Weary of potholes and Band-Aid repair jobs, a group of Troy residents has banded together to restore one of the Capital Region’s most historic streets, Washington Place.
Just 310 feet long, Washington Place borders the southern end of Washington Park and 10 Victorian-era rowhouses and is part of the Washington Park National Register Historic District. Built in the 1800s using granite pavers, it is a rare example of an intact 19th century Belgian block paved street.
But over the past 50 years, Washington Place had fallen into disrepair.
Drivers unaware of its massive potholes damaged their cars while navigating a street that was “like a roller-coaster,” according to local historian Don Rittner. AAA refused to drive on the street to help motorists, and residents worried that emergency services wouldn’t be able to get to their homes in a timely manner.
They wanted the street fixed, but they didn’t want it covered in asphalt or lost to numerous patch-up jobs. Most of all, they wanted to preserve the street’s historic character.
“You live in a house like this and you think ‘Why would I not want to live on the street I now see?’ ” said Washington Place homeowner Peter Lucas, who moved into one of the street’s rowhouses in 2002.
The street restoration began last fall, spearheaded by Friends of Washington Park. The project is now 95 percent complete and the organization will host a ribbon cutting ceremony and reception at 2 p.m. on Aug. 3.
But the idea for the project was born about eight years ago, when a neighborhood resident, sculptor Larry Kagan, contacted Lynn Kopka, president of both the Washington Park Association and Friends of Washington Park, and said he would donate $5,000 if she would work on getting the street fixed.
Inspired, Kopka began to pursue grants and in 2006 received $90,000 from the state Environmental Protection Fund. The city of Troy contributed $87,000 and other individuals and organizations, including the Capital District Community Loan Fund, the National Grid Main Street Revitalization Program and Price Chopper’s Golub Foundation, also chipped in. Homeowners made pledges as well.
Kopka said she never expected the city of Troy to undertake an expensive restoration of a relatively small street. Because the street is in a designated landmark area, it must be restored to its original state.
“We just figured that in a cash-strapped city it would be impossible to come up with the funds,” she said.
To preserve the original street surface, each of the Belgian block pavers was removed, cleaned and stored so that the roadbed could be leveled and subfill added. Workers then reinstalled the pavers by hand. The street was missing 8,000 of its original granite pavers but the city of Albany donated replacement stones. All told, Washington Park has 35,000 Belgian block pavers.
“When we started the project, any time we heard about pavers, we got them,” Kopka said. “We began stockpiling them.”
Rittner, a Troy native who now serves as historian for both the city and county of Schenectady, recently wrote in his blog that the city of Troy has more than 100 miles of streets, 73 miles of which were paved by 1925.
The city’s first Belgian block came from Weehawken, N.J., in 1854 and was laid on River Street. By 1925, the city had 22.36 miles of Belgian block, 19.51 miles of brick, 6.5 miles of street asphalt, 7.2 miles of crushed stone, 4.24 miles of macadam, 4.72 miles of Hassam block, 5.92 miles of bitulithic macadam, 1.895 miles of reinforced concrete, 1 mile of remapped granite and four miles of wood.
“There’s been an evolution in roadways and the way we pave roads,” Rittner said.
The late 1700s saw the birth of the Turnpike Movement, in which companies built and maintained turnpike roads to make traveling easier and more comfortable. Eventually, Belgian blocks became a popular road material.
“They gave a nice surface and lasted a long time,” Rittner said.
Belgian blocks are rectangular or square and uniform in size, with a length of 5 to 7 inches. They were first used in Brussels, Belgium, and introduced in New York around 1850, replacing cobblestones — round stones packed tightly together. Prior to that, streets were dirt.
The historic character of streets is an under-discussed aspect of local history, Rittner said.
“History is not just buildings but a way of life that includes the infrastructure,” he said. “When you’re trying to save a snapshot of a city’s history, you have to include everything that made it what it was.”
Washington Place, with its park, rowhouses and Belgian block street, “is a symbol of what Troy used to be. It’s a very important part of Troy’s history.”
Asphalt makes driving easier but it isn’t aesthetically pleasing and “takes away from the visual landscape,” Rittner said. Underneath the asphalt streets of Schenectady “are beautiful brick streets with trolley tracks,” he said. “Why can’t we bring that sort of thing back?”
Rittner then answered his own question. “Driving on Belgian blocks means you have to slow down. We live in a car culture. People want to get from point A to point B,” he said.
Washington Place is a public street but it doesn’t serve a huge number of people — mainly the homeowners who live there.
Lucas moved to Troy after visiting the city and falling in love with a house on Washington Place.
“I’d never been to Troy before,” he said. “I had no intention of moving.” He said he hoped the Washington Place street restoration would inspire other communities to take on similar projects.
Earlier this month, The New York Times ran an article about cobblestone streets in New York City’s TriBeCa neighborhood that are being restored to their original state as part of a large-scale reconstruction project.
The Washington Place paving was done by JJP Slip Forming Inc. Bob Talham Inc. handled work below the street surface.
Washington Park is modeled after the private residential green squares of 19th century London and is one of two privately owned and maintained parks in New York. (Gramercy Park in New York City is the other.)
This is the second time Washington Park residents have joined forces to preserve a historic piece of the neighborhood.
The Friends of Washington Park collaborated with the city of Troy on the stabilization of a collapsed 19th century rowhouse at 8 Washington Place, one of 10 buildings designed and built together to represent a Greek temple that spanned the entire block.
That effort spurred the rehabilitation of other buildings on the block and in the neighborhood, including vacant and gutted buildings at 3, 4, 5 and 7 Washington Place.