On the ballot: Selling Cobblestone Schoolhouse to town for $10K

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Nineteenth-Century neighbors: The Cobblestone Schoolhouse, built in 1860 by R.E. Zeh, stands on Guilderland Center’s Main Street next to an Italianate church built in 1872.

GUILDERLAND — Voters in the Guilderland school district will decide on May 21 if the Cobblestone Schoolhouse in Guilderland Center, which hasn’t held classes for 83 years, should be sold to the town of Guilderland for $10,000.

The vote is required, according to school Superintendent Marie Wiles, because the property is not being sold at market value.

“We are technically transferring the property to the town with a nominal cost,” she said on Tuesday, which is to help pay for legal fees the district spent to clear the property’s title and also to make some improvements to the schoolhouse.

According to the Albany County assessment rolls, the property, which is an acre, with the schoolhouse, has a full-market value of $196,941.

Wiles called it “a remarkable place with so much history” but went on to say, “The school district is not in the business of historical preservation or museum curation.”

She continued, “At the same time, we’d hate to see it fall into disrepair,” adding that it needs a new roof and windows.

“It’s hard for us to ask our taxpayers for money for that,” said Wiles, when the district needs funds to educate its students.

She noted that Guilderland’s town supervisor, Peter Barber, has been “very interested” in securing the building for the town and added that Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy has been able to secure some grant money for renovations.

The school board, Wiles said, hadn’t wanted to hand over the building without any remuneration.

Barber last Thursday, in comments to the McKownville Improvement Association, said that the schoolhouse is a standing testimony to “the advent of public education.”

Just before the Civil War, he said, the community came together to support the school.

“Our plan,” Barber said, “is to first of all preserve it and come up with a public use.”

Built in 1860, the one-room schoolhouse was used as a classroom until 1941. The property also includes the original outhouse as the school has no plumbing.

The Enterprise has editorialized on the worth of preserving the Cobblestone Schoolhouse.

Barber last Thursday described the school as being “frozen in time” and said he’d also like to acquire from the district the “big pot-belly stove” and the original desks and chairs that had been in the building until recent years because he’d like to “recreate what a school looked like at that time.”

In December, the district had been on the verge of auctioning off the property.

“We paused on that … largely in response to an email that we received from Assemblymember Pat Fahy who represents the Guilderland school district, who voiced some interest in making sure that that property remains in the public domain,” Wiles told the school board at its Dec. 5 meeting.

Barber told The Enterprise at that time that, before he became a lawyer, he studied architecture and believes the schoolhouse is structurally sound.

“Our hope would be to help them,” he said of the school district, calling it “a bit ironic” that the town would take on the task of preserving school-district history.

Barber also noted that the Cobblestone Schoolhouse property backs up to the town’s Keenholts Park.

He said that Guilderland Center residents with children now get in their cars to drive to the neighboring park. If the town acquires the land, Barber said, they could walk to the park on a trail that would become part of the town’ pedestrian network.

History

In 1982, the Cobblestone Schoolhouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places along with a slew of other buildings in town — including the Helderberg Dutch Reformed Church, which has since burned, and the Mynderse-Frederick House, both also on Guilderland Center’s Main Street, as well as Rose Hill, the Hamilton Union Presbyterian Church, and the John Schoolcraft House, all on Route 20 in Guilderland.

The National Archives Catalog says that the schoolhouse “is one of only several cobblestone buildings in the county” and was “carefully maintained by the Guilderland School District since its construction in 1860.” The catalog goes on to describe the traditional 19th-Century construction technique as “exceptionally well executed.”

The catalog notes the building’s “smooth ashlar quoins,” the “stone lintels and sills,” and the “open bell tower … with curvilinear hipped roof.” In addition to picturing the schoolhouse, the catalog also pictures the privy in back.

The Cobblestone Museum says of the schoolhouse, “Its solid foundations and walls remind one of a Revolutionary blockhouse.” The museum also notes that an inscription, carved on one of the upper front quoins, says, “R.E. Zeh, mason, 1860.”

That was first noted in a 1961 Altamont Enterprise column by Guilderland town historian Arthur B. Gregg, who wrote of the few rare cobblestone structures in town. Gregg wrote that cobblestone construction took place just from the 1820s until the Civil War era. Rochester is the center of the cobblestone region with few far-flung cobblestone buildings elsewhere. 

Building with cobblestones was a laborious process, Gregg wrote, and it typically took two or three years to build a cobblestone house.

Guilderland Center’s Cobblestone Schoolhouse was used as headquarters for the now-defunct Guilderland League of Arts and had been the site of sporadic school field trips over the years.

Two years ago, after a quarter-century of debate and discussion, the school board unanimously passed a resolution stating that the schoolhouse property “is declared to be of no further use or value to the District and in fact, continued ownership of Property is fiscally detrimental to the District.” The resolution authorized listing the property for sale or auction.

The schoolhouse stands on land deeded to the school district in the early part of the 19th Century by Stephen Van Rensselaer, the Dutch patroon, for the purpose of creating a schoolhouse.

It took the school district years to get a clear title to the property.

Soon after the board passed that resolution, on Feb. 15, 2022, Barber told the town board, after reading a story about it in The Enterprise, he had written to the school superintendent, saying “We might be interested.” Barber emphasized the word “might,” adding, “We’ve got to do a lot of due diligence. Quite honestly, we’ve got to find out what will we use the building for.”

In 2017, the school district’s superintendent of buildings and grounds had requested $30,000 to make needed repairs on the schoolhouse, at which several school board members balked. Coverage of this brought many members of the public, town officials, and Fahy to the board’s April 2017 meeting after which the board approved the repairs.

Floor joists and floorboards were replaced with fir appropriate to the age of the building and the roof soffit and fascias were replaced. The school had been reroofed in 2003 with era-appropriate cedar-shake shingles.

Wiles said at the Dec. 5 meeting of the 2017 request for a new schoolhouse floor, “I can remember sitting at this table, weighing, how do we afford that while we’re trying to decide how to provide for our students as well? …. Honestly, it is not the mission of the school district to do historic preservation. We are thinking about the future.”

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