When Chris Leonard immerses himself into the history of the GE Realty Plot, he always feels right at home.
Appointed city historian in February of 2018 by Mayor Gary B. McCarthy, Leonard has lived in the GE Realty Plot since moving to Schenectady 15 years ago. His new book on the historic Schenectady neighborhood, “Schenectady’s General Electric Realty Plot,” is part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series and is available next week. Leonard will have a book release party Tuesday, May 7 at the Schenectady County Historical Society from 6-8 p.m.
Also named the GE Realty Plot Association historian in December of 2016, Leonard is a Hamden, Connecticut native, the son of two history professors, and went to the University at Albany where he got his BA in English and History and his master’s in English with a writing concentration. He has worked for numerous publishing companies and currently runs his own business, Wordsmith Productions.
Q: Why did you want to write a book about the Plot?
A: My goal was to write a book focusing on the history of the plot – not so much the architecture – including not only the big names, but the second or third generation residents, many of who also did great things, but are largely ignored. I have a future academic book in mind that provides a full biography of each house in the plot.
Q: Where did you research the book?
A: I researched the work and gathered photos from the Schenectady County Historical Society’s Grems-Doolittle Library, the Efner History Center at City Hall, miSci, the Special Collections at Union College and from the personal collections of many friends and neighbors, as well as my own. Bruce Maston’s “Enclave of Elegance” is a wonderful book that focuses on architecture with some light history of the early residents as well. I have several dog-eared copies. The problem with the book is that it has been out of print for a long time and copies are scarce.
Q: The General Electric Company purchased the land near the turn of the century and by 1927 there were approximately 100 homes that had been built. Was it originally intended just for GE employees?
A: GE and its real estate entity, the Schenectady Real Estate Company, never intended the GE Realty Plot to be “GE Only.” They envisioned it as a place where political, business, religious and entertainment elite would reside, and ideas would flow freely between the residents, with GE at the center of all.”
Q: I’m sure you have many “favorites” among the former residents of the Plot. Could you talk a little about one of them?
A: Charles Steinmetz, of course, but let’s not talk about him. Alice Scudder lived at 1124 Avon Road and married Hewlett Scudder, a foreign patent attorney at GE, on Sept. 22, 1931, and they moved into the home shortly thereafter. He was 56 and she was 52, the first marriage for both. Hewlett worked at GE for 39 years, beginning as an assistant to Steinmetz in 1902. They lived together happily for 11 years, until Hewlett passed away in 1942. Alice lived in the house until 1987, passing at the age of 108. She was a force of nature. She was a high-ranking member of St. George’s Church and was known to have lavish parties on the porch with parishioners, members of the clergy and musicians from Union College. At the parties she was known for wearing a purple kaftan. He had her first volume of poetry published in 1974 when she was 92. We have a copy.
Q: What were the main restrictions residents had to adhere to when buying a home in the Plot?
A: A standard parcel of land in the Plot was 70 feet wide by 140 feet deep. Many residents purchased several parcels on which to build their homes. Steinmetz’s plot was seven such parcels and Edwin Rice Jr.’s was nine. Homes when constructed had to sit at least 25 feet back from the street.
Editor’s note: There were some other groundrules property owners had to follow: Here are the four main compacts, according to Leonard, that all residents had to agree to when building in the Plot began back in 1900.
1: All homes must be completed within two years of the purchase of a plot of land. This was done for two reasons: To foil potential land speculators who would buy up plots and dole them out later at a tidy profit, and to enable the community to grow quickly.
2: When completed, each home had to be worth $4,000, which was the double mean value of a home in Schenectady at the time. The homes in the neighborhood were to be showpieces.
3: Purchasers could only build one family homes. There were to be no apartments or businesses. Homeowners could have a boarder or live-in servants, but the house had to be a home.
4: The fence compact – No house could have a wall or fence higher than 3’6″ and no fence or wall could completely surround the property. GE did not want a collection of European-style manor homes, with 10-foot stone walls, isolated from each other. They wanted an open community where neighbors would intermingle, and ideas would be exchanged freely.