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Lost Landmarks: Photographers keep memories of old upstate buildings alive

Lost Landmarks: Photographers keep memories of old upstate buildings alive

As a child, Peter Sefton spent summers on Great Sacandaga Lake, on an old family farm in Northville.

As a child, Peter Sefton spent summers on Great Sacandaga Lake, on an old family farm in Northville.

He ate at Jumpin’ Jack’s Drive-In, in Scotia, and visited cities throughout the Capital Region — Amsterdam, Gloversville, Schenectady.

Sefton lives in Alexandria, Va., now. But he still vacations in upstate New York during the summer, and in recent years he’s been taking photographs of old vacant buildings and posting them on a Web site, Lost Landmarks of Upstate New York (lostlandmarks.org). Many of the photographs are accompanied by lengthy written descriptions.

“As an adult, I started to notice that some of the things that impressed me as a child were starting to crumble and disappear,” he said. “I thought someone should do a memorial.”

Sefton, 59, started the Lost Landmarks Web site in 2000.

The home page contains a simple statement of purpose: “Someday the puzzle that is Upstate New York will be insoluble because of its missing pieces. Its days as the high road west are memorialized by its canalside towns’ oversized hotels. Its career as a manufactory is remembered in red brick factories and the mansions of carpet or celluloid collar or glove moguls.”

Featured sites include the Wellington Hotel in Albany, which, except for its historic facade, was razed last year to make for a 14-story office tower, Chalmers Knitting Mill in Amsterdam, slated for demolition this spring, and the F.J. & G (Fonda, Johnstown & Gloversville) Railroad Coal House in Gloversville, which was torn down in 2003.

The written descriptions that accompany the photographs are lengthy and detailed, providing the reader with a sense of why the buildings are significant. “I found out that taking pictures wasn’t enough for me,” said Sefton, an analyst with the U.S. Census Bureau. “I started researching the buildings. They were such a part of community life.”

“When you live in a big city like D.C. or New York City you miss that sense of community,” he said. “Something like a textile mill in Amsterdam — what a big, lasting fingerprint that has on people. They may not even realize it.” People notice when a big building like the Wellington is demolished, but the day-to-day erosion that slowly eats away at lesser-known buildings tends to be overlooked, he said.

Eventually, people in the Capital Region began to discover the Lost Landmarks site, and e-mailed Sefton. He now has several local collaborators. One of them, Amsterdam resident Jerry Snyder, began working with Sefton about seven years ago. Snyder has taken some of the pictures that appear on the site, and contributed old postcards from his collection.

Sense of history

“So much of our history has been torn down and thrown away,” Snyder said. “The little pieces that are left, if we don’t document them, no one will realize they’re there. A lot of people drive by something and look at it, but have no appreciation for what it is or what it used to be.” He said the Lost Landmarks site can give people a sense of “our history, how we got to be where we are today.”

Snyder has co-authored a book, “Amsterdam,” with city historian Robert von Hasseln. “Amsterdam is so torn up and torn apart there isn’t much there anymore,” he said. The book, which includes old photographs and pictures, “can give people a feel for what was here,” he said.

Much of the book focuses on the city’s industrial infrastructure. “It’s our way of keeping a little bit of it alive,” he said.

The Lost Landmarks site isn’t the only effort to document the Capital Region’s rich history.

Albany resident Sebastien Barre, a native of France who moved to the area in 2001, has been exploring the area’s old buildings and taking photographs, often posting them on the Web site All Over Albany. (Barre’s photos can also be found here; the title of the set is “Urban Exploration.”) Sites photographed include the abandoned Starlite Music Theatre in Latham, Allegheny Ludlum Steel, an abandoned steel mill in Menands, and an abandoned train near Glenmont.

Barre is usually joined in his photography ventures by two or three people, “friends of mine who share a common interest in photography and getting dirty,” he wrote, in an e-mail. “We don’t venture out at night — that’s asking for trouble and this type of recreation is spooky enough by day. These places do not have power anymore, are very poorly lit and most often hazardous: asbestos, pigeon droppings, toxic waste, nails, rust, you name it. We carry around a first-aid kit, water, goggles, masks, flashlights, etc., and try not to take too many unnecessary risks. We taking nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.”

Barre, who is a software engineer, said he started taking pictures in 2005, but became more serious about photography in 2008, when he bought his first semi-pro camera. He said his favorite buildings include Central Warehouse in Albany, and the Wellington Hotel.

“The Central Warehouse is probably the largest structure I have stepped in since we started, a massive 400,000-square foot ‘cold and dry’ storage facility built in 1927 that could hold enough frozen foods to feed the Capital District a few times over. It took us hours to explore this maze of rooms spreading over 10 floors. Like most abandoned buildings, many walls have been reclaimed by local artists and features (graffiti). An entire floor is actually a train station, literally inside the building. The view from the roof is spectacular as well.”

The Wellington Hotel, Barre said, “is a different story. One of Albany’s once-famous landmarks, this slim 10-story building designed by Albert Fuller and completed in 1905 on top of State Street had been empty for more than 20 years. Dust, old paint, graffiti, dubious porn, World War II paintings, playing cards glued to the walls — this was undoubtedly the residence of many strange inhabitants. This hotel was destroyed last year, a few months after our visit; that is why I wanted to take those pictures, to keep (and share) a memory of what used to be a part of people’s lives, not so long ago.”

Barre, who said he preferred to respond to questions through e-mail because English is not his first language, is from “old Europe” and grew up in houses that were “400 to 500 years old. Even though everything feels very new to me here, I’m interested in architecture, how a ‘new country’ like the U.S.A. deals with its buildings and infrastructure, how and why people move around, seem to abandon places and leave everything behind — bikes, candy boxes, cards, teddy bears. Buildings come out of the ground very quickly, but can be abandoned or destroyed just as fast.”

Hidden beauty

He said every outing uncovers something beautiful. “Behind those places that are so full of waste and decay, we manage to find a splash of color or light, or one beautiful thing like flowers growing through a broken window. That, I think, makes it a little less depressing to look at. It conveys that this chaos might, sooner or later, turn into something different, old or new.”

Sefton said that in other communities, such as Alexandria, the Washington, D.C., suburb where he lives, there would be a greater outcry about the loss of historic buildings.

“A lot of buildings are being destroyed without a lot of angst in upstate New York,” he said. “In Washington, they would be considered real landmarks.” Amsterdam “is an economically depressed community,” he said. “There’s not a lot of money to preserve buildings. Schenectady has magnificent buildings that are in danger of being lost. In Washington there’s a lot of money to save buildings that aren’t nearly as notable.”

Sefton said that visiting the Capital Region’s decaying landmarks gives him “a spooky kind of feeling. Here’s where we used to go roller skating in Amsterdam — now it’s just a parking lot.”

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