Doctor Crounse House may yet be saved

Enterprise file photo — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
The front entryway of the Doctor Crounse House has many original features.

GUILDERLAND — A concerted effort by citizens to save the historic Doctor Crounse House, which had been slated for demolition, along with the serendipitous encounter of a maverick timber-frame builder may yet save the venerable structure.

On Tuesday evening, the four members present for the Guilderland Town Board’s monthly meeting all voted in favor of an agreement to restore the Crounse House.

At the same time on Tuesday evening, Altamont’s village board authorized the mayor, Kerry Dineen, to sign the agreement with possible amendments by the village and town attorneys. The property is owned jointly by the two municipalities.

“The board was in favor of the agreement as we feel it protects and maintains the historic integrity of the site and restores the intent behind the initial purchase of the property,” Dineen wrote in an email, answering Enterprise questions.

“It was like a miracle,” Thomas Capuano told The Enterprise of enlisting Jay C. White Cloud to restore the Crounse House. “He has a love of history and the technical skills we need.” (See related story.)

Capuano, a retired college teacher who grew up in Altamont and lives now in another historic Crounse home, on Brandle Road, had read a Dec. 7 Enterprise editorial, “Historic buildings tell our stories, until we silence them,” and decided the Crounse House should be saved.

The house was built by Altamont’s first doctor, Frederick Crounse, who lived and practiced there for decades. He also helped the Helderberg tenant farmers during the Anti-Rent Wars when they rebelled against the feudal patroon system.

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.

Capuano is spearheading a nascent group of residents that plan to incorporate as a not-for-profit organization called Historic Altamont Inc. The group would maintain what Capuano calls a “living history site” — a place for gatherings, demonstrations, and exhibits.

The “miracle,” as Capuano put it, was finding an expert with experience in building and restoring timber-frame structures who was willing to do the work not for money but in exchange for part of the property on which he plans to live.

The Crounse House stands on 2.8 acres at the intersection of Route 146 and Gun Club Road on the outskirts of Altamont. If White Cloud completes the specified restoration work within two years, the municipalities would subdivide a 1.8-acre lot behind the Crounse House where White Cloud would build his own house to live in.

The town and village would continue to jointly own the remaining 1-acre parcel with the Crounse House on it.

“Jay was in the Altamont library, looking up books on restoration. He talked with Joe Burke,” Capuano said, naming the library’s director, and Burke linked him to Capuano. “Joe told him we were forming a group.”

Capuano said of White Cloud, “He’s a timber framer from Vermont. Vermonters are very creative, progressive people.”

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.

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.

Instead, both municipalities agreed to have the house demolished. Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber told The Enterprise after Tuesday’s meeting, “Legally, we could either demolish or destroy it. We didn’t have the funds to restore … The only way to lend a sense of urgency was to to agree to demolish it.”

Once the Crounse House was slated for demolition, The Enterprise wrote news stories and editorials highlighting its worth and describing how other municipalities had put similar buildings up for sale. The town and village agreed to try to sell the property. But little effort was made to promote the sale; the property was not listed with a real-estate agent or even on the town’s website, and brush was not cleared to make the house visible from the road.

Barber said on Tuesday that no other offer — besides the plan developed by Historic Altamont and White Cloud — was forthcoming.

Barber said he is in favor of saving historic buildings. “I called around to check on Mr. White Cloud. He’s legitimate; he’s a gifted craftsman.”

The agreement

During the Guilderland Town Board’s discussion on Tuesday, Councilman Lee Carman — who voted to adopt the agreement along with Barber and councilwomen Rosemary Centi and Patricia Slavick — asked about additional insurance costs. Barber said the cost would be small when added to all the other properties the town owns.

Barber also said that the town’s attorney would be fine-tuning the document.

The agreement allows Historic Altamont and its volunteers to install a tarp and take other steps to protect the house from “weather and wildlife intrusions” and to keep up the grounds.

White Cloud is to provide all labor, materials, and equipment to restore the Crounse House to “an Early Greek Revival style of the 1790 to 1840 period including, but not limited to, repairing and restoring its stone foundation, wood siding, frontispiece, front door, south-facing main block, entrance/stair hall, staircase, and collapsed rear ell in proper historic context by using means, methods, materials, and timber frame construction for the stated period.”

The agreement includes a restoration plan, which lists 10 steps. The first five steps — repairing the roof, removing debris inside and overgrowth outside, preventing decay, and removing and restoring failed structural components — have to be completed within six months of signing the agreement.

White Cloud is to complete the next three tasks within two years: restoring the stone foundation and wood siding, and revitalizing the landscaping with the historic time period.

After those eight tasks are completed, the town and village would transfer a subdivided 1.8-acre lot to White Cloud at no cost.

The last two tasks have to be completed to the satisfaction of the town and village within five years of signing the agreement. This includes restoring the interior, including the frontispiece, front door, south-facing main black, entrance/stair hall, staircase, and bedrooms, as well as additional items specified in a memorandum from the state’s Office of Historic Preservation.

Historic Altamont Inc.

“We can bring the house back from the brink of oblivion,” Capuano told the town board on Tuesday. “We’re really encouraged the town and hopefully the village want this restored for the good of the community.”

Capuano said an “historic privy” on the property would be saved. There is also a garage and an “insignificant building,” which is close to a neighbor and would probably not be saved.

After the meeting, Capuano said that the 15 or so people who are forming Historic Altamont got together through “word of mouth.”

He said, “We haven’t made an outreach yet. We want to incorporate first and gain not-for-profit status.”

The group envisions a “living history site,” which Capuano likened to the Mabee Farm Historic Site, part of the Schenectady County Historical Society, but on a smaller scale.

“We’d have programs on 19th-Century crafts and building techniques,” he said. “There would be community gardens, a picnic area, maybe a farmers’ market, gallery space for local artists, a place for 19th-Century music to be performed — music was a rich part of the culture — and for Civil War reenactment.”

He later provided The Enterprise with a long list of group goals. They include:

— Sponsoring presentations by local historians and naturalists, in collaboration with established organizations such as the Guilderland Historical Society and the Preservation League of New York State;

— Offering interpretive tours of the home, which is to be maintained as Dr. Crounse had it;

— Creating exhibit space for historical collections, including artifacts from Altamont’s museum and archives, reminiscent of James Gaughan’s vision for purchasing the house when he was mayor;

— Providing opportunities for the appreciation, study and research of 19th-Century life, coordinating visits with school groups, and on-site field work with research teams from area schools, organizations, and colleges; and

— Promoting historical research into the early history of Knowersville, Altamont, and surrounding areas.

The Doctor Crounse House, Capuano stressed, is “part of Knowersville,” the community that predated Victorian Altamont, which grew up around the train station.

“It’s so integral to Knowersville, such a small vestige of the area’s first settlement,” he said.

Two citizens speak

Earlier in Tuesday’s Guilderland meeting, John Haluska reminded the town board, as he often does, of the importance of “getting rid of eyesores,” naming abandoned buildings in the town.

After the announcement on the Crounse House agreement, Haluska asked, “Are you really sure you want to get involved?” He noted the board had earlier condemned the building. He also said that, when he was painting the historic marker in front of the Crounse House, he didn’t think much of it.

“Neither the town or the village are contributing any money,” Barber responded.

“That’s good,” said Haluska. “I wish these people luck. Yikes.”

Douglas Bauer, another Guilderland resident who frequently attends town board meetings, noted that the municipalities would be getting no money from the transaction and that the property would remain off the tax rolls.

Bauer claimed that the 1.8-acre lot White Cloud would be getting is worth $50,000 to $100,000. According to the Albany County assessment rolls, the entire 2.8-acre property with the house and outbuildings at 759 Route 146, has a full-market value of $121,500; the land alone — 2.8 acres — is valued at $23,400.

Barber replied to Bauer that the only alternative is demolition. “The intent was to try to restore historic features,” he said.

Bauer speculated that “probably thousands” of residents would be against it.

Bauer also asked how White Cloud’s work would be audited to which Barber replied the municipalities would continue working with the state’s Office of Historic Preservation. Barber also noted that the state gives incentives to contractors doing historic restoration work.

In May, representatives from the state office had prepared a report pointing out many of the structure’s important surviving features and urging, “A target restoration date, corresponding with what is termed the building’s period of significance in the context of the National Register of Historic Places, should be developed … In the short term, efforts should be immediately made to limit further damage to the building from water penetration, particularly the main block roof.”

More Guilderland News

  • Pyramid answered, for itself and the town of Guilderland, all the allegations — save one — brought against them in a suit alleging impropriety in review of  Pyramid’s Rapp Road and Western Avenue projects. The town answered the allegation that it hadn’t responded to a Freedom of Information Law request, saying the plaintiffs’ lawyer hadn’t pursued the appeal.

  • After two years and two lawsuits related to the project — with one suit still in progress — the Guilderland Planning Board approved Pyramid’s proposed 222-unit apartment and townhome development for Rapp Road.

  • The public hearing on Pyramid’s proposed Rapp Road apartment project was kept open until Oct. 28, as one Guilderland resident questioned whether the Oct. 14 hearing should have even taken place. 

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