Historic Albany’s Holland a devoted fan of architecture

Some might look at an old dilapidated building and see an eyesore. Susan Holland sees only beauty, b

Some might look at an old dilapidated building and see an eyesore. Susan Holland sees only beauty, beauty that she wants to see restored to its former glory.

“That’s how I know I’m in the right field,” said Holland, executive director at the Historic Albany Foundation. “I want to save everything.”

At the nonprofit, she and her small cadre of preservationists strive to keep Albany’s old architecture intact. They raise money to repair and rehab broken and neglected structures such as St. Joseph’s Church. When the Hotel Wellington was marked to be razed, the organization fought developers to keep it standing. HAF won. The agency also enlightens home and business owners on protecting and preserving, rather than replacing, what they have, like the windows at the Howe Library. And on Wednesdays, the group gets to show off the city’s architectural gems with walking tours. It’s all, said Holland, an effort to promote and maintain Albany’s historic character.

Always intrigued

The 45-year-old Holland, who grew up in Colonie, is a graduate of Cornell University, where she majored in communication. But since childhood, her true passion was history, specifically old houses.

“I’ve always been intrigued by architecture,” said Holland. “It was nostalgia at first, but then I started to love the craft of old houses and buildings.”

In her mid-30s, she started to pursue her dream of saving stately edifices by volunteering at the Schoolcraft Cultural Center in Guilderland. That led her to work for the Neighborhood Preservation Coalition of New York State, which advocates for affordable housing and urban revitalization. In the fall of 2005, she joined HAF, where she continues to speak out on the fate of significant, but silent structures.

Q: Why is preservation important?

A: Part of it is keeping a city in tact, keeping what you have. I was raised with that. Some of this green movement does not make sense to me. The greenest building is the one that already exists. These buildings are built to last. You fix things when they are broken, you don’t throw them out. My parents grew up with that ethic. I grew up with that ethic. But you have to use a lot of buzz words to teach it to the next generation.

Q: When you enter a city, what do you see?

A: I do what my daughter calls preservation driving. It’s real scary. I look up and look at windows and get excited about the architecture. I look at the synergy of the city or town. How it is working together. It’s fascinating to me. Or there is a developed downtown and you go two blocks and you have poverty like crazy. I think, ‘How did this city get to this point? What industry built this beautiful architecture? What died here and how can they revive it?’ Antique stores and restaurants can make a really good downtown.

Q: But it’s not everything?

A: No. Some people would dispute that. There has to be some hooks. There has to be ways to get people to come, tourism, and ways to make people who live here happy.

Q: Is preservation a hard sell?

A: This country was founded on principles of progression and people wanting newer and better, innovative. That thinking still pervades. People don’t see older as better. They don’t.

Q: How does preservation help a city?

A: Just a sense of place and the uniqueness of the place. It looks different, it smells different, it feels different. As we become more suburbanized, everything looks the same. Why go out of your own community? You won’t see anything new. When I see sprawl or the big box stores, I get really upset. I wish I understood it.

For folks coming to Albany, or for people who live here, there is a walkability to preservation. With our energy problems, everyone should be thinking about not using gas and oil so much. You should be thinking about walking to work and you can if you live in a city. You can put your car away, maybe get rid of your second car. This is what cities are providing. The energy crisis is an opportunity for cities, big-time.

Q: What do you feel when you see a neglected building? Do you want to run in and save it?

A: I do. My first reaction is to cry. I want to save everything and believe everything can be rehabbed. Yes, it’s expensive and, yes, it is worth it. Look at Hamilton and Hudson [streets in Albany’s Center Square neighborhood]. They were bombed out shells. And all came back to life and all are on the tax rolls. Everything can be saved.

Categories: Life and Arts

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