Schenectady County

Dilapidated but historic house near end of airport runway to be moved

Change speeds by the Ebenezer Hills Jr. farmhouse every day.

Change speeds by the Ebenezer Hills Jr. farmhouse every day.

Jets from the Albany International Airport rattle the Dutch Colonial building, tucked several hundred feet from the end of the runway. And traffic zips by the dilapidated structure near the shopping plazas along Troy-Schenectady Road.

Despite the traffic and business on the once fertile farmland of Colonie, change has eluded the historic building that was the Watervliet Town Hall long ago and later was a focal point of the unraveling of a murder.

With a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration, the Albany County Airport Authority is embarking upon an ambitious relocation and renovation project this summer for the historic farmhouse.

Last month, the authority launched a $647,000 project to move the 2,200-square-foot timber-frame structure about 250 feet southeast from its present location, restore the exterior and retrofit its wiring. The contract also calls for a nearby barn to be taken apart and stored at the airport. Eventually, the interior of the farmhouse will be fully restored so the authority can one day lease it for an office.

“These are rare and unique projects for rare and unique resources,” said Steve Iachetta, the airport’s planner, who has worked on the project for nearly a decade.

Authority officials decided to move the farmhouse — listed on both the state and national registers of historic places — in an effort to bring their runway into compliance with FAA regulations. Like several other structures along Troy-Schenectady Road, the farmhouse is located within a trapezoidal zone extending 2,500 feet from the end of the airport’s runway, where the FAA prohibits buildings for safety reasons.

“In the very unlikely event of an aborted take-off, a plane should be able to stop on the runway or runway take-off area,” Iachetta said.

The airport has already leveled the kitschy Lou Simon liquor store located adjacent to the Hills farmhouse, as well as the Payless Beverages store once located across the street. Plans are also in order to demolish the Doug Neil Insurance building, moving the business to a location west of the runway protection zone.

In fact, the Hills farmhouse might have faced demolition itself, had it not been listed on the national register in 1985 and purchased by the airport in 1998. Because the property is publicly owned, the authority is required by law to attempt a restoration.

Until recently, the cost of restoration was prohibitive. But in 2007, the airport received word that the FAA would cover 95 percent of the relocation and restoration cost, with the state and airport funding the remainder. The authority’s Board of Directors approved contracts for the project last month.

scandal and murder

The Hills farmhouse’s legacy predates Colonie, which was part of Watervliet before the town incorporated in 1895. The structure once housed the storied Hills Tavern and was a centerpiece of one of the most sensational murders of the early 19th century.

“Its history is one of the town of Colonie’s more interesting stories,” wrote Anthony Brankman, a member of the town’s Historical Society, in a 2006 newsletter.

Hills, a Continental soldier who enlisted twice during the Revolutionary War, built the farmhouse sometime after 1785 after migrating from Connecticut. Like many other New Englanders who settled the area during the late 18th century, he likely learned about the good farmland in the area during his wartime travels.

By 1802, the Troy-Schenectady Turnpike was established, creating a road from which a bustling agricultural community would blossom. Hills became the supervisor of Watervliet, and consequently, his home became Town Hall.

Sometime during the 1820s, the traffic prompted Hills’ son Laban to establish a tavern, inn and post office at the farmhouse. Then in 1827, the home sheltered a pair of young travelers later implicated in what became known as the murder at Cherry Hill.

As the tale goes, Jesse Strange, a hired hand at the Van Rensselaer home in Albany, shot and killed the husband of his lover, Elsie Whipple. They fled by wagon down the Troy-Schenectady Turnpike. But thundershowers forced them to seek shelter at the Hills Tavern for the night, according to Becky Watrous, the education director for Historic Cherry Hill.

An unmarried couple traveling together was scandalous in those days.

Even more damning for Strang and Whipple were the accounts from fellow guests at the Hills Tavern. One guest testified that she passed by the couple’s room and noticed that only one of its two beds had been used.

“That’s proven through trial records,” Watrous said. “The only documented record of them having an affair was this rendezvous.”

Shortly after, they were caught and tried for the husband’s killing.

Whipple was exonerated, but Strang was convicted and sent to the gallows, a spectacle that drew more than 30,000 people to Albany. “It went on to become an incredibly notorious crime,” Watrous said.

The Hills Tavern was purchased and renovated by the Rebusman family in 1892, according to Brankman. The family, which successfully listed the building on the state register in 1982, continued to occupy the home in some capacity until the airport bought their 30-acre property for $740,000.

Years and weather have taken a toll. Some of its window shutters have peeled away, and its tin roof is badly rusted; its foundation has sagged, causing floors to buckle throughout the building.

Though planning for the relocation has been ongoing for years, the first noticeable steps in the project started last week. Four archaeologists began excavating a 3-foot area near the back entrance of the home to examine its foundation.

Corey McQuinn, a project director with Hartgen Archaeological Associates of Albany, said the group has already unearthed a number of artifacts dating back to the early 19th century.

The difficult part of the project will be lifting the building from its foundation onto a flatbed and rolling it to a new spot closer to Old Niskayuna Road.

Airport spokesman Doug Meyers is confident that the home will be moved without many problems. He said the airport has commissioned projects to move similar historic structures with great success.

“Back then, folks didn’t build with the idea that someday, a moving company would lift up their home and move it to a new location,” he said. “The movers could be in for some surprises, but nothing that cannot be overcome by experienced moving companies.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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