Super says Guilderland 'willing to consider all options' for Crounse House

— Photo from a 1979 inventory form for the Division for Historic Preservation

“Good condition”: The white wood-frame building with shingles was listed as being in “good condition” in a 1979 inventory form filled out by the town of Guilderland for the Division for Historic Preservation of the state’s Parks and Recreation Department. ​

GUILDERLAND — Several town residents including a restoration contractor are upset that the town and village, which jointly own the Crounse House on the outskirts of Altamont, plan to tear it down.

The Crounse House is a Federal-style single-family home built in 1833 by Frederick Crounse, Altamont’s first doctor, who practiced there on the village’s main street, now Route 146. His patients included injured Civil War soldiers.

The house is a rare site of Civil War history in the Northeast, according to Bob Keough of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War, who spoke in favor of the building’s preservation at an Altamont village board meeting two years ago.

While village and town officials have said the Crounse House has little left of historic value, experts disagree.

The Crounse House is an example of vernacular architecture, said Cara Macri, the acting executive director of the Historic Albany Foundation, meaning that it was “not highbrow, not a mansion.”

It’s a good example of general architecture of its time, she said, adding, “That doesn’t mean it’s lesser in the eyes of preservation or history.”

She recalled that, when she walked through the building in 2014, she noticed the flooring in the front hall had started to pull up, and underneath, it had been lined with newspapers written in German. That kind of detail, she said, creates a very interesting record about the building, the people who lived there, and the community.

“Just because it is not high style does not mean a building does not have historic value or merit,” Macri said.

Offering historic buildings for sale —with restrictive covenants saying they must be bought and renovated — can take time, said Susan Herlands Holland, former executive director of Historic Albany, who is now with Historic Ithaca.

“It was a lovely house when we went in — very simple but it’s a product of its time and it has its own story to tell, which is just as important as the high-style mansions and estates that are often considered more worth saving,” Macri said.

But, Herlands Holland said, “It’s like dating. The right buyer will come along eventually.”

The historic value of a building of the Crounse House era, Herlands Holland said, is that it is of its time, that its time is evident in its construction.

Herlands Holland noted that the town of Ulysses has bought a “beautiful Greek Revival church that is 1830s-ish and sits in the middle of their four corners; they took the risk, and they’re selling it through a real-estate agent, with a restrictive covenant.” The church has remediation issues, she said, making it very similar to the Crounse House.

Guilderland resident Thomas Capuano, a retired professor of languages and avocational builder, said that it seems as though the town and village should be able to save money by selling the building to someone who wants to restore it. He writes in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week how dismayed he was to read of the town board’s vote, following the village board’s lead, to demolish the building.

Capuano offered the example of a building at the corner of Mill and Main that he said was a ruin when he was a child, where he and his friends often played, “that seemed like it was destined for nothing but being torn down.” He said the current owners have brought it back to life and done a beautiful restoration.

That, he said, is what gives Altamont its unique character: the way that the homeowners maintain their historic properties.

The Crounse House, Capuano said, is such an integral part of the small settlement of Knowersville that he thinks it’s a shame to tear it down.

Capuano that he has rebuilt two barns before and, while he hasn’t done historic renovation, no building project scares him. He said he could stabilize the roof himself, to buy some time for someone interested in doing a historic renovation.

Bill Skowe, a restoration contractor, says that, when the town and village bought the foreclosed property for $40,000 a decade ago, no one else was allowed to bid on it. He wrote in a letter to the Enterprise editor, referring to the town and village, “They had first choice to buy it, eliminating others, me included, as a qualified restoration contractor from bidding it to save it.”

Because the town and village had right of first refusal, Skowe said, it was not a fair auction.

Brad Maione, spokesman for Albany County, sent The Enterprise a copy of a 2005 resolution that provided for selling properties to municipalities in guarantee of taxes. He also sent a copy of the county resolution agreeing, in March 2006, to sell the vacant house and 2.8-acre property to the town and village for a total of $40,756 in guarantee of taxes, interest, and penalties owed. The resolution notes that the town and village were interested, at the time, in acquiring the property for use in community functions.

The addition at the back of the Crounse House, Skowe said, may be unsafe. “But the main structure is certainly not unsafe,” he said. “It stands plumb and square and straight, so the foundation hasn’t slipped away at this point.”

The town and village should offer the building out to bid, he said, and should make the sale contingent upon the buyer owning the building, using it as a residence, and saving the main structure.  

Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber said Wednesday that the vote to demolish simply gives the town the option of demolition if building inspector Jacqueline Coons determines that there is an imminent danger of the building’s collapse.

“We’re obviously willing to consider all options,” Barber said, including seeing if any individual buyers might be interested in taking on the property in order to renovate and live in the historic house.

The town, Barber said, got involved at the urging of the village, and he would defer to the village board of trustees and the mayor, since the property is part of the gateway to the village.

If the village wanted to sell it to a not-for-profit organization or to a buyer interested in renovation, Barber said, he would “have no problem with that.”

Altamont’s mayor, Kerry Dineen, said in an email on Thursday, of the village trustees decision, “The board voted unanimously against restoring and stabilizing the house.  The Guilderland Town Board echoed our decision at their December 2017 meeting.”

Dineen also wrote, in answer to Enterprise questions, that she had never heard of people interested in purchasing the Crounse House before the town and village bought it. “The property sat vacant for years,” she said.

Demolition debacle

Skowe also took issue with the town’s stated plan to have its highway department workers demolish the structure, despite the known presence of asbestos.

He wrote, in a Dec. 21 letter to the editor of The Enterprise, “The town’s highway department is not a New York State certified asbestos-removal company. Neither the town nor Altamont has a license to remove it. If I, as a contractor, applied for a permit to demolish, you would force me to pay for an asbestos and lead-removal licensed contractor to demolish it.”

Building inspector Jacqueline Coons told The Enterprise earlier this month that her declaring the building condemned eases the regulations, somewhat, related to its demolition.

“If a building is unsafe, certain things are not required, if it’s demolished by the owner,” she said. “Part of the regulations for surveying it could go away by me declaring it condemned.”

She said that knowing and complying with the regulations for demolishing a building that contains asbestos is the responsibility of the workers doing the demolition.

“If they’re caught doing the work and they don’t have proper qualifications, they or the town could get fined. That’s why I hope they know what they’re doing,” she said.

Highway Superintendent Steve Oliver said that he had simply offered to demolish the building, and had not discussed it much with the town yet. He said he has never taken down a building containing asbestos before, and that, if he were asked to do it, he would “go to the authorities that deal with that” and then “follow whatever direction or guidelines that we have to.”

There are three state agencies that regulate work on buildings containing asbestos: the departments of health, labor, and environmental conservation.

The Department of Health’s regulations state that workers involved in asbestos abatement must first receive appropriate training from a safety-training provider accredited by the New York State Department of Health before being certified through the New York State Department of Labor Asbestos Licensing and Certification Unit.

To become certified to work with asbestos in New York State, a worker must first attend training and then apply for a certificate, according to the website. In addition, the website says, “when engaged in asbestos work activities you must be working for a New York State Department of Labor licensed asbestos contractor.”

According to Rick Georgeson, a local spokesman for the Department of Environmental Conservation, waste from a building containing asbestos must be disposed of at a DEC-permitted facility that can legally accept asbestos waste.

Updated on Dec. 29, 2017: Kerry Dineen’s comments were added when they were received.


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