Technically, you can discover the charm of Schenectady’s Stockade Historic District any time you like by going for a simple stroll through the neighborhood.
But if you crave a little something more — say a guided tour of its old churches, a sneak peek inside cobwebbed two-story pipe rooms, a live dig at the former site of an 1850s mansion, whispered theories of bodies buried in a church basement — then you want to be sure to mark down the annual September Walkabout on your calendar.
When Dick Himmelwright gives his tour of the First Presbyterian Church, he finds something new to point out to visitors each time. On a beautiful Saturday morning, the church elder wears a volunteer tag pinned to a blue knit cardigan. He has been coming to this church since he was a boy in the 1940s and the list of things he loves about it grows each year.
“Come here and I’ll show you the pipes,” he said Saturday, climbing a small set of carpeted stairs to the pulpit.
He opened a creaky door to reveal a shadowy closet. Once inside, you can see that the organ pipes stretch all the way up to the second-story ceiling. They cascade from tall wooden pipes to short metal pipes.
Next he picks up an old photo in a pew. It’s a faded black-and-white picture of the church’s interior and shows the second-story balcony back when it stretched all the way around and down to the first-floor-pulpit, crossing an area of the church that today is just open air, space where the church has been extended to fit two additional wings.
“Union College used to always have its graduations here,” said Himmelwright, running a finger along the balcony in the photo. “Years back, students would come down and walk down this balcony and they’d come down and get their diplomas.”
Nowadays, people take to the balcony for a grand view of the church around Christmas, when the place is lit with decorations.
First Presbyterian isn’t the Stockade’s most talked-about church. That title falls to First Reformed Church of Schenectady, a beautiful stone structure built in 1682 at 8 N. Church St. But the Presbyterian church grounds boast an impressive amount of history. There is Mekeel Hall, site of the original church built in 1769; the Turnbull House, commonly known as one of the Ellis Mansions at 215 Union St.; the Goodrich House, site of the original Union College and present-day church offices; and a cemetery where Jonathan Edwards Jr., Union College president from 1799 to 1801, is buried.
“He was a very famous preacher of his era,” said David Vincent of Duanesburg, a church member who co-authored a 2010 book on its history. “This lot was acquired sometime prior to 1790. It’s estimated there are 1,000 people buried here, but there are only about 500 grave markers. The others have just been lost over time.”
17 stops on tour
There were 17 stops on this year’s Stockade Walkabout. The event has been hosted for 53 years in Schenectady’s oldest neighborhood and attracts a mix of area residents and outsiders who are fond of history.
Himmelwright has volunteered at the walkabout for the past decade, and said turnout is largely dependent on weather. On a beautiful autumn day like Saturday, he expected to see about 100 people filter into the church for the event.
In addition to the First Presbyterian and First Reformed churches, the Schenectady Civic Playhouse on South Church Street and seven private homes along Washington Avenue and Union, Front and North Ferry streets were stops on the walkabout.
A stretch of four brownstones on the 200 block of Union Street attracted plenty of attention Saturday. For one, there was a vintage 1964 police car parked out front. Two of the brownstones were open, their front porches marked with colorful balloons and big numbers indicating them as stops along the walkabout. Then there was the bright, crisp sound of live piano playing wafting out of one of the homes.
Walkabout volunteer Cynthia Jordan stood outside the doorway of 234 Union St., happily recounting its history to passersby.
Mary Cochran Ellis, niece to onetime Schenectady Locomotive Works President John Ellis, lived here, she said. To be clear, she said, pointing to an old photograph, “here” meant a grand two-story mansion that stretched four brownstones long. It was torn down in 1890, a year before Mary died, and replaced with the present-day structures.
“There was also a famous GE patent person who lived here until 1930,” said Jordan dutifully.
Jerry Tiemann patented a whopping 155 inventions while living in the house.
“It’s a cool, cool place,” said Jordan, whose daughter lives in the neighborhood. “It’s 5,000 square feet with 12-foot ceilings downstairs and there’s even an archaeological dig going on in the backyard.”
But of course. Archaeological digs aren’t uncommon in the Stockade, which has been occupied continuously since the 1660s. Homeowner Donna Pochaski-Thomas bought the brownstone in the last year, and decided she wanted to put a shallow pond in the backyard.
“We don’t like to mow lawns,” she said with a laugh from inside her kitchen, as people moseyed on by Saturday. “So I’m going to put a big 6-foot by 20-foot pond in the back. I love history and I love archaeology and I thought, I’m going to dig a bunch of holes anyway, they might as well take a look to see what’s there.”
Her backyard was a busy place Saturday.
A few feet from the back steps was a taped-off square hole where an archeologist from Schenectady County Community College’s Community Archeology Program was brushing through dirt and setting items aside.
They found what they were looking for about two feet down, said Diana Carter, one of four professors involved in the program.
“We found the cobblestone driveway,” she said. “You can see in the picture of this mansion that it was here, and about 24 inches down we found an extension of that cobblestone. We’ve been finding other 19th century artifacts down there, some little pins, pieces of ceramic, a big T-bone steak bone.”
They’ll spend another few weeks on the dig, before compiling everything they find and producing a report that will go to the Schenectady County Historical Society.
A group of people stood in the back doorway Saturday, wondering where to look first.
Off to the side of the yard was a fence made entirely of distressed antique doors of burnt red, sea-green, white and purple turned onto their side. Flowerpots and bird feeders and colorful chimes hung from lacy iron posts. At the far end of the yard was a deck and pergola — a backyard oasis complete with a white canopy bed, glass lights hanging from the rafters, lawn chairs, candlesticks and ornamental trinkets.
For Pochaski-Thomas, the homeowner, this is the best part of participating in the Stockade Walkabout — showing off a bit of her creativity, a bit of her work (she runs a shop called Vintage Chic Furniture) and a bit of the neighborhood’s history.
“We like history, we like the camaraderie, being part of the neighborhood,” she said. “We can chill on the deck, which we just finished building and is awesome. We can show off the house, the woodwork, the entry, the coved ceilings, the fireplaces, just the grandness of it all. Isn’t it neat?”