Someone who checked once counted that the name Schenectady is spelled seventy-nine different ways in the early documents. It derives from the Indian description “at the end of the pine plains” for the western end of the portage between the Mohawk and Hudson rivers. The area’s importance as a transportation route continued with the arrival of European settlers first along the river, then along the Erie Canal (entombed beneath the pavement of Erie Boulevard) and then along the lines of the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad.
Schenectady evolved as a company town, the first being the Schenectady Locomotive Works built by Scotsman John Ellis with his master mechanic, Walter McQueen. In 1851 the 56-year old Ellis acquired a little locomotive plant in town that had managed to produce but a single locomotive, “The Lightning,” which was run for about a year between Utica and Schenectady, but was finally pronounced a failure by locomotive engineers of that day. It was the ambition of John Ellis not only to construct locomotives but to build the cars behind them and his railroad works came to rival the largest in the land. For the remainder of the 19th century “The Big Shop” carried the growth of the city on its shoulders.
But it was a couple of abandoned and unused warehouses from the railroad works that set the course for Schenectady in the following century. In the 1880s Thomas Edison was in the early stages of electrifying America around New York City when he became weary of the labor problems he was constantly butting up against. He determined to move his nascent machine works elsewhere. He heard tell of two buildings in the McQueen yard that were still not completed and came to Schenectady to inspect the facilities. He offered to buy them from the railroad men but his offer was $7,500 below the asking price.
Schenectady businessmen caught wind of the dealings and set out to cover the difference. They struggled to raise the money and were still $500 short with a deadline looming before Edison was to close a land deal in New Jersey. Although it was after hours the group’s leaders knocked on the door of the Mohawk Bank anyway and indeed found the son of one their group working late. He agreed to put up the last $500 which was wired to Edison and sealed the deal. The Edison works moved to Schenectady in 1886 and in 1894 the city was designated as the headquarters of General Electric.
Those two small buildings would spawn a complex of 360 buildings spread across 670 acres of land. The Schenectady plant would be the largest of more than 150 General Electric facilities around the globe, employing more than 23,000 workers. Our walking tour of the “The City that Lights and Hauls the World” won’t find much remaining from its two giant industries but their legacy remains and we will begin at a grand building that symbolizes those heady times...
Schenectady City Hall
105 Jay Street on the block between Clinton, Franklin, and Liberty streets
There wasn’t much money for governments to throw around during the Great Depression but you would never know by looking at this majestic city hall. City officials threw its design open to a nationwide competition and the legendary New York firm of McKim, Mead and White (although all the founding partners were deceased by this time) won the commission. They delivered a monumental Neo-Georgian brick building with a full-height central portico on the front and a semicircular projecting wing on the rear enclosing a rotunda. Marble is used for pilasters, quoins and the rusticated raised basement. Its crowning feature is the square clock tower with its gold-leaf dome and weathervane. Ground breaking was in 1931 and construction was completed in 1933.
WITH YOUR BACK TO CITY HALL TURN LEFT AND WALK DOWN JAY STREET INTO THE RETAIL DISTRICT. TURN RIGHT ON STATE STREET AND WALK UNDER THE RAILROAD TRACKS TO THE INTERSECTION WITH ERIE AVENUE, THE OLD ERIE CANAL.
The Nicholaus Block
266-268 State Street at Erie Avenue
Louis and Sophie Nicholaus bought an old saloon in 1895 and opened the Nicholaus Hotel in 1901. The eclectic three-story brick building boasts a fanciful cornice and corner turret.
TURN AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS BACK UP STATE STREET.
Schenectady Trust Company
320 State Street
On February 17, 1902, the Schenectady Trust Company was chartered―formed through the purchase of the assets of the Schenectady Bank that had started taking deposits in 1832. As the credit union for the General Electric Corporation the bank prospered mightily along with the ascendancy of the company and constructed this Neoclassical vault in 1919. This is the location of the Mohawk Bank where the final money to bring General Electric to town was obtained.
413 State Street
Clark Witbeck fashioned a long business career in Schenectady. He founded the Clark Witbeck Hardware Co. as a general hardware supplier in 1899 at 413 State Street and moved into this five-story Beaux Arts-inspired building in 1905.
432 State Street
Entertainment impressario Frederick Freeman Proctor built this as a vaudeville house in 1926 and four years later it hosted the first public demonstration of television. But mostly it was a movie palace with one of the largest screens in the Northeast. Noted theater architect Thomas Lamb designed the State Street landmark in a classical fashion. The front facade is faced in stucco with engaged Doric pilasters. Ornamentation includes garlands and paterae on the friezes. A large marquee covers the sidewalk in front. Proctor spent $1.5 million on his showcase in the 1920s; a recent expansion and facelift gobbled up $24.5 million.
The Parker Inn
434 State Street
Now operating as a boutique hotel, this three-bay, eight story building demonstrates the popular theory for designing the new high rises of the early 20th century. Playing off the Chicago school of architecture these “skyscrapers” were crafted to look like a classical column. Here you can see the base (the rusticated stone frame for the lower floors); the shaft (the relatively unadorned middle floors) and the capital (the Beaux Arts-inspired decorative cornice). The Parker Building was constructed in 1906 by John N. Parker, an attorney and Assistant State Superintendant of Public Works; it was the tallest commercial building in the city for decades.
Citizens’ Trust Company of Schenectady
436 State Street
The Citizens Trust Company organized in 1906 with Henry S. Lansing as its chief shareholder. In 1920 the bank settled into this beautifully proportioned Neoclassical vault framed by pilasters and columns of the Corinthian order. The bank was absorbed by Key Bank in 1980.
508 State Street
When built in 1907, it was the first building in the city to use terra cotta as its primary siding on the front facade, and the first built under the precepts of the City Beautiful movement that was sweeping America in the early years of a new century. Scarcely a foot of the battered front facade is unadorned. On the first two storys the storefront is framed with acanthus leaves and garlands with mock keystones and rectangular blocks. The windows are brass-framed glass with the two-story storefront as a whole framed in marble. Above the storefronts, the upper facade in three bays is articulated by three-story high engaged pilasters with highly enriched Corinthian capitals. Fluted Ionic half-columns divide the window bays. All four support pedimented Roman arches. Oversized brackets support the metal cornice. Decorative panels are placed between all three upper storys. In the divided central bays of the panels below the fifth story is the modeled and cast inscription “FOSTER BVILDING.” Penn Varney of Massachusetts was the architect behind this unique building that stood out from its mostly brick neighbors.
First United Methodist Church
603 State Street
This church was organized in 1807, growing out of sermons by circuit-riding preachers under British rule. The cornerstone of the first house of worship was laid on July 28, 1808 with the town mayor placing the initial block. It was sited on Liberty Street and directly in the path of the Erie Canal a decade later so it was carted to Union Street. By 1836 the congregation had outgrown its building and built again on Liberty Street, a structure now known as Bethesda House, a facility that provides day care and services for the homeless in Schenectady. This is the third church to serve the congregation, dedicated on March 12, 1874.
State Street at Lafayette Street
This sliver of greenspace, once known as Veterans Park, at the crest of the hill overlooking State Street was established in 1864. The public drinking fountain was presented to the city in 1904 by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union at a cost of $850. The memorial in the park was dedicated to Schenectadians who died in America’s wars, donated by the American Locomotive Company in 1948 on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the locomotive industry in the city.
St. Joseph Parish
600 State Street
The town’s German Catholics began assembling and planning their own church in the late 1850s and after Joseph Harreker purchased an old frame church on Center Street with his own $2000 at sheriff’s sale, St. Joseph’s Church was formally dedicated in his honor on June 29, 1862. It served the budding congregation until the cornerstone for this Gothic brick church, designed by Marcus Cummings of Troy, was laid on the afternoon of July 29, 1877. With proper ceremony, the new meetinghouse was dedicated on March 3, 1878.
Schenectady County Courthouse
612 State Street
The Neoclassical stone courthouse rose behind a parade of fluted Corinthian columns in 1913. It replaced a Greek Revival courthouse with fluted Doric columns that still stands in the city’s historic district. Tucked into 108 Union Street, it was constructed in 1831.
TURN LEFT ON NOTT TERRACE. TURN RIGHT ON NOTT TERRACE HEIGHTS.
Schenectady Museum & Suits-Bueche Planetarium
15 Nott Terrace Heights
Founded in 1934, the museum had its quarters in the one-time County Poor House until its new building opened in 1967. The Suits-Bueche Planetarium has the only GOTO Star Projector in the entire Northeast. The Museum houses the GE Photograph collection, with more than 1.6 million prints and negatives.
WALK BACK OUT TO NOTT TERRACE AND TURN RIGHT. TURN RIGHT ON UNION STREET.
St. John The Evangelist Church
812 Union Street
St. John the Evangelist Church was built in 1904 and was the first church of its size and elegance to be built in this part of the country. Designed by architect Edward W. Loth, its high, sharp-pointed arches and gables and clustered columns stamp its architecture as unmistakably Gothic. The altitude from the ground to the ball surmounting the spire and is 220 feet. The 12-sided central tower lords over 12-sided smaller towers, one at each corner of the building, spanning a height of 120 feet. The French Second Empire mansion at #802 that serves as the church rectory was constructed by John C. Ellis, president of the Schenectady Locomotive Works, later to become the internationally known American Locomotive Company. After Ellis chose Union Street as the location for his palatial residence he establishing the precedent for upper Union Street’s development during the forthcoming five decades as an elegant residential neighborhood.
TURN AROUND AND WALK DOWN UNION STREET, CROSSING NOTT TERRACE.
Union Street at northeast corner of Seward Street
The city’s first dedicated library building came by way of a $50,000 gift from Andrew Carnegie; it was one of more than 2,000 libraries the steel magnate funded around the world. Land was obtained here with a $15,000 gift from General Electric. The Beaux Arts confection was constructed of slender Roman bricks and boasts a classical rusticated entrance framed by slender Ionic porticos. In a trademark of Carnegie libraries, names of famous literary figures were carved along the facade. At the time of its construction in 1903 there were worries that the library was so far out of town that no one would use it but it served the city until 1973 when it was acquired by Union College and re-fitted as a residence hall. The building honors Harrison Webster, Class of 1868, who was the eighth college president, serving from 1888 until 1894.
TURN LEFT ON CLINTON STREET.
Schenectady County Public Library
99 Clinton Street at Liberty Street
This is the library that replaced the old Carnegie Library. The Schenectady County Public Library, carrying a $2 million price tag, was dedicated on April 7, 1969 after two years of construction. Local architects Feibes, Schmitt and Associates shepherded the brick, concrete and glass structure to completion, laying out over an acre of floor space.
TURN RIGHT ON LIBERTY STREET.
United States Post Office
Jay Street and Liberty Street
The first post office in Schenectady was established in 1793. Home delivery did not begin for another 100 years and townsfolk followed the post office as it bounced around the city. The first permanent post office was built here in 1912, in the Neoclassical style popular for similar projects coming to fruition around America at that time. In 1933 the post office received a massive extension that came near to filling the entire block. The rectangular building is faced in limestone on the south and west with yellow brick elsewhere. A central pavilion is flanked by north and south wings, the latter of which is the main entrance. Both wings have round-arched windows divided by partially engaged Ionic columns. The former main entrance, on the Liberty Street side, has free-standing Corinthian columns. At the cornice is a balustrade.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.