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Historic home rehabs … historic headaches

Help available, but projects often pose long, costly efforts

Sunday, September 30, 2012
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221 Green St. in Schenectady's Stockade neighborhood is pictured on Sept. 14.
221 Green St. in Schenectady's Stockade neighborhood is pictured on Sept. 14.

— Tom Killeen sighs when someone brings up 221 Green St.

It’s a gut reaction to the decade he spent working on the home. The local contractor makes a living buying properties and fixing them up. But for this home, it wasn’t enough to merely make it livable. He couldn’t demolish it. So he had a choice: fix it or lose money by letting it sit.

Killeen completely refurbished the house.

In just the past two weeks, he finally finished 221 Green St. — a home that represents both the best and the worst of residential historic preservation.

“Any ordinary person would not have been able to fix up that house,” he said.

It was built in 1857 and was home to Jacob Clute, the owner of the Clute Bros. Foundry, the Schenectady company that designed gearing for the turret of the historic Civil War iron-clad warship Monitor.

When Killeen bought it in 2000, the brick building with red-trimmed windows was dilapidated. No one had lived there in more than 40 years and decades of leaking water had ruined the roof. The home had dropped a full foot into the ground on one side, and one wall was leaning more than a foot toward the home next door.

“This is the reason I wanted to tear the building down,” he said. “This is why it wouldn’t be feasible for somebody who doesn’t have any kind of financing or experience.”

In a historic preservationist’s ideal world, no historic home would ever get to this point.

The Schenectady Heritage Foundation provides grants and loans for projects that require preservation. The not-for-profit volunteer organization is one of several options people can turn to for help with residential preservation — the home projects that don’t get the love, care and affection that government agencies tend to lavish on commercial properties.

When Killeen applied more than a decade ago for a permit to demolish 221 Green St., the Heritage Foundation moved quickly to make sure that piece of the city’s history didn’t disappear.

It agreed to pay him $25,000 in installments to restore the home, but Killeen would have to follow the zoning laws of what is considered one of the best-preserved neighborhoods in the nation: the Stockade Historic District.

After tangles with the city over permits, five years of work and a $150,000 investment of his own, Killeen restored the building. A neighbor who lived nearby immediately rented the home. She had watched him over the years, pouring a new concrete foundation, tearing down walls and building them back up, rewiring the place and installing a new sewer connection.

“She was ecstatic to move into the house because it’s practically a brand new house,” he said. “And she knows its place in history.”

He received his last payment of $5,000 from the Foundation last week.

“Frequently, the funding we provide is not only an incentive for action, but also the financial difference that makes preservation economically feasible,” said Foundation Chairwoman Gloria Kishton.

Almost all of the historic preservation done in the Stockade is privately financed. There is no commercial incentive — except maybe tourism potential — for public entities to fund home preservation projects, so the responsibility falls on the homeowner.

“Years ago, there were government programs that gave financial aid to private restoration efforts, but those no longer exist for the average owner,” Kishton said. “Properties would have to be extraordinary to receive public funding now.”

Within the Stockade, more than 40 buildings remain intact as the largest collection of pre-Revolutionary structures in existence. And they’re incredibly diverse, featuring every architectural type, period and style of residential and religious buildings found in the nation between 1690 and 1930.

“There are a wide range of properties in the Stockade at any one time,” said Kishton. “You can find houses in severe disrepair, and ones that are restored to pristine accuracy.”

A responsible homeowner can prevent major repairs down the road, though.

Kishton believes that they need to know from the start if their home is in a historic district and subject to certain rules. She’s seen several historical elements destroyed because people make changes to their properties without getting approval from the Schenectady Historic District Commission.

“If somebody’s doing something major, they may get annoyed by having to get a building permit,” she said. “But the reason that it’s important is you want to make changes in a way that’s reasonable and efficient and going to last, especially in a dense area that could negatively affect your neighbor.”

An effective code enforcement department is another big help, she said. When neighbors know that a particular homeowner is neglecting their property and allowing it to deteriorate, someone should say something.

Demolition by neglect is against historic zoning laws, she added. “So a code department can go there and cite them and try to work with them.”

Some situations, however, require tact. It’s not unusual for a historic home to suffer neglect at the hands of a mentally disabled or elderly person who lives alone, she said.

Most preservationists agree that the best way to avoid a 221 Green St. disaster is education.

When a historic home is passed down to people who have no clue how its previous owners cared for it, then it loses its integrity over time.

The Preservation League of New York State holds education sessions designed to avoid just that. Last year, Schenectady County Community College hosted a league session on energy efficiency in historic homes.

“People frequently want to replace windows, which is a prime example of how some tax credits are not friendly to historic homes,” said Kishton. “People can get credits for improving energy efficiency, which is a good thing, but it makes people feel that getting vinyl windows is a much better thing than restoring historic windows.”

Post-World War II property owners were the first to embrace replacement over repair, said Erin Tobin, regional director of the League’s grant programs.

When a window’s sash cord broke or a window needed re-glazing, an owner would replace the parts as opposed to repairing them.

“There were traditions of home repair that had been handed down from generation to generation,” said Tobin, “and I think that we’re in a spot where some of that’s been lost.”

Historic districts use strict zoning regulations to make modern replacement of historic elements difficult, though. Simple changes, such as painting a house or replacing a fence, need approval from the historic commission first.

When Tobin does get the phone call — the one from an overwhelmed homeowner whose property needs major repair — she tells them about the New York State Historic Homeowner Tax Credit.

It was established two years ago, in part, as a response to the lack of funding options available for home preservation projects. It covers 20 percent of rehabilitation expenditures up to $50,000.

Most Schenectadians aren’t even aware that they might qualify, said Tobin.

“The League fought for many years to get this homeowner and rehab tax credit passed through the state, and it’s really a powerful financial incentive to preserve their historic homes,” she said.

The right contractor also helps. Killeen had to invest a large amount of his own money, even with the help of the Foundation’s grants and loans. Despite all the obstacles, he was happy with the way 221 Green St. turned out.

For local preservationists, their lifeblood remains the small projects — the properties that get regular care, but need help now and then to keep their historic integrity.

Kishton mentions the large, leaded glass window that was in dire need of restoration at 111 Union St.

The homeowner sought out a Schenectady business to restore it. Cohoes Design Glass Associates is known for its painstaking attention to detail when restoring architectural stained glass, often in a way that enhances its historic significance.

And with a joint grant from the Foundation and Stockade Association, the homeowner was able to pay for the restoration. Two weeks ago, the window was re-installed and a record of the restoration was registered into the deed of the house.

 
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