Citizens may join forces in hopes of buying and saving Doctor Crounse House

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Grass and weeds grow untended around the Doctor Crounse House on Route 146 just outside the village. 

GUILDERLAND — The town of Guilderland and village of Altamont have put the historic Doctor Crounse House up for sale with a restrictive covenant that would require a buyer to maintain its historic features and use it as a single-family home, although they have done little to market the home — not even posted a description of it on the town website.

The two municipalities, which purchased the property for back taxes over a decade ago but did nothing to maintain it, had planned to demolish the building when resident Thomas Capuano and others responded to an Enterprise editorial, seeking to save the home and office of Altamont’s first doctor.

Capuano, a retired professor, is now exploring the idea of forming a group of interested people who could combine forces to buy the property, which is located at 759 Route 146, just outside the village of Altamont.

“We already have a core group of seven people. I think we have enough interest to form an organization, but we’re just in the beginning stages,” said Capuano, who lives just outside the village. He added that he and two or three of the people with whom he has been meeting about the property agree that, if they had the means to renovate it, any of them, as individuals, would like to buy it outright.

The group is exploring its options, Capuano said, “because we care.”

Why is the Doctor Crounse House so important to him?

“For me, it has a historic shape,” Capuano said. “It casts a shadow that to me looks postcolonial, like the mid-19th Century. The way the house sits, where the house sits, the interior — I think it would be a shame to lose it.”

The historic settlement of Knowersville was very small, Capuano said, and to lose just one original building from it would be a shame.

“And once you tear a house down, it’s gone,” he added.

Altamont’s first doctor, Frederick Crounse, lived and practiced in the 1833 Federal-era building. Injured soldiers returning from the Civil War, encamped on the front lawn, were among those treated by Crounse, according to the late town and village 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.

Over the last six months, the town and village have gone back and forth on how to deal with the property; when a decision to demolish it raised public concern, the owners decided to try selling it with a restrictive covenant.

The Doctor Crounse House, like the the Knower House and Inn of Jacob Crounse next to it — both of which have been restored — has a historic marker and is part of the original settlement that predated the nearby village of Altamont, which grew up because of the railroad.

Capuano recently invited representatives from the State Office of Historic Preservation to tour the house with him and with town officials, and, on April 18, two of them did. He was encouraged by the report that he later received from the two representatives of the agency, outlining the features of the home that they deemed historically significant and worth saving.

Report from the State Office of Historic Preservation

The report says that a target restoration date should be developed that would correspond with the building’s period of significance in the context of the national register. “Any and all historic-era fabric which predates this target date should be retained or otherwise faithfully replicated, and all material post-dating it can be safely removed and disposed of.”

[Report on Crounse House by Krettinger and Davey]

In the short term, too, the report says, “Efforts should be immediately made to limit further damage to the building from water penetration, particularly the main block roof.”

Guilderland had received a grant to re-roof the building but decided, instead to demolish it.

About exterior elements, the report calls for an assessment of whether any exterior wood siding (now mostly contained under later covering) is salvageable for potential reuse or consolidation.

It notes that the raking cornices with modillions are an original ornamental detail of the main block and should be salvaged if possible, or replicated. The two-over two wood window sash, while not original, is historic, the report says. The Greek Revival-style frontispiece should be retained, it says, as should the foundation, which should also be repaired as necessary.

Inside, the overall layout is intact to the historic period, the report says, and should be retained. The entrance and stair hall retain the original open-stringer staircase in addition to evidence of the original newel post, baluster, and handrail. The staircase should be retained in its original position and any missing components should be faithfully replicated where possible.

The front parlor was the house’s principal formal space, and many of its elements should be retained, including areas of plaster on split-board lath finish (“condition should be carefully assessed,” the report says), as well as wide-board wood flooring, a wooden mantel of transitional Federal-Greek Revival style, and an arched aperture leading into the room behind. The mantel, wood door, window architraves, and beaded baseboards are historic features and should be retained, it says, noting that original paneled doors should be retained throughout.

One room contains historic-period plaster and wood finish, which should be retained where possible.

In general, the house’s timber-frame construction is also a historic character-defining feature. Any repair work “should be done with traditional methods or with modern materials and techniques in a sensitive and minimally invasive way,” it says.


The town’s efforts

A sign, “For sale by owners — Restrict covenant applies” was put up at the property at the end of April.

“If someone buys it, they have to fix it up, they have to use it as a single-family residence,” said the town’s chief building and zoning inspector, Jacqueline Coons. “They can’t subdivide it. It’s not going to be a for-profit endeavor. It’s going to be somebody who really wants to preserve the historic nature of it.”

The town of Guilderland and village of Altamont own the property jointly, having bought it together over a decade ago for taxes owed, of about $40,000.

The owners are not doing much to ensure that it sells. For instance, they are not:

— Certain, or in agreement, about whether there is an asking price;

— Listing the property with a real-estate agent;

— Posting a notice about the building on the town website, including photographs and notes about its history;

— Creating a written description of the property, including its history, to distribute to prospective buyers;

— Cutting down sumac and vines that obscure the front of the building; or

— Placing a tarp over the roof to forestall any further deterioration, as was recommended by the State Office of Historic Preservation on a walk-through on April 18 of the property with Barber and Coons.

“The house has its own reputation. I think people know about it,” Barber said when asked about the lack of marketing.

Asking price

Barber told The Enterprise that he had wanted to encourage prospective buyers by asking them to make a best offer, rather than set an asking price. He said the village had wanted to set an asking price of $50,000, and that he thought that might have been done.

Coons said that she had been instructed by Barber to ask would-be buyers for their best offers. She said that she thought that any offers deemed worthy of consideration would need to go before the town board for discussion.

It is going to cost the town and village “something just to tend to it,” Coons said, adding, “So I don’t know how much that decreases from the value of the property.” That, she said, would probably be a conversation to be had by the town board, if it receives an offer it needs to consider.

Coons said she didn’t know what the town and village considered to be fair-market value.

Village Mayor Kerry Dineen said that an asking price of $50,000 had been set. She wrote in an email that this price has been set following a meeting of Barber, village Trustee Nicholas Farenkopf, and Dineen earlier this month.

Dineen wrote, “This price point takes into consideration the liabilities on the land while still acknowledging the value of the property as a whole. As with all real estate, the owner sets an asking price to start negotiations and prospective buyers make their offer. This isn't a set price or minimum bid.”

“There really isn’t an asking price,” said Coons, noting she has not yet had any offers.

Barber told her to just tell people to make an offer. “If they find an offer that they feel is worth entertaining, they would look into it and logistically see how it goes through. He said to tell people to make the best offer that they feel they can make, and if they put something in writing, he’ll present it to the appropriate board.”

Barber told Coons that offers should go through her as the single point of contact, she said, both because of the unsafe building order — Coons condemned the building late in 2017 and the town board voted in December to demolish it — and because “it’s not appropriate,” she said, “for him to be negotiating any terms of a sale that would then have to go in front of the town board.”

So, while she is the point of contact, Coons said, she has not been involved in any decision-making. “As for the decisions about how to list it, and any information that’s been put out to the public, that’s really not been anything that I’ve had anything to do with,” she said.

She did not know if any information about the sale had been posted on the town website.

Coons said that the property had not been listed with an agent “to my knowledge.” This is the town’s attempt, she said, “to do something without that happening. I don’t know, if this doesn’t work out, what the next step would be.”

Tarping the roof

Coons mentioned that the representatives from the Office of Historic Preservation had suggested tarping. “They said there were some nice period … features of the house that were still intact. But they were very concerned,” she said, “about the level of deterioration and how long it could continue to go ... Even just tarping the roof, they felt, would save it, rather than just letting it sit without anything.”

Barber and a spokesman for the Office of Historic Preservation both confirmed that the agency’s representatives recommended tarping.

But Coons said she did not know if Barber had asked any town employees to tarp the roof.

Coons said, “I don’t know if anybody’s discussed doing anything like that, or if they just want to put it up for sale and let the new owner deal with it.”

Barber was asked if the building’s disrepair isn’t partly due to the fact of the gaping hole in the roof that has been allowed to sit open for several seasons.

He said, “Well, yeah, I guess to a certain extent. But also the problem you have is that — and I defer to others on this — is that actually trying to put some temporary cover on it, is dangerous, too. But I let other people make that determination. It’s Jackie’s bailiwick,” he said, referring to Coons.

“I defer to her in terms of what that actually means, and how you gain access to the roof, to put a tarp on it,” Barber said.

When told that Coons said that decisions about the property were not being made by her, Barber said that the representatives of the Office of Historic Preservation had recommended tarping, but with caveats.

That agency, Barber said, indicated that it “preferred” tarping, but that the need to tarp would have to be weighed against potential dangers — including danger to the people doing the work as well as danger of doing further damage to the structure itself as a result.

“They actually encouraged us to get the property listed as quickly as we could, and we ran the restrictive covenant by them, and they were on board with it, so —” Barber said of the Office of Historic Preservation.

Barber said he would discuss tarping with Coons, and suggesting asking Dineen about it as well.

Agency Deputy Public Information Officer Dan Keefe said simply, in an email, “Yes, tarping is recommended.”

Pressed about tarping, Barber said, “That’s also why we’re putting the property up for sale — hopefully we can get this taken care of fairly soon.”

Renovation plan

The restrictive covenant requires buyers to come up with a renovation plan, Barber said. Most likely, a buyer would work with the State Office of Historic Preservation, he said, adding, “And they always require a renovation plan.”

But regardless of whether a buyer were working with that agency or not, a renovation plan would be required, he said.

Most likely, he said, the agency would look at the renovation plan, as would the town historian, Ann Wemple.

“We’re just trying to keep it as flexible as possible,” Barber said, “because we recognize that some parts of the building are just beyond any reasonable repair.”

SHPO recognizes the same thing, Barber said. “They basically suggested that we, you know, incorporate some flexibility into it.”

What the agency said

Keefe said that the main block is in “relatively good shape with many historic features intact and only minor water damage.” But, he said, they found that the ell is “badly damaged with a hole in the roof.”

The hole in the roof should be tarped, Keefe said.

Keefe said that the agency encourages buyers to purchase historic properties, and offers them assistance.

Since the property is in a census tract, Keefe said, a buyer of the Doctor Crounse House could go through the process of applying to get it listed on the state and national historic registers, which could make it eligible for a homeowner tax credit.

This tax credit, Keefe explained, is an incentive to encourage rehabilitation of historic houses, and which can provide a tax credit from the federal government for 20 percent of the costs of rehabilitation, up to a tax-credit value of $50,000.

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