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Home, Garden, and Car Care Special Section The Altamont Enterprise, October 8, 2009

Reading local history through hallowed houses in the Stockade

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

On a crisp fall Saturday, just-turning leaves in Schenectady’s Stockade were mixed with colorful characters. Two women in Victorian hoop skirts strolled past a man wearing a bright-buckled pilgrim’s hat.

The mixture of eras wasn’t jarring, though, because the mix of architecture around the docents was equally eclectic.

The buildings in Schenectady’s oldest neighborhood span centuries, and 18 of them were open to visitors this year for the annual Stockade Walkabout. The National Parks Service has said the Stockade Historic District has the highest concentration of historic period homes in the country. The Stockade was the first historic district named in New York State.

The area was originally battled over by native Mohawks and Mohicans. In 1661, Dutch fur-traders and merchants settled by the banks of the Mohawk River. John Adamovich stood by the banks of the river during the walkabout. He wore a red wool coat typical of the 1600’s and displayed an array of goods from the era. He held a matchlock gun and explained what a powerful weapon it was against Indians who had had only bows and arrows. The noise alone was frightening, he said.

He also displayed an array of beads that different Europeans used in trading with the Indians. He pointed to blue and white glass beads like the ones the Dutch traded for the Stockade land. Land ownership was a foreign concept to them.

Wooden palisades protected the original four-block settlement. It held for nearly 30 years. But in 1690, Indian and French-Canadian marauders burned the village to the ground and massacred most who lived there.

The Dutch rebuilt, and the oldest house in Schenectady was open for the walkabout. The house originally consisted of one room with a sleeping loft above. The old room is dominated by a massive medieval fireplace and hearth.

The current owner, Katy Kindl, had to remove several more recent fireplaces to reveal the grand original, now flanked with Dutch tiles and hung with a period valance. Wide pine planks form the floor and heavy oak beams hold the equally wide ceiling boards.

“You didn’t have the leisure to build a big house then,” said the docent.

She told the history of the house by pointing to a painting by Tom Breitenbach, an Altamont native, now an internationally known artist. Jan Janse Jonckers, a Norwegian, and his wife, who came with the Dutch West India Company, first owned the house, from about 1665 to 1679. They had four years to build on the land or would have to forfeit it.

The house passed to a Norwegian relative of Jonckers, Teunis Carstensen, who had a wife who was half Dutch and half Mohawk. “After the Schenectady Massacre, Teunis rode and got supplies for the survivors,” said the docent.

A huge old stone that once served as a doorstep was on display. It is inscribed in ancient Dutch, “A sad thing has happened but it is useless to regret it.”

Life went on after the massacre. When Carstensen died, his widow quickly remarried Hendrick Brouwer. The house still bears his name. Around 1800, the house was dramatically remodled with a full two-story front; a Georgian façade now faces North Church Street. From the backyard, though, the steep gabled Dutch roof is visible.

Way at the back of the deep yard is a secret garden, entered through a vine-covered arch. A brick path wends its way through lush greenery, ending with a garden bench.

Prosperity came to the Stockade with the new century as traffic moved up and down the Mohawk River. The John Teller House, built in 1760, reflects that opulence and has been restored and reassembled to its former grandeur. The current owner, Marilyn Sassi, has furnished it with museum quality pieces. Indeed, the master bedroom features a hope chest made for one of two sisters; the one made for the other sister is in the Albany museum.

The brick gambrel-roofed home shows how English and Dutch design combined. The house is entered through a heavy Dutch door, topped with a transom made of panes of hand-blown bull’s-eye glass. A beehive oven has been restored to working order, and the brick patio in back was copied from a period painting.

In 1819, two hundred buildings were destroyed in a devastating fire. Ironically, the fire may be what saved the Stockade from being leveled in the name of progress. After the fire, the business district moved from the Stockade to State Street, near the new Erie Canal, and the Stockade became primarily a residential neighborhood.

The walkabout included Victorian houses like the Carmichael House, built in the late 1870s when the Stockade was solidly residential. An example of the Second Empire style, the Carmichael House boasts a mansard roof and central tower.

The current owners, Glenn Houston and Elena Alvarez, have restored the house to its former grandeur, removing drop ceilings so the rooms soar to a full 12 feet. A gold-framed pier mirror that reaches nearly to the ceiling magnifies the parlor’s size further.

Some houses that look Victorian from the street are revealed to be much older with a look inside. One of those is the English Garden Bed and Breakfast on Union Street, known as the Sanders-Ellice House. Innkeeper Virgina Bohn has kept a Victorian theme in the dining room with rose-colored walls and lace tablecloth. An upstairs ballroom, though, has a stunning Federal fireplace, indicating the home’s 1775 origins.

The newest house in the Stockade gives a nod to the past. Indeed, to the casual passerby, it looks like a very old house, tucked behind the other houses on North Ferry Street where there used to be a livery. It was built in 1976 by preservationist Paul Schaefer, using old materials mixed with new.

The current owner, Bruce Jordan, is a theatrical producer, with the longest running non-musical play in American theater history, Shear Madness, still going strong. Framed playbills hint at his profession.

A heavy old beam tops the front entry, and the brickwork mimics the mousetooth design of the nearby Abraham Yates House. The beam came from a 150-year-old barn in Columbia County; the brick is a mixture of old and new.

Standing on the bluestone in the patio outside the house, a horse can be heard, whinnying from the street as it pulls a carriage about the Stockade; the 21st Century seems very far away.

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