Bringing the fire-scorched Woodlawn Avenue row houses back from the brink of demolition won’t be easy, but the owner of the iconic brick structures is convinced it can be done.
Developer Robert Israel pitched a complete overhaul of the property to the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals on Monday in a first step to restore the five badly damaged apartment buildings. The massive undertaking involves replacing the gutted interior of the apartments, bringing the structures up to modern fire code and building a carriage house structure on land in the rear of the property.
Israel said about two-thirds of the existing structures will be saved and renovated. All five brick facades along Woodlawn have remained intact and appear as though they can be preserved — even the one from the building in which the fast-moving fire originated.
Gone will be the back wooden deck and stairs that extended across all five buildings. In its place will be individual balconies that will attach to the rear of the units, and interior fire escapes.
“This will probably be one of the most difficult restoration projects I’ve ever undertaken,” Israel said.
It will also be quite expensive. To make the restoration possible, Israel said he’ll have to remove three apartments from the original 15 units that were in the structures before the fire and compensate for this loss by adding the carriage house, which will have two units.
Isreal is also proposing to build a parking structure into the slope leading down to Long Alley. The additional parking, coupled with a lot that will remain connected with Van Dam Street, will give the property 28 spaces to conform with the city’s code.
Israel also plans to offer the apartments at the market rate — a deviation from the moderate rents charged on the block before the blaze. The units were considered among the more affordable places to live in the upscale city and usually attracted an eclectic blend of renters, ranging from college students to backstretch workers at the Saratoga Race Course.
“It’s a landmark that neighborhood has lived with for more than 100 years,” he said. “We want to build it back so that it’s there for another 100 years.”
Israel’s plans have received cautious support from preservationists, namely because of his long-standing reputation for maintaining and restoring historical properties. Samantha Bosshart, executive director of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, said some developers would have advocated for simply demolishing the buildings.
“We’re very fortunate that Bob is the owner and that he has such a track record of preserving buildings in the city,” she said.
Fire ripped through the row houses on July 28, leaving more than 30 tenants homeless and severely damaging the five buildings extending down from 100 Woodlawn Ave. The house at 108 Woodlawn was almost entirely destroyed by the pre-dawn fire, save for its brick facade; 106 Woodlawn sustained massive damage and was left partially collapsed.
Investigators quickly ruled out accidental causes and instead focused on two areas where they believe accelerant was used to spread the fire. A search warrant was executed at a residence in Wilton less than a day after the fire, but authorities have not yet made an arrest.
Police Lt. Robert Jillson said investigators are meticulously sifting through a large volume of documents in the case. He said the case is ongoing, but he had nothing new to add about its progress.
“We’re still working on it,” he said Monday.
Known as the Holmes Block, the five brick row houses were constructed between 1872 and 1874. Undertaker Ebenezer Holmes commissioned their construction as an investment during the post-Civil War real estate boom.
The buildings are characterized by their elevated foundations, staircases leading to the front entrances, two-story bay windows and mansard roofs, where the slope rises nearly vertically on all four sides and is edged by a weighty cornice surrounding a flat top. The roof and elevated basement allowed the top and bottom levels to include usable rooms.
Architect J.D. Stevens, who was best known for his work in designing the United States Hotel and the Grand Central Hotel, also crafted the Holmes block. Though built as working-class homes, the structures were designed to imitate French architecture during the High Victorian age.
Bosshart said Monday’s meeting is just the first step in the approval process. The plan runs into zoning constrictions because the proposed 1,150-square-foot carriage house isn’t set far enough back from the property’s edge on Long Avenue.
Also, the proposal increases the maximum building coverage on the lot from 38 percent to 45 percent. City zoning code allows only 30 percent.
“This is a pretty early step,” she said.
Israel is eager to move forward with the project, especially since the buildings that are still standing no longer have a roof. Workers regularly have to shovel snow from the exposed third floor to help mitigate any further damage to the building.
“We’re hoping to stabilize it a little better, but it seems to be holding up,” he said of the building.
Reach Gazette reporter Justin Mason at 395-3113, firstname.lastname@example.org or @MasonAbridged on Twitter.