Looking south from the patio of The Mouzon House restaurant, a visitor could be forgiven for thinking there’s little historic about Saratoga Springs.
In the foreground is a sprawling but mundane municipal parking lot, and the most visible buildings are two high-rise upscale hotels whose combined ages can be counted on one’s fingers.
But of course the city is steeped in the past, and the neighborhood once known as Spring Valley, first cousin to the seedier “Gut” neighborhood just to the south, a century ago was full of proud little brick and wood homes like the Mouzon House, three-story, brick, and built in 1883.
All the other houses are gone now.
“There were houses facing this house. . . . They were large beautiful Saratoga houses,” said Dianne Pedinotti, who owns the restaurant with her husband, David.
But over time, those homes fell into disrepair, and great minds with deep ambitions envisioned better uses for a rundown residential neighborhood so close to downtown.
Nearly the entire Spring Valley neighborhood was torn down as part of urban renewal efforts in the 1960s, to make way for better uses, uses that included parking and a car dealer. The hotels of today are actually the city’s second round of post-urban renewal development.
But the Mouzon House survived, even if it stands alone. Today it has owners who play up history and local food connections in their farm-to-table restaurant.
That the Mouzon House stands today is a tribute to the fighting spirit of Ardel Mouzon-McCoy, a full-blooded Cherokee Indian who had pluck and determination right at the turning point when wise people were starting to understand how damaging well-intentioned urban renewal efforts could be.
Others also fought having their homes taken, but eventually gave up or lost out.
All urban renewal wanted, Ardell told the Saratogian’s Frederic Dicker in 1971, “is to get you out of here and put in big business and get big taxes.”
Um . . . yeah.
That story was written by the same Fred Dicker whose nose for news has made him the New York’s Post’s capital bureau chief today, and perhaps the most recognized journalist in Albany.
Mouzon’s first husband had been a black Creole, and she was unafraid to charge that urban renewal was about racial discrimination. Another proposition that, in hindsight, is hard to argue with.
Mouzon’s outspokenness got the attention of Skidmore professor Stuart Witt, one of those who realized that urban renewal could rip the soul, character and street life out of a diverse community — as it already had a few blocks away, along Congress Street.
Witt hoped to save a dozen homes from the demoliton brigades, but only succeeded with the Mouzon home. Mouzon’s daughter was to recall it as a “war zone.”
Mouzon had bought the house herself for $2,200 in 1919. Think about it — an American Indian woman purchasing property on her own, in an era when Congress was first taking up a law to outlaw lynching. (Southern Democrats would kill it with a filibuster in the U.S. Senate a few years later).
In her later years, Mouzon ran the house as a rooming house, for Skidmore students, visiting artists and racetrack workers. Her daughter Mia is said to have been the first “woman of color” to graduate from Skidmore.
But the Mouzon house’s travails were not over when city Urban Renewal Director Donald Veitch wrote Mouzon a letter in July 1971 backing down, saying that a properly rehabilitated house “will not be acquired by this agency.”
In 1986, the house site was suggested as the place for a new city police garage. The house would have been moved to nearby park land, which seems a little like trying to successfully dismantle and relocate something as delicate as a spider’s web.
Ardel had died in 1984, but Mia wasn’t interested in selling. That winter, while Mia was in the South, the electricity somehow got turned off, water pipes froze and broke, and the foundation shifted. The city made an offer. Mia Mouzon still wouldn’t sell, and got the foundation fixed.
Eventually the garage plan was dropped.
And 30 years later, the police department still doesn’t have a garage, and the house continues to have its struggles.
The Pedinottis, who bought the house in 2005 and have successfully executed a vision of turning it into a fine-dining restaurant, are die-hard opponents of the City Center’s proposal for a five-story parking deck on the current city parking lot site. They fear the changes it would bring, the shadow it would cast over the restaurant on a sunny summer evening.
“I promised Mia I would take care of the house,” Dianne Pedinotti told me.
The restaurant could have been given a catchier name, perhaps, but knowing the story held in the house’s old bones, they decided to call it The Mouzon House.
“It just seems this house has always gone through a trial and survived,” Dianne said.