Jeff Buell got more than he bargained for when he bought a complex of four buildings on State Street just up the block from Proctors in downtown Schenectady.
He knew he was buying the old Hotel Foster. At six stories, it towers over much of State Street. But its white-glazed terra cotta façade is what most people notice. With Roman arches, columns and pilasters ornamented by floral garlands and bands of acanthus leaves, it was unusually lavish when it was built in 1907. It still is, despite the near crumbling of the inside over the years.
What Buell and his partners at Sequence Development didn’t know, though, was that their four-building complex also featured two other buildings of historical note — the longtime headquarters and passenger terminal for the old Schenectady Railway Co. Built in 1913, it consisted of a cavernous waiting room fronting State Street and a long office building in back that connects with Lafayette Street.
“We were doing research on the Foster for our historic tax credits and we were sitting there one day looking at pictures, and at the edge of one of the pictures you could see this railway building with this arch over it,” Buell recalled. “And it was like, no, that can’t still be here. They had to have demolished it and built this new.”
No. They just threw some brick over it and installed a few floors. What was a railway terminal with a grand three-story archway was eventually made into a plain office building following World War II. The marble walls were painted over. A terrazzo floor was blanketed with carpeting. Third-story skylights were covered with ceiling tiles (discovered only because of rain damage).
All that history will be unearthed again with the transformation of the four-building complex into one of downtown’s biggest mixed-use developments, according to the developers. The company behind the $6 million project — Sequence Development — has done historic rehabs in Troy. The Schenectady project will feature first-floor retail space, second-floor office space and high-end apartments that should be ready to lease by mid-November.
With a better knowledge of the space it has in hand, Sequence has drawn up a new design for the complex with Re4orm Architecture that will pay homage to the history of both the Hotel Foster and the Schenectady Railway Co.
Most noticeably, the brick façade of the Railway building will be stripped so that the grand archway is once again visible. Semi-translucent glass panels will cover the area surrounding the arch and be lit from behind to create a soft glow once the sun goes down. Inside, the original marble walls, terrazzo floors and ornate stair railings will be cleaned, then left as is.
“You can never recreate history, so what we’re trying to do is create something that’s reverent to that history but still kind of modern,” said Elizabeth Young Jojo, COO of Sequence.
The space was built in 1913 to look like a railroad station, complete with vendor booths, shoeshine stand and telephone booths. Passengers of the city’s trolley system used to wait at Cherry’s Newsroom across the street, and then later from inside a small building at 420 State St., according to the late Larry Hart, who penned The Daily Gazette column Tales of Old Dorp.
But those spaces were too small by the turn of the century, when interurban lines connected Schenectady with Albany, Troy, Saratoga Springs and other parts of the region. Of course, just a few short decades after the new space was built, the trolley system would become obsolete.
“You would have never known it was here,” Young Jojo said. “I was shocked when I saw.”
Highlighting the Foster’s history was always a part of the plan. The façade will soon be cleared of a century’s worth of grime. It’s the inside that will be a bit tricky. The building is on the federal Register of Historic Places and any changes to the interior must follow strict guidelines in order for Sequence Development to receive historic tax credits. But the hotel’s previous tenants allowed the space to fall into disrepair. The pressed tin ceiling is nearly all gone. Large chunks of chipped plaster cover portions of an original brick wall.
“That’s historic plaster,” said Young Jojo. “We can’t destroy that. We can’t destroy anything that was here already. We could do drywall over the top of it, but we can’t chip it off because it’s part of the history of this place.”
Since putting dry wall over exposed brick would be painful in a day and age when everyone wants exposed brick, they are considering a creative solution.
“This could be cleaned up and salvaged,” Buell said, gesturing toward the dusty walls. “You paint that, seal it in, leave the plaster as is. It would have a vibe, you know?”
Young Jojo pictures a brand-new floor, modern furnishings and “cool lighting” offsetting the brick-plaster wall.
“It’s like urban decay,” she said. “This is character. This isn’t created character. It’s real. It’s the real history of the building.”
The transformation of all four buildings into mixed-use space will occur in two phases. The first was originally just going to be a rehab of the Foster building. But interest in downtown retail space was much higher than expected, even after a planned tenant fell through, so Sequence is now hoping to get all of its first-floor retail space across all four buildings open by spring 2016.
Some buzz was created earlier this year when Sequence announced that Alessandra Bange-Hall, the owner behind the successful Piper Boutique stores in Saratoga, Philadelphia and Chicago, wanted to open a showroom on the Foster’s first floor. But the plan fell through after both parties couldn’t agree on how to parcel out the space.
“You see this?” Buell said from inside the first floor of the Foster. “This is a cool space. We didn’t want to chop it up.”
They declined to name any potential tenants until leases are finalized, but said they’re hoping for a mix of retailers. So far one retailer has signed a letter of intent to occupy the space, they said.
“I feel like we have a line of people that are waiting for this space,” Young Jojo added.
The Hotel Foster opened in 1910 to accommodate the influx of business travelers and high-profile guests who visited town as General Electric took off. It was known for its opulence, which can still be felt in the entryway where decorative tile covers the floor, marble covers the walls and gold carvings adorn the doorway.
The first apartments in the Foster should be ready for occupancy by mid-November. There will be 10 units in the Foster building and 23 units across the other three buildings, ranging in size from 675 to 2,600 square feet and in price from $875 a month to $3,200 a month. If that range sounds broad, that’s because there’s a penthouse on the top floor of the Foster that will include a master bedroom and bath, walk-in closet and access to a roof deck with a view of the city.
In addition to a roof deck, retailers and residential tenants will have access to a courtyard that is formed by the unusual configuration of the four buildings.
“I think in general, much of the development that’s going on in downtown Schenectady is new-construction-focused,” Buell said. “And sometimes I think the downside of that is that old buildings sometimes get left behind. And this one is magnificent. It can be saved and should be saved,, and will be saved.”