Our iconic structures: Nott Memorial was almost demolished

As recently as the 1990s, its future was in doubt
The Nott Memorial on the Union College campus.
The Nott Memorial on the Union College campus.

EDITOR’S NOTE: After the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris was badly damaged by fire last week, people around the world expressed sadness over the threat to that city’s symbol of history and beauty. In the Gazette newsroom, our conversation turned to a ranking of the most iconic structures right here in Schenectady. For all of us, the list started with the Nott Memorial at Union College. We hope you enjoy our full list.

In the 1960s, Union College thought about giving the Nott Memorial a serious makeover. In the 1970s, some even considered tearing it down. When Roger Hull took over as Union College president in 1990, the future of the Edward Tuckerman Potter-designed structure, an iconic symbol of the school as well as Schenectady itself, was still in doubt.

Carl George, a biology professor at Union, and a number of other faculty members made sure that Hull would save the Nott Memorial and come out on the right side of history.

“When he first showed up here he went to all departments and had a heart-to-heart discussion with everybody,” remembered George, who retired in 1997. “He wanted to know what was going on and how we felt about things. I took that opportunity to get in his ear about the Nott Memorial, and so did a number of other professors.”

George remembers that those who weren’t so keen on saving the Nott Memorial had some good points. Construction began on the 16-sided building in 1853 and wasn’t completed until the 1870s. As it hit the century mark and got older, there were some issues.

“The building was in poor condition, some of the windows were broken and the sheathing stones were falling off,” said George. “The upper parts were being colonized by pigeons and heaven knows what else. So it was a little awkward. The Nott was uncared-for and unloved, and it was being misused.”

George and others, however, convinced Hull the building was very much worth saving. When the college celebrated its bicentennial (1795-1995), the Nott was once again the majestic structure Potter had in mind when he designed it in honor of his grandfather and long-time president of the school, Eliphalet Nott.

“I had fallen in love with the building a long time ago, and it was great to watch it being restored as our bicentennial was coming up,” said George. “There was some very skilled work being done, and we were all so happy to have all of it completed by the time we celebrated our 200 years.”

More: Schenectady’s iconic structures: A list, April 21, 2019

Before George and others were lobbying to save the Nott in the 1990s, English professor John M. Bradbury let it be known back in 1961 that he was “very much against” any kind of modification of the Nott.

“I think the building is a real monument to the American eclectic architecture and I know several architects themselves are anxious to preserve it,” Bradbury told the Gazette in April of 1961.

Codman Hislop, a professor of American Civilization at the time, supported Bradbury’s efforts by arguing that the Nott Memorial has its own “integrity, and I’d rather hate to see that violated.” Another colleague of Bradbury’s from the 60s, English professor William M. Murphy, remarked that the Nott “has been for many years the symbol of Union College, appearing in photographs, on the letterhead of the college, and I feel that quite apart from its architecture it is a distinctive Union College landmark.”

Also in 1961, some trustees actually considered covering the building in stucco, an idea that didn’t sit well with college librarian Helmer Webb.

“It is a building with character, whether you like it or not. It has a strength of its own. It would be a shame to change it. You might as well tear it down.”

More: Schenectady’s iconic structures: A list, April 21, 2019

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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