Marjorie Schmid still vividly recalls the day in July 1986 when excavators came to tear down the Campbell Mansion.
For more than 150 years, the 26-room, brick-and-stone structure overlooked the estate once owned by Daniel David Campbell. But the property fell into the hands of Wilmorite, a Rochester-based property management company that regarded the historic Rotterdam building as yet another obstacle in the project to build a sprawling shopping mall near Interstate 890.
Schmid and other preservation-minded residents rallied to thwart the mall project but lacked any legal basis to prevent developers from toppling the palatial mansion. In the end, only the mansion’s sturdy 19th century construction slowed the demolition crews from transforming the site into the area that now serves as parking for the food court at Rotterdam Square Mall.
“They figured on doing it in two days, but it took them six,” said Schmid, with a sardonic chuckle. “I guess it was built a little sturdier than they thought.”
Schmid, who lives on a historic estate herself, is the impetus behind a Rotterdam Conservation Advisory Council effort to draft an ordinance that would offer property owners a tool to protect their historic buildings long into the future. The “landmark and historic preservation ordinance” would allow owners to seek a covenant preventing any significant alteration of a protected building without the consent of an independent five-member commission.
The law would require the owners of historic properties to approach the town for the designation. Advisory council member Mary Barrie said the law is aimed at encouraging preservation-minded residents to seek protection under the law, rather than imposing it on property owners that aren’t interested.
“This is not about pushing regulations on citizens that don’t want the designation,” she said.
Rotterdam still has a number of historic buildings that date back to the early 19th century and even the pre-Revolutionary War era. Though many of the structures erected by the Rotterdam’s first Dutch settlers have disappeared, some remain insulated from the 20th century development pressures that transformed the largely agrarian town into the urban landscape that exists today.
Many of Rotterdam’s existing historic structures remain along the hillside area known as Schonowe. These buildings include the 305-year-old Teller-Schemerhorn-Horth Homestead, the 273-year-old Bradt House and the 179-year-old Schemerhorn Mansion.
Rotterdam Junction is also characterized by its historic properties. Among them is the 17th-century-built Mabee Farmhouse.
Other areas of the town still bear the remnants of long forgotten historic structures. Rotterdam still has two preserved locks from the old Erie Canal basin, while the early 19th century foundation of the Van Patten Tavern remains in a wooded area near the present-day Lock 8.
County Historian Don Rittner lauded the effort to establish the ordinance and suggested that the town could offer incentives for restoration projects involving historic properties. He said similar laws have been enacted in other communities throughout the Capital Region, including Clifton Park in Saratoga County.
“It fosters pride in a community because people know the government of the town is actually looking to appreciate the historic resources and has built in rewards for those who have taken good care of them,” he said.
Creating clusters of historic properties or historic districts could also provide the town with an avenue for attracting heritage tourism. Rittner said the county as a whole could garner tourist traffic by designating its historic sites and then marketing them to visitors.
“It does open you up to a lot of possibilities,” he said.
Barrie said the advisory council is still mulling a draft of the law, but she expects to solicit public comments on the law sometime before the summer in anticipation of presenting it to the Town Board for adoption.
“This is the very beginning,” she said.
Supervisor Steve Tommasone is receptive to creating a law to protect Rotterdam’s past. He said the law could help raise local awareness of the rich history of the the town.
“There are a lot more historic properties out there than the people know about,” he said.
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