News Sept. 2014
Diamond in the rough?
In downtown Hoosick Falls, projects could set stage for rebirth
By EVAN LAWRENCE
HOOSICK FALLS, N.Y.
David Borge, the mayor of this village in northeastern Rensselaer County, acknowledged that its downtown looks “sad,” as he put it.
Two- and three-story buildings from the 19th century, many vacant and decaying, are mixed with low, uninspired 20th-century structures along Route 22 as it makes three tight right-angle turns through the center of the village. Vacant lots, including one at a key corner in the heart of downtown, are all that’s left where other prominent buildings once stood.
Borge said Hoosick Falls had a population of about 10,000 in 1900, when the Walter A. Wood Mowing and Reaping Machine Co. was one of the world’s largest manufacturers of agricultural machines. That company is long gone, and although the village still has some industry, its population has shrunk to 3,500.
But lately the notion of restoring bustle to downtown Hoosick Falls is starting to seem plausible.
A developer recently proposed filling the vacant corner lot at Main and John streets with a new three-story building where a hotel once stood. Across the street, a local group hopes to renovate and reuse the upper floors of a block-wide building that once was part of the Walter Wood company – a project that would include restoration of a top-floor performance space that once was a stop on the vaudeville circuit.
At the same time, the redevelopment of an old armory within the past couple of years as a busy community center has provided the village with access to a range of new artistic and recreational activities. And the conversion of an old railroad right-of-way into the Hoosic River Greenway is adding another recreational attraction for bicyclists and walkers.
“Things are starting to turn around,” Borge said. “The village won’t go back to what it was. We have to create something new.”
The village and surrounding town of Hoosick have great assets, Borge said, including a scenic rural location, three schools and access to recreation, historic sites and cultural attractions within a short drive. The village has municipal water and sewer systems and its own police department.
It also has a large vacant manufacturing plant waiting for tenants.
“We’re working with Rensselaer County to make it a business incubator,” Borge said.
Castle for a community
One of the brightest spots so far in the village’s turnaround is the new Hoosick Armory Youth Center and Community Coalition, better known by the acronym HAYC3, which occupies a castle-like armory on Church Street.
“They’re doing spectacular things,” Borge said. “They have activities seven days a week.”
The armory was built in 1888 as home for a National Guard unit. In 2012, the state declared the deteriorating brick building surplus and offered it for sale. The town of Hoosick was renting rooms for its offices and courtroom in the armory and considered buying it, but the Town Board decided renovating and maintaining the big, drafty structure would be too expensive.
So the town’s youth organization, headed by director Aelish Nealon, and other community members rallied and bought the armory for the token sum of $1.
The renovation and restoration of the building “happened in less than nine months,” Nealon said. “We saw the purchase of the armory as a great opportunity. It’s been an amazing journey.”
In addition to the armory building, HAYC3 still has the original youth center, in a former church at 115 Church St., and an organic community garden at 50 Church St. The organization’s programming has gone from mostly youth-oriented to something for just about everyone of any age.
“Our focus is rural revival and rural art,” Nealon said.
HAYC3’s activities include sports and recreation, art classes, health and wellness programs, a weekly summer farmers market, a film festival, and community events such as the annual fall Pumpkinpalooza. The armory has an art gallery, art and music studios, performance rooms, offices, a cafe, and a state-certified kitchen for people who want to make food products for sale. The armory is also host to four start-up businesses.
“We’re here to help anybody,” Nealon said.
HAYC3’s latest project was creation of a trail of more than two-dozen barn quilts in the village and the surrounding town. (See accompanying story.)
“We’re art-based, so the quilt project was a no-brainer,” Nealon said. “It was a natural fit for us -- barns, old houses, and community.”
Filling a downtown gap
Another hopeful sign is the proposed redevelopment of the former Dougherty’s Hotel site at one of Hoosick Falls’ most prominent corners.
The hotel at the southwest corner of Main and John streets began as a two-story structure in the 1870s, Hoosick Town Historian Phil Leonard said. An owner named Dougherty added a third story and improved the restaurant, making it an area landmark. But the building suffered at least two fires. One, in 1980, killed several people and ended the building’s days as a hotel. The second, in March 2006, was so destructive that the ruins of the structure had to be removed. It was several years before the cellar hole was filled in, Leonard said.
In July, Borge announced the reissuing of a $750,000 grant from Empire State Development, a state economic development agency, for erecting a new building on the site.
Sequence Development, a commercial redevelopment firm in Troy, is expected to develop, own and operate the new building. Jeffrey Buell, the company’s founder and CEO, did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story, but according to news accounts of a local economic development meeting, the developer plans a new building that will be three stories high, probably with a restaurant on the first floor and offices and apartments on the upper floors.
Sequence Development has also bought the next building on John Street, which has a bagel shop on the first floor and luxury short-term apartments above.
Construction of the new building is projected to start by October, with completion in 2015. No cost estimates for the project have been made public so far.
Sequence has completed a number of other rehabilitation projects in New York state, including several projects in Troy and the renovation of a previously vacant 160,000-square-foot building at Clarkson University in Potsdam.
Grand dame of downtown
Right across the street from the Dougherty’s Hotel site is the Wood Block Building, the last surviving structure of the once-extensive Wood Mowing and Reaping Machine Co. The three-story brick building on Main Street sits at the foot of the hill as Route 22 descends into the village from the north, making it one of the first downtown buildings visitors see from that direction. It extends along the west side of Main Street for a full block north of John Street.
Streetscape redevelopment undertaken in 2004 with a state grant created a little plaza with trees and benches in front of the building, and the first floor houses professional offices. But the second and third floors are clearly vacant.
The Wood Block Building was constructed between 1870 and 1875, Leonard said. A rear addition was put on around 1900. The town’s first bank opened on the first floor in 1880, one of many shops and businesses to occupy that level over the years. The second floor held offices. A fire in 1909 destroyed the third floor, but it was rebuilt as meeting and performance spaces.
“Wood Hall was popular for parties and vaudeville,” Leonard said.
Edward Gorman’s law firm, Sternberg and Gorman LLP, now has its offices on the first floor. He took a break from his work last month to show off the upper floors.
A grand entrance at street level opens onto a slate staircase to the second floor. The interior is dark with wainscoting but retains the original stamped tin ceiling and interior windows. Paint from the 1970s and remnants of plumbing and linoleum show how the front offices were converted to apartments. A Masonic Temple had its social club in one of the back rooms and held ceremonies upstairs.
In the central hall, a ticket booth sits next to the curving staircase to the third floor. There, the staircase opens into a hallway between two big bright rooms, with windows looking onto the neighboring rooftops and hills above the village. From the north room, there’s a glimpse of the Hoosic River.
Fallen plaster litters the floor, but the rooms are otherwise clean, with no stored materials or pigeon droppings.
The building is owned by the Wood Block Association, which was formed in the 1980s. Gorman’s late law partner, Rolf Sternberg, was one of the founders, although Gorman himself is not part of the association.
“They wanted to preserve it until a group or person came along to restore it,” Gorman said. The association removed the second-floor apartments and accumulated trash and has kept the building secure.
“They’re a very patient and generous group,” Gorman said.
Tying into an arts corridor
Gorman is president of another organization, Civic and Cultural Restoration, or CiviCure, a nonprofit that aims to revitalize the Hoosick area’s economy through the arts and projects highlighting the area’s history. CiviCure was the lead organization behind the $200,000 downtown streetscape enhancement project completed in 2004. Now the group is hoping to buy and restore the Wood Block Building as a key step in making Hoosick Falls part of a larger arts corridor.
“There’s a close and warm working relationship between the Wood Block Association and CiviCure,” Gorman said. “We hope we’re the group they’ve been waiting for for 30 years.”
CiviCure hosted a concert with two professional opera singers at the Hoosac School on July 26. The concert raised money for the building’s restoration, but it also aimed to show off the type of performance that could one day be staged on the Wood Block Building’s top floor.
For now, the building lacks electricity, water, heat and air conditioning above the first floor. The ventilation system for the upper floors consists of windows and an airshaft through the center of the building. It has neither functioning fire escapes nor an elevator.
CiviCure is working with a historic preservation expert to develop an outline of needed work. But so far, Gorman said, “we have no estimate of what it would cost” to bring the building up to current codes.
Still, CiviCure sees the building’s potential as an arts hub.
“Hubbard Hall Projects,” the community arts center in nearby Cambridge “inspires us,” Gorman said.
He and others believe a lively arts community in downtown Hoosick Falls could attract tourists and traffic to downtown – and would also persuade people that the village “would be a good choice for their families” as a place to live, Gorman said.
Eventually, he added, the building could become part of CiviCure’s proposed Grandma Moses Heritage Center, celebrating artists who live and work in rural areas as well as artists who portray rural themes.
In the belief that “what’s good for me benefits you too,” Borge said he has been meeting with other municipal leaders in the area, including Hoosick town Supervisor Mark Surdam and Cambridge village Mayor Valerie Reagan, to discuss how they can work together to promote the region.
The town and the village of Hoosick Falls recently created Hoosick Rising, a program to bring the town and village closer together, according to the town Web site. The town and village are working with the Rensselaer County Chamber of Commerce and Camoin Associates, an economic planning consultant, to create a plan for economic revitalization. (The next meeting regarding this planning effort is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 25, at the armory; all are welcome.)
“We’re getting greater numbers at each meeting,” Borge said. “We’re at the tipping point.”
Barn-quilt trail boasts nearly 30 stops
The Hoosick Armory Youth Center and Community Coalition, also known as HAYC3, has been working for much of the past year to create a “barn quilt trail” that made its official debut on Aug. 30.
Over the winter and spring, volunteers designed and painted 31 large wood squares with geometrical quilt patterns. Twenty-one 8-foot-by-8-foot squares and six 4-foot-by-4-foot squares have been mounted on public and private buildings, including barns and businesses, throughout the village of Hoosick Falls and town of Hoosick. All of the quilts can be viewed from public roads.
A map showing the location of each quilt, created by artist Megan Walread, is available from HAYC3. For more information, call HAYC3 at (518) 686-9050 or visit hayc3.org.