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Downtown Schenectady Master Plan — IV: Adaptive Use Potentials

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[This information is from pp. 69-76 of the Downtown Schenectady Master Plan prepared by Hunter Interests, Inc. in 1999, and is reproduced with their permission. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 711 DOWf.]

To demonstrate the type of analysis procedure that should be used on a building-by-building basis during the redevelopment of the city, three buildings were investigated with regard to adaptive reuse, and these analyses are summarized below. These buildings represent typical examples of tum-of-the-century buildings in the downtown that may become sites for future development because of their key locations. In addition, they represent buildings with some historical merit, but with the spatial and structural problems, in varying degrees, that may be encountered when attempting to adaptively reuse such buildings to meet modern needs and standards. The buildings are all situated on State Street, at key intersections with other streets, and in areas where the master plan has suggested or endorsed redevelopment.

These buildings are:

One of the challenges in redevelopment of an older city will be how to retain historic buildings and adaptively reuse them in a cost-effective manner. The excessive cost to rehabilitate and restore historical structures will add additional financial burden to each project. In addition, upper floor plates of older buildings are not usually conducive of modern office use due to columns at tight spacing, small open office areas, low ceilings not allowing proper mechanical installation, wood construction within the Fire Limits of the city, or requirements for elevator access to upper floors.

It is clear that other public monies will be required in order to execute some of the historic preservation and rehabilitation that is desired in the downtown area. Metroplex or other public funding could make up the difference to assure that restoration/adaptive reuse is carefully considered, or that new facades are compatible with adjacent buildings where demolition and new construction is a more cost effective approach to redevelopment.

In the team's research of the City's codes, we were also made aware of some antiquated local legislation that should be changed to allow certain construction that enhances the district's attractiveness. For example, the Fire Limits in the City should be altered, as these limits cause excessive burden on development. In addition, a local ordinance requiring that tin ceilings be covered with gypsum or acoustic ceilings destroys the historic character of many existing first floor retail spaces. Other major code changes will need to be lobbied at the State level.

Adaptive Reuse of the Hough Building

The Hough Building, or Hough Block, is a four-story masonry building with basement. It occupies a site at the southeast comer of the intersection of State Street and Broadway. According to the City Archives, the establishments at the Hough site included Daniel Allen Groceries, G. Witbeck Groceries and Fish, Henry O'Connell Meats, the office of Dr. Robert D. Fuller, the M. H. Horning Billiard Room, and the Evening Star newspaper. By 1892, according to the Cunningham & Co. Atlas of Schenectady, the Hough Block was called the Bradt, Yates and Van Dyck Block.

The Hough Block in the Sanborn Insurance Map of 1900-1912, and that of 1914-1929, shows a four-story brick building with composition roof, and shops at the street level. The Sanborn Insurance Map of 1914-1929 shows two elevators, skylights, and a frame or metal cornice. It also shows that the Hough Block housed the Hotel Hough in the third and fourth floors.

The Hough Block gets its name from Isaac Hough, who had four stores selling home furnishings, according to Representative Business Men of Schenectady of 1893, including one store in the Edison Hotel, at the comer of Wall and one on South Pearl Street in Albany. According to Larry Hart, courtesy of the Schenectady Historical Society, Isaac Hough had added a story to the existing old building and renovated the interior to make a businessman's hotel by 1914. It was later rented for commercial use. Rudolph's Jewelry and the Planter's Peanuts occupied the comer. Later photos show the Popular Shoe Store on the comer and the Knickerbocker Press upstairs. Currently, the Hough Building is owned by the City of Schenectady and is vacant and in serious disrepair.

A Hunter/Sasaki team member from Synthesis Architects and a structural engineer inspected the Hough Building at the comer of State Street and Broadway for structural integrity and potential re-use. Over the years, roof and skylight leaks have seriously deteriorated the interior masonry bearing walls, as well as the wood floor and roof structure. During the inspection, it was noted that the floor system had rotted in a few areas. Most historic detail from the interior has been removed from the building by the former owner, leaving a few cracked, encaustic tiles that suggest the former splendor of the building. The foundations are deteriorated in certain areas and, in general, the basement is in very poor condition. The basement area itself is very wet and appears to have been wet continuously for years. This is evident by the excessive presence of mold, mildew, and rot.

The building would need to be reconstructed from the ground up to bring it back into re-use, eliminating the interior structural walls. The current upper floor plan is not suited to modern use, as it contains many small "rooms" surrounded by bearing walls and many large open office areas. Given the historic nature of the facade, the team visually inspected the exterior of the building to ascertain whether the exterior could be salvaged in place with a new building constructed behind the facade. This procedure is being done with increased frequency in urban areas with historic structures, although it is quite costly and usually financially infeasible, requiring large public subsidies in most cases.

A structural scheme was conceived whereby a new footing and column located at each pilaster would be installed. Another footing and column would be installed approximately 12' inside the building and cross bracing from the wall support column would be installed. After this system was in place, the rest of the building could be demolished, carefully disconnecting the existing structure from the existing masonry facade. Additional bracing would be required to brace the loose ornamental metal cornice on the State Street facade, which has already been wired back to the roof structure to prevent it from falling off the building.

The procedure is complicated by the fact that the spandrel panels (pilaster to pilaster) are constructed of brick masonry and afford very little lateral stability to the skin. In addition, the current pilasters are not constructed continuous to the ground, but are interrupted by the open storefronts. In the proposed scheme, it would be required to re-design all the storefronts to accommodate the pilaster column supports which structurally need to be continuous to the ground.

After walking through the building, a knowledgeable local construction manager provided an estimate for the work proposed. Their estimate to salvage the two street front facades in place with the method designed by the team was approximately $975,000. This does not take into account the demolition of the building, re-routing of shared utilities which are present in the basement of the Hough Building, reconstruction of a new building, or refurbishment of the existing facade. This cost, when spread out over the 31,000 square feet of the four-story building, yields a facade retention cost of about $31 per square foot.

A schematic design was also prepared incorporating the re-use of the facade of this prominent comer building into a public food court/waiting lobby for a multiplex cinema. This design incorporates salvaging the two facades and structurally supporting a new glass skylight roof over the entire building volume, effectively creating a four-story atrium. There would be no floors inserted into the building, but rather the new structural support system would laterally brace the walls without the floor diaphragms.

If either of these reuse strategies cannot be financed in the context of a development project, it would appear that the last alternative would be to demolish the building and create an urban park. Such a park would be centrally located between the bookend parks along State Street, Veteran's Park and Liberty Park. If demolition has to occur due to financial or structural reasons, it would be advisable to memorialize some building components, such as a historic cornice, historic window, or other construction detail, perhaps located in a prominent location in the movie theater lobby.

It should be noted that the team investigated the adjacent wall of the infill building to the east (currently Papa Cicco's Pizza Shop) and found that the adjacent wall is structurally free standing, constructed as a 6" metal stud-bearing wall with bar joists. While some structural work as well as an exterior masonry skin would have to be added if the Hough Building were demolished, it appears that the adjacent building would not have to be torn down with the Hough Building.

Based on this analysis, saving the facade appears to be an excessive cost to add to the cost of building a new building in Downtown Schenectady. Adding $31 per square foot to a private developer's cost would make a project infeasible. If the commitment is made to save this facade, there must be public money to subsidize the facade retention.

Adaptive Reuse of the Masonic Lodge Building

The Masonic Lodge building is a five-story masonry building with basement and partial sixth floor located at the southeast comer of the intersection of Erie Boulevard and State Street. According to the City Archives, this site adjacent to the former Erie Canal previously housed Ledyard's City Hotel in 1831 and housed the Vrooman's and Fullers House in 1867, presumed to have been a twostory wood frame structure. The 1880 City Atlas of Schenectady by G. M. Hopkins, C.E. published in Philadelphia shows the building to be of brick or stone and early photographs show a masonry building with sign reading "Brown's Furniture Ware Rooms" at this comer of State Street at the former Erie Canal. According to Larry Hart this building was destroyed in 1910 by the bursting of a Dock Street water main that ran partially beneath the structure. Sanborn Insurance maps show a 20-inch water supply at State Street, as well as an 8-inch water supply passing alongside the building by Erie Boulevard or former Erie Canal. In 1912 the current five-story brick, steel, and wood structure was erected as a furniture store and showrooms for Brown and Company, and boasted to be the "largest furniture and rug store in this state outside New York City." A 1913 photograph reveals that there were floor-to-ceiling windows at the street level which have since been in-filled with masonry. The building was sold to the Masonic Order in 1918, who remodeled the Erie Boulevard Entrance and housed the Masonic Temple on the fifth floor.

The Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Council of Schenectady County, Inc., also known as ASACSC, currently owns the existing structure. Most historic detail from the interior on the upper floors is still in place which makes adaptive reuse of the structure an exciting possibility. Particularly noteworthy is the fifth (top) floor hall, which housed the assembly space for the Masons, and the details and appointments are still intact. The ASACSC uses the basement, first, second, and third floors for offices, storage, and rooms for their services. These floors have steel stud frame in-fill walls and drop ceilings that have not modified the original older structure of the building. The fourth and fifth floors are largely unused and the building is in varying states of disrepair.

Renovation of the existing building into an assembly building could create an attractive facility for dining and entertainment, as well as public and private meetings and functions. The top floors could be used for non-denominational weddings and other large gathering events, or even dinner/theater events. Other floors could be used as catered meeting rooms and conference facilities. The basement could be fitted up with a catering kitchen and the main floor could become a quality-dining establishment, reintroducing the large glass openings onto the street. Elevators would need to be upgraded as well as stair towers. In addition, sprinklers and other fire protection devices and systems would have to be updated to comply with current codes.

A Hunter/Sasaki team member from Synthesis Architects and a structural engineer inspected the former Masonic Lodge for structural integrity and potential re-use. The focus of the analysis was on the large structural masonry cracks evident on all the exterior facades. The structural engineer analyzed the location, direction, and depth of the cracks and strongly hypothesized that there has been significant foundation settlement in the past. Some of these cracks were perceived to carry through the entire masonry wall, rather than normal moisture infiltration cracks.

It was suggested that the building be tested for foundation movement prior to proposed renovation plans being drawn up. Such testing could take a few years to ascertain whether movement is still occurring and whether it is significant. If the foundations are still moving, underpinning the foundations and re-supporting on piles would have to be attempted to stop the movement. It was the team's preliminary opinion that this operation could cost between $500,000 and $ 1,000,000, due to the weight of the building walls, the condition of the masonry, and the proximity to adjacent structures, roadways, and underground utilities. If the foundations are stable, but the cracks were the result of past settlement, perhaps due to the water main break in 1910 or the filling in of the Erie Canal, then the masonry wall would need to be stitched back together with mortar. The current repair is insufficient as it uses sealant to fill the cracks.

The course of action, if this private building is made available for redevelopment, is to undertake a detailed structural study to ascertain if foundation movement is still occurring.

Adaptive Reuse of the Gazette Building Facades

According to an unidentified Schenectady Gazette article, the Schenectady Gazette was founded in 1894. After being housed in two locations on North Broadway and then Centre Street, President Gerardus Smith modernized the Gazette operations and moved them into the old Harvey Davis building. This building came to house the Gazette advertising and business office, and today it is part of the Gazette building at 332 State St. The building was rebuilt three times since 1899, "eventually including the adjacent building to the west, the former residence of Davis, at 334 State Street. This became the site of the Gazette editorial offices. By 1884, Sanbom maps of Schenectady show these to be masonry structures.

The buildings are currently owned by Schenectady County, and house the County C.A.P. Unit and the Schenectady County Job Training Agency. Both building interiors are in various states of disrepair. The facades are constructed of limestone and ornamental ironwork with some brickwork, and are detailed turn-of-the century facades that have been reasonably maintained over the years. The floor plans are unsuitable to modern use due to small column spacing, multiple floor levels between buildings, reduced ceiling heights, and lack of large open office areas. It was suggested that the facades be retained and incorporated into a new building design. The team investigated the design and cost implications regarding saving these facades and incorporating a portion of them into a well designed modern office building.

In order to accomplish this, a Hunter/Sasaki team member from Synthesis Architects and a structural engineer inspected the former Gazette buildings for structural integrity and potential facade retention. The team proposed to structurally support these facades prior to the demolition of the buildings behind them. The structural supporting system will be a relatively high-tech vertical space frame system, anchored to new spandrel beams that will give horizontal support at each previous floor location. Once the facades are self-supporting, the buildings behind them would be demolished.

Due to the inability to match modern fourteen-foot floor-to-floor heights with the smaller floor-to-floor heights of the existing building, windows would not have been located at usable heights if the floors of the new office building met the old Gazette facade wall. Therefore, the new office building would have to be set back approximately twenty feet from the Gazette facades, leaving a new four-story atrium entrance lobby behind the Gazette facades. This atrium space, between the Gazette facades and the new office building, would be roofed over with skylights, and all connections from new building to old building would be of transparent materials. Interior openings from the new office areas would open out onto this atrium, as allowed by New York State Code with full sprinkler coverage and deluge heads for fire protection. Thus a new focal point entrance would be created off State Street for users and visitors of the office building.

Where the new office building is setback from the original line of buildings, to the east of the retained Gazette facades, the construction of a small urban plaza could recall the former building edge. A more permeable edge between the new building and the pedestrian corridor could be created using columns at the existing building line, possibly with an urban landscape area or planted trellis. Creating this "porch" effect could better integrate the large multi-story building with the pedestrian scale at street level. Conceptual plans and elevations were drawn to illustrate the potential for incorporating the facades into a new office building. A cost estimate for facade retention was prepared and indicated that a cost of $750,000 could be expected. This cost does not include the cost of demolition of the buildings behind the facade.

When these options were discussed in meetings with the future tenant of the NY State Office building scheduled to be constructed on this site, many concerns were discussed. The added square footage of unusable, unrentable area for the four floors of the atrium was a major concern. This square footage needs to be constructed, maintained, heated, and cooled, but brings no real estate value to the building's function or operation. In order to preserve the facades, it is apparent that some form of atrium is necessary to address the floor height differential.

In addition, the construction of the atrium requires a setback of the main building by 15' to 20', thereby reducing rentable square footage of the building, further decreasing the efficiency of the project. Front and side elevations showing a new building built in concert with the existing facades were drawn. When these elevational views were discussed, it was generally felt that because the existing facades do not seem to fit well together, adding a new sympathetic building next to the existing facades would further exacerbate this condition.

If demolition is considered, it would be advisable to salvage the stone components of the facade, perhaps for future use in another historic restoration project in downtown.

In summary, adaptive use of older buildings in downtown Schenectady to modern uses is both difficult and costly. It is a noble objective; it can be done, but creativity and large public subsidies will be necessary to make it work.

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