Most people refer to it as one of the Ellis Mansions, but the actual name of the building is the Turnbull House. If you know the full story of the home at 215 Union St., it makes perfect sense.
Built in 1885 by Edward Ellis and now owned by the First Presbyterian Church, the Turnbull House will be among the buildings on display during Saturday’s Stockade Walkabout.
By 1949, the building, long out of the hands of the Ellis family, had become an apartment building and was beginning to suffer from neglect. When it went on the market that year, the church purchased the building but could only pay $10,000 of the $40,000 price tag. That’s when John T. Turnbull stepped in.
“He was not a member of the church, but he had two sisters, Augusta and Lillian, who were,” explained Jim Stewart, a longtime member at First Presbyterian and co-author of a 2010 history of the church with David Vincent. “They were two elderly school teachers who were very involved in church activities. Well, their brother showed up at the bank with a big bag of money and paid off the mortgage in their memory. Unfortunately, we don’t know too much about him, but there’s a plaque in the lobby with his name on it that people can see.”
WHERE: Stockade Neighborhood, Schenectady
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $20 in advance, $25 day of event
MORE INFO: www.historicstockade.com
Only the first floor of the large brownstone building will be open to the public on Saturday. The church uses the Turnbull House these days for Sunday school and other youth activities.
“A lot got changed when they turned it into a rooming house, but when the church took it over they preserved a lot of the architectural features that were still there when they bought it,” said Stewart. “The ceiling has been retained, so when you walk in the first floor and see that and the stairway, you can get a good feel for what the place must have been like.”
The Ellis family was one of the most prominent in Schenectady. Edward Ellis’ father was John Ellis, a Scottish immigrant and founder of the Schenectady Locomotive Works in 1848. The senior Ellis died in 1864 and succeeding him as president of the company were his four sons: John C. from 1864 to 1878; Charles from 1878 to 1891; Edward from 1891 to 1897; and William from 1897 to 1901, when the company merged with seven other locomotive manufacturers to form the American Locomotive Co.
At the same time that Edward was building his house at 215 Union, his brother Charles was working right alongside him, putting up a very similar looking home at 217 Union St., now an apartment building. Both had carriage houses in back as well as porticos in front to welcome visitors.
Along with providing Schenectady with its largest employer for most of the 19th century, the Ellises, particularly Charles, helped establish Ellis Hospital in 1893.
“John Ellis was a hard-headed businessman, a very savvy businessman, and all of his sons continued the business right up to the founding of the American Locomotive Company,” said Dave Gould, historian for the Alco Historical and Technical Society. “They had their family fiefdom and they all had their turn at running the business. But they weren’t engineers or mechanical at all. They were good businessmen.”
They were also, according to Gould, the kind of people who would have really appreciated Turnbull’s gesture of donating the Ellis home to the church. Both Edward and Charles Ellis served as trustees at the First Presbyterian during the latter part of the 19th century.
“They knew how to take care of their workers, and they were constantly putting money back into the business,” said Gould. “What sparked the idea of the hospital was having a place for their workmen who were injured on the job. They must have had a strong sense of community.”
There are 17 designated stops on this year’s Walkabout, including 32 Washington Ave., where the Schenectady County Historical Society will have a rarely seen portrait of John Ellis on display. Painted by Samuel Sexton shortly before the family patriarch died in 1864, the portrait recently was donated to the historical society by Ellis Hospital.
Along with seven private homes, many public buildings will be on display Saturday, including the Schenectady Civic Playhouse at 12 S. Church St. Built as a masonic temple in 1869, the playhouse will have its extensive costume collection on display.
While St. George’s Episcopal Church will be closed, both the First Presbyterian Church and the First Reformed will be open for tours. Members of the Schenectady County Community College archaeology program will have an exhibit at the First Reformed Church and will be working with ongoing digs at 12 Union St. and 234 Union St.
At the Witecki Law Office at 8 S. Church St., a miniature log house called “Tinywoods” and built by Lily Swank will be available for public viewing.
Here is a list of the private homes on this year’s Walkabout.
-- The Isaac I. Yates Tenant House, 1 Union St.
-- The William C. Vrooman House, 9 Washington Ave.
-- The Wallace S. Clark House, 15 Front St.
-- The Giles van der Bogert House, 111 Union St.
-- The Jemmie Boyd/Isaac DeGraff House, 14 N. Ferry St.
-- The Mary Cochran Ellis House, 234 Union St.
-- The David B. Engelman House, 232 Union St.