THE STANFORD MANSION

 

                 The Schuyler-Stanford-Ingersoll Mansion at the apex of Balltown Road and State Street in Niskayuna


                                                                                     
photo by Niskayuna Town Historian Linda Champagne

 

Saving our history from the wrecking ball

 

BY EDWIN D. REILLY, JR.

For The Sunday Gazette


Could the name Eliphalet once have been as common as Kevin and Scott are now? The reason I wonder is that while most of us know that Nott Street, Terrace, and Memorial are named for Unionís first president, Eliphalet Nott, it is also the case that Balltown Road (Ballís town road) is named for a certain Eliphalet Ball. Ball came to this area in 1771, and once he got his bearings, headed north to Saratoga County to found Ballís town, a name that soon thereafter elided to Ballston.
 

The corner of Balltown Road and State Street was once the center of a very large tract of land that was farmed by its first non-Native American owner John Duncan in about 1760. He called the home he built on it The Hermitage. Through subdivision over the next 210 years, the farm was reduced to just a few acres, the rest being used for such things as the Stanford Golf Course, which became Mohawk Mall in 1970 and Mohawk Commons quite recently, the O.D. Heck campus, and many many homes.

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In a meticulously researched paper written in 1984, local historian (and former Niskayuna High School Principal) Frank Taormina traced ownership of what remains of the farm through ten transactions from 1760 to July 2, 1923, when the mansion built upon it became the Ingersoll Home for Aged Men. Along the way, a fascinating cast of characters either lived on that site or had something to do with it. Included are two distantly related Vroomans, both of whom became Niskayuna town supervisors, and an owner-occupant named Harmanus P. Schuyler, who bought the property in 1814 and served as town supervisor from 1817 to 1821. Other familiar names that appear in Frankís narrative are those of Glen, Schuyler, Bradt, Yates, and Stanford.
 
In 1839, the heirs of Harmanus Schuyler sold the property to Lemuel P. Hand. Another helping Hand, the aptly named Learned Hand (1872-1961), born in Albany and almost certainly a direct or parallel descendant, became the most famous judge of his era.
 

The first of three Stanfords to own the property, Josiah, bought it from John I. Vrooman in 1859 and called it Locust Grove. Josiahís son Leland became President of the Central Pacific Railroad, Governor and later senator from California, and founded Stanford University in his spare time.
What is now the Ingersoll Home was, along with all of Niskayuna, part of Albany County until our county of Schenectady was spun off in 1809. Thus in a scant four years, Niskayuna will celebrate its bicentennial. But there is great risk that it will do so without its most historic remaining edifice, the Ingersoll. We must not let that happen.

 

The risk stems from the fact that the Trustees of the Ingersoll, for good and sufficient economic reasons Iím sure, want to sell the property and move to a site on Consaul Road near O.D. Heck. And since the parcel is zoned commercial, a new owner might want to demolish the mansion, history and all. Another humungous drug store we do not need.

           
Frank, as I am, is a Trustee of the Schenectady County Historical Society (SCHS). At our monthly meeting of November 16, the Board of SCHS passed a unanimous resolution that will result in an urgent request to the Town Board and Planning Board of the Town of Niskayuna and to the Trustees of the Ingersoll that they take immediate cooperative steps to protect the property and its parklike setting. How? One possibility is that the Ingersoll will agree to sell the property only to a developer who will agree not to change the faÁade of the mansion or to pave over an inordinate amount of its green space. As a multiple-residence facility that antedates town zoning laws, the mansion has legal though nonconforming usage with respect to a commercial zone, a right that could be passed to someone who would convert its interior to some very nice apartments. On the Townís part, it could, if it acts very very quickly, rezone the property to a historic district with limited usages permitted, only those that preserve the ambiance and architecture of the site.

           
Our county, and the city in particular, does not have a good track record with regard to preservation of historic buildings. Literally. The tracks of our classic union station may still be there, but the stately union station that they once served has been replaced by a black box. (Albany, in contrast, converted its even more majestic union station to a bank) And all that remains of Nott Terrace High School is a plaque in front of Friendlyís that tells us that it was demolished in 1974 while we were distracted by Watergate.

 

Of course, our most tragic historic loss was that of the stately residence of Charles Proteus Steinmetz which once stood near Groot's Kill on Wendell Avenue. Despite the fact that engineer Herbert Hoover, before he became president, had raised the then princely sum of $25,000 for its preservation, the house was demolished in the 1930s, a victim of deferred maintenance during the depression. Christ Hunter, archivist of the Schenectady Museum and another of our SCHS trustees, tells me that the bricks from the Steinmetz house were carted to Niskayuna and used to build the apartments behind the Co-Op. If the apartments are ever demolished, we should re-salvage the bricks and use them to rebuild the Steinmetz home on its original site.   

           
One building that didnít get away from us is the stately home of Steinmetzís colleague Ernst Berg, chairman of the Union College Electrical Engineering department for 30 years in the early 1900s. See http://mel.simmons.org/realtyplot/chap10.html for a description of his home at 1336 Lowell Road. Very appropriately, the house is now home to a Trustee of the Schenectady Museum.

           
Not surprisingly, a great number of large American companies or major components thereof began life in a garage or, if old enough, in their precursor, a carriage house. Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Apple are examples of the former, and the GE Research Laboratory of the latter. That carriage house can be seen as it was in 1905 at www.businessweek.com/innovation/popup/6.html. Sadly, it is long gone, replaced by a restaurant. In its heyday at that site, Ernst Berg worked long hours alongside his mentor, Steinmetz. There should be a historic marker there, at Erie Boulevard and Liberty, but there isnít. So Iím going to ask the owner of the restaurant to change its name, ever so slightly, to Berger King.

 

 

Edwin D. Reilly, Jr., President of the Schenectady County Historical Society, lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion pages.