Lead paint, asbestos, outmoded electrical wiring — the house I purchased last December contains all of these things.
But it also has a lot to recommend it, such as a good roof, dry basement and strong foundation. It has been standing for over 150 years, and I fully expect it to stand for 150 more. Like many old buildings, it was built to last.
Schenectady’s Nicholaus Building was also built to last, which is why its demolition last Friday is so upsetting and why so many people, myself included, are wondering whether more might have been done to save it.
Any building that dates back to the 1800s, as the Nicholaus Building did, has survived many a harsh storm or winter. Its biggest threat isn’t the weather, but neglect, indifference, deferred maintenance, poor decisions and a failure to value local history and noteworthy architecture.
It certainly was possible to save the Nicholaus Building, but doing so would have required making it a priority long before its near collapse in the spring of 2016.
And nobody in a position to do so ever did.
Sometimes buildings fall into disrepair and need to be demolished because of a threat to public safety.
But that’s not what happened here.
The Nicholaus Building was an occupied, functional building with apartments and a restaurant, Thai Thai Bistro. One day last April, it began shaking so violently its walls separated and pieces of ceilings fell down.
This earthquake-like activity occurred a week or two after the adjacent Olender Mattress building was demolished, which brings us back to some old questions, chief among them: What was done to protect the Nicholaus Building from the construction-and-demolition work being done right next door?
Who signed off on this work — and what made them think the Nicholaus Building would be able to withstand it?
The Nicholaus Building just two days before it was demolished. (Peter R. Barber)
Last year The Gazette called for a thorough, public investigation into the causes of the collapse of the Nicholaus Building.
That investigation never took place, and many of the unanswered questions surrounding the building’s near-collapse remain. Friday’s emergency demolition doesn’t make answering those questions any less urgent — if anything, it makes it more urgent.
We need to know what caused one of Schenectady’s most beloved buildings to meet such a sad fate. If it wasn’t the construction and demolition work at the Olender Mattress building, what was it?
But that never happened.
The Nicholaus Building stood for over a year after it was vacated, which seems like plenty of time to implement a plan for fixing up the building. And there was a plan — in May, Metroplex retained a national engineering firm to develop a plan to renovate the building, and that plan was given to the building’s owners.
But that never happened. Instead, multiple lawsuits were filed.
The Nicholaus Building’s owners sued the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority and construction companies affiliated with the construction project at the Olender Mattress site, saying the work there severely damaged the building. The city of Schenectady decided to prosecute the owners for several code violations, saying the owners failed to fix the building.
With all this bad blood, it’s easy to see why the building languished at the corner of Erie Boulevard and State Street for over a year.
How it will all play out is anyone’s guess, but if you ask me there’s plenty of blame to go around.
The big losers are the residents of Schenectady, who lost a valuable piece of history last week and still don’t know exactly why.