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Historic dispute

Commission balks at plan for smaller lagoon

Thursday, January 23, 2014
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Historic dispute


An architects rendering of the new fountains to be replaced at the entrance to the First Unitarian Society at 1221 Wendell Avenue in Schenectady Wednesday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
An architects rendering of the new fountains to be replaced at the entrance to the First Unitarian Society at 1221 Wendell Avenue in Schenectady Wednesday.

— The locally famous reflecting pool at the First Unitarian Society of Schenectady is at the center of a dispute over historic preservation.

Church officials have proposed replacing the pool and its fountains with a much smaller structure so they can put accessibility ramps at the entrances and add terrace space so the congregation can gather around the pool.

No one outside the church will notice, said Peter Loyola, the architect for the project.

“When you look at the proportion of the lagoon, you can barely see the terrace,” he said. “If you’re walking from the sidewalk, you’ll have a little more view. I feel strongly it’s not detrimental. It’s not an invasive design.”

The city’s Historic District Commission was not impressed.

“It’s a suburban shopping mall,” commission member Frank Donegan said of the proposed pool.

“The pool’s shrinking by about 12 feet,” he said. “It’s tiny. The effect is enormous.”

Church members objected, saying the commission had given the project conceptual approval in July. But commission member Marilyn Sassi said its view changed when the church applied for placement on the national historic register.

Now, “I’m looking at it in an entirely different light,” Sassi said. “I don’t take lightly a building that’s on the register.”

Donegan added that the church should not significantly change the entrance.

“You almost see what the architect was thinking. The bridge really served a purpose, the pools are so wide,” he said, speculating it was intended to help people leave the world behind as they entered the church.

But the pool must be emptied every winter, and church building and grounds chair Ray Bodensieck said that ruined the symbolism of the entrance anyway.

“I don’t know what he was thinking,” Bodensieck said of the original architect, noted modernist Edward Durell Stone. “The sacredness and the specialness, it’s not special six months of the year. It’s concrete.”

To resolve accessibility, commission members said the church could install a removable ramp at another entrance, rather than the main one. Church members said that would not be reasonable because disabled congregants would have to walk farther.

The commission was willing to accept one major change: The floor of the deep pool could be raised.

“If they want just two or three inches of water, I have no problem with that,” Donegan said.

But the size of the pool must remain the same, he insisted.

Loyola said the commission shouldn’t consider the fact that the building is on the historic register.

“It simply has no bearing,” he said, adding that he didn’t see the changes as significant.

“In keeping with the intent, we have an elongated lagoon,” he said.

Donegan said the smaller pool was not even proportional to the original design.

“Our job is to preserve what one of the most important architects of the 20th century created,” he said.

But commission members said they would be open to a compromise, such as a pool 6 feet smaller rather than 12 feet smaller. They also suggested the church discuss the project with state historic preservation officials to get another viewpoint on the issue.

Church members said they would regroup and return to the commission with a response to the concerns.

 
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