Schenectady: In the Stockade, restoring, not simply rebuilding, is the challenge
It’s been a year, but Irene is still causing problems in Schenectady’s Stockade historic district.
Part of the neighborhood was flooded when Irene whipped through last year, and although the damage didn’t knock down houses, it hurt buildings that had been painstakingly restored to historical accuracy.
Owners dug in their heels when insurance companies expected them to simply rip out their horsehair plaster walls — which aren’t made any longer — and their original wood floors.
On North Street, three houses still have building permits taped to their windows, describing gut rehabs and porch rebuilds because of the floods.
On Ingersoll Avenue, one house has been abandoned, with mud on the floors and walls ripped away. The city is planning to foreclose on that house, 28 Ingersoll Ave., four days after Irene’s first anniversary.
But most of the original owners have remained and rebuilt.
Barbara and David Marhafer, on Washington Avenue, only moved back in four months ago. Contractors spent six months working on their house.
“That was hard. It feels like a different house to us,” Barbara Marhafer said. “New floors, new furniture. And the threat — what if this happens again? We’re 69. What if we were 10 years older?”
She’ll never be able to forget about it, she said.
“It’ll never be done, in my mind. It was horrendous.”
The house dates back to 1819, and the Marhafers discovered quickly that insurance companies had no idea how to price repairs for a historic house.
“An 1819 house does not fit into any real category, a box you can check off,” she said. “One person said, 'Why don’t you tear the thing down and start over?’”
The agent couldn’t understand why the Marhafers were horrified by the idea. But eventually they were offered money to fund repairs instead.
They hired Legere Restoration to completely restore the house. But that meant they had to pack up and move out — and they weren’t in any shape to do so.
“We were kind of in shock,” she said. “People were wonderful. People brought food. People I don’t know, people I still don’t know.”
When word got out that they needed help packing, an army of friends, neighbors and strangers arrived. They packed 91 boxes.
“I don’t think I packed a single one,” Marhafer said. “All our neighbors, friends, people we didn’t know — they did it. People are good. It brings the goodness out.”
And after all the fights with the insurance company, they finally got their house back.
“It does still feel like home,” she said. “It just feels a little different.”
Others are still rebuilding.
Eric Laugen, on Ingersoll Avenue, has been doggedly working at his house since a week after the flood. He didn’t want to lose the historic character of his house, so he bleached his wood floors again and again until they were finally clean and dry.
He hosed off his original plaster walls — the ones with horsehair that aren’t made anymore — and knocked down only the few pieces that couldn’t be saved.
He did all this while still working a full-time job. He’s a teacher in St. Johnsville.
At the one-year mark, he’s about half done, he said.
He’s pleased that he managed to save as much as he did. His secret? “Bleach the hell out of it,” he said.
His insurance company, like the Marhafers’, didn’t understand why he wouldn’t simply hang sheetrock instead of restoring the plaster. He finally explained it to them by saying, “If I replace them with sheetrock, I have to replace them every time it floods. Plaster I just hose off.”
He’s doing well now, but last fall was painful.
“Financially, it destroyed me,” he said.
He received no insurance money for three months. He also lost his tenants, who had been living downstairs and were flooded out.
He had been living upstairs, but offered to move downstairs and let them take over his apartment. They agreed, but moved out shortly anyway.
“And, being a teacher, I’m not exactly wealthy at the end of August,” Laugen said.
But what could he do? He moved into the muddy downstairs and began cleaning it out.
“I was living here within a week of the flood,” he said.
Now that half the work is done, he’s looking on the bright side.
“It just gave me an opportunity to make it nicer,” he said.