If you know downtown Schenectady, you know the Olender building.
It has stood tall on lower State Street since at least 1900, when it was technically two buildings — one that housed the Empire Furniture Store and another that housed The Carl Company. To modern-day Schenectadians, though, the Olender building is recognizable for the large, weathered green aluminum that covers its facade. That aluminum has been there so long — it dates back to at least 1947 — that no one really knows anymore what the original facade looks like.
With news this week that the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority plans to demolish the building to make room for new development, local preservationists hope to find out whether there’s anything worth saving beneath that aluminum.
“A good deal of the original facades may still exist under that sheet metal, but how can we know without some investigation?” asked Schenectady Heritage Foundation Chairwoman Gloria Kishton. “It would be reasonable to peel off at least some of the current facade to document existing conditions and to ascertain what is underneath.”
Kishton emailed The Daily Gazette two photos of the buildings before the aluminum went up. The first is a color photo taken of lower State Street in 1900 that shows two buildings in the spot Olender Mattress occupied
from 1977 to 2011. The second photo is a black-and-white shot from 1935 of the same buildings when they housed the Fern Furniture Co. At some point between when these two photos were taken, the John Wagner Co. operated a furniture store at the site, as well, newspaper records indicate.
In both photos, the buildings boast a stately stone facade, complete with ornamental stonework and globes jutting up from each roof. The question Kishton hopes to find an answer to is whether these facades were done away with when the aluminum went up.
Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen said he doesn’t know what’s under the aluminum.
“We’ve studied the building from an environmental point of view and structural point of view,” he said. “But we don’t believe there are any historical features left in the building. It was modernized back in the ’50s and ’60s.”
Metroplex announced Wednesday it plans to buy the Olender building and the adjacent vacant lot where the Robinson’s Furniture complex once stood, tear down the Olender building and sell the two parcels as one to a developer who would construct a mixed-use building on the site.
The Robinson buildings were demolished in 2007 after two floors of the four-story building collapsed. The building had been vacant for nearly 15 years by that point. Because the demolition was considered an emergency, one-night job, preservationists were unable to save the building’s ornate cornices from being smashed to pieces.
Gillen said Wednesday the Olender demolition is necessary given the building’s “severe weather damage and structural issues.”
On Friday, he told The Gazette no one has made an offer on the Olender building since the Olender family closed their store in November 2011, and he suspected it had to do with the building’s “very poor condition.”
Kishton, whose organization focuses on preserving historic architecture, said demolition of the building is reasonable if the original facade is gone and an engineering study determines the building is structurally unsound or prohibitively expensive to make sound.
“Demolitions of Schenectady’s historic buildings downtown are frequently deemed ‘absolute emergencies’ by developers who prefer shovel-ready sites, modern buildings and at-the-door parking,” she said. “There are many examples of buildings downtown that were demolished not as a last resort, but because a developer threatened to walk away.”
Her foundation doesn’t advocate just for preservation of historic buildings, she said, but for a mix of historic and new buildings in downtown development.
“Older buildings bring diversity to our city, often have lower rents and are a green approach,” she said. “A diverse approach allows for using historic preservation and new construction for economic development.”
The foundation is also concerned about the demolition’s effect on the adjacent Nicholaus Building, which dates back to 1900 and is one of few remaining Schenectady buildings that stood at the towpath of the Erie Canal. The building was recently restored and eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It currently houses a Thai restaurant on the first floor.
“We consider the Nicholaus Building to be extremely endangered by plans for Olender’s demolition,” said Kishton. “If the Olender demolition proceeds, an appropriate engineering plan and insurance must be in place to preserve the integrity of the Nicholaus Building.
“The foundation is not trying to save every historic building or chain ourselves to the bulldozer here,” she said. “But there has been a lot of beautiful stuff destroyed because we’re so desperate for a developer to come in.”
Gillen declined to comment further Friday on plans for the demolition.