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Schenectady activist endeavors to rescue ‘magical places’ from ruin

Schenectady activist endeavors to rescue ‘magical places’ from ruin

Gloria Kishton was in high school when she got her first taste of the sad nostalgia that comes with
Schenectady activist endeavors to rescue ‘magical places’ from ruin
Gloria Kishton stands in front of 440 State St. in Schenectady earlier this month.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

Gloria Kishton was in high school when she got her first taste of the sad nostalgia that comes with the demolition of a historic gem.

She couldn’t understand why anybody would want to rip down the ornate and historic Union Station, which had stood at the intersection of Erie Boulevard and State Street since 1908.

She and a friend visited the station one afternoon when demolition was first beginning, and she recalls feeling disgusted.

“It was such a magical place for me as a kid,” she said. “I had relatives and family that used to leave from here and go on these exotic trips to Illinois and all that. It was just a beautiful place and there was just no reason to rip it down.”

It baffles Kishton, now 61, why many things get ripped down these days. That’s why upon graduation from the Pratt Institute in the 1970s she chose to live in Schenectady’s Stockade Historic District. It’s also why she eventually became chairperson of the Schenectady Heritage Foundation, which works to preserve historic architecture in Schenectady County.

Though often the force that puts a stop to many projects, sometimes just by informing new building owners of preservation guidelines or zoning codes, Kishton is well-known and well-respected in the county. And she knows Schenectady well, in part because of her walking everywhere and her involvement with many county and city agencies over the years. They range from the neighborhood associations to the Schenectady Historic District Commission, Metroplex Development Authority, the city Planning Commission, and others.

Her best friends, though, are the historic structures she knows, loves, and tries her best to save from neglect or demolition.

“It’s almost like these buildings are bothering somebody,” she said, recalling Union Station, which was eventually demolished in 1971. “They just can’t stand to have them there. I don’t know why. I don’t get it. You can always mothball a building and wait until some other use comes along. Times change, the economy changes, uses will change.” Kishton’s years in preservation work have given her an unusual perspective from which to evaluate Schenectady and the most pressing issues it faces — not only in preserving its past, but in looking to its future.

Hiding something?

Standing at Jay and State streets recently, Kishton looked at an imposing black curtain that covers the three-story facade of 440 State St. The former Odd Fellows Hall is being demolished to make way for a modern office building to house software development company Transfinder.

For Kishton, the curtain signifies more than just the loss of a historic Schenectady structure. It also figuratively and literally represents the lack of transparency that she believes went into the rushed decision to demolish the building.

“I think people are frustrated by a lack of transparency in the process,” Kishton said of the city Planning Commission’s rushed approval of a full demolition. “And 440 is certainly a very good example of that, I think. I had people say they were surprised I found out about it. So I think there’s an effort to keep it under the radar and just try to get this done without making a fuss, because the last thing they wanted was for people who support preservation to find out about this.”

Kishton is sometimes known for the causes she takes up. She is often one of few voices that advocates for buildings or slate sidewalks or an old caretaker’s cottage.

Her tendency to speak up is what caught Jim Schmitt’s attention nearly 30 years ago. The now-retired architect had arranged a lecture on historic preservation at the Schenectady Museum in his capacity as founder of Schenectady Heritage Foundation.

“She’d begun asking questions and speaking, and I was very impressed with her grasp of the situation and her responses to various questions and so on,” Schmitt remembered. “I said, ‘We’ve gotta get that gal and get her on the board.’ ”

He laughs when he recalls the story, saying he’s not sure if she ever wanted to join the foundation but that he “went after her” anyway.

Kishton and Schmitt now live around the corner from each other in the Stockade, where Kishton’s family has owned a home on Union Street since the 1970s.

Kishton is eager to talk about why she loves the Stockade. The area was the first in the state to be designated a historic district. Its walkable atmosphere is a selling point for residents and its 17th and 18th century Dutch and English Colonial homes are a tourist favorite.

“There’s just all different sorts of people there, and people really love that,” said Kishton. “It’s just a fantastic neighborhood. I think it’s very unusual. I mean, you can go to a gathering and there will be people who are on public assistance, there will be millionaires, all sorts of nationalities, races, art critics. That’s diversity.”

What connects most people in the Stockade is their love of community and history, she said. People know it takes a lot of work to maintain the homes, but they love their homes and their architecture, she said.

“They’re taking care of this not only for their own benefit, but for the community.”

UPHILL BATTLE

There’s less of that elsewhere in the city, she said. And it’s certainly not as easy to preserve the historic integrity of a place outside of the city’s historic districts.

Indeed, as the Heritage Foundation’s chair, Kishton would say she has failed many times.

There was the effort to designate Jay Street a historic district that never panned out. If building owners didn’t want to be on the state registry of historic places they couldn’t be forced. And if they agreed, there would be tighter restrictions as to what they could do to their storefronts.

There were the 2003 efforts to save a group of 19th and early 20th century buildings downtown at the corner of State Street and Broadway that ultimately failed. Kishton describes it as a turning point. She had spent the previous few years organizing trips to other cities where historic architecture was being incorporated into redevelopment efforts and worked with the foundation to sponsor a series of “Livable Cities” speakers, which yielded several concepts eventually incorporated into city’s revitalization, such as the Schenectady Greenmarket, first-floor retail and walkability.

In a 2010 letter to the editor, Kishton wrote that all the demolition up to that point had left no way for downtown to be designated a historic district.

“And gone also was the chance to reap all the benefits that ‘historic district’ designation might have offered,” she wrote, “such as historic tax credits, opportunities for ‘green’ construction and the saving of irreplaceable architecture.”

‘PASSION AND REASON’

The foundation has lost battles. But the thing about Kishton that former foundation chairwoman Barbara Blanchard finds amazing is her ability to put up a good fight and negotiate reasonably for historic preservation.

“She is very well-spoken on these matters,” said Blanchard, a Schenectady city councilwoman. “And she can win over our harshest critics. She’s very level-headed and well-respected in the community, and has worked very hard over the years for historic preservation.”

In the approximately 20 years Blanchard worked with Kishton, she cites their efforts, along with the Friends of Vale Association, to save the Vale Cemetery caretaker’s cottage as a particular success story.

What helped win the battle was Kishton’s ability to remain level-headed.

“You can’t just get into fights with your opponents,” said Blanchard. “And we’ve lost more battles than we’ve won over the years, but there are still a few historic buildings in town and Gloria embodies what you need in a preservationist: passion and reason.”

There was also the time she helped save a home at 221 Green St. from demolition. Jacob Clute, a member of Schenectady’s prominent Clute family, used to live there.

“It wasn’t an easy task,” said Schmitt. “But it’s a historic building that was built in the neighborhood and represents that time in history.”

On a chilly evening on Schenectady’s Jay Street, Kishton leaves Ambition Cafe and eyes the storefronts ahead of her. On her left is a white-shingled facade with red trim. On her right is an empty, gray paneled office complex. They stand out from the rest of Jay Street, which appears straight out of Schenectady’s past.

To Kishton, they’re perfect examples of what happens when historic preservation is lost or rejected.

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