Changes are afoot at 17 Front Street, a sprawling home that housed Governor Joseph Yates in the early 19th century.
There are new owners, Chris LaFlamme and Eric Johnson — son of the late Schenectady mayor Karen Johnson — who bought the property in October under C.E. Biscuit, LLC.
They plan to preserve the home and restore the greenhouse as well as the English garden aesthetic, however, they are making one major change to the property. The pool, which was once a community hub but has been out of commission for some time, will be backfilled starting next week.
“We want to preserve; we don’t want to make changes but we do have to get rid of the pool and out of respect for its history, we would like to make people aware that we’re going to fill it in,” LaFlamme said during a recent interview with The Gazette.
Restoring and preserving historic properties isn’t new territory for LaFlamme, who manages four other properties in the Stockade area through his company Bleu Group Enterprise, LLC. Some of those properties are rented out to residents, and one (609 Union St.) is home to the Schenectady Trading Company. Johnson and his family plan to move to 17 Front Street, which has seven apartment units, sometime next year.
Johnson grew up in the Stockade and, as a young teen, he worked for Union College professor Gilbert Harlow, former owner of 17 Front St. Johnson mostly did lawn work, and even helped to try and fix the pool at one point. He never ventured inside the home but was always fascinated with the gardens and the greenhouse.
“I just have fond memories of it,” Johnson said.
After graduating from Union College, he moved out to Denver, Colorado, where he’s lived for 27 years. He began considering moving back to the area several years ago while caring for his mother, who died in 2019.
“I was spending about a third of my time in Schenectady,” Johnson said. “Being there after having been away for so long . . . [I] just fell back in love with it.”
The Johnsons plan to move into one of the apartments at 17 Front Street sometime after their son graduates from high school next year.
“I’m looking forward to being part of the Stockade community once again,” Johnson said.
The home is certainly built for community-oriented living, as former resident Priscilla Gocha can attest to. She spent her childhood there after her late father, Harlow, bought the property in 1941. She came back to live in the home in 1993 and remained there for more than two decades.
In the 1940s and 1950s, to bring in additional income, Harlow rented out rooms to General Electric engineers and the home became known as the University Club. It featured plenty of bedrooms, along with an impressive backyard, with gardens on four different terraces that stretched out nearly to the Mohawk River. It also featured locker rooms, a greenhouse and, of course, the pool.
It was first installed in 1934, replacing a tennis court, according to Gocha. Coming in at 20 by 60 feet, the sizable pool became a community hub, not only for tenants but for people from all over Schenectady.
People could purchase pool memberships for the summer season, ranging in price from $7 to $14. The pool was open to children and families in the mornings and teens in the afternoons and evenings.
“No one had swimming pools back in those days,” Gocha said, adding that it wasn’t out of the ordinary to have 150 teens from the Stockade and beyond coming by to swim throughout the afternoons.
“It was a neighborhood pool . . . it was a real gathering place for the Stockade and many others,” Gocha said. “There are just so many memories. I can’t go anywhere that someone doesn’t say, ‘I swam in your pool.’ ”
It remained a community pool for more than two decades. For a time following that, it was open to friends and neighbors, however, it’s been inoperable for some time.
When LaFlamme and Johnson first purchased the home, they hoped to revive the pool. Johnson spoke with professionals about bringing it back to its former glory, yet, each estimate to repair it came in around $50,000 to $60,000, with $12,000 in annual maintenance fees. Then, their insurance carrier gave them notice that they’d lose their insurance on the home if they didn’t fix or fill the pool by the end of November.
“It really was devastating because we didn’t want to rush anything,” Johnson said. “I think filling it in is economically for us the only option . . . But it’s certainly a little heartbreaking.”
It will be demolished starting Monday and to access the pool, crews will need to widen a gate in the backyard, taking down part of an adjacent brick wall in the process.
“We apologize in advance for any noise,” LaFlamme said.
While they’re removing the pool, they hope to continue on the tradition of having the backyard operate as a community hub of sorts.
“We want to share the backyard, not only with these tenants but with the residents. We want to open the yard to the community with future events like weddings, maybe a movie night,” LaFlamme said.
They also plan to restore the greenhouse, which Harlow used to grow tuberous begonias, and before that Gocha’s mother ran a nursery school out of. There remains a painting of a giraffe inside one of the greenhouse doors from that era.
When it comes to the home itself, they plan to restore some of the shutters on the back of the building and repair some exterior doors. They’re working with the Schenectady Heritage Foundation to do so.
“It is a gem,” Johnson said. “[We’re] looking forward to bringing it back to its glory.”
A bit of history on 17 Front Street:
It was built in 1760 by Tobias Van Eyck and designed by Samuel Fuller.
The house was originally a two-story Federal-style home with a one-story left-wing and a separate entrance that Yates used as his office.
A third floor was built over the mainframe in the early 20th century, and Gilbert Harlow added a second floor over the left wing when he bought the building in 1941.
The backyard is enclosed by a tall stockade-like fence covered with ivy.
Famous visitors include the Marquis de Lafayette, Martin Van Buren and Aaron Burr in the early 19th century and actress Donna Reed in the 1950s.
In the 1960s, Paul Schaffer, the celebrated environmentalist and builder from Niskayuna, renovated the home into seven apartments.
Reach reporter Indiana Nash at [email protected] or @Indijnash on Twitter.
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Categories: Schenectady County