Bed-and-breakfast retains pre-Revolution style and charm
Nearly everyone seems to enjoy their stay at the English Garden Bed & Breakfast in the Stockade section of Schenectady, and if owner Virginia Bohn’s Canadian visitors leave feeling especially satisfied, there’s a very good reason.
The house at 205 Union St., built sometime during the decade just before the American Revolution, was home and operating headquarters for Alexander Ellice and his four brothers, fur traders who had emigrated from Scotland in 1765. Loyalists to the British crown, all but one left Schenectady for Canada when war broke out.
And if that isn’t enough to endear the place to Canadian guests, there’s the British royal coat of arms still clearly visible on the cast-iron fireback in the Federal/Ballroom suite. It’s a feature that the Ellices almost certainly put in themselves before the Revolution, and serves as a definitive clue as to how the brothers felt about the impending hostilities between Great Britain and the Colonies.
“I get a fair share of Canadian guests, and while it’s not a big topic of conversation, most of them notice it and they’ll say a few things about it,” said Bohn, who took over the business in 2007. “I guess the Ellices were Loyalists who went to Canada during the Revolution. There’s a lot of wonderful history connected to this house because it does go way back.”
Bohn’s history in the house began when she moved to Schenectady from the Batavia area in January 2007. While the house was already in use as a bed-and-breakfast, it was up for sale, and it was Bohn’s son-in-law, Brian McQueen, an agent at Coldwell Banker in Clifton Park, who purchased the property and suggested that she move in and start her own business.
“The previous owner was having some challenges, so I thought it’d be a good opportunity to turn the business around and really do well with it,” said McQueen. “My mother-in-law was coming out of the restaurant business and I knew she’d be great at this. I technically own the property and the deed, but she’s the one who runs the place from A to Z. I just support her in any way I can.”
While Bohn lives in one section of the house, there are five beautiful rooms available to the public along with a dining room in which she serves breakfast. The guests can choose from among the Federal/Ballroom, the Martha Suite, the Dutch Room, the Ellice Room, and another small space with a bed that adjoins the Ellice Room. The house has three floors and a basement, although the top level is used only as an attic.
“It’s probably better to say 41⁄2 rooms for the public because we usually don’t rent the one small room unless somebody is staying in the bigger room,” said Bohn, who has her own large living room, bedroom and kitchen in her section of the building.
“For people who come with friends but want separate sleeping quarters it works out very well. We have very comfortable sleeping arrangements in all the rooms, and in the morning I serve them a great breakfast. I serve different dishes but it’s always a full breakfast, and that always includes coffee, tea and some kind of fruit juice.”
While no major interior work had to be done when she took over, Bohn had much of the place painted and spent a lot of time looking for furnishings.
“We scrubbed it from top to bottom, painted, replaced a lot of things, drapes and other items, and I would also pick up various furnishings at antique shops and other stores,” she said. “It was a lot of work, but I loved doing it. My son-in-law loved the place as soon as he saw it, and so did I.”
“I was living in Niskayuna, but I fell in love with the whole Stockade area when I first came here,” said McQueen. “I had previously worked for Hyatt Resort and Hotels, and I always loved the hospitality business. When I saw the building, I realized it was a special property, and with the background that Ginny had, I knew it’d be a perfect match.”
The house has been painted yellow with green trim for quite some time, and McQueen says he has no plans on changing the facade.
“It’s very difficult to make any aesthetic changes in the Stockade, so we’re going to leave it the same color and that’s fine because we like the appearance,” he said. “We’re about to make a decision on painting it again, and if we do it’ll be the same color.”
The building also has an upper and lower porch in the rear, and plenty of evidence suggesting its history, including huge hand-hewn beams that support the structure and wide floorboards throughout the interior. According to Schenectady County Historical Society records, “the house was built circa 1765 in English Georgian style with gambrel roof” and “remodeled in 1870s in Second Empire style.”
That section of Union Street — the block between Ferry Street and Erie Boulevard, was pastureland and woodlots up until the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. John Sanders is believed to have built the house soon after the war, but evidently rented it out to Alexander Ellice and his family. In 1775, on the eve of the outbreak of the American Revolution, Ellice and three of his brothers headed to Canada. James, the youngest, remained in Schenectady.
“They were very big players in Schenectady between the two wars,” Schenectady attorney John Gearing said of the Ellice brothers. “Their money was tied up with the British, and it made a lot of sense for them to leave James behind to watch over all the assets they could not liquidate before the war started. They had no idea how long it was going to last.”
Gearing, who is working on a book, “Schenectady Genesis: Volume II,” a history of the city and county during the Revolutionary period, said it was unlikely that James Ellice stayed out of any strong feeling of loyalty to the patriot cause.
“James took the Oath of Association during the war, which would have given their property protection from confiscation in the event America won the war,” said Gearing. “But pretty much everyone who stayed until the end signed the oath, unless they really didn’t want to be here. The Ellice brothers ended up with holdings here, in Montreal and in London. They had things covered no matter who won.”
According to Gearing, Alexander Ellice and his business partner in the fur trade, James Phyn, may have never cultivated any real affinity for the New World, other than to use it to make money.
“I think it’s highly likely that Ellice and Phyn did not consider themselves ‘Americans,’ ” said Gearing. “Instead, they likely saw themselves as British ex-pats, and would have done so even if the Revolution had never happened. I suspect that their goal was always to develop their business and follow wherever it led, with the understanding that, if successful, it would of necessity lead back to London, as London was the world’s financial capital at the time.”
James Ellice remained in the house after the war and died in the 1780s. His older brother Alexander spent time in Montreal and London before passing away in 1805 in Bath, England.
The house had several different owners throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. From 1947-60 it was a boarding house owned by the Schneiderwind family, and for a short time after that it served as home to the Visiting Nurses Association.
“There used to be a big opening in the one room on the east side to the building next door when the nurses were here,” said Bohn. “But I don’t think they were here that long, and then they closed up the doorway to the other building. A guy who used to tune pianos lived here for a while, and then an older couple before the woman we bought it from.”
Business has been good, according to Bohn.
“We’ve been very lucky, but we do get a lot of repeat visitors,” she said. “March through October was great. It’s slowing down a little bit now but we know we’ll get some people even during the slow months.”
“It’s been a pleasant surprise how well we’ve done,” said McQueen. “It’s a real niche type of market, and we don’t really compete with places like The Stockade Inn, the Parker Inn or the Hampton Inn. We get people from all over, even from overseas, who just aren’t looking for that hotel environment.”