lines the alley, one can see four grand columns and a two story porch – obviously designed to be the front of the house. What cannot be seen from the street is the grand stairway which greats guests who enter through the door between the pillars. With what was originally the sun porch on the north side, it is obvious the house was built backward! The only logical explanation for the setup is Pettee’s state of mind, and out of anger he arranged it so that everyone who rang the bell on Broadway came to the servants’ entrance.
Pettee would never be seen again; however, his wife, Agatha, would maintain the house as her residence until her death in November 1933. Her obituary appeared on the same page as a story about the racially charged Scottsboro boys’ trial in Alabama and expectations about the Roosevelt Presidency.
Since the Pettees had no children, the house was left to her niece, Agatha Quintana, who had cared for Mrs. Pettee as her health failed. Originally from Brooklyn, Miss Quintana would marry Charles B. Kilmer, a member of one of the most prominent families in Saratoga. A veteran of World War II, Kilmer was a Senior Industrial Consultant in the State Department of Commerce. He was president of the local Rotary Club and a member of the local Masonic Temple. The Kilmers would reside in the house for over three decades. Charles would die in 1964, just three years after his father.
Unlike some of the other houses in this series, this house was never cut up into apartments or went through a period of serious decline. Perhaps being built as a scandal brewed was enough trauma for the property.
Current owners, Kerin Colbert and Jera Meren, consider themselves fortunate to live in a gracious home where they can take advantage of Pettee’s both porches, which are on the back of the house.
Interesting side notes on the Pettee and Kilmer families: In Mrs. Pettee’s obituary she is referred to as “a woman of much charm and pleasant social qualities.” More importantly “she bore her painful illness and adversities with courageous spirit,” an obvious reminder of what happened with her husband.
In addition to his other civic associations, Kilmer was also a member of the Society for the Detection of Horse Thieves.
Mrs. Kilmer was active in the PTA. She was instrumental in the creation of the original North End Play Ground near the new Skidmore campus.
The house was featured on the show “If Walls Could Talk” on HGTV. Part of the show focused on a portion of the basement floor which was left wooden instead of cement. The question was if under that section of the basement floor Pettee hid the money. On the show the floor was removed – the money was not there; however, the studs were spaced perfectly to hide liquor that had been made illegal by the Volstead Act.
The books by Hollis Palmer are available at Crafters’ Gallery and The Saratoga Springs History Museum.