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What you need to know for 07/26/2017

Hidden history of GE Realty Plot

GE 125th Anniversary

Hidden history of GE Realty Plot

There's more to it than many realize
Hidden history of GE Realty Plot
1176 Stratford Road.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

EDITOR'S NOTE: In week 2 of our 13-week series on General Electric’s 125th anniversary, we bring you on a tour of the stately homes of the GE Realty Plot in Schenectady. Enjoy.

Although you may know the name of the neighborhood, you may only have an inkling as to the significance behind it and how 75 acres came to be known as the GE Realty Plot — or GE Plot, for short.

The reality is there’s a 100-plus year history to the GE Plot that involves a few names (or innovations) you might recognize, and more than a few you surely won’t. We’ve done the research for you, so that you’ll have a few pieces of trivia worth sharing the next time you’re passing through by foot or by car.


Previous coverage

Week 1: 2 wizards kept GE atop technology field


Flanked by Nott Street to the north (approximately), Rugby Road to the south, Lowell Road to the east and Lennox Road to the west, the Plot was the brainchild of GE executives looking to woo top talent and build a forward-thinking, beautiful community at the same time. It all came to be when Union College found itself $30,000 in debt and needed to raise capital quickly, eventually selling 75 acres to GE for the prime price of $57,000.

But the company had no intention of joining the real estate business and formed Schenectady Realty Company to tackle the minutia—from plot size to mandated specifications, to purchasers. The association imposed a set of guidelines that ensured that each purchaser could only build a single one-family home per plot and that construction was to be completed within a two-year timeframe. At a minimum, each home had to cost $4,000 to build—which was double the mean value of a home in Schenectady in the 1900s and 1910s, according to Chris Leonard, who moved to the Plot in 2014. He now serves as the first-ever historian for the GE Realty Plot Association.

Despite the luxury price tag, Schenectady Realty Company wanted each home to be approachable, so fences over three feet high were banned and no property could be completely surrounded. “That’s why you only see some low stone walls here and there,” Leonard said. “The peak building period was between 1902 and 1914, with a few dribbles until 1925,” Leonard said. “Then there was one in the 1940s with the final home being built on Nott Street in 1966.”

In total, there are 128 buildings in the designated area, although not all are currently homes and at least five were lost to time. The designated Plot area was also expanded to include a few existing houses on Rugby Road and Wendell Avenue. As far as style, a quick drive through that part of town lends proof that the homes are anything but onenote.

There are a lot of colonials and colonial revivals, as well as Queen Anne Victorians and a few Dutch colonials, Leonard said, with tinges of Georgian and Richardsonian styles. “There’s often a dominant style, with some additional motifs woven in,” he said. But each one was built as a showpiece, with plenty of flair—many meant to be just a bit grander than the home to their left or right. But contrary to what you might have thought, the plot was never meant to be a segregated, GE-only neighborhood.

“They wanted to create an egalitarian place where executives could mingle with politicians and Schenectady leaders,” Leonard said.

Leonard gave the Gazette a virtual tour of some need-to-know—or rather, need-to-see—homes and explained why their former residents deserved headlines way back when. Read on to learn more.

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1299 Stratford Road — George Lunn, former mayor

Schenectady Lunn made the move to Schenectady in 1904 to serve as pastor for the First Dutch Reformed Church, but made the switch to politics before the decade was out. A renowned socialist, Lunn served as Schenectady’s mayor multiple times between 1911 and 1923, with a two-year stint in Congress in between. He also spent a few years as Lieutenant Governor, but his claim to fame is that he was the first socialist mayor in New York State.

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1221 Wendell Ave. — Charles Steinmetz, the 'Wizard of Schenectady'

Both a mathematician and electrical engineer, Steinmetz was a key power player at General Electric for 30 years. His work with alternating currents is legendary, and great minds came from everywhere for the chance at an audience with him. Unfortunately, Steinmetz’s house was torn down after years of sitting idle waiting for funds to turn the property into a museum.

Today, there’s a monument in its place and if you have a careful eye, you can often catch a path of wildflowers in season. But in Steinmetz’s hey-day it was a bustle of activity, thanks to an onsite laboratory and greenhouse that provided a haven for scientific experiments and a menagerie — complete with a Gila monster and monkey, as well as alligators, crows, spiders and several birds and parrots. “Steinmetz was an interesting character,” Leonard said. “He decided to never marry or have children because of [his fear of passing on his] genetic disease.” He “adopted” his lab assistant and the man's family and they all lived in the Wendell Avenue house until he passed in 1923. Just 4 1/2 feet tall, Steinmetz suffered from kyphosis, an abnormal curvature of the upper spine.

1176 Stratford — Irving Langmuir, chemist and winner of the Nobel Prize

Langmuir spent 40-plus years at General Electric, and is credited with a series of advancements related to physics and chemistry. But his most prominent accolade is the 1932 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which he received for his “discoveries and investigations in surface chemistry,” according to the Nobel archives. He also has several inventions to his name, including a gas-filled incandescent lamp.

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1132 Adams Road — Ernst Alexanderson, 'Father of Radio and Television'

Another GE bigwig, Alexanderson is most famously known as the first person to receive a television broadcast, which he sent from his office to his GE Plot home in 1927. He spent decades working to advance wireless transmission technology, and made significant headway related to radio transmission. As if that weren’t enough, Alexanderson also had 344 patented inventions to his name.

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1128 Lenox Road — Edwin Rice, second president of the General Electric Co.

Considered the first house in the Plot, Edwin Rice’s Queen Anne-style home built in 1900 is still a showstopper today, although it’s now owned by Union College—fitting, since Rice served as a trustee from 1906 to 1935. Rice’s vision and leadership are widely-praised as driving GE expansion and advancement, and he served as president from 1913 to 1922. He was also an inventor in his own right, holding more than 100 patents.

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1161 Lowell — Chester Rice, acoustic engineer

As Edwin Rice’s son, Chester inherited a love for both electrical engineering and General Electric. So much so that just like Steinmetz, he built himself a home lab. Chester Rice’s experiments laid the foundation for the development of loud speakers, and in 1927, his device was installed in theaters across the country so that they could play the first talkie, “The Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson. But he didn’t stop there — his interest in speed detection gave him another claim-to-fame: the first practical demonstration of radar. “In the mid-1930s, Chester beamed acoustic signals at passing traffic and got those signals to pass back,” Leonard said.

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1255 Lowell — Martin Rice, first director of broadcasting for General Electric

Just like his father and brother, Martin Rice was also scientifically-inclined. “His work led to a device called the fluoroscope, which was one of the first x-ray tools used in surgery,” Leonard said. As Martin Rice’s interests varied, he changed career headings and became the manager of broadcasting at General Electric. “He supervised the opening of WGY, and anticipated where radio and television would go,” Leonard said.

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1155 Avon Road — Harry Hillman, the man behind the 'all-electric house'

The head of the Electric Heating Department at GE, Hillman used his position to his advantage when building his Avon Road property in 1905, his second house in the Plot. Designed as a demonstration house, this house had two circuits—one for a lightbulb, and a second one which could be used for appliances. Other electrified houses only had one circuit per room which made Hillman’s house extra-special, earning it recognition as “one of the first all-electrified houses in the country,” Leonard said.

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1173 Wendell — John F. Horman, owner of the former Barney’s department store

In 1909, the man behind the H.S. Barney Co. on State Street, among Schenectady’s finest department stores, chose the Plot to build his home so he could rub shoulders with Schenectady’s best and brightest. Horman was also the first president of the Schenectady County Chamber of Commerce.

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1018 Nott St. — Izetta Jewel Miller, the first woman to run for U.S. Senate south of the Mason-Dixon Line

It’s fair to say that Miller lived several lives during her lifetime, starting out as a stage actress, then transitioning into a women’s rights activist before becoming the first female senatorial candidate in the South. It was a narrow loss, with her winning 27 counties in West Virginia to her competitor’s 28 in 1922. Two years later, she earned another “first,” becoming the first woman to deliver a seconding speech for a presidential nominee at the 1924 Democratic National Convention. Keep in mind, this was all before she and her husband even made the move north to Schenectady after he accepted a position as dean of engineering at Union College. Miller also ran for New York State Assembly in 1930 but lost, and then served as the Commissioner of Public Welfare for Schenectady in 1932 and 1933.

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