detail from Howard Ohlhous photo
Admirers of the Nicholaus Block building and advocates for preservation of our City’s fine old buildings were instantly filled with dread Friday afternoon, April 7,2017, when the Schenectady Police Department announced the immediate closing of the blocks alongside the Building. We were told that an engineering firm monitoring the structure had concluded that the building posed an immediate threat to public safety and could collapse. Sadly, we were right to fear the worst: by late that evening demolition had began on the grand structure, a beloved relic of the City’s German immigrant culture. There will be much finger-pointing and wringing of hands in Schenectady over this tragic episode in our history of preservation failures. But, I will try to keep this posting a eulogy for a structure that was a wonderful piece of Schenectady history for almost two centuries.
- You can read the explanations given by our civic leaders in “Schenectady’s Nicholaus Building reduced to a memory: Overnight demolition brings down two centuries of history” (Albany Times Union, by Robert Downen, April 8, 2017); and “Schenectady’s Nicholaus Building: What happened? The iconic building was erected in 1820″ (Schenectady Daily Gazette, by Daniel Fitzsimmons, April 7, 2017). Suffice to say that Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen and both the Mayor and Corporation Counsel of Schenectady say that they did everything they could do to save the building, including having engineers draw up a plan to stabilize it and offering to buy it, with no response from the owners, Viroj and Malinee Chompupong. As of the posting of this piece, the Chompupongs have not commented on the course of events since he building shifted and was evacuated in April 2016.
- Followup (April 11, 2019): Exactly two years to the day that the Nicholaus Block Building was demolished, the front page of the Sunday Gazette was dominated by an article headlined, “Apartments at Schenectady’s most prominent intersection welcome first tenant: Electric City project has transformed corner of key intersection” (by John Cropley, April 7, 2019). Purposeful or inadvertent irony?
My research last night uncovered two excellent histories of the Nicholaus Block Building, and I recommend your taking the time to read them, rather than having me grab a few quotes from their narratives:
- An extensive piece at MyUpStateNYPhotos, originally posting on March 18, 2016, and updated yesterday, April 8, 2017. In addition to the building’s history, it has a good description of the problems that began in April 2016 during excavation for the Electric City Apartments complex next door, and ended in the demolition. It also notes that Nicholaus building suffered a large explosion in 1975, and the recent widow Mary Nicholaus considered demolition, but decided to repair it and continue.
- A weblog post at the Grems-Doolittle Library Blog of the Schenectady County Historical Society, “Good Food Without Frills”: Nicholaus Restaurant in Schenectady (May 14, 2014, by Library Volunteer Ann Eignor), which has photographs of both the exterior and interior of the building (including its famous bar; see image to the right from the Larry Hart Collection), as well as the Nicholaus family and restaurant staff, and a menu with German Specials, plus Loppa, a macaw parrot that was a longtime mascot at the Bar and was stuffed upon its demise and later donated to the Historical Society.
A Gazette article from 2014 gives a quick summary of the building’s history. It has the now-ironic headline “Schenectady’s iconic structures remain amid era of change: One of the city’s best features is its diverse stock of buildings, old and new, crumbling and stately” (by Bethany Bump, Sept. 7, 2014). The youthful Ms. Bump tells us:
Nicholaus Block (266-268 State St.): Modern day Schenectadians know the brick building at the corner of Erie Boulevard and State Street as the home of Thai Thai Bistro (and before that, Bangkok Bistro). One of the few remaining buildings from the Erie Canal-era, it features bay windows and an ornamental roof engraved with fleurs-de-lis.
The Nicholaus Hotel opened here in 1901. It housed the German-themed Nicholaus Restaurant until 1975 and then Maurice’s Readi-Foods until 2004. A good part of the building was actually built in the late 1820s, soon after the Erie Canal came through, and was used for many years as a saloon.
coming soon, without the Nicholaus Block gracenote
The editor of this website moved to Schenectady in the apparently pre-modern year of 1988, and my first residence in Schenectady was on the block across the street from the Nicholaus Building, at Barney Square. That was the era of the popular luncheon spot Maurice’s Readi-Foods. I immediately admired the style of the old building, as I walked to my first local job, at Family Court. Since then, I have admired the beautiful bar and marveled at the Hofbrau-Haus murals that still graced the main dining room of the two subsequent Thai restaurants. I’ve continued to admire the building over the years, and am happy to say that I walked past it almost daily in the past month, on a new strolling-exercise regime. I am going to miss the Nicholaus Building, and surely will be mumbling about the bland modern building that will soon dominate that block.
. . click this image to see County Tax Records for the Nicholaus Building; Note: The lot size is 34 ‘ by 114’; it was assessed at 2016 for $315,200. A short link for the above Tax Info is http://tinyurl.com/NicholausTax
The Nicholaus Building holds far more “personal” memories for the residents of Schenectady than most of our other lost structures. I hope its demise will inspire sharing those stories (for example, by leaving a comment to this webposting). Whether it will cause the populace to be more vigilant and more vocal about our desire to preserve the dwindling stock of fine old buildings is another matter. Will Mssrs. Gillen, McCarthy, Gardner, and other decision-makers who act as if all development is good development, and all developers civic-minded heroes, get our message? We need to raise our voices much higher.
. . as if it were never there . .
Postscript: I originally planned to keep this posting eulogistically upbeat, but the Snowmen At the Gates part of my brain has to gnash its teeth a bit. Yesterday, I wrote at the Gazette website in a Comment:
The fate of the Nicholaus building represents the further loss of our trust in the leaders of our City and Metroplex. After so many half-truths, so much deception, and so many promises of preservation not kept, we never know if we can trust the information and excuses we are given for their actions and inaction. We keep hearing about a Renaissance in Downtown Schenectady, but it often feels like the Dark Ages.
Last week, our leaders held a party to congratulate themselves for bringing the Casino to Schenectady, giving themselves far too much credit, in my opinion. They also boasted about spending two years orchestrating a free shuttle from Downtown to the Casino, at taxpayer expense. Perhaps Metroplex and City Hall should have spent a bit more time trying to save the Nicholaus Building. They might have, for example, pried some money from Rush Street Gaming, which has voluntarily given millions to other cities for community projects, to use to fix the Nicholaus stability issue. Or, a Metroplex loan or grant for the Nicholaus might have been offered, as such architecture is also a draw for downtown.
Now, we hear the City “will be seeking to recover the $168,000 cost of the demolition from the Chompupongs.” I’m scared to speculate on what will replace the Nicholaus Building in that wedge at the corner of Erie Blvd. and State Street. Perhaps, we will have a little bit of lovely green space, to compensate a bit for all of the green grounds originally promised for Mohawk Harbor, but now covered with parking lots and crowded structures. If it is eventually replaced by another building, I hope we will not get yet another less-than-mediocre façade slapped at too-little-expense on an unremarkable structure. Is that too much to ask? In Schenectady, perhaps it is.
See Sara Foss’s opinion column, “The Nicholaus Building could have been saved: Sometimes buildings fall into disrepair … but that’s not what happened here” (Daily Gazette, April 11, 2017). “How it will all play out is anyone’s guess, but if you ask me there’s plenty of blame to go around. The big losers are the residents of Schenectady, who lost a valuable piece of history last week and still don’t know exactly why.” And, see: “Need answers in Nicholaus demolition: Serious questions remain about building’s destruction” (Daily Gazette, April 17, 2017), an OpEd piece by Gloria Kishton, chair of the Schenectady Heritage Foundation. Ms. Kiston wrote:
After the building was damaged, it was appropriate for Metroplex to hire a well-regarded engineering firm to provide plans for stabilizing the building.
But, they should also have paid for the repair work. Highbridge/Prime is receiving a $1.2 million Empire State Development grant through Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Regional Economic Council.
These funds should have been used to repair the building.
It was outrageous and unjust to expect the owners to pay for repairing damage others caused, and to recoup the expense through insurance or litigation.
Adding insult to injury, the city of Schenectady intends to hand them the bill for the “emergency” demolition!
Now that the pesky Nicholaus Building is gone, Highbridge/Prime will proceed full speed ahead with its development.
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