Historic buildings tell our story, until we silence them

What lessons can we learn from the Doctor Crounse House?

Certainly not the lessons we espoused here a dozen years ago. Back then, we had high hopes for the 19th-Century home Dr. Frederick Crounse lived and practiced in. Altamont’s mayor at the time, James Gaughan, described the condition of the building as “fair to good.” He envisioned housing the village’s extensive archives there, where visitors could learn about Altamont’s history.

We wrote then how most of Altamont’s beautiful old buildings were from the Victorian era when the village burgeoned as the railroad pushed its way out from the city. But the house on Altamont’s Main Street at the corner of Gun Club Road was much older, built in 1833 by Dr. Crounse who died there 60 years later. In our mind’s eye, we could peel away the 20th-Century siding and the Victorian add-on porch to see the clean solid structure beneath, framed with hand-hewn timbers.

We wrote, then, that the house had both architectural significance and was associated with the life of someone important to the community. We shared the history told by the late Guilderland historian Arthur B. Gregg who saw the value in preserving physical history and was responsible for getting many Guilderland buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Gregg wrote about that history on the pages of our paper; his columns were later compiled into a book, “Old Hellebergh: Scenes From Early Guilderland.” He wrote with admiration of Dr. Crounse, who, he says, brought more of the region’s inhabitants into the world than any single doctor before or since.

During the Civil War, the 134th regiment camped in front of Dr. Crounse’s house as he stayed up all night, Gregg wrote, helping the regiment doctor with the sick and wounded soldiers. “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.”

Guilderland’s supervisor at the time, Kenneth Runion, told us the municipalities — the village of Altamont and the town of Guilderland together — intended to use the property for community functions — youth or senior programs, for example — or as an information center for town and village residents.

We noted how the land alone was worth as much as the back taxes. The two municipalities paid Albany County $40,000 for the house and land.

This week, the Guilderland Town Board agreed to demolish the house after the building inspector condemned it, saying, “The whole roof on the back of it is falling in on itself.”

So what went wrong? A roof, of course, is essential to protect a building, and a $25,000 grant had been secured two years ago for a new roof. Asbestos was discovered, requiring remediation, which would make the re-roofing more costly.

As the village board debated whether or not to forge ahead, Bob Keough, from the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, brought a resolution passed by his chapter. He noted the Doctor Crounse House was one of “very few places in the North where we know Civil War events happened.” He said, “When history is destroyed, it’s gone.”

The project fell by the wayside.

Now it’s too late to save that piece of history. But maybe we can learn from it.

Neglect is insidious because, even if someone has good intentions — as we believe both the mayor and the superintendent at the time did — a structure, like resolution, can crumble a bit at a time until it’s beyond salvation. If someone — whether a municipality or a school district or a business or an individual — owns an historic building, it must be cared for or it will reach a point where it can’t be saved.

We commend the Guilderland School District, while it decides what to do with its historic Cobblestone School, for re-roofing it and providing basic repairs so that it can survive and find a new use.

We knew of a couple that had wanted to purchase the Doctor Crounse House before Guilderland and Altamont secured it. We wonder now if the house would had been saved had the couple who loved it and wanted to make it their own had had the chance.

Over the years, we’ve written many times of historic buildings — whether home, church, barn, or schoolhouse — in need of preservation. In 2000, for example, we wrote about another early 19th-Century building on the same road as the Doctor Crounse House — the Fruitdale Farmhouse — just west of Guilderland Center. It, too, had been vacant for years, so that its owner called it an “eyesore” and “an attractive nuisance.” He tore it down.

We urged at that time, and we renew that plea, that our towns and villages develop master plans for historic preservation and interest citizens in the worth of the old buildings that surround them, lest we lose our heritage one building at a time.

We are heartened that, since we last wrote on the topic, there is a new player — the Albany County Land Bank, founded in 2014, which works to acquire vacant or abandoned properties and resell them in order to revitalize neighborhoods.

Earlier this year, the land bank’s executive director, Adam Zaranko, described the land bank as a “Swiss Army knife” in its various abilities to address property blight. In the past three years, he told us, the organization has acquired over 630 properties, made over 200 property improvements, and has sold over 120 properties. It is the second largest landbank in the state, he said.

The land bank has caveats such as that the individual or business must occupy or use the property for a certain number of years. And, importantly, the applicant goes through a vetting process conducted by a board of directors.  The land bank also asks for a plan of what the applicant intends, and then works with the applicant to see that the plan is achievable.

This gives us hope that some of the old buildings in our midst will be restored to use rather than neglected to the point that they must be torn down.

As we’ve written before, old buildings — even if we have only a nodding acquaintance with them as we drive by on our modern highways — remind us where we came from and who we are. They distinguish our community from all the others.

Bob Keough put it well when he said, “When history is destroyed, it’s gone.” Let’s learn from the demise of the Doctor Crounse House how we can better preserve history.

Once someone owns an old building, it has to be cared for. That takes commitment. The century-old Hilton Barn in New Scotland is a perfect example. The mammoth barn was going to be torn down for an upscale housing development when some committed town board members dug in and worked to save it.

The barn was moved across the street and, with the help of a land conservancy, a community foundation, and descendents of the barn’s original owner, land was secured to make a park.

Commitment is ongoing. It doesn’t end with a purchase. Now, funds are being sought for a new roof for the Hilton Barn. Of course, there is more work ahead. But, with strong leadership, a community will rally and in the long run benefit by having an oasis — a park amid houses — that hearkens back to an earlier era, centered with an icon of agricultural heritage.

As Lansing Christman once wrote on our pages, “Old barns are like old scribes … They stand alone, surrounded by the land they once served. Theirs is a script that has lasted well, a chronology of life and time, a journal of the years ….”

Let us learn to preserve our history.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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