Home for the Ladies

Name and location were two very important aspects for any successful enterprise according to Mrs. J.
Barbara Rossi shows off her room at the Heritage Home for Women at 1519 Union Street in Schenectady. Rossi is one of 36 women living in the building, which was built in 1908.
Barbara Rossi shows off her room at the Heritage Home for Women at 1519 Union Street in Schenectady. Rossi is one of 36 women living in the building, which was built in 1908.

Name and location were two very important aspects for any successful enterprise according to Mrs. J.W. Smitley, and she wasn’t about to put any money into a project called “Home for the Friendless.”

In 1905, however, the name “Old Ladies’ Home” seemed to be OK with everyone, and Mrs. Smitley, who lived on the corner of Union Street and Nott Terrace, was willing to donate $25,000 to help build a new facility out in the country on the Troy-Schenectady Turnpike. As a result, in 1908 the “Home for the Friendless” was gone from its Stockade location on Green Street, and the “Old Ladies Home” was open for business at 1519 Union St.

A century later, following another name change, the Heritage Home for Women remains a vibrant and important part of the Schenectady community, with 36 female residents ranging in age from 76 to 100. Kathy Fernandez is in her third year as director of the facility, and oversees a staff of 31, including full and part-time workers. In 2008, the mission of the group remains the same as it was way back in 1868 when it was first formed.

Separate apartments

“The mission was always to provide a home and services to ladies of modest income or means,” said Fernandez. “That’s why for years these ladies were completely sponsored, and we didn’t start charging any fees until the 1960s. Because of the increasing cost in running a facility like this, they did start charging a monthly fee, but it only covers a portion of the costs. We’re able to keep the costs low because of our endowment. Over the years, we’ve had a lot of people leave us money.”

Each woman lives in her own studio apartment with a sink, although because of safety reasons there are communal bathroom facilities. The 36 women currently calling the place home put the facility at capacity. There are four floors and a basement, although the 36 rooms used as living quarters are all on the first three floors. The basement and a small fourth floor are used only for storage.

Once visitors pass through the front doors and a small reception area, they walk into a common room with hallways heading off to both sides, as well as straight ahead. On each side of the center passageway are stairways leading to the second and third floors, but the steps are off limits. Instead, most residents use elevators to make their way around the building.

Walking between the staircases leads you to another common room that at one time was the place’s dining room. To the right is a sun room, and to the left is a hallway leading to the current dining room, part of an addition put on by Griffith and Dardinelli Architects of Schenectady four years ago.

“It’s a tan brick building, and when we put on the addition we found a pretty good tan brick to match,” said Karl Griffith, who along with overseeing the addition four years ago also serves on the home’s board of trustees. “I’d like to think you can’t tell the difference. Like with any old building, you have to stay on top of things, but the place is in very good shape and the maintenance crew does a great job.”

Classical Revival style

Griffith said the building was built in the Classical Revival style.

“It was common to build in that style during the period,” said Griffith. “I wouldn’t call it extravagant or elaborate, but they did build a formal entrance way to put on a good appearance, and the front facade hasn’t changed much. I’ve seen old pictures of it and it still looks pretty much the same.”

According to Schenectady city and county historian Don Rittner, there weren’t a whole lot of buildings up in that area near the turn of the 20th century.

“The trolley bypassed Union Street and went up Nott to State Street before heading to Balltown Road and then to Troy,” said Rittner. “That allowed the Union Street area to develop as an affluent residential area, while State Street filled up fast because it was the working class that took the trollies. By 1900, there were still no side streets off Union east of Wendell Avenue, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that the area starting looking like it does today.”

Before Mrs. Smitley, who lived in what is now the rectory for St. John’s the Evangelist Church on Union Street, began looking into the Home for the Friendless, some of Schenectady’s most prominent citizens had gone to great lengths to ensure the place’s success 40 years earlier.

Urania Nott, the wife of Union College president Eliphalet Nott, was one of the primary movers behind the formation of the home in 1868, and helping her were the Clutes, the Vedders, and the Mynderses to name just a few.

It was September of that year when a Mrs. Perkins opened her house on 33 Green St., to serve as the first Home of the Friendless. A few days later, a young woman with a baby in her arms knocked at the front door and Mrs. Perkins let her in. The register still in use by the Heritage Home for Women lists her name as Sarah Jane Clark.

“It was started by the Ladies Benevolent Society, and they were an interfaith group representing a lot of different churches in Schenectady,” said Fernandez. “They also ran a food bank and provided clothing and other necessities for women and children. When Mrs. Perkins opened the Home for the Friendless and a woman showed up with a baby, she let them in. I guess that might have happened quite a bit back then, but eventually things changed and it became strictly a home for elderly women. For years, this was Schenectady’s only home for women, and the Ingersoll Residence, which opened in 1923, was the home for men.”

Memorable characters

Many of the residents living at the Heritage Home for Women were quite memorable characters. Jean Mastriani of Rotterdam, a trustee for more than 30 years, fondly recalled former Schenectady County librarian Harriet C. Robinson, who lived there until her death in 1994 at the age of 105.

“She stayed as smart as a whip, and she was downstairs with the rest of the women to the very end watching ‘Jeopardy!’ before she finally died,” said Mastriani. “She was an absolute delight and one of the most happy, loveliest ladies you could ever want to meet.”

The group will mark its 140th anniversary in May with a special luncheon at the home.

“Many of the women who lived here were retired teachers, some widowed and some maiden ladies,” said Mastriani. “The home had its own burial plot in Vale Cemetery, because a lot of these women had no one.”

Mastriani joined the board of trustees just a few years after women were first allowed to serve in that capacity.

“They had a board of managers, which included women, and then they had a board of trustees, which was strictly for men until 1968,” said Fernandez. “Women couldn’t handle money in those days.”

Those days, when names like Old Ladies’ Home weren’t so politically incorrect, are gone, although Fernandez says the term “ladies” is still used quite often at 1519 Union St.

“This place really functions as a home for these ladies, and yes, we do still call them ladies,” said Fernandez. “That’s part of the culture here. We have all the modern amenities, but the building still maintains its historic charm, and the women feel like they’re part of a warm and friendly community.”

“Everybody here is so concerned about you, and they go out of their way to make sure you’re OK,” said Amelia (Amy) Kilinski, a lifelong Schenectady resident who moved into the home in August. “We’re all ladies, and it’s been nice getting to know everyone. It’s a great place.”

Categories: Life and Arts, Schenectady County

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