Six historic buildings in town were photographed in a New Deal project

One of the most valuable Depression-era make-work programs of the New Deal was the Historic American Buildings Survey, or HABS, which recorded buildings across America, ranging from impressive urban structures to small buildings reflecting historical or regional significance.

The survey served the dual purpose of creating employment for architects, draftsmen, and photographers who would use their expertise recording antique buildings that in many cases by the 1930s were rapidly deteriorating or vanishing completely.

This mammoth project documented with photographs and drawings approximately 40,000 of the nation’s historic structures including six in the town of Guilderland.

After architect Charles E. Peterson proposed that a survey be done of American’s antique buildings in 1933, the National Parks Service established HABS in cooperation with the American Institute of Architects and the Library of Congress.

The Historic Sites Act, passed by Congress in 1935, formalized the Historic American Buildings Survey with a provision stating that the federal government would “secure, collate and preserve drawings, plans, photographs and other data of historic and archeological sites, buildings and objects.”

Professionals involved in carrying out the survey were guided by field directions established in Washington, D.C. For large or very important buildings, a combination of photographs and drawings with additional historical data was recorded while for simpler structures the HABS “short format” sufficed with one or more photographs.

Guilderland’s sites were photographed, but elsewhere both in the city and county of Albany, drawings as well as photographs were made such as those recording the Watervliet Shaker site.

Photographer Nelson E. Baldwin visited Guilderland on two occasions in 1937 to take both interior and exterior pictures of the buildings chosen to be recorded.

Fortunately so far that winter there had been very little snow in January when Baldwin visited the Freeman House in Guilderland Center, the Severson house in Altamont, the Case Tavern on Route 20 near the hamlet of Guilderland, and the “old Indian fort” now usually known by the name of the current owners as the Yezzi house on Foundry Road.

A few months later, in May, Baldwin returned, this time to Altamont to photograph the old Severson Inn, now the site of Stewart’s and the Crounse homestead on the Altamont-Voorheesville Road.

It was disappointing to find no coverage in The Altamont Enterprise of the survey or of Baldwin’s activities at that time. A brief article in July 1937 did note that the Old Friends Meeting House at Quaker Street near Duanesburg, which had been included in the Schenectady County survey, had received a certificate from Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, declaring that the building possessed “exceptional historic or architectural interest … being worthy of careful preservation.”

In 1937, all of the Guilderland buildings were private homes and it is not known if their owners received similar certificates. An advisory committee of the Historic American Buildings Survey had chosen the 700 buildings to be photographed in 16 counties of New York State and it seems very probable that Guilderland Town Historian Arthur Gregg was involved in the choices in Guilderland.

This magnificent collection of photographs and drawings is kept in the Library of Congress and is easily accessible by computer because it has been digitized. The photographs are copyright- and reproduction-free with acknowledgement to the Library of Congress.

The following are photographs taken by Nelson E. Baldwin on his visits to Guilderland in 1937 and are shown on the Library of Congress website. There are additional photographs that are not included here.

Crounse House

Frederick and Elizabeth Crounse were among the very first settlers in Guilderland, arriving at their farm in the shadow of the Helderbergs in the mid-1750s. The house that Baldwin photographed in 1937 was built circa 1803, probably adding to or replacing an earlier, simpler structure. Note that historic interior features were recorded as well as with this photograph of a key, lock, and hinge in the Crounse house. The house is on Route 156, the Altamont-Voorheesville Road, marked in front by a New York State historic marker.

Case Tavern

It was claimed that the Case Tavern was built in 1799 by Russell Case shortly before the Great Western Turnpike opened. It remained a popular tavern until turnpike traffic declined with the development of railroads. After this, it became the Case family homestead, sheltering eight generations until it was sold out of the family in 1946. The building burned in 1950 and today is the site of the former M & M Motel. The Western Turnpike Golf Course is on land that had been the Case farm adjoining the tavern. The rear views of these historic houses were also photographed.

Severson Tavern

A residence when this photo was taken in 1937, the building was originally George (Jurrian) Severson’s (Severtse’s) tavern on the Old Schoharie Road, a rest stop for weary travelers who were about to climb the escarpment on their way to the Schoharie Valley. Dating to the 1790s, the tavern was open for business at least by 1795 when Severson received a liquor license. At his death in 1813, it was the scene of an auction when his two enslaved females were sold there for $191. The tavern business dried up for his descendants in the late 1840s when the improved Schoharie Plank Road changed the route through what later became Altamont and travelers no longer passed by the tavern door. Sadly, Altamont’s most historic building was demolished in 1956 to make way for an Esso Gas Station, which in turn was razed to be replaced by the Stewart’s Shop on the site today.

Severson House

The Seversons were one of the oldest families in Guilderland, settling here in the mid-1700s. According to the 1767 Bleecker Map of the Manor of Rensselaerwyck, the Severson family was already in this location on what is now Brandle Road in Altamont. By the time of the American Revolution, at least one section of this house had been constructed by George/Jurrian Severson; it was one of the first houses erected in the area of Altamont. Note that in both interior and exterior photographs either an assistant is holding a measuring rod against the building or it is simply propped against and interior feature. In 1937, the original fireplace still retained the crane needed to hold kettles for cooking.

Freeman House

Built circa 1734, the Freeman House is considered the oldest frame house in Guilderland. It probably had been enlarged since the original section was built in the 1730s. Today called the Freeman House, it was shown as being owned by a Robert Freeman on the 1767 Bleecker map of the Manor of Rensselaerwyck. In the years after the American Revolution, it became the home of Barent Mynderse, one of our town’s leading Revolutionary War Patriots. Edward Crounse was the owner of the house and large farm that went with it in 1937. In the front view of the house, the hump of the roof of the back addition, is in actuality a part of the huge barn that stood nearby. At that time, the house was covered with synthetic brick siding, now removed, restoring the house to its original siding. It still retains its Dutch door, but the front stoop has been removed. A state historic marker is in front of the house on Route 146 in Guilderland Center.

The Old Indian Fort

According to the late town historian Arthur Gregg, the house is designated on a 1690 map as an Indian fort. While it is difficult to make out the detail, there are two narrow slits, one on either side of the chimney near the peak of the roof, that were bricked up in 1937. Perhaps at one time, when they were open, they were meant to allow the inhabitants to fire down on attackers. The house stands back from Foundry Road in a lane and isn’t visible from the road. It is considered the oldest house in the town of Guilderland and, from the late 1700s until about 1960, it descended in the Tayler-Cooper-Nott family. In the 1940s, a member of the Nott family did extensive renovations, which completely changed the look of the house from the photograph.