The block of Jay Street between Liberty and Franklin streets may never look the same again, but we do have photographs to help our memories, and we do have Don Klose’s model railroad layout in the basement of his Schenectady home.
The fire on Jay Street earlier this month tragically altered the Schenectady skyline forever, but while it may have destroyed the Gleason Building at 104 Jay and the structure next to it, the Seneca Building at 118-120 Jay continues to stand tall after more than 100 years.
Both buildings, on the west side of the street across from City Hall, are replicated in Klose’s striking collection, which includes so many reproductions of iconic Schenectady structures that visitors find themselves focusing on the landscape and not the O gauge railroad.
“It’s history, local Schenectady history and my family history,” said Klose, who has worked at the Bond Funeral Home for more than three decades.
“The Seneca Building and the Gleason Building are very interesting buildings with some elaborate detail, and with me, real is the deal. This is the second railroad layout I’ve had, but this one is all about the realism.”
The six-floor Seneca Building was the tallest structure in the city in 1915 when Albert H. Stevens was the owner. It’s listed as The Seneca in the city directories of that year, and boasted of 47 airy, first-class rooms, “with two bathrooms and a separate toilet on each floor.” Lodging there cost 75 cents a day or $3 a week.
It was rather impressive for its day, and stretched just a few feet higher into the skyline than the Gleason Building just to the north. But while it may have been high-class in its day, that day is long gone, and after a long, slow decline, The Seneca has been vacant since January of 2014.
For around half a century the ground floor was home to the DeWitt Cafeteria and Tap Room or DeWitt’s Lunch, which opened back in the early 1920s.
“I can remember going there back in the ’60s,” said Jim Gleason, whose great uncle Thomas Gleason ran the family’s funeral home at 104 Jay St. before moving to its current spot at 730 Union St. in 1952. “It had the cafeteria and the bar right next to it. It was very popular with the people downtown.”
The Seneca was built around the turn of the last century, and when Stevens took over the building in 1911, he also owned four other establishments; the Hotel Foster at 508 State St., The Livingston at 773 State, The Mynderse at 785 State, and the Bachelor’s Grill. There were more than 50 hotels listed in the city directory at that time.
According to a Gazette article from 1917, Stevens was a local Republican politician who overcame great obstacles to become a wealthy businessman.
“Left an orphan at the age of 10 and handicapped by the loss of both arms in a railroad accident when only fourteen, the fact that he is a prominent citizen at this time, makes him deserving of great credit as a man possessed of very keen natural business acumen,” reported the Gazette.
Stevens wouldn’t have enjoyed hearing what M. A. Waheed had to say about his building. Waheed and his family restaurant, the Taj Mahal, were forced to move out of the ground floor in January of 2014 and have reopened on Clinton Street.
“We were evicted in the sense that we were asked to leave because City Hall said the building was not safe,” said Waheed, whose business was at that location for five years.
“We got no notice at all. We were just told the bank had foreclosed on the building. The owners were from the Bronx and didn’t take care of it. It was disappointing because it was getting run down and the landlady did nothing for us. It was in bad condition.”
There is a new owner. Noah Smith of Great Neck on Long Island purchased the building on July 22 of 2014 for $160,000. He could not be reached for comment.
“He came up here a couple of months ago and emptied out much of the building,” said Metroplex chairman Ray Gillen. “He’s cleaned it up and talked to us briefly about putting something in the storefront where the restaurant was, but we haven’t really discussed anything formally.”
While the Seneca Building may not have been safe, much of the facade was still worth taking a close look at. Both Stevens’ structure and the Gleason Building, built around 1920, were adorned with intricate carvings, dentil moldings and spires, and Klose reproduced them smartly with his models.
Along with the two Jay Street structures, he has miniature reproductions of Proctors, the old Schenectady Gazette, Hotel Foster and General Electric, to name just a few.
“With a little gentle carving, we used rice, macaroni and dentil plaster to create these wonderful patterns and designs,” said Klose, who got plenty of help from a number of friends throughout this project, particularly Marc and Maria Poklemba of Garfield, N.J.
“I went out and took photos and counted windows. I’ve taken some poetic license. It’s not an actual representation of downtown because I don’t have everything and I’ve put the buildings where there was space for them. It’s still a work in progress. It’s never finished.”
Klose’s Bellevue and Schenectady Railroad, what he calls “a fictitious division of the New York Central,” is not easily movable, and requires a group appointment for any public viewing. Some day, however, he expects his work to be on full public display.
“My kids tell me they’re not going to let anything happen to what I’ve produced here,” he said. “My daughter said she’ll make sure everything ends up in a museum somewhere. They’ll be a little sign: ‘In memory of Don Klose.’ That will be a nice memorial.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or firstname.lastname@example.org.