Walking around Schenectady, it’s hard to miss the mark that Werner Feibes left.
The architect and longtime Stockade resident, who championed modernism and helped preserve the historic area, died at 92 of Alzheimer’s disease on Sept. 16 at Baptist Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky.
Feibes, along with his late spouse James D. Schmitt, helped to design Schenectady’s central police station and fire headquarters, as well as the Karen B. Johnson Library, among many other local buildings.
Perhaps nowhere is Feibes’ influence felt more than the Stockade, where he and Schmitt lived on North Ferry Street for more than 50 years. They were largely responsible for founding the Stockade Association, Schenectady Heritage Foundation and the Stockade Spy, whose masthead still features a drawing by Feibes.
“Werner was an upbeat personality in this little community … He inspired many of us,” said Bruce Jordan, who was a neighbor of Feibes’ for 31 years.
Feibes was born in Aachen, Germany, in 1929, and he and his family fled the country shortly before World War II broke out, settling first in New York City and then later in Schenectady, according to his obituary. Feibes attended the University of Cincinnati, where he received his architectural degree and met Schmitt.
The two went on to establish Feibes & Schmitt Architects, located in a converted carriage house on Union Street. While their architectural style was influenced by Bauhaus and American Modernism, they were staunch proponents of historic preservation and helped to have the Stockade zoned a historic district in New York state, the first district to be labeled as such in 1962. They pushed for the district to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, where it’s been since 1973.
They also had a major impact on the arts community, donating their sizable collection of 169 pieces of modern/contemporary art to the Hyde, including works by Andy Warhol, Josef Albers, Grace Hartigan, Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, Man Ray, Robert Motherwell and Louise Nevelson among others. They also donated funds to create the Feibes and Schmitt Gallery at the Hyde, which opened in 2017 and is dedicated to featuring modern and contemporary art.
Feibes and Schmitt, both accomplished artists in their own right, collected mostly non-representational art for decades, with the simple focus of selecting pieces that they liked. Feibes knew the stories behind each piece and, more often than not, knew the artist as well.
“They knew quite a few really well-known artists,” said longtime friend Gloria Kishton, who is also the chair of the Schenectady Heritage Foundation. “They had done things like worked on their studios … and sometimes they would get a piece of artwork in return.”
The donation of their collection went in stages, starting in 2015 and ending in 2019. When Feibes moved to Louisville to be with family members, the rest of the collection was donated. According to Kishton, the Hyde also assumed the title of Feibes’ Stockade home and sold it, benefiting from the proceeds of the sale.
Feibes and Schmitt’s collection has had an incredible impact on the Hyde, which previously has not had a strong representation of modern abstract art.
“The Hyde is I think really unusual for a museum of its size, to be able to show the sweep of European and American art history from essentially the late middle ages to contemporary art,” said Jonathan Canning, the director of curatorial affairs and programming at the Hyde. It’s thanks to Feibes and Schmitt that the museum is able to exhibit the latter.
“We really do try to exhibit that whole sweep so visitors to the Hyde get to see the extent of our collection but then there’s always something for everyone. If you’re not so interested in the old masters, we can give you some abstraction to look at and we really have only been able to do that because of the size and the nature of Werner and Jim’s collection,” Canning said.
The fact that they decided to donate their entire collection rather than divide it up between larger arts institutions is also fairly remarkable.
“They wanted their collection to come intact to us because they saw that it would make a real impact on what the Hyde could offer,” Canning said. “They were really doing that as an investment in the community and its knowledge of the history of art, particularly of abstraction … They wanted to have their collection and the artists it represents available to inspire future artists and creative people in our region.”
Canning went on to say that Feibes “was just a very warm and friendly personality, very gracious.”
Neighbors like Kishton can attest to that.
“To me, the most distinguishing feature of their personalities was that they were so interested in meeting new people and talking about new ideas,” Kishton said, adding that Feibes was a great storyteller.
Jordan has Feibes to thank in part for introducing him to the Stockade neighborhood.
“When I moved into the Stockade, Werner and his partner Jim threw a wonderful party that they called an ‘In Between’ party, in between Christmas and New Year’s. It was my first social event in the Stockade and it introduced me to all of the people then living in this historic district, some of whom have become lifelong friends,” Jordan said. Over the years, the two connected about the arts, especially theater and opera, the latter being another passion of Feibes’.
A graveside interment service for Feibes is slated for 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21 at Vale Cemetery in Schenectady. An opera singer will perform an aria to conclude the service.
“I think that will be beautiful and something he would have loved,” Kishton said.
There will be no reception after the service due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. Memorial donations can be made to the Schenectady Heritage Foundation (P.O. Box 1173, Schenectady, NY 12305), or online at the Foundation’s website.
Kishton and others are planning to celebrate Feibes’ life with an event in May of 2022. For updates on the event, visit schenectadyheritage.org as the date approaches.
Reach reporter Indiana Nash at [email protected] and @Indijnash on Twitter.