Swart House owners dedicated to Glenville home’s past while looking toward future stewardship

The backyard of Fern and Stanley Lee’s home on Johnson Road, known locally as the Swart House.
The backyard of Fern and Stanley Lee’s home on Johnson Road, known locally as the Swart House.

GLENVILLE — According to the National Register of Historic Places, the brick structure on Johnson Road is the “Swart House and Tavern.” To Fern and Stanley Lee, it’s home.

The Lees have spent most of their adult lives looking after the 300-year-old former tavern in Glenville, a place where soldiers, travelers and dignitaries drank ale and spent the night. Now, as a couple in their 80s, they wonder who will be next to preserve their little piece of history.

Tucked behind shade trees on Route 5, the Lees’ property is a long, two-story brick building with gable roofs and a rear wing attached. A little porch wraps around the east side of the building, where you can stand and survey the extensive garden that Stanley has cultivated over the decades.

Inside, exposed dark wooden roof beams are just one telltale sign that you’re standing in a historic building. The Lees have poured time, money and love into the task of keeping the house both a livable space and a representation of times past.

They’ll gladly share details of the house’s history, like when it served as a tavern for travelers along the King’s Highway that eventually came to be known as New York State Route 5.

“In the old days, if you had someone knock on your door it was expected that you would give them hospitality. And you would probably be happy to because you haven’t seen anybody in months,” said Stanley Lee.

The oldest part of the residence is a shed-roofed extension built by farmer Josias Swart sometime before the Revolutionary War. That was when Europeans first came to upstate New York when small and large conflicts between colonists and Native Americans were not uncommon.

The dining room in Fern and Stanley Lee’s historic home on Johnson Road in Glenville.

The Swarts farmed on their property along the Mohawk River and eventually expanded their little farmhouse to build an elongated, two-story brick structure for the tavern. What’s now the Lees’ cozy living room was once where Gov. DeWitt Clinton spent the night while planning the route of the Erie Canal in 1810, according to the National Register of Historic Places.

Stanley remembers when he found the house in the 1960s. He was self-employed, delivering Arnold Breads around the region in his truck. He and his wife were too poor to buy all the space-age cabinets and polypropylene chairs popular at the time, so the couple would visit antique shops and estate sales to furnish their apartment.

It was raining hard when Stanley came to this particular home sale, so the real estate agents were forced to let the crowd inside.

It was love at first sight: Despite the gaping hole in the floor and the house’s general disarray, Stanley was drawn to the Queen Anne fireplace mantles and centuries-old staircases.

“I sort of realized the possibilities, I guess. It was a nice house,” he recalled.

The Lees couldn’t afford to buy such a large home, but it was their status as an honest young couple that got them a good deal: The man selling the house wanted it to end up in the hands of a family, not a business. He sold it to the Lees for half the asking price.

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Since then, life at the house on Johnson Road has been a series of restoration projects, tours for curious visitors and squabbles with town tax assessors.

But if there’s anyone fit to take on those responsibilities, it’s the Lees. They have a way of making local history a personal mission.

“I don’t feel that you’ve got to tear everything down to make progress. You can keep the old and make your progress someplace else. We should be preserving our history, our architecture and our culture,” Stanley said.

In the early 2000s, he fought to preserve scenery and air quality in Scotia when a Vermont-based company proposed building a gas-burning electric power plant with 16-story-high emission stacks. The Scotia-Glenville Industrial Park was met with fierce community opposition. Helping to lead that charge was Stanley Lee, waving banners over the gateway bridge decrying the project’s impact on the town. Plans to build the plant were scrapped within a few years.

The Lees haven’t begun planning what will happen to the house when they’re gone, but the subject has been on their minds.

“We both have heart issues, we both have pacemakers now and we’re both in our 80s,” Fern said. “So you know, we have to think about what to do with all this stuff we have.”

She said neither of their children, now adults, is interested in owning the house they grew up in. Someone will have to buy the property and the countless antiques the Lees have collected over the years.

Historian Marietta Carr said the fact that the Swart House and farm property remain in private hands is remarkable.

“What’s especially interesting, if you look around the area, is that a lot of the farms in Glenville and around Glenville were sold and developed into residences,” said Carr, a librarian with the Glenville Historic Society.

That’s the story around the country — family farms unable to compete with big businesses fall into disrepair, and are razed to make way for shopping malls and suburbs. A nearby farm in Glenville, owned by the Toll family, is now a neighborhood surrounding Ma’alwyck Park, Carr said.

But the Lees have saved the Swart House from that fate, and they hope another family will do the same in the future. For now, they’re content spending their days quarantined in the house they’ve loved and lived in since 1965.

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