The big house on the hill

By all accounts, E.W. Rice, president of the General Electric Company from 1913 to 1922, was a quiet
Abbe Hall, now home to the Office of College Relations at Union College, was the first house built in the GE Realty Plot in 1900 for General Electric president E.W. Rice.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Abbe Hall, now home to the Office of College Relations at Union College, was the first house built in the GE Realty Plot in 1900 for General Electric president E.W. Rice.

By all accounts, E.W. Rice, president of the General Electric Company from 1913 to 1922, was a quiet and unassuming kind of guy.

His residence at the northeast corner of Lenox Road and Union Avenue, however, has always had a much more commanding presence. Now known as Abbe Hall and home to the Office of College Relations at Union College, the building that was once Rice’s is one of the biggest in the GE Realty Plot.

The house, the expansive lawn and lengthy stone wall encircling the grounds are all shrouded in trees, giving visitors the sense of a great Adirondack camp as opposed to a prominent city dwelling.

Built in 1900, it was one of the first homes finished in the GE Realty Plot, a section of land just east of the college campus that was purchased a year earlier from Union by the newly formed Schenectady Realty Company.

“Rice was a fisherman, he loved the Adirondacks, and I also think he wanted to let people know that his home was the promontory of that real estate,” said Julia Kirk Blackwelder, who addressed GE’s history in Schenectady with her recent book, “Electric City.”

“His was the largest plot of land, and I think that stone wall was supposed to tell you, ‘hey, you’re in Rice land just in case you didn’t know it.’ From his house, he looked down over the city.”

But while Rice’s residence was quite grand, he had a much more modest manner in his personal interaction with people. He was also quite an effective company president.

“He was not at all a gregarious person,” said Blackwelder. “He was, however, a talented engineer and one of the few who combined that with some managerial skill. I argue in my book that without Rice in the early years of General Electric, the company would not have become the technical powerhouse that it did.”

Rice’s home sits on a parcel of land covering 3.7 acres, and includes a carriage house. The main structure has two main meeting rooms while also serving as office space for about 55 Union College employees.

Built in the classic Queen Anne style with an exterior covered in dark shingles, the house was acquired by the college through a bequest in 1976, when it was known as the Parker-Rice House. Rice’s daughter Mabel and her husband, Philo W. Parker, had been the last family members living in the house, but the couple spent most of their final years in their New York City home.

Renovation on Abbe Hall began in 1999 with the help of a financial gift from 1949 alumnus Robert T. Abbe and his wife, Virginia, and it opened as the Office of College Relations in 2003 with its new name.

“It was very important to Abbe and his wife that they restore the house to its original look as much as possible,” said Frank Taormina, past president of the Schenectady County Historical Society and a 1950 graduate of Union College.

“When Abbe agreed to finance the place, it’s my understanding that he did so with the stipulation that the college would not alter the building at all. He wanted it left just like Rice had left it.”

Abbe, a former General Electric employee who had homes in Lake George and Peabody, Massachusetts, died earlier this month, while his wife passed away in 2012. Their concerns about Rice’s residence, his house and the carriage building have all been honored by the college, according to Loren Rucinski, director of facilities and planning at Union.

“Great care was taken to keep all of the original details of both buildings, both on the exterior and the interior, including removing, restoring and re-installing the hand-painted wall covering on the first floor,” said Rucinski, who has worked at the college since 1986. “The college continues to maintain this property in great shape. It’s an important place for alumni to visit and meet.”

While Abbe Hall will be part of the GE Realty Plot Tour on June 6-7, the college and the GE Realty Plot Association have had their differences in the past. In 1999, when the college announced plans to begin using the building, many neighbors in the area resisted, complaining that their property value would suffer.

“We envision a gracious building for alumni and college personnel with the comfortable decor of its time,” Abbe said in a Union College press release in 1999. “The house and the grounds have great potential and, once the project is completed, they will be an asset to both Union and the neighborhood.”

Rice would have appreciated Abbe’s sentiments, and would have wanted his neighborhood and the college to be on good terms. While not a college graduate himself, Rice’s father had been a member of Union’s class of 1850, and in 1906 Rice became a college trustee and often donated his time and money to the school. He did it all in his typical, low-key manner.

“He was a quiet leader, and there was nothing egotistical or unethical about him,” said former GE employee George Wise, another local expert on GE history. “You never heard one bad word about him. He had integrity, and he was very happy to stay in the background and let other people take the credit and become famous.”

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]

Categories: Life and Arts

Leave a Reply