Gillette House still inspires optimism
With much spent, little to show for it, Schenectady County chamber takes over
SCHENECTADY When it took Schenectady County a year just to buy the Gillette House, it might have been seen as an omen.
Since then, even the simplest actions have taken far longer than expected as the county tried to turn the historic house and a dilapidated structure next door into a state-of-the-art center for historic tourism.
After nine years, all the county has to show for its work is a pretty facade — and that was finished long ago. Since 2004, no real progress has been made.
But the project may have reached a turning point this week. The Chamber of Schenectady County gathered proposals from architects eager to plan what is now estimated to be a $1.5 million renovation, and the city agreed to help the chamber get a federal grant for part of the work.
By the end of the month, the chamber will pick an architect, President Charles Steiner said.
In the next 12 months, the architect will design a plan while locals raise money. For once, things are going well: the chamber already has more than half of the money it needs.
Steiner now thinks work could start in about a year.
“Maybe the end of 2009,” he said. “Or 2010.”
If the work ever begins, it will be the realization of a decade-old vision to honor Dr. Elizabeth Van Rensselaer Gillette.
County Legislator Robert Farley, a Republican from Glenville who was chairman of the Legislature in 2000, persuaded his colleagues to buy the Gillette House with only the vaguest of notions about what would be done with it. But he was certain that it should be preserved in some way.
It is the only local memorial to a woman who accomplished what everyone around her considered impossible. Gillette became the first female physician in Schenectady County, seeing patients in her home on Union Street at the edge of the historic Stockade neighborhood.
But she wasn’t satisfied with breaking into a male-dominated profession. She wanted entrance into an even more closely guarded male sanctuary: state government.
At a time when women did not have the right to vote, she campaigned to represent Schenectady in the state Assembly. In 1919 — a year before women won suffrage — she gathered just enough votes to become the first woman elected to the Assembly.
She worked on immunization and other medical issues in her brief term of office. Republicans beat her soundly when she ran for re-election. At the time, she probably couldn’t have imagined that a Republican would later spend years trying to restore her house in honor of her historic achievements.
She lived in her Schenectady house her entire adult life, from about 1900 until her death at age 90 in 1965.
At first, Farley envisioned her house becoming a museum. But three years later, in 2003, legislators decided that the area needed a center dedicated to historic tourism.
Because the Gillette House and the Millington House next door are located at the entrance to the historic Stockade neighborhood, they are considered the perfect starting point for tourists.
But although $518,500 has been spent on the project over the course of nine years, neither home is yet capable of hosting even a scaled-down version of a visitors’ center. The Millington House is in poor condition, and although the Gillette House has a spruced-up facade, its interior remains uninhabitable.
Steiner acknowledged that critics and supporters alike are wondering when interior work will be finished — or even started.
“That is the question people really would like answered,” he said.
He’s bracing for the architect’s new cost estimate, which he thinks will add 15 percent to 20 percent to the current $1.5 million price tag. Construction costs have gone up significantly since the project began, he said.
Despite all of the cost increases and delays, he’s still enthusiastic.
“It’s one of the pieces that is so critical to the redevelopment of the city. This is the obvious entrance to the Stockade neighborhood. It’s also an important street. It also brings people across Erie Boulevard — it adds to the opening up of lower State Street,” Steiner said.
And the finished product will be worth all of the pain and irritation, he said.
“We had a beautiful book cover,” he said, referring to the new Gillette House facade. “And we’re working on the contents now.”