Keeping heritage in the home

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Historic Union Street women’s retirement facility undergoing careful updates

BY REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

SCHENECTADY — At a historic building on upper Union Street, a renovation project is helping unite past and present.

It all started when staff at the Heritage Home for Women, an assisted living facility at 1519 Union St., began to feel the decades-old carpet in the more-than 100-year-old building needed replacing. But plans for the update continued to grow.

“We looked at all the different elements that happen to people as they age,” said Jane Schramm, an administrator at the facility. They realized better lighting, sturdier handrails, and even more comfortable toilets would improve quality of life for their 32 current residents.

Sue Plant, whose room on the first floor of the home is filled with photographs of friends and family, said the importance of keeping the place’s authentically homey feel is extremely important. It’s what helped her find happiness there, even though at first, she wasn’t sure she wanted to move in.

The first time Plant saw the Heritage Home, her sister brought her there.

“It’s like a regular house!” she said. “It’s not what I expected.”

She noticed chairs and tables in the hallway and living room that reminded her of her own home, and quickly settled in.

This historic snapshot shows the entrance to the Heritage Home for Women on Upper Union Street. Today, it remains largely unchanged. Photo courtesy of the Schenectady County Historical Society.

This historic snapshot shows the entrance to the Heritage Home for Women on Upper Union Street. Today, it remains largely unchanged. Photo courtesy of the Schenectady County Historical Society.

Plant came to the Heritage Home after a short stint in a nursing home for rehabilitation, and was thrilled to have her own room and to leave the behind her previous residence, because it felt like a hospital. But for her housemate Peg Shaver, the appeal was less certain.

“I’ve been here one year and two months,” Shaver said. “When I found out I was going to come here, I was very unhappy.”

At the time, she had lived alone, then with one of her four sons and his family. She wasn’t sure she wanted to leave home at all, but her son and daughter-in-law thought socializing and having aides to check up on Shaver would do her good.

Her first walk through the front door started to change her attitude.

“I thought, ‘Oh hey, this place is big,’ ” Shaver remembers. Aides showed her to her room, which is now filled with her favorite things, like a painting of Cape Cod, where the family used to vacation during the summer. A mylar balloon tied to her rocking chair reads, “Happy Mother’s Day!”

On her first night, she won at Bingo, and she was sold.

“This is my room and everything is mine in here,” she said happily. “This is cozy.”

Shaver said her four sons visit any time they like, and she’s made friends with the other ladies, who often meet to watch television or go for a walk.

“Now I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said.

The history and cozy atmosphere are important to ladies like Shaver, Plant and their friends, but moving out for renovations would be out of the question. So, funded by the home’s endowment, the project began, staged in phases from February to September 2015.

The residents, who range in age from 70 to 101, stay in their rooms or sit back in a common area while the work continues around them on weekdays. As contractors work, layers of history have been unearthed throughout the four-story building.

One important goal during the construction phase has been to preserve the wood throughout the building. Though scuffed and scratched in places, the wood is original, and the residents are emotionally attached to it.

“They said, ‘You’re not going to take away the wood, right?’ ” Schramm said.

The rich, dark decor is everywhere in the building, from the trim around the door frames to the panels on the stairs that frame the foyer. The residents use an elevator to avoid falls, but the steps give visitors’ first few steps inside a certain fanfare.

To the residents’ delight, the stairs are being stripped of old carpet, polished, and then decorated with a slim runner that will reveal more of their original structure.

Certain things simply can’t be held onto as time goes on. For example, several years ago a whole column of sun porches on the left side of the home had to be closed to replace them with a better, safer elevator.

But there are other small victories and discoveries that have brought the home even closer to its roots with the help of technology. Schramm said a staff member’s memories helped lead to one particularly exciting example.

Peg Shaver smiles during a visit from her son, Scott, at the Heritage Home for Women on Upper Union St. Photo: Rebecca Isenhart

Peg Shaver smiles during a visit from her son, Scott, at the Heritage Home for Women on Upper Union St. Photo: Rebecca Isenhart

“Somebody said, ‘You know, I think we used to have skylights,’ ” she recalled. “And we did!”

In fact, they still do. During a roofing repair sometime in the past, the skylights were covered over. It wasn’t feasible to cut holes into the roof to restore them, so instead, contractors will take down the false ceiling that hides the windows inside the home. Then, they’ll install special lights that mimic the illumination of the outdoors.

It’s a solution that would have been unimaginable when the glass was first placed into the ceiling, but it’s one creative way the home’s trustees have found to keep history alive inside.

Another exciting brush with history happened just before construction began in February. As with any home, the Heritage Home has an attic — or, more accurately, it has an entire fourth floor that has been given over to storage. Things stayed untouched there for years until a cleaning mission revealed fabulous hats from the 1920s stacked and waiting to be taken out on the town.

The only problem was, no glamorous evening had yet been planned — so each year the ladies make their own. They call it “glam day.”

Impromptu tea parties are common, too. And there’s always a chance of finding something very old tucked away somewhere — like the dumbwaiter that transferred things between floors until an air-conditioning unit replaced it a few years ago.

“There are lots of nooks and crannies,” Schramm said.

Exploring and celebrating the Heritage Home’s history is the most satisfying way for the staff and the residents to fulfill their curiosity about the place’s history.

“I think back, what would it have been like?” she said.

Timeline
1868: The Ladies Benevolent Society forms the “Home for the Friendless” at 35 Green St. in Schenectady. Residents were referred to as “inmates” and could be any age, including unwed mothers and other women without resources.
1873: Larger house purchased at 33 Green St., which housed 11 members.
1901: Name changed to “Old Ladies Home”
1906: Bought plot on Union Street
1909: The “Old Ladies Home” moved to current home at 1519 Union St.
1915: An addition to the Union Street building adds space for more residents, heating in sun parlors, and fourth-floor living space for maids.
1968: The “Old Ladies Home” became the “Heritage Home for Women,” and policy was changed so women could be trustees
Source: Schenectady County Historical Society

Schenectady name to know: Urania Nott
Urania Nott was president of the Ladies Benevolent Society, whose purpose was to “elevate the physical and moral condition of the indigent.” She later became the first Directress of the Home for the Friendless, from 1868 to 1885. Her husband, Eliphalet Nott, was president of Union College. Staff at the Heritage Home for Women hope to hang Urania Nott’s portrait in one of the stairwells as part of their renovation.

About the Author

Rebecca Isenhart
Rebecca Isenhart is the reporter/writer for Your Niskayuna, presented by the Daily Gazette of Schenectady.