Guilderland and Altamont may seek buyer to preserve Doctor Crounse House

Crounse House

Enterprise file photo — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
Authentic detail: One of the few remaining original features of the Crounse House is the front entrance with sidelights and molding surrounding a handcrafted door.

GUILDERLAND — The Guilderland Town Board voted unanimously Tuesday night to list for sale the town’s interest in the historic Doctor Crounse House, located at 759 Route 146, just outside of Altamont on the village’s Main Street.

The board had voted in December to demolish the early-1800s landmark, which Guilderland and Altamont together bought 10 years ago for back taxes but had made no improvements on. Enterprise coverage of the slated demolition spurred response to save the Doctor Crounse House.

The sale would be subject to a restrictive covenant, the board decided, that would require preserving the building’s historical features. Supervisor Peter Barber said at the meeting that the New York State Office of Historical Preservation was providing advice on potential wording of the covenant.

The building could be put up for sale only if its co-owner, the village of Altamont, agrees. The village board is set to discuss the matter at its next meeting, on April 3, Mayor Kerry Dineen told The Enterprise.

The proposed language of the covenant would still need to be approved by the town board, Barber said.

The Crounse House is a Federal-era single-family home from 1833 where Altamont’s first doctor, Frederick Crounse, lived and practiced. Injured soldiers returning from the Civil War, encamped on the front lawn, were among those treated by Crounse, according to historian Arthur Gregg. The doctor was also active in the Anti-Rent Wars, on the side of the tenant farmers rebelling against the patroon.

The two-story building has sat empty for more than three decades.

The town board had voted in December 2017 to demolish the building, and the town’s building inspector, Jacqueline Coons, had condemned it at the town’s request. According to industrial code rules from the Department of Labor on buildings with asbestos, a condemned building could be demolished without an asbestos survey, although all materials must be assumed, in that case, to contain asbestos, and all demolition must meet the department’s numerous requirements for handling that material.

“Our board discussed the Crounse House at our budget meetings and I have spoken with Peter Barber about possible language for a restrictive covenant,” Dineen wrote in an email. “In our search for options to be considered for this property, this process will help determine if there is interest and could this be a viable option for both municipalities.”

Village trustee Nicholas Fahrenkopf said this week, “I think we’re in support of exploring that option.” He said he felt it was important that, if someone were serious about buying the property, that the sale go through quickly.

“I would not like to see this house go through another winter, in the condition that it’s in now,” Fahrenkopf said.

“The only expressions of interest I’ve seen so far have been from people potentially interested in preserving the historical aspects of the house,” Barber told The Enterprise. If the town and village listed the property, those people would probably take a look at it, he said. At the town board meeting Tuesday night, he specified that two or three people had expressed interest.

A restrictive covenant would be enforceable because permits are needed for both building and demolition, Barber said.

“And it’s right there on the road,” he added.

Thomas Capuano, a Guilderland resident interested in the house, spoke to the board, reprising points he’d made in letters to the Enterprise editor.

Capuano, who said he grew up in Altamont, around “wonderful homes that have been restored by their owners,” urged the board to offer the house for sale “to see if there is interest.” He said he has been in touch with representatives from the New York State Office of Historical Preservation, who were interested in touring the house and said it may have historical significance “in the official sense” and might qualify for the National Register of Historic Places.

Town resident Douglas Bauer suggested that the house should be put up for auction, allowing the town and village to potentially triple the $40,000 invested in it. “A single-family house would be consistent with what’s there,” he said.

David Behnke, who owns the Knower House next door with his wife, Heather, spoke, saying that he liked the idea of the property being turned into a park that would memorialize its history. He said he was not sure “what angel would come down and buy into that and save that place.”

After the meeting, the Behnkes told The Enterprise that they had expressed interest in purchasing the property years ago, as a buffer around their home; they were surprised, they said, when the town and village bought it instead.

Laura Shore, who co-owns the nearby Inn of Jacob Crounse, said that if the land can’t be sold and preserved, she would like to see it turned into a park, and sidewalks added to the area.

Asbestos

It would be easier to deal with asbestos while demolishing a building than it would be to deal with it while renovating, said Dean Whalen, a village trustee who is also an architect. “Either one is achievable,” he added.

Whalen said that either process is costly, since maintaining the structure while remediating asbestos is a slower process, but demolition would require bringing all debris from the site to a hazardous-waste dump, with the associated increased fees.

He noted that the costs that had been estimated for the village were probably higher than they would be for a private buyer, since municipalities are required to adhere to very strict standards.

The purchase came as the village was preparing its comprehensive plan, Whalen noted, which called for trying to maintain a green buffer around the village.

Former village Mayor James Gaughan said this week that he worries that the restrictive covenant may not be strong enough to prevent an entrepreneurial developer from buying the two-and-a-half-acre property cheaply, then arguing that the asbestos-remediation requirements are too onerous, demolishing the building, and applying to the town to subdivide the property and put up three small houses.

Background

The town and the village purchased the building together from the county, more than a decade ago, for the amount of back taxes — which was $40,000 — with the idea of keeping someone from buying it and stripping it of its history, as well as to use it for some kind of public purpose, Barber said at the town board meeting.

The town supervisor at the time was Kenneth Runion, and Gaughan was the village mayor.

Gaughan wanted to turn it into an informational and historical center for the village and Hilltowns that might house the village archives, currently kept in cramped quarters in Altamont’s village hall.

Plans were underway in the fall of 2015 to put on a new roof, to keep the building from deteriorating further. The money was to come from the village’s general fund and be recouped through a grant obtained by Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy for capital projects. The total grant money for Guilderland was $175,000, with $25,000 of that amount earmarked for the Crounse House roof.

At the time, Gaughan was quoted as saying, “The ability to get a small amount of money through another source encourages me. So this is like the last-ditch last try.”

In January 2016, the engineering firm Barton & Loguidice toured the building and made a report to the village on estimated condition of the building and costs of repairing it.

The building was in generally poor condition, “showing signs of long-term deterioration, water damage, rot, and areas of significant structural distress,” the report said. It suggested that removing the collapsed portion and maintaining the primary structure was a possibility.

The report estimated the cost of remediating asbestos, putting in a new roofing system, and doing structural support work at $53,000.

To do all of that plus demolishing and removing collapsed additions from the site, doing additional repairs and all new wood framing and exterior finishes would cost $112,000, the report said; this would not include interior finishing, plumbing, or mechanical or electrical systems.  

The village eventually voted, in February 2017, to back off from stabilizing the structure. Dineen, then a trustee, said at the time that these higher amounts were too much to invest in a house that some had suggested lacked distinctive historic features.

The village board began to move toward the idea of demolition and maintaining the property as a park or other open space that would somehow memorialize Crounse. There is a historic marker on the property.

There are also markers at the Knower House next door and at the Inn of Jacob Crounse, a few houses down on Route 146, both of which have been restored by private owners. All three buildings were part of Knowersville, the original settlement that predated Altamont.

In the fall of 2017 the town condemned the doctor Crounse House, which Building and Zoning Inspector Jacqueline Coons told The Enterprise was done to make it easier to demolish. The town board voted, in December 2017, to demolish the structure.

Later that same month, after the enterprise editorialized on saving the house and a number of renovators of historic properties came forward to argue for preserving the building, Barber said he was open to all options.

Model salvation

Realtor Margaret Hobbie said this week that a historic church in the hamlet of Jacksonville, in the town of Ulysses — a historic property owned by the town and offered for sale with a restrictive covenant — has sold and is in the “final final” stages before closing.

It was listed at the end of October, she said.

The former church sat empty for many years. Exxon Mobil owned it until the town was finally able to buy it back last year, she said. It was one of several properties in the area affected by an oil leak in the 1980s from a gas station, she said. The others were torn down, but town officials refused to issue a demolition permit for the church.

The property is 4,400 square feet with many historical details. It started as a one-story building in 1827, and a second story was added in the 1850s; the structure was moved in 1899, she said. The restrictive covenant means it cannot be torn down. The exterior can be restored but not changed, she said.

The price was $49,500. It had started out at $65,000 and been lowered twice.

About half of the showings were to artists. “The light on the second story is wonderful,” Hobbie said.

The people who toured the house fell into two categories, she said. “We found we had people in their fifties who had the means but couldn’t face the renovations, and people in their 20s and 30s who didn’t have a dime but had wonderful vision.”

Eventually, a young buyer came along, she said, who was able to arrange for private financing. An architect, he plans to make the building his home.

 

More Guilderland News

  • Asked why Guilderland was eager to change now when earlier administrations had been unwilling, Superintendent Marie Wiles said, “We’re at a watershed moment in our country. George Floyd and what happened to him just woke people up. Great numbers are starting to see there really is systemic racism that we haven’t been really appreciative of.” She also said, “We’ve got the trifecta,” and referenced the coronavirus pandemic, economic uncertainty, and social unrest. “Maybe that’s what it takes to wake us up,” said Wiles.

  • At its June 24 meeting, the Guilderland Planning Board was asked by the town board to “make a decision on what improvements, if any, will be required at the Church Road/Western Avenue intersection and Church Road/Great Oaks Boulevard entrance.”

  • Calling Guilderland’s fall reopening plan “a work in progress,” Superintendent Marie Wiles said, “We have not made any decisions on the structure … We’re doing our homework. We’re waiting for key guidance on the amount of distance we have to provide between and among students.”

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.