Category Archives: Schenectady

Doric, historic, available!

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Schenectady County Courthouse

I’ve always been vaguely aware of this classic Greek revival building on the lower block of Union Street in Schenectady’s Stockade. For as long as I could remember, it housed offices of the Schenectady City School District, and I guess I never gave any thought to what it had been, if anything, before that. Turns out that it was an early (perhaps first) Schenectady County Courthouse. According to the Historic American Building Survey, it was erected from 1831 to 1833. Offices were on the first floor, the courthouse was on the second floor, and the county jail was in the basement of the rear wing. HABS took note of its two-story portico with pediment and Greek Doric columns (20 flutes, low Attic base with round plinth. And, of course, Doric entablatures. The walls are of brick, Flemish bond on the main portion, American bond on the rear wing. The building was constructed by John W. Teller for $9,964. It was used as a courthouse until about 1915, and then by the school district.

And guess what? It’s for sale. Where else but Schenectady could you find a piece of history like this for under half a million?

Government paperwork

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Niskayuna restaurant license
As I’ve said before, back in the late ’50s my grandfather owned a small restaurant in Aqueduct. Here’s the receipt from his application to the Town of Niskayuna for a restaurant license. Nowadays, everything is printed out on laserprinters and official letterhead seems like a thing of the past, but in the 1950s it was very unusual for any business, especially a government office, to take such a casual approach to its official paperwork. I guess they trusted that no one else could come up with a rubber stamp with the town’s name on it. At the bottom it says “Keep this slip for reference.” And so he did.

The Hudson? A river too far.

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Niagara Hudson water heater

In 1935, Niagara Hudson was only about 6 years old, having consolidated 59 little utilities into an electric and gas behemoth that reached across the state. In this area it still carried the brand of New York Power and Light, as well as the Niagara Hudson name. Just two years later, the company would reorganize again under the name of Central New York Power Corporation, but still keeping the NYP&L moniker as well. Finally, in 1950, all the companies and names were consolidated into Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation. Why did they abandon the Hudson in their name, when the territory still reached all the way to the Massachusetts border? Not a clue, but so it was until 2000 when it was bought up by National Grid, a UK corporation.

In 1935, Niagara Hudson was offering an innovation in domestic convenience: an automatic water heater. But unlike today’s programs to produce on-demand hot water with tankless systems, this program didn’t involve pesky new hardware. No, for just a dollar a month, NiHud techs would come to your home, slather your tank with a mysterious insulating cream, put a lid on it, and tuck a thermocoupler and burner underneath. At least I think that’s what they were doing, but the whole rig sounds questionable at best.

Want more on the history of Niagara Mohawk? Okay, here.

Boston One Price Clothing House

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Boston one price clothing houseAccording to “The Empire State: Its Industries and Wealth,” published in 1888, the One Price Clothing House was originally established at Rochester, N.Y. by W.H. Spafford, who in 1887 “transferred his sphere of usefulness from that populous trade centre to the flourishing and enterprising city of Schenectady. This house has since enjoyed a well-merited and marked degree of success, owing to the general excellence and reasonable price of all goods dealt in. In July, 1888, Mr. H.F. Smith purchased the establishment. The premises occupied consist of an elegantly fitted up apartment, 90 x 75 feet in dimensions, in which the stock is advantageously displayed, and every convenience is at hand for the prompt and satisfactory execution of orders, three clerks being employed. Here can be found a full line of ready-made clothing of novel design and excellent finish, hats, caps, neck-wear, hosiery, underwear, and everything usually included in a complete assortment of men’s clothing and furnishing goods. Mr. Smith gives his close attention to every detail of the business engaged in, and leaves untried no worthy means of pleasing his many customers with the merchandise handled.”

I don’t know how long the One Price Clothing House survived. This ghost sign for the business, or at least one of its successors, is still visible from the Amtrak platform at the Schenectady station.

While we’re on lower State Street

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Robinson's Davidson Building corniceWhile we’re looking at Barney’s this week, let’s look across the street. Well, if you look there today, you’ll just see a giant hole where the former Robinson’s furniture buildings were. Before Robinson’s, one of the buildings was the Dan A. Donohue men’s clothing chain; the other was Davidson’s.

According to the 1888 “The Empire State: Its Industries and Wealth,” “Mr. J.E. Davidson, the popular and well-known clothier, hatter and gents’ furnisher, has long been an accepted leader in his special line of mercantile activity. The enterprise was inaugurated thirty-five years ago [1853] by Mr. Davidson, and has under his energetic management been steadily successful from the outset. His patronage is derived from all parts of the surrounding country, and is of an influential and permanent character. The premises utilized consist of a double store, 35 x 100 feet in dimensions, and fitted up with tasteful appointments throughout, while every convenience and accommodation has been provided for the reception of customers and the handling of stock. The counters and shelves are burdened with a very extensive assortment of superior ready-made clothing for men, youths, boys and children, all in the latest fashions and illustrating the current demand. The display of hats and caps embraces the newest styles in men’s and boys’ headwear, while the showing in gents’ furnishing goods is complete in every particular and are marked down at remarkably cheap prices. Mr. Davidson, though a native of Germany, has resided in the United States the greater part of his life, having come here in 1848. He has made his home in this city for the past thirty-eight years.”

Davidson's schenectady 1928 11935103_10207289127135906_7625398490952883061_n.jpgIn 1903 an edition of “The American Hatter” noted that “The hat and clothing business of the late J.E. Davidson, Schenectady, N.Y., will hereafter be conducted by Mr. Davidson’s sons, David and Frederick, under the firm name of Julius E. Davidson’s Sons.” On February 1, 1905, fire swept the block, causing an estimated $200,000 in losses, with Davidson’s bearing the brunt of it. In 1908, the death of David Davidson resulted in the sale of $85,000 in stock, representing his half-interest in the business. If the photo from the Daily Gazette is dated correctly, Davidson’s went out of business in February 1928. The building died in 2007, unable to be saved from imminent collapse.

The story of Barney’s

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Howland Swain Barney was born in Greenfield, Saratoga County, March 23, 1822, to Dr. Zadoc and Eliza Swain Barney. (The Swains were among the original nine families of Nantucket.) His parents moved to Minaville, Montgomery County when he was five. He was schooled there and in 1836 came to Schenectady to work in the dry goods business of Sidney B. Potter. In 1848 he became a partner with John Ohlen & Company; in 1855 he bought an interest in Barringer and Company, buying out his partners in 1858 and establishing the company as H.S. Barney Company.

Cuyler Reynolds, writing in his “Hudson-Mohawk Genealogical and Family Memoirs,” gushes:

“He was a good judge of men and chose his subordinates with rare judgment, rarely making a mistake in his choice of men for certain positions. He rose from the bottom to the topmost rounds of the ladder and each round was gained by active and earnest effort. He was courteous and dignified in manner, somewhat after the style of the olden school. His benevolences were many and were bestowed without ostentation. His acquaintance was very large and he was sincerely honored. His other interests were large.”

The second building to house his store was built in 1872, and expanded again some time later, with substantial changes to its fa├žade. It still stands today. In 1888, its assorted offerings included “full lines of staple and fancy dry goods, hosiery, silks, satins, plushes, blankets, ruchings, napkins, edgings, yarns, antique laces, ladies’ and gents’ furnishing goods, and all kinds of novelties in dress goods, carpets, oil cloths, lace Madras and chenille curtains, shades, etc., and everything appertaining to a first-class carpet room.” Imagine what constituted an “antique lace” in 1888. “The firm make a specialty of fashionable cloak and dress making. All cloaks, dresses and suits are produced after the latest Paris fashions . . . Fifty experienced and efficient assistants and salesladies, etc. are employed, and the trade of the house extends throughout all sections of Schenectady and the adjoining cities.”

Barney also served as a director of Mohawk National Bank, and was active in Republican politics but did not stand for office. He died in 1904.

The store continued for decades, even as Schenectady changed. Slowly the main commercial block moved east of the Erie Canal, to the blocks of State Street above Broadway (once Centre Street). Barney’s former neighbors Kresge’s and Carl Company moved up the street, joined by The Wallace Company, W.T. Grant, and Woolworth’s, leaving Barney’s as the only large department store west of the canal. It survived until 1973, when the spread of malls and suburbanization killed off most of Schenectady’s downtown department stores. Only the Carl Company and Woolworth’s (which wasn’t strictly a Woolworth’s, at least originally) survived, both making it into the 1990s. Barney’s had a very respectable 115-year run.

Barney's 2007

Image by carljohnson via Flickr

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A remnant of Barney’s

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Barneys sidewalk 2

It’s been more than 40 years since Howland S. Barney’s department store closed. Somehow, however, its sidewalk inset still survives. Sometimes our cities are richer for a little benign neglect, for surely someday soon this artifact will be lost.

The store that had everything

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eastholm 7 ad.jpg

Someday soon I’ve got to write about H.S. Barney Co., once Schenectady’s premiere department store. It catered to what was called the carriage trade, the higher end customers. It sold furniture, furs, and everything in between. (Its building still stands.) And apparently it even sold airplane rides, as evidenced by this ad unearthed by the Schenectady County Historical Association, in an article on what was one of the area’s pioneering airfields, Eastholm Field. Imagine: in 1919, you could walk into Barney’s, or the Hotel Mohawk, or even Tilley’s (at this time, I have no idea what Tilley’s was), and book yourself a trip to see Schenectady from the air! (Or, apparently, just call Vrooman’s Hardware Store.)


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Freihofer's receipt

Everyone in the Capital District remembers Freihofer’s. In my mother’s day and before, they were the major home-delivery bakery. You put the Freihofer’s sign in your front window and the truck (and before that, the horse-drawn wagon) would stop and bring fresh bread, cookies and cakes right to your door. Even when I was a child in the early ’60s, the Freihofer truck still came by. At that time they were also famous for a local children’s television program featuring Freddie Freihofer. Every child dreamed of appearing on that show. Freihofer’s still exists, but no longer as a family owned bakery. Now the name may be as well known for the nationally prominent women’s 5K road race as for their breads and cookies. There’s no more home delivery, alas.

This receipt, like some of last week’s entries, was from my grandfather’s short-lived drive-in restaurant in Aqueduct.