Schenectady has lost an icon, and Werner Feibes, 83, has lost his soulmate.
For more than five decades, James Schmitt, 87, and his partner Feibes lived in the Stockade together. Schmitt died Saturday after battling heart disease.
“He was a charming, wonderful man,” Mary D’Alessandro, president of the Stockade Association, said. “We are very, very sad here in the Stockade.”
Schmitt, an architect, was a founding father of the Stockade Historic District and the first president of the Stockade Association.
Schmitt’s love for the Stockade, its historic architecture and preservation of its history became a passion.
The neighborhood was founded in 1661 and is the oldest section of Schenectady. It was burned down in 1690 by the French and Indians and was rebuilt again after the Great Fire of 1819.
By the mid-20th century, the Stockade was considered a slum. Schmitt changed that.
In 1957, Schmitt helped found the Stockade Association, a group dedicated to the area's preservation, protection and development. Schmitt was elected as its first president in 1961, serving for two terms.
“He set standards for the association,” D’Alessandro said. “He was very well respected.”
In 1961, Schmitt and Feibes founded the Stockade Spy, a neighborhood newspaper. The paper continues its purpose to this day.
During Schmitt’s tenure as association president, his work led to the adoption of the state’s first historic zoning ordinance in the Stockade. In 1962, the Stockade Historic District was created. It also was the first in the state.
Schmitt’s journey to the Stockade was years in the making.
He grew up in Erie, Pa., with two brothers and a sister, and then went off to fight in World War II. In 1945, the U.S. government started a program to help European universities recover, offering GIs the chance to attend college there before going home.
Schmitt accepted the offer, studying art and theater design. Back home, he decided he was interested in architecture and the University of Cincinnati offered a co-op program, where architecture students went to school for three months and were then able to work in the trade for three months.
During this same time, Feibes was in Schenectady and also interested in architecture. When he heard about the program in Cincinnati, he decided to go. When Feibes was 18 and Schmitt was 22 they met and their 60-year love story began.
Feibes was an immigrant from Germany. His father was a physician who escaped a concentration camp and brought his family to the U.S. when Feibes was 9. A doctor in Schenectady by the name of Van Der Bogert convinced Feibes’ father to move here to practice medicine.
After graduation from the University of Cincinnati, Feibes was offered an architect's job in Schenectady. The offer came from Van Der Bogert’s son. But Feibe’s had other plans, he wanted to travel through Europe first. He asked Schmitt if he wanted the job instead.
Schmitt moved in with Feibes’ parents, who considered him a son. While Feibes was in Europe, Schmitt came across the Stockade.
“Jim took one look at this community down here — the Stockade — and said I must find a place,” Feibes said. “By the time I got back from Europe he said let me show you where we will live.”
In 1956, Feibes and Schmitt moved together to the Stockade.
“Our lives started together,” Feibes explained.
Feibes was offered a partnership with Van Der Bogert. After Schmitt received his New York architectural license, he too joined the partnership. The architectural firm, Van Der Bogert, Feibes & Schmitt was born. But Van Der Bogert died young and the firm became Feibes & Schmitt.
Feibes describes Schmitt as the most thoughtful and attentive person you could ever imagine.
“He was very generous with his praise. He said ‘thank you’ more times in 24 hours than most people say in a month. And he meant it,” Feibes said. “It is not difficult to love somebody that is that way. He was extremely giving.”
Schmitt and Feibes retired together 15 years ago.
“People said, ‘How can you guys live together and work together for 60 years? That is like 120 years!’” Feibes said. “I said, ‘Well, you know, it takes two to tango.’ ”
The couple spent their retirement and life together traveling, collecting art and enjoying each other’s company. They both loved music and art. They traveled to Spain, Morocco, Germany, Scotland, Austria and Italy, just to name a few places. They bought an apartment in the Bronx, and frequented operas in the city. They rented an apartment in Paris, too, a city they grew to love.
It seemed the only thing the couple had not done was get married. The couple never thought they would live long enough to see same-sex marriage become legal, Feibes explained. After it did become legal in New York and after a lot of encouragement and support from the community, they decided it was time. Dressed in their tuxedos, they were married on March 22 of this year.
“They had a wonderful relationship,” D’Alessandro said.
Feibes explained that the love the couple had was more than just that.
“If you feel something important has brought you together … you are going to have to work together to keep it going. You have to build love. People think it is just a romantic thing,” Feibes explained. “In the long term, you have to build something bigger than that.”
After Schmitt had open heart surgery a year ago, he suffered a series of seizures that resulted in some brain damage. According to Feibes, Schmitt became very aware of this and was concerned he was a burden. But Feibes reassured him, he could never be a burden.
A celebration of Schmitt’s life will take place on Wednesday at the Van Dyck Restaurant, 237 Union St., Schenectady from 5 to 7 p.m.