Schenectady County

Preservationists discover value in the recent past

Most people who lived in the region in the 1960s and ’70s remember the controversy surrounding the E
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Most people who lived in the region in the 1960s and ’70s remember the controversy surrounding the Empire State Plaza construction.

“A whole preservation movement was born around trying to stop it,” said Erin Tobin, regional director of technical and grant programs for eastern New York with the state Preservation League.

An entire downtown block of Victorian townhouses was torn down before the 1965 start of construction for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s vision of the plaza.

The brownstones weren’t seen as significant enough to save. And now, some buildings from the Empire State Plaza’s era are in the same boat — preservationists point out their historical merit while the general public considers them ugly.

The “recent past” preservation movement was born in 1995, when the National Park Service published a book on 20th century building materials and held a conference on preserving those structures, thrusting linoleum and Sheetrock into the same circle as stone, brick and wood building materials.

Besides the Empire State Plaza, the University at Albany campus and the Schenectady County Public Library’s Central Branch are also examples of public landmarks built in the recent past.

“Look at the difference between the [Capitol building] and the Empire State Plaza,” said Kimberly Konrad Alvarez, a local preservationist. “That was just different thinking in two different centuries of what was monumental.” Tobin is watching to see whether renovations to the library in Schenectady will preserve the building’s original style.

“This is really the junction point for that building,” she said.

Alvarez, who has lived in Albany for six years, was instrumental in the recent past movement because she worked for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. and was one of the authors of the 1995 book.

“As we were approaching the 21st century, it was time to start thinking about the 20th century,” she said.

Materials

The idea was met with enthusiasm, she recalled. “Everyone was kind of recognizing that this was the new direction of historic preservation.”

While brick, stone and wood are the materials from earlier generations, starting after World War II, builders employed metals, sheetrock, linoleum, Formica, plate glass and laminates, among other materials.

“I was interested in the concept that we’re surrounded by all these materials,” Alvarez said. “Most 20th century materials were fabricated with the notion that they were temporary.”

More than making the buildings last forever, the preservation effort was started to make sure the history was understood.

“They were meant to be quick and easy to fabricate and get up so they could alleviate the housing crisis,” Alvarez said. Some building materials were developed from the waste product of something else. For example, fiberboard was made from sawdust starting in the 1910s and 1920s, Alvarez said.

But some people today, especially those who value historic things, view those newer materials as “ugly,” Tobin said.

But the tide of public opinion can change, and change quickly.

While Frank Lloyd Wright now is viewed as a premier architect of his day, “Just 40 years ago, his buildings were being demolished,” said Dan McEneny, historic preservation specialist with the State Historic Preservation Office.

So far, recent past preservation has taken a stronger foothold in other areas of the country, such as the West and Midwest, than here in the Capital Region, Tobin said.

History

But that’s just because this area is so rich in long-ago history.

“The Capital Region has such an incredibly rich collection of 19th century architecture and even a significant amount of 18th century architecture compared to places perhaps in the Midwest or California,” Tobin said.

Still, the Capital Region has been making some ground in preserving architecture from the mid-20th century.

Historic Albany catalogued 94 Lustron homes in the state last year, including several in the Capital Region. And the Clarksville Elementary School in Albany County was added to the National Register for Historic Places this year.

Alvarez oversaw the Lustron project to recognize the all-metal homes that were built after World War II to ease the housing shortage.

As a consultant for Historic Albany, she and volunteers found the homes and obtained a National Register designation for them as a group.

“It’s kind of like a historic district, but it doesn’t have to be all in the same place,” Alvarez said.

A Glenville home and four homes on Germaine Street in Albany are among those on the list. Some of the 1,200-square-foot houses on the list have been changed from their original style, she said. Others that the volunteers couldn’t find may have been torn down.

“They’re threatened because often their property is more valuable than the house,” she said. “This is sort of a public awareness effort and an effort to try and build appreciation for the uniqueness of these buildings.” McEneny worked with the Bethlehem Central School District and the Clarksville Historical Society to list the 1954 school on the National Register.

“That’s a very good example of a local history project,” McEneny said.

50-year wait

To be listed on the National Register, a landmark must be at least 50 years old. New York City will consider whether a property is historic after 30 years.

Tobin said it’s good to have that lag time before determining the historical significance.

“I think that those cutoffs are really helpful in many ways, because you really do need to have a little distance from a property to really evaluate it.” Buildings from the recent past are in more danger of being neglected or torn down than some older properties, McEneny said.

“They are severely threatened because of how under appreciated they are.” Alvarez cringes when mid-20th century buildings that are typical of their time get torn down to build a big store. “People don’t think of them as important. We’re trained to only think that 18th, 19th or early 20th century buildings are important.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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