The Crounse House awaits an angel

One of the great joys of being part of a community weekly is that readers often step up to solve a problem or move a project.

A favorite example, from years ago, is the Berne-Knox-Westerlo track. The project was underway when funds ran out. We printed a detailed account of the work that needed to be completed and one of our readers, who happened to own a bulldozer, stepped up. A group of volunteers was organized, a local union training center joined in, and the track got completed.

Now some of our readers have shown interest in saving the historic Doctor Crounse House.

Although our Guilderland reporter, Elizabeth Floyd Mair, over two years ago reported on Altamont Village Board discussions about what to do with the house, it wasn’t until she wrote last month about the Guilderland Town Board’s decision to demolish it, and we editorialized on the subject, that readers took notice.

We always try to offer something positive in an editorial, once we outline a problem. We had thought the destruction of the house was a done deal so in our Dec. 7 editorial, “Historic buildings tell our stories, until we silence them,” we asked that the demolition of the Doctor Crounse House serve as a lesson.

Here’s the outline of the story:

A dozen years ago, the Doctor Crounse House was empty, in foreclosure, and in need of repair. The town of Guilderland and village of Altamont jointly purchased it for back taxes, roughly $40,000. Both municipalities were involved in costly renovation projects of other historic buildings. The town, which already has the Mynderse-Frederick House in Guilderland Center, was also restoring the Schoolcraft mansion on Route 20. The village helped bring the historic train station at its center back to life as the home for its century-old library.

Altamont’s mayor thought the Doctor Crounse House would make a great entry for visitors to Altamont, displaying the village’s rich history. Guilderland’s supervisor thought it could serve “community functions.”

Neither of those men are in office now and the project languished. A grant was applied for and later received for $25,000 to fix the roof. Both the municipalities decided not to spend the money to fix the roof, partly because asbestos in the shingles would make the project more costly. An engineering firm was hired for $3,200 to evaluate the condition of the house, and committees met to discuss it as well.

It’s too late to wish the county had sold the property to one of the people who wanted it and may have restored the house by now. It’s too late to wish the town and village had followed through on their original plans to use the house for community functions.

But it’s not too late to save the house after all. We were greatly encouraged when Guilderland supervisor Peter Barber told Floyd Mair last week, “We’re obviously willing to consider all options.” This includes seeing if any individual buyers might be interested in taking on the property in order to renovate and live in the house.

Barber had said earlier, when the plan was to demolish the house, that the land would make a nice park. Both Altamont and Guilderland have wonderful parks, which are important to residents. But there is no need for a small park on a busy road just a stone’s throw from Altamont’s beautiful Bozenkill Park — complete with swimming pool, tennis and basketball courts, and playing fields.

The town, Barber said, got involved at the urging of the village, and he would defer to the village board of trustees and the mayor, since the property is part of the gateway to the village. When Floyd Mair asked Altamont’s mayor about saving the building, she repeated the history of the trustees’ past decision.

We hope the trustees will bring open minds to their next meeting and consider saving the house so that someone else may preserve its history.

We can see no downside to the village or to the town in selling the property they were unable to restore and now have no use for. Tearing it down, especially with the proper certifications, would be costly. By selling it, they could regain the $40,000 they had paid for it and not incur any further costs. And, it would put the property back on the tax rolls.

In her story last week, Floyd Mair described how an historic building can be sold with restrictive covenants saying it must be renovated. This can take time, said Susan Herlands Holland, former executive director of Historic Albany, who is now executive director of Historic Ithaca.

“It’s like dating,” she said. “The right buyer will come along eventually.”

The historic value of a building of the Doctor Crounse House era, Herlands Holland said, is that it is of its time, that its time is evident in its construction.

The additions to the back of the house were cited by Guilderland’s building inspector as problematic; the inspector noted the roof there is falling in. But the original structure appears strong — hand-hewn timbers raised in 1833 on a solid foundation.

Herlands Holland noted that the town of Ulysses has bought a “beautiful Greek Revival church that is 1830s-ish and sits in the middle of their four corners; they took the risk, and they’re selling it through a real-estate agent, with a restrictive covenant.” The church has remediation issues, she said, making it very similar to the Crounse House.

What would be the harm in giving someone — there were several who initially wanted the house when it was awarded instead to Guilderland and Altamont — a chance to buy and save the Doctor Crounse House?

The village and town would have nothing to lose and the community would have a chance to keep an important piece of its history.

The house stands next to its beautifully restored neighbors in the the Knowersville settlement that predated the Victorian village of Altamont. Next door is the Knower House, a Georgian Colonial, where Benjamin Knower’s daughter, Cornelia, married William Marcy who became governor of New York.

Rare in the Northeast, the Doctor Crounse House stands as a testament to Civil War history. During the war, the 134th regiment camped in front of Dr. Crounse’s house as he stayed up all night, helping the regiment doctor with the sick and wounded soldiers.

Perhaps most importantly, the house was built by Altamont’s first doctor, who served his community for decades. As the late Arthur Gregg, Guilderland’s longtime town historian, once wrote on our pages, Dr. Frederick Crounse brought more more of the region’s inhabitants into the world than any single doctor before or since.

“In sickness or in trouble, the panacea was, ‘Go see old Doc Fred,’” Gregg wrote. “There is something grand and inspiring about his life from beginning to end.”

Let’s save this irreplaceable treasure.

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