Schenectady’s iconic structures remain amid era of change

Building 37 at the General Electric plant is one of Schenectady's iconic building, largely because of the lighted sign with the company's name and logo. Photo by Marc Schultz/Gazette PhotographerBuilding 37 at the General Electric plant is one of Schenectady's iconic building, largely because of the lighted sign with the company's name and logo. Photo by Marc Schultz/Gazette Photographer
Building 37 at the General Electric plant is one of Schenectady's iconic building, largely because of the lighted sign with the company's name and logo. Photo by Marc Schultz/Gazette Photographer

Building 37 at the General Electric plant is one of Schenectady’s iconic building, largely because of the lighted sign with the company’s name and logo. Photo by Marc Schultz/Gazette Photographer

By BETHANY BUMP
Gazette Reporter

SCHENECTADY — There are a lot of great things about Schenectady.

It’s the birthplace of General Electric, ground zero for more than a century of innovation. It’s home to a historic theater that lures Broadway shows, a celebrated rose garden, a quaint pedestrian mall, the best Italian restaurants around, the state’s first historic district and a diverse population that rivals major cities.

One of its main thoroughfares was once part of the Erie Canal. Its backyard includes the beautiful Mohawk River. Its history is so rich that it’s not unusual for residents to have ongoing archaeological digs in their backyards.

But one of the city’s best features is its diverse stock of buildings, old and new, crumbling and state-of-the-art — and everything in between.

As the city plows forward with demolitions, rehabilitations and new construction, we asked a handful of Schenectady officials, historians and preservationists to tell us what they think are the city’s most iconic buildings. Below are the buildings that made multiple short lists. Many are on the state and national Register of Historic Places.

• General Electric Building 37 (1 River Road): Building 37 is iconic, less for the building itself than for the huge, lighted sign on top bearing the General Electric name in all caps and the cursive GE logo.

Looking over Schenectady, this sign has become synonymous with Schenectady’s manufacturing might, genius minds, innovative technologies and the city itself. When the sign went up in 1926, it was the largest electric sign in the country. It stretches 168 feet across, features 1,399 individual lights, letters 10 feet tall and a monogram 36 feet in diameter.

• Proctors (432 State St.): You know you’ve found Proctors when you spot the historic landmark’s flashing marquee, but it’s the interior that makes people who can’t even spell architecture swoon.

“The marquee is nice, but what’s really spectacular is when you get inside and just see the magnificent beauty and ornateness of the facility,” said Mayor Gary McCarthy.

Proctors has been restored and renovated numerous times since F.F. Proctor built the vaudeville theater in 1926. Step inside and you’ll find no shortage of things to marvel at: marble staircases, a pastoral mural, Corinthian columns, extensive gold leaf detailing and iron railings. Inside the main theater, the 60-foot-high ceiling is the show stealer with its gilded leaves and flowers, urns of fruit, delicate latticework and gold chandeliers.

• The Nott Memorial at Union College: If you’re a local on Instagram, you’ve surely seen at least a dozen filtered shots of the Nott.

Built from 1858 to 1869, this round, Victorian Gothic beauty dedicated to Union President Eliphalet Nott sits atop a slight hill as the centerpiece of America’s first planned campus. One of few 16-sided buildings in the world, it features pointed arches, intricate stonework, hundreds of stained glass windows, an ornate dome and a colorful encaustic tile floor. It was used as Union’s library for 60 years, and today serves as event, exhibit and study space. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986.

• City Hall (105 Jay St.): Built at the height of the Depression by the famous architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, City Hall is one of Schenectady’s crown jewels.

A revival of the Federal style (1780 to 1830), the brick building boasts a rotunda full of marble features and is topped by a square clock tower with a gold-leaf dome and weathervane.

“Though not old, it’s considered one of the most beautiful such halls in the country,” said Schenectady County Historian Ed Reilly.

The mayor regularly spots people taking photos of the building on his way into and out of work.

“Sometimes I volunteer to take their picture in front of it,” McCarthy said. “They ask me who I am and then find it hard to believe the mayor just took their picture.”

• Elston Hall at Schenectady County Community College (78 Washington Ave.): Formerly the Hotel Van Curler, this six-story, columned brick building by the Western Gateway Bridge is one of SCCC’s main buildings today.

In the decades leading to the hotel’s construction in 1925, Schenectady’s population exploded due to General Electric and American Locomotive Co. New workers moving into the city stayed at the hotel until they were able to buy homes. It later accommodated business travelers and important guests, like then-Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, Gene Autry, Amelia Earhart and future president Ronald Reagan.

“That hotel was the epitome of high society,” former hotel employee James Stamper once told the Gazette. “If anything really noteworthy was happening in Schenectady, you knew it was happening at the Van Curler.”

The hotel closed in 1968 and reopened the next year as a community college.

• St. John the Evangelist Church (816 Union St.): Jaw dropping. Spectacular. Magnificent. Awe-inspiring. Choose your adjective, this Roman Catholic church on Union Street near Nott Terrace is something to behold — inside and out.

Constructed over a dozen years from 1892 to 1904, the 1,700-seat church features a 230-foot spire made of steel and glass, a 14-foot-high cross made of gilded iron, an altar from carrara marble, pews from oak, windows from the Royal Bavarian Art Institute in Munich and 536 angels depicted in stone, stained glass and more throughout the interior.

• Abraham Yates House (109 Union St.): Built circa 1725, the 3,000-square-foot Yates house is considered by some to be the best example of urban Dutch American architecture in the state. It is also the oldest private home in the city.

“This house represents what early Schenectady would have looked like when it was surrounded by a stockade in the 17th and early 18th centuries,” said former Schenectady County and city historian Don Rittner.

• The Stockade Inn (1 N. Church St.): Today, this red-trimmed gray building at the corner of Union and Church streets houses an elegant boutique hotel and restaurant, and plays host to weddings and other events.

It’s had many uses over the years, though. It was originally Mohawk Bank, the city’s first bank, then it was the Union Classical Institute, the city’s first high school. Then it was The Mohawk Club, a private men’s-only club. Built sometime between 1810 and 1820, the building is fairly close to the original on the inside.

• Webster Hall at Union College: Currently a Union College dormitory, the imposing Webster Hall building at the corner of Union Street and Seward Place was actually the site of the city’s first public library, one of more than 2,500 libraries around the world partially financed by Andrew Carnegie.

The building opened in 1903 and was converted into a dormitory in 1973 and named after Harrison Webster, the eighth president of Union College from 1888 to 1894.

• St. George’s Episcopal Church (30 N. Ferry St.): The oldest religious building in Schenectady (First Reformed Church and First Presbyterian are equally significant, but the current buildings are not their originals), the church has undergone numerous renovations and repairs through the years and is among the oldest surviving religious buildings in the state.

Rev. John Miller held the first service of the Episcopal Church in Schenectady in 1695. Designed by carpenter and shipwright Samuel Fuller, construction on the church began in 1759 and took several years to complete. The tower, originally of wood, was rebuilt of stone in 1870.

• Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady (1221 Wendell Ave.): In the historic GE Realty Plot, this liberal religious church was designed by notable architect Edward Durell Stone and completed by L.A. Swyer and Sons in 1961. Surrounded by trees, gardens and vast lawns, its dominant feature is the 300-seat Great Hall, an amphitheater that steps downward in circular benches as a 60-foot dome rises above it. It often serves as a dramatic stage, recital hall, dance platform, art museum and more.

The church was originally called the First Unitarian Society of Schenectady.

• Schenectady County Public Library (99 Clinton St.): Local architects Werner Feibes and the late James D. Schmitt designed the main branch of the county library system in 1969. More than three decades later, it was listed by the American Institute of Architects as one of the most notable buildings constructed in New York state in the 20th century.

• Nicholaus Block (266-268 State St.): Modern day Schenectadians know the brick building at the corner of Erie Boulevard and State Street as the home of Thai Thai Bistro (and before that, Bangkok Bistro). One of the few remaining buildings from the Erie Canal-era, it features bay windows and an ornamental roof engraved with fleurs-de-lis.

The Nicholaus Hotel opened here in 1901. It housed the German-themed Nicholaus Restaurant until 1975 and then Maurice’s Readi-Foods until 2004. A good part of the building was actually built in the late 1820s, soon after the Erie Canal came through, and was used for many years as a saloon.

This story originally appeared in The Daily Gazette.