GE Plot: Great lives, great homes
21st century visitors get a chance to see architectural echoes of city’s golden age
SCHENECTADY Clarke Darlington lifted a strange sort of light bulb down from his mantelpiece.
“Edison’s carbon filament would darken the glass in a few hours,” he said to a group of total strangers gathered in his 1176 Stratford Road home. “Langmuir figured out how to use tungsten, and how to create a vacuum.”
On Sunday afternoon, eight homes in the GE Realty Plot, a historic neighborhood just east of Union College, opened their grand old doors to the public. It’s an impressive neighborhood, with big lawns and trees and pillared houses. People walked the sunny streets, sweating profusely between islands of air conditioning.
Darlington led little groups of people through his home, known as the Langmuir House. He talked about the expansive windows created with then cutting-edge casting technology, and how their modern look mingled with more classical architecture.
“The idea was to entice the best, most famous scientists to this area,” he said. “It worked.”
In the late 19th century, General Electric bought a 75-acre chunk of land from Union College. Company officials felt at the time none of Schenectady’s homes were good enough for the world’s best and brightest. In those days, the average area home cost $2,700. Most of the places built on their plot cost twice that.
Darlington described an early 20th-century scene of GE scientists returning to their rich little neighborhood by carriage or early motorcar, commencing after-hours research.
“Most of these places have labs,” he said. “Some of them are reinforced cement, lead lined, depending on their research.”
His own home was built by GE at the turn of the century and was the long-time residence of Nobel Prize-winning GE chemist Irving Langmuir.
Langmuir rose to notoriety through his work on filaments and vacuum tubes, thus the centerpiece of Darlington’s tour.
‘It still works’
“When we moved in nine years ago, this was being used in an upstairs closet,” he said, holding up the ancient bulb. “It’s one of Langmuir’s early creations, and it still works.”
Built for the area’s upper crust, all the homes are linked to history. Andy and Heather Chestnut also opened their home for the tour. For the last nine years they’ve been fixing up the old Vedder House on Wendell Avenue.
“It was built by judge Alex Vedder,” Andy said, motioning to the expansive dark oak entry. “You can tell. It feels like a courtroom.”
The doors are wider than usual and swing on heavy hinges, built for giants. The molding is solid seasoned oak. Heather Chestnut said she likes the heft.
“I won’t ever buy a house that was built after the invention of plastic,” she said.
That heft though, costs. Since buying the place, the couple had to put in an I-beam and reinforce the foundations with cement to stop back rooms from falling in. They had to rework the interior gutter system and build over rot. The whole project cost more than Andy cared to talk about.
“It’s not a good investment financially,” he said, “but it is good stewardship.”
As the tour wound down in the late afternoon, Michele Ruzzo said all eight homeowners were as kind to their dwellings as the Chestnuts.
“I used to walk these streets with my friends back in the ’60s,” she said. “They used to have these big parties. They were major people in those days.”
Ruzzo drove from Clifton Park to see the houses, nervous that their interiors would disappoint childhood imaginings.
“Every single one was as beautiful on the inside as I could have hoped,” she said.
defined by stewardship
A century ago, the GE Plot was defined by the intellect and success of its occupants. These days it’s defined, Ruzzo said, by stewardship.
Darlington had to rewire his house in order to qualify for insurance. Rather than ripping out the walls, he hired specialized contractors to use the same flexible fiber-optic cameras used in colonoscopies to rewire with precision. Most homeowners on the tour had similar stories.
After such an investment in history, tour organizer Justine Erikson said GE Plot homeowners jumped at the chance to share their surroundings with the public.
“Schenectady gets such bad press,” she said. “We want people to know there are places like our neighborhood.”
Closing the second and last tour day on Sunday afternoon, she said the event was a great success with roughly 400 people visiting each home. Proceeds from the $25 ticket price will go to improving the neighborhood’s cosmetic appearance.
She expects another tour to take place in 2015.