Beloved old school begins second century as new Draper Lofts

Conversion of deteriorated Rotterdam school into 111 apartments took two years, cost $14 million
Jesse Holland in front of the Draper Lofts Apartments in Rotterdam, Sept. 18, 2018.
Jesse Holland in front of the Draper Lofts Apartments in Rotterdam, Sept. 18, 2018.

ROTTERDAM — Class isn’t ever going to be back in session at the old Draper School, but the formerly decrepit community landmark has had a measure of class restored to its walls and halls.

A two-year, $14 million overhaul has converted the 125,000-square-foot school into 111 apartments now known as the Draper Lofts. Sunrise Management and Consulting of Albany is renting the units for $865 to $1,700 a month.

Pets are welcome, off-street parking is provided, and communal open space is provided inside.

As of late September, 75 percent of the apartments were occupied.

Throughout the building, which was built in stages from 1913 to 1951, traces remain of the old school remain. It was a big part of the lives of many people in the community, as a kindergarten through 12th grade school, and many people loved it. So where possible, a tribute was left to its past.

“I was surprised initially at how attached to the building people were,” said Sunrise President Jesse Holland. “That’s been incredibly gratifying, much more than any project I’ve been involved with.”

On Sept. 18, the building was complete but for some punchlist items. As Holland walked through, he pointed out some of those bits of the past he’d left in place:

  • A memory wall contains messages newly inscribed by alumni on an original surface.
  • A stone plaque placed during initial construction sits beneath a spotlight.
  • The community room is named for Julia Bennington, a teacher who never missed a day in 40 years there.
  • “This is where the curtain to the stage went to,” Holland said, pointing out a boxed-in space in one apartment.
  • “This is the gym, or was the gym. This is the old gym floor,” he said in another apartment, pointing to a hardwood floor well-marked with the passage of time and sneakers.
  • In yet another apartment, he points to a thick black line on the old gym floor. “This is the baseline.”

The Draper Lofts Apartments memory wall in Rotterdam.Photo by Marc Schultz: The Draper Lofts Apartments memory wall in Rotterdam.

On Oct. 7, the Chamber of Schenectady County will present its annual Renaissance Award to the Draper Lofts project for contributing to the revitalization of Schenectady County.

And it has been a significant upgrade: The site featured cracked pavement, weeds, broken windows and water damage when Sunrise began the project in the spring of 2016. It was the low point in a centurylong history.

Read more stories from Fall Home 2018.When Draper became obsolete as a school, it was sold to a businessman who rented classrooms to commercial tenants. A short-lived charter school bought, renovated and abandoned it, leaving it vulnerable to vandals and the elements. Finally, the county seized it for unpaid taxes.

There were some challenges in bringing the building back to life, Holland recalls, but nothing severe. The Draper School was a big, complicated building, but Sunrise had just finished converting a similarly old, large and complicated schoolhouse 24 miles east.

“We learned a lot doing the Homeroom Lofts out in Averill Park,” Holland said.

What cropped up in Draper was more like a hundred quirks than one big problem: Bannisters were too low for adults, or railing spindles were too widely spaced, or doorways were an archaic non-standard size, for example. The space that was to be the 112th unit instead became a utility room after Sunrise did the math on what it would take to make it a legal, livable apartment.

But the roof was good, the foundation solid, and the asbestos long gone.

Now that it’s complete, Draper Lofts has attracted an array of tenants from all walks of life, Holland said.

The apartments feature the clean, open spaces one might expect in a former classroom but not high-end features such as granite counters and tile floors. It conforms to the workforce housing model: comfortable but not luxurious, affordable for a significant portion of the working adult population.

“We aim to be in the high middle,” Holland said.

He estimated that new construction of 111 similarly sized units in a suburban setting would run $18 million to $21 million, and said the rents would need to be at 40 to 60 percent higher to recoup the investment: $1,400 to $2,200 a month instead of $865 to $1,700.

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