GE Plot History

(Taken from “Enclave of Elegance” by Bruce Maston)


On March 1, 1899, the Schenectady Evening Star printed an announcement by John DeRemer, representing the Board of Trustees of Union College, that the College would sell a 30-acre tract to the west of the campus, known as the “College Pasture,” as well as a 75-acre parcel to the east called the “College Woods”. Then as now, money was a problem for the College: there was a $30,000 debt to be liquidated. Something must have been afoot as the paper editorialized that this represented an opportunity for an “enterprising syndicate” to purchase the land and establish some first class “villa-style” homes.

Fifty-five prominent citizens had other ideas about how this opportunity might be exploited. On March 16, they met at City Hall to propose that the land be used as a park; a committee consisting of W.T. Hanson, A.P. Strong, and E.C. Angle was formed to negotiate with the College. Union College and the committee proposed that the city lease the land. By today’s standards, tentative terms of the lease agreement would have been generous-$5000 per year in perpetuity for the 30-acre College Pasture and $3000 per year for the larger College Woods. A petition drive to purchase the land for a park achieved an astounding 2200 signatures, the largest such drive in Schenectady’s history to that time. Meanwhile, on March 26, it was announced that another group had first option on the 75-acre tract to the east of the College, and on March 30 the General Electric Company announced the purchase of the College Woods for construction of homes for its employees at the substantial price of $57,000, or $750 per acre. This was hailed as a philanthropic gesture as it wiped away Union’s debt. Noted the Evening Star, “Some ultra sensitive sons of Union who have never put their hands in their pockets to help the alma mater may possibly regret this curtailing of the grand old property, but her most loyal sons, with the knowledge of the beauty, extent, and sufficiency of what will still remain, will hail with joy this action of the trustees.” (The attempt to lease the remaining 30 acres came to naught when the City Council rejected the proposal because of the cost and the flat, marshy nature of the land. It would be two decades before Mayor Lunn established a park system in Schenectady.)

Several of the principal directors of the General Electric Company formed a subsidiary corporation called the “Schenectady Realty Company” to carry out the actual purchase and development of the land. The land was deeded to the Schenectady Realty Company on May 6, 1899.

The area was completely undeveloped at the time of the sale. Surveying began in the spring of 1899, but the work of grading the roads, laying water and sewer lines, and constructing the bridges was not completed until August, 1903. The portion west of Wendell Avenue was offered for “inspection and purchase” on September 8, 1899.

The term “landscape architect” was first used by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., in connection with the designing of Manhattan’s Central Park. By 1900 the profession of city planner was being recognized. Advocates of the “City Beautiful” movement sought to improve the appearance of even then decaying, overcrowded, industrial districts which were seen as incompatible with America’s emerging role in world affairs. Broad boulevards, parks, and impressive buildings, they argued, would provide not only visual appeal and recreational areas for citizens but also uplift them in such a way as to increase respect for the ennobling arts. They even took it as an article of faith that well-designed cities would lower crime rates. (The recurrence of this same impulse was responsible for the urban renewal movement of recent years.) Examples of the City Beautiful movement can be seen in present-day Washington, D.C. and Chicago. Classical formalism and symmetry dominated the thinking of planners due to an all pervasive nationalism which saw mighty America as the new Rome. Schenectady’s Parkwood and Glenwood Boulevards were conceived along these lines with two wide streets radiating from a central plaza.

The design of the Realty Plot was executed by the firm of Parse and DeForrest. Instead of choosing the axial plan which would be applied in the design of the new boulevards off Union Street, they drew their inspiration from New York’s Central Park and followed the older picturesque method of landscape design. The surveyor later wrote that the Plot was visualized as consisting of two smaller plots divided by Wendell Avenue. Using Wendell as a baseline, roads were laid out in gentle curves. To heighten the park-like atmosphere, sod gutters were selected in preference to curbs. “The sod gutter,” wrote the surveyor, “was a rather untried experiment on public roadways outside of parkways where it had been used to a small extent. The effect is very fine in that the roadway is bordered by grass and no curb is there to mar the effect”.

The surveyor also mentioned that the absence of curbs presented a maintenance problem, and two men with a team were required to rake and mow the gutters in the summer and to remove snow in the winter. The two men were Paul Grosso and William Clute. Mr. Grosso was performing grounds maintenance worked at the General Electric plant when he came to the attention of H.W. Darling, Vice-President of the Realty Company and overseer. Grosso began as gardener and coachman in Mr. Darling’s house on Wendell Avenue, but soon a fund was established by all the owners and administered by Darling to perform all general maintenance. The tasks included seeding and caring for lawns, setting trees and shrubs, hauling trash, and cleaning walks. William Clute was the drayman who, with a team of workhorses, cleared snow from the streets and pulled away trash and ashes. Two-by-twelve inch cleated planks were laid each fall so that the snow could be plowed without disturbing the gravel sidewalks. An area behind the Brown School was flooded each winter as a skating pond for the exclusive use of Plot residents, who were issued lapel tags. A special hydrant was installed for this and is still visible. Around 1912, the city took control of street maintenance under the influence of Socialist Mayor George Lunn, and concrete sidewalks were installed to reduce maintenance costs. Mr. Grosso’s son recalls that this “took away some of the unique character of the neighborhood” apparently there was, indeed, some coherent effect to the street plan as originally devised.

An important aspect of the original concept was the inclusion of restrictive covenants in the deeds to control how the property could be developed. (Restrictive covenants are effectively the same as zoning ordinances, with the difference that instead of the building inspector or zoning board telling a property owner what he can do on his land, the deed of the property contains a list of restrictions to which the owner agrees when he buys the property.) The Schenectady Realty Company’s covenants stipulated that no building lot could be less than 70 feet by 140 feet, no fences higher than 3 feet 6 inches; no building closer than 25 feet to the road, nothing but a single-family dwelling; and, most important, no house costing less than a stated minimum. In the early years the dollar figure was set at $4000 or $5000. With inflation, this figure was gradually raised in later years, but many of the houses built in the Plot greatly exceeded the minimum cost. These were indeed posh homes by comparison, in the spring of 1905, the average house in Schenectady was built for around $2700.

The fence covenant has an interesting background. In England, fences were commonly set on the perimeters of country estates: meant as barriers, they tended to be very high and crowned with glass shards or spikes. In this country, a three foot fence was purely ornamental; it could not keep anyone out, but it could make an important contribution to the design by framing it. Foreign visitors marveled at the lack of high fences here, a symbol of the freedom of our classless society. Tall fences were thus excluded, not only because they would defeat the carefully planned vistas of the curbless streets but also because they were undemocratic!

One problem the Realty Company had to face was the bridging of the thirty-foot-deep ravine through which flowed what was known as “College Creek” or the “Grooteskill” (kill being the Dutch word for stream). This was accomplished at four places with arched bridges of Duanesburg bluestone. The bridges were intended to be barely visible from the roadway; as with the sod gutters, the hand of man was to be kept invisible.

How were the street names chosen? An explanation survives, written by Henry W. Darling. He and George E. Emmons were a two-man committee charged to select the names. Nott Street pre-dated the development and bore the name of Eliphalet Nott, the illustrious president of Union College for sixty-two years. In June, 1899, a road was opened from Union Street to connect with Union Avenue. The City Council renamed the entire street Wendell Avenue, after a Miss Wendell, whose house once stood on Union Street and who owned “a considerable tract of property through which the street was made”. Wrote Darling, “What was then known as … the `Quarry Road’ in pursuance of the plans of the Schenectady Realty Company was opened up as a 70-foot [wide] roadway eastward, with the exception of the part fronting on the property owned on either side by McDermott and Moore, where it was only 44 feet wide, and these property owners refused to give an inch more to widen the road.” This was then called “Union Avenue East,” but was subsequently changed by the City Council in 1904 to “Rugby Road” because of an open area at the corner of McClellan Street and Rugby Road where the game was played.

There were yet six roads to be named by Mr. Darling and Mr. Emmons. They considered and discarded the names of the original settlers and Indians because they were already commemorated in some way. Darling felt that the names should have a “tangible connection” and “submitted for consideration the great rivers of Europe, the rivers of England, the English lakes, and the names of historical characters in the works of Sir Walter Scott.” “It was decided to use Sir Walter Scott’s names, but Mr. Emmons insisted that the names of some men famous in the history of New England might also be perpetuated and so two roads Adams Road and Lowell Road represented these worthies, and the others, Lennox Road, Douglas Road, Avon Road, and Stratford Road had their origin in this way.” So much for committees! The “characters of Sir Walter Scott” seems pulled from the air to us today, but the committeemen were deeply rooted in a Victorian heritage. Nineteen original owners were named either “Albert” or “Edward,” presumably after the Prince Consort or the Crown Prince; the Victorians, as we shall shortly see, were very taken with an idealized medieval past, and when we look at the homes that Mr. Darling and Mr. Emmons built, we will hear the distant echo of Ivanhoe’s gallant steed.’

Lennox Road is today spelled with only one “n:’ The original spelling appeared on maps in 1901, 1905, and 1912, and a petition from residents to City Council requesting street numbers used “Lennox” in 1904. Another rambling petition dated 1903, however, employed “Lennox” and “Lenox” interchangeably. The 1903 city directory used the double “n,” but thereafter switched to “Lenox.” There is no record of an official name change, so apparently the postman and the homeowners lacked Mr. Darling’s same fidelity to literary sources and the shorter spelling has prevailed.

A map of the plot shows the final arrangement of streets as well as three large parcels on Wendell Avenue labeled “Eisenmenger,” “McDermott,” and “Moore.” As Union College had already sold this property in the 1880’s, it was not part of the seventy-five acre tract conveyed to the Schenectady Realty Company. This explains the refusal of McDermott and Moore to allow the widening of Rugby Road mentioned above in Darling’s account. The Realty Company must have been acutely aware of this salient of land not governed by the restrictive covenants. In fact, in 1912, it purchased the northern portion of Eisenmenger land and sold it to Edward Waters, who built there in 1914. Because of the lack of covenants, a few of the houses on Rugby Road are closer together on smaller lots; but, by and large, this did not become a problem to the Realty Company. The whole area is now within the boundaries of the Historic District, and it includes some of our most important buildings. The narrower section of the road can still be seen.

A unique combination of circumstances, the financial exigencies of Union College on the one hand and the need for an exclusive residential section on the other, led to the formation of the Realty Plot. In 1903, the surveyor claimed, “We have here a suburban residential plot second-to-none between New York and Chicago, either in layout, restrictions, or the class of houses upon it”.