The classic brick structure known as the Nicholaus Block building anchored the corner of Erie Boulevard and State Street in Schenectady since three decades before the start of the Civil War.
Boats plying the Erie Canal once passed in its shadow. The industrial revolution and military production for two world wars bustled outside beneath its classic bay window turret and fleur-d-lys.
In later years, it was a visual anchor at the heart of the city’s busiest corridor, a comforting bastion to generations of Schenectady residents.
It wasn’t listed on any historic registries and wasn’t officially eligible for any government protection. George Washington never slept in the Nicholaus Hotel.
But to many Schenectady residents, the building was more than just a block of old red bricks and mortar. It was a representation of home.
So when construction crews tearing down the building next door carelessly undermined the ground that had held the building up for nearly two centuries, they took with it a part of the city’s history. They took away part of its heart.
The Nicholaus Building was not the city’s first building to give way to hasty progress. Slowly, the classic familiar old structures have been supplanted in favor of modern buildings and parking lots. Many, like the former Lorraine Block on State Street, can now only be seen on postcards depicting the city long ago.
Less than two years ago, another iconic structure, the old Stewart Electrical Repair Co. building on Broadway, met its fate as a pile of rubble.
The building itself, constructed in the early 1900s, wasn’t an architectural wonder. But many longtime residents passing by it remember the giant Coca-Cola sign painted on its side.
It now, too, is a memory. Progress comes at a high price.
If city leaders, developers, industrial development agencies and citizens want to preserve the history, character and charm that makes Schenectady unique, they’re going to have to do more than shake fists and shed tears each time one of these structures falls prey to the claw of a backloader.
The Stockade historical area along the Mohawk has survived for over three centuries because people cared enough to preserve it. They must now extend that care citywide.
Other area communities have taken active steps to preserve their architectural history, and in doing so have had success retaining their elegance and charm even while moving forward.
Preservation also has proven economic benefits, as visitors, new residents and businesses are drawn to unique old downtowns.
Go up the Northway a few exits and you’ll arrive at Saratoga Springs, which at first bought heavily into the concept of urban renewal during the 1950s. Many old, dilapidated, dangerous buildings were torn down.
But before they could go too far in wiping out their past, concerned citizens, including members of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, took action to rescue and preserve some of the city’s classic buildings, including the Mouzon House, The Great Bay Clam Company building and the Pure Oil gas station building, as well as many others.
New buildings were designed to fit in, rather than clash, with the historic architecture, giving the city the charm and integrity it has today.
Glens Falls is another city that almost gave itself away to urban renewal. But city leaders and preservationists recognized the value of preserving classic buildings to give residents and visitors a unique experience. Rather than tear down the old Woolworth five-and-dime store building, for instance, they turned it into a 300-seat theater. Rather than remove unique, aging three-story terra cotta facade from a bank building under renovation, they restored it. Old theaters and houses have been, to use a recently coined phrase, re-accommodated for new uses.
One particularly strong single example of incorporating historic preservation into modern-day use is the New York State Bar Center in Albany.
Located along Elk Street across from Academy Park down the street from the state Capitol is what appears to be a row of five 19th century townhouses.
But look closely, and you’ll notice that the fencing in front of the well-maintained townhouses only has one gate.
Behind the well-preserved facades is a modern office building that incorporates some of the historic elements of the old townhouses with the requirements for a contemporary office building. It’s been recognized nationally as a model of architectural ingenuity and historic preservation.
Why can’t the historic architectural landscape in Schenectady be preserved in a similar way by incorporating the old into the new?
Schenectady officials and others concerned with preserving the city’s past have to mount a new offensive to save the best of what’s left of Schenectady’s historic structures. Developers need financial incentives and tougher requirements to at least make them think twice before ripping down a city asset. More citizens need to get involved in identifying buildings and educating the public.
The demise of the Nicholaus Building was not only regrettable, but preventable.
That sad pile of rubble where the building once stood should be our city’s last regret.