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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 28, 2010

Historic hamlet is one of Seven to Save

By Zach Simeone

RENSSELAERVILLE — This rural Helderberg hamlet has been chosen by the Preservation League of New York State as one of this year’s Seven to Save, meaning greater chances of bringing in grant money to preserve Rensselaerville’s historic buildings, and possibly working to increase heritage tourism as an economic jumpstart.

“I think that Rensselaerville can serve as a poster child, and an example for similarly situated historic hamlets throughout the state,” said Erin Tobin, the Preservation League’s regional program director for Eastern New York.

“Rensselaerville is a turnpike-era hamlet,” Tobin told The Enterprise. “It was built before the age of the Erie Canal, before the age of the railroad, and there are small hamlets like Rensselaerville throughout the state. Some are resort communities, some are second-home communities, but these are small places that need to find these sorts of creative solutions to regain economic vitality.”

Philip Pearson, a resident of the hamlet and a member of the Rensselaerville Historic District Association, calls this designation “a recognition by a state organization, which is a member of a national organization, of the historical significance of this community.”

Further, he said, “I think what caught the eye of the preservation league is that we asked for the designation of the whole district, not just a specific building.”

Tobin said she plans to give a presentation to the historic district association in February on the economic benefits of heritage tourism, containing “more nuts-and-bolts information on economic re-development as far as funding sources, and turning abandoned buildings into income-generating buildings.”

Along similar lines, Harold Miller, a former Berne resident who now lives in Mexico, started late last year to build a network of individuals interested in assembling an association of Hilltown farmers and businessmen that would act as a virtual chamber of commerce for the Hilltowns, the goal being to increase agricultural tourism to the Hilltowns as an economic stimulus.

The Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve, also located in the Rensselaerville hamlet, plans to host an organizational meeting for the proposed business association this spring; April 17 has been chosen as a tentative date for the meeting. [For more on the Hilltown agri-tourism initiative, go to www.altamontenterprise.com, and look under archives for Dec. 24, 2009].

Preservation, Tobin said, is basic to economic development.

“There’s an intangible sense of place and uniqueness that the preservation of historic architecture brings to a community, and that leads to heritage tourism, which is a huge draw,” she said. “It’s one of the top forms of tourism in the country and within New York State.”

When outsiders are brought into a community, they often spend money, and heritage tourists spend more money than almost any other kind of tourist, Tobin said.

“They stay at the historic bed and breakfast, they eat at the café, and they patronize gift shops — and heritage tourists don’t visit a town with a Walgreens, a CVS, and a Rite Aid at its four corners,” she quipped, referring to the intersection of Western Avenue and New Karner Road in Guilderland.

Worth preserving

The Seven to Save designation is most often awarded to individual structures. But, rather than competing for individual recognition, the owners of some of Rensselaerville’s most prized old buildings worked together in applying for the award. This includes Conkling Hall, the Presbyterian Church, the Rensselaerville Library, the Palmer House café, and the Trinity Episcopal Church.

This week, Jan Bishop, president of the Rensselaerville Historic District Association, showed The Enterprise these historic properties.

Conkling Hall was built in 1839 as the Rensselaerville Methodist Church, and has since been sold to the adjacent Presbyterian Church as a community meeting center, serving as a venue for musicals, choral performances, and movie showings.

Bishop is also director of Village Voices, a chorus that she calls “a group of many faiths.” The Village Voices are able to perform at Conkling Hall with full instrumental accompaniment.

“It really is a multipurpose facility,” she said of Conkling Hall, which is also the scene of weddings and other gatherings.

The chorus practices downstairs, but the performances take place on the second floor, on a stage with a proscenium arch that is outlined by columns of fruit, every apple and grape hand-painted in the color of its natural counterpart by town resident John Geritz, who also painted much of the simpler white moldings that line the cream-colored walls, Bishop said.

A chandelier dangles from the center of the ceiling, right in between two massive paintings, which face each other from the two walls that stand 90 degrees from the nutritiously rimmed stage.

Bishop was unsure of who painted these murals. One depicts a woman playing the harp as two others look on; the other shows an ornately dressed man gesticulating with his hand as a young woman and bearded man look on — illustrated performances to accompany what transpires on the stage in real time.

The Bechstein piano backstage was lent to Conkling Hall by Jost Nickelsberg, who left the office of town supervisor at the start of the New Year.

“We’re extraordinarily lucky to have it,” Bishop said of the piano, demonstrating the instrument’s tone by letting its lower pitches ring throughout the theater.

Pearson, who serves on the board of directors at Conkling Hall, hopes grant money will allow the building to be made accessible to those with handicaps, in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Village Voices also perform next door at the Presbyterian Church, though it’s a less roomy venue. Bishop demonstrated the acoustics in the congregation hall, singing a single note and letting it echo.

“You can hear the reverb, which is just a gas to work with,” she said.

If the town does receive grant money, Bishop said that the steeple of the Presbyterian Church will be the historic district association’s first priority as far as structural repairs are concerned.

Kenneth Storms, vice president of the Rensselaerville Historical Society, said the church is currently trying to raise funds for the repair of the steeple, which is in a “precarious state,” he said.

“One of the higher levels of the structure is rotted, one of the timbers, I believe,” said Storms. “Because of the height and its particular location on the hillside, it’s going to be a very expensive and difficult maneuver to basically take the steeple apart from the top down, and then rebuild it.”

The importance of this building, he went on, extends far beyond the historic district.

“The building is so architecturally important and nationally recognized for its design, it makes it beyond whatever value it might have to the congregation,” Storms said. “It has a more intrinsic value to the community at large, and to people who are interested in that style of architecture.”

Another site that might be aided by this designation is the old Grist Mill, Storms said, which now houses the Rensselaerville Historical Society.

“The grist mill is structurally sound, but the front end of it is resting on State Route 85, which is in a state of imminent collapse, so, if the road gives out, the building falls down,” said Storms. “So, the Seven to Save nomination will help us to draw attention to the situation and perhaps help us to direct what is really scarce state funding towards making the necessary improvements on the road, which will, in turn, help hold up the building.”

Also on the list of needed projects is the renovation of the Rensselaerville Library and Reading Room, which, like Conkling Hall, is not currently handicap accessible.

This library, founded in 1896, is the second to exist in Rensselaerville, the first being the Federal Library, which was established in 1798, and eventually dissolved in 1832.

Now, this red-and-cream Tudor-style brick building is in an ongoing state of structural repair, Storms said.

Across the hamlet’s main street from the library is the Palmer House, a restaurant with a tavern next door, and apartments above. It was there that Potter Palmer, founder of the Palmer House hotel in Chicago, got his start in the early 1800s.

Palmer sold the building in 1862 to the Rice family, which ran a general store there for 100 years. It was eventually sold to Walter Loetterle, and then to Robert and Edith Lansing, before being turned back into a restaurant in 1986 by three couples.

“It’s a great place for people to meet and eat,” Bishop said of the Palmer House. “It has sustained us for a long time.”

The congregation of the Trinity Episcopal Church, further up the road from the previous properties, will celebrate its bicentennial in 2011; the building itself will also soon see its 200th birthday, in 2015.

Pearson, a treasurer and vestry member of the Trinity Episcopal Church, hopes that the Seven to Save designation will help make sure the church remains for generations to come.

“Through the recognition of this landmark conservancy, we hope that we will get some technical consulting from the Preservation League and also identify sources of revenue for grants,” Pearson said.

The church’s interior is loaded with rich, dark woods and vibrant stained glass. The walls on the upper floor hide older rows of Palladian windows, known by their round tops, which Bishop hopes will eventually be revealed by removal of the newer walls.

“They’re just beautiful,” Bishop said of the windows. “We hope to bring these walls down one day and really let some light in here.”

In Bishop’s eyes, these are just a few examples of why Rensselaerville’s historic district is one to save.

Marvelous heritage

“They have a marvelous architectural heritage,” said Tobin of Rensselaerville, “and a beautifully intact hamlet, which is literally a textbook example of a 19th-Century hamlet.” Rensselaerville was developed from the late 1700s through the early 1800s, she said.

But Rensselaerville’s current economy is not a strong one, Storms said, and he hopes that the Seven to Save designation will change that.

“The large public buildings — the libraries, the churches, the large commercial buildings that are not occupied by the Palmer House and Bells Hotel and Catalpa House — these are in danger because there’s not a viable economic structure underneath,” Storms said. “So, what we hope to be able to do is find a way to improve the economic climate, if you will, so that these buildings can be sustained in the long run.”

Storms went on to describe what he thinks should be two of Rensselaerville’s primary goals: “First, we want to make the improvements and the restorations that are going to help the existing structures right now. And, we want to find a way to strengthen the economic environment in the community so that we can sustain them in the future, which is a long, theoretical gust of wind, but that’s the real problem.”

Tobin already has a vision for where the hamlet should be by the end of 2010.

“I think what I see as an outcome by the end of the year would be an integrated marketing strategy for the hamlet, in which the historic buildings are highlighted, and there might be a how-to package for people interested in rehabilitating a historic building, grant funding for those not-for-profits who need structural repair, and fund-raising strategies,” Tobin concluded. “The ultimate goal is long-term sustainability for the community, based around its historic buildings.”

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