Landmarks: Old Imperial site enters a new phase with Mexican Radio on the horizon
When New York City native Jane Golub moved to Schenectady in 1963, just after she was married, she wasn’t expecting to find a big-city shopping experience in her new hometown. Abe Cohen, however, and his women’s speciality store, The Imperial, surprised her.
“I was teaching in Niskayuna, making $4,800 a year, and I can remember going to The Imperial and being afraid to touch anything because I couldn’t have afforded it,” said Golub. “It just felt so special. I was a New York City girl, and that store, it had a certain mystique to it, was as close to being big-city as anything Schenectady offered at that time.”
While the original building on the northwest corner of State and Broadway was built in 1865, it was Cohen who turned it into a Schenectady landmark. He and his brother Joseph started a clothing store there in October of 1912, and the place thrived through two world wars and the turbulent 1960s before finally closing in 1981. It will also be remembered as home to the Imperial Racing Center, owned and operated by Capital District Regional Off-Track Betting Corp., from 1985 to September of 2012. Coming early in 2014, after the completion of an extensive renovation project, new owners Mark Young and Lori Selden will open up Mexican Radio, a restaurant specializing in Mexican cuisine.
The couple purchased the building for $425,000 and reportedly are putting $3 million into the renovation work. It was sold by the Cohen family in 1982 for $85,000 to Anthony Brock and Louis Venditti who did their own extensive renovation and opened a gift and toy store called the Imperial Loft. That store was there for less than two years and the two owners then resold the building in 1985 to Capital OTB for $240,000.
Union, then imperial days
The building was originally two distinct structures, the one on Broadway built as the Civil War ended by Charles Stanford to house his new Republican newspaper, The Daily Union. That area between the railroad overpass and Broadway was called the Stanford Block, the Stanford family being one of the most prominent in Schenectady. Along with starting up the newspaper, Charles Stanford had numerous business concerns and also served in the state Assembly and Senate from 1864-69. His brother, Leland, moved west to California, got involved in the railroad business, became governor of the state and created Stanford University.
Charles Stanford died in 1885, but the family’s hardware store and the law offices of Schenectady historian Austin Yates occupied that block along with the newspaper into the 20th century. Cohen, meanwhile, born in Austria in 1881, had come to America in 1896 and went to work for his brother, who had a custom tailor shop on Ferry Street. He moved to Boston for a short time and worked at a pottery factory, but returned to Schenectady in 1903 after marrying his employer’s daughter, Anna Morris, and began working as a tailor at H.S. Barney Co. In 1912, after The Daily Union had published for the last time in August of 1911, Cohen and his brother rejoined forces to open The Imperial Cloak and Suit House at what was then 329 State St. It was a small space, just 9 feet wide and 60 feet deep, but the business flourished and the store continued to expand. By 1933 Abe was the sole proprietor and his oldest son, Bernard, was the assistant manager.
The store expanded five times, and Cohen spent $100,000 in 1948 on renovation work and put on an annex in the rear. Since that time, the store and its offices occupied the entire building — all three floors — with the exception of a small space reserved for the Jay Jewelry Co. In 1957, Jay Jewelry left and Cohen took over the whole building.
‘Women are women are ...’
“Women are women are women, God bless them,” Cohen was quoted as saying in a Gazette article on the store’s 50th anniversary in 1962. Evidently, most of his employees felt the same way.
“They treated you so beautifully when you walked into the store,” remembered Golub. “Downtown was so robust in those days. It was great fun, and I remember they sold some Miriam Haskell jewelry on the main floor, and it’s a piece I still treasure. The Imperial was the only place that carried it.”
Millie Kielmann of Rotterdam Junction worked at the New York Telephone building around the corner on Barrett Street in the 1940s, and conceded that The Imperial was a little bit out of her league.
“It was one of the most expensive stores in the city, and I was working at the telephone company knocking down $16 a week,” remembered Kielmann. “They had a jazzy showroom with a lot of manikins, and I used to go in there just to look around. I didn’t have that kind of money, and I was never a clothes horse anyway. But I can remember a lot of the girls would head over there on their lunch hour. They’d buy something like one of those Chesterfield coats on layaway, and paid a buck a week. It was very posh, very upscale.”
Anne Christman of Scotia headed to The Imperial in the early 1960s to buy a dress for her high school graduation.
“I remember they had this nice staircase that came down from the second floor, like you might see in a hotel lobby,” said Christman. “I don’t know if the stairway was that special, but it was different from what you saw at all the other stores. They had very nice dresses, but I didn’t go there that often; only for special occasions.”
A downturn in the economy, the advent of malls and the size of the building all led to the demise of The Imperial. In 1981, David Cohen, Abe’s second son, said it was unrealistic to keep the store open.
“There are deep regrets,” Cohen told the Gazette in October of 1981. “I’m the surviving member of the family that ran the store .... but conditions have not warranted the store’s setup. It’s too cumbersome.”
If there are ghosts in the building, they are newspapermen hurrying to beat deadline, women eyeing the latest fashions, and horse-racing fans looking for that big winner. As for Abe Cohen, a civic-minded member of the community who was involved in the creation of Schenectady’s Jewish Community Center, the Schenectady County Airport and St. Clare’s Hospital to name just a few, it’s hard to say how he would have felt about the building’s new tenant.
Young and Lesden, however, hope to do him proud.
NYC Start, then Hudson
Partners and companions for nearly 20 years, the couple started their first Mexican Radio restaurant in 1996 on Mulberry Street in the Little Italy section of New York City. Four years later, they moved into a bigger building on Cleveland Place, and after some success there decided to head north and open another restaurant in Hudson in 2003.
“We took over an 1840s building that was originally a private residence that was turned into commercial space in the 1950s,” said Young. “We’ve always liked old buildings, and when I moved to the East Coast from California I was amazed at how old everything was. Our house that we bought in Columbia County was built in 1690. I’ve always been attracted to old things, and if you can’t find a way to re-purpose a building it will be torn down and will get replaced by something new. And that something will never be as pretty as what was there. It will always be lost.”
After more success in Hudson, the couple turned their eyes farther north looking for another location.
“We were very impressed with Proctors and the amount of activity it generates,” sad Young, “and we thought Albany might be a little bit too close to Hudson because our place there does draw people from the southern part of Albany. We also looked at Glens Falls, we looked at Saratoga, and then we saw Schenectady. We liked the urban aspect of it, and once you learn the history of the place and all the amazing things that went on here during the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century, it just became an exciting place for us to open another restaurant.”
A historical marker just on the other side of the railroad overpass from his new building was one of the things that caught Young’s eye.
“To me, it’s exciting that maybe 75 yards from this spot, Thomas Edison got off a train and decided to choose Schenectady to build ... General Electric,” said Young. “He could have gone anywhere but he came here.”
Mexican ... and more
As the name indicates, the restaurant will serve Mexican food, although patrons will be met with a diverse menu.
“We’ll have specials, and we might offer a steak, and when we do we’ll figure out a way to make it a little Mexican,” said Young. “We’ll have Mexican fusion food, and plenty of Mexican comfort food.”
Rotterdam native David Wasniski will be the restaurant’s general manager.
“I’ve been a longtime fan of their place in Hudson, so when this opportunity came up I jumped at it,” said Wasniski, who had been running the food service program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. “I’m a vegetarian and, while we may cater to vegetarians and vegans, at the same time we’re very welcoming to carnivores. Our menu will have 70 choices, and I see us drawing a family crowd, a Proctors crowd, and a little bit of a late-night crowd, but not the super-late party crowd. I think we’ll be closing by 11.”
The look of the interior will be determined by Selden.
“Well, hopefully it will be Mexican, but it is a challenge,” she said. “When you’re in Latin American and Mexico, pretty much anything goes color-wise. You can have pink next to orange next to blue. But it’s also a very big building, so it might have something of a Spanish Colonial feel to it.
“I’ve also been doing a lot of historical research, and we might get some lovely old images of what the building used to look like,” she said. “I don’t know if that would be something we would permanently install or just have them on display for a while. But we are going to leave as many bricks exposed as we can, so people can see what the building used to look like in its natural state.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or firstname.lastname@example.org