Surprises uncovered in historic Schenectady church
Rehabbing the former German Methodist Church on the corner of Lafayette and Union streets in Schenectady came with its share of surprises for Creative Advantage owner Walter Supley.
There was the beautiful artwork on the ceiling of the main sanctuary, which had been covered up long ago, while a much less pleasant remnant from the past was the overwhelming evidence of pigeons having called the bell tower home. And then there were the bones.
“We knew there had been a cemetery here, right alongside the building, and we actually had to have an archaeologist here while we were rehabbing the place,” said Supley, a Rotterdam native and Saratoga Lake resident who bought the building in 1989.
“The bodies had been taken to Vale Cemetery a long time ago, but while we were putting the mechanicals in the basement area we hit bones, so we had to stop. Fortunately, we found out they were pig bones from a cookout.”
The structure was built in 1872 and used as a church until 1957, when the congregation was dissolved, many of its members going to the now defunct Calvary Methodist Church in Niskayuna and the Trinity Methodist Church (now Faith United Methodist) on Brandywine and Eastern Avenue.
The building then became a senior citizens center for nearly 20 years before it was purchased and turned into a restaurant called Sunday’s in 1978. That business lasted about six years, and in 1988, when the building was vacant, Supley was just across the street at 707 Union St., looking for a bigger place to house his rapidly expanding marketing and communications company.
“I was living upstairs at 707 and the business was downstairs,” he said. “I can remember actually going across the street to interview one of my art directors for a job at the bar here when it was Sunday’s. But my business was growing, and I had to grow with my customers or lose them.”
The building had been changed very little in the transformation from church to restaurant, according to Supley.
“They didn’t do much at all, so it was a total historic rehab that we did after we bought the building,” he said. “It was all open until we divided the space into separate offices. The basement had just been crawl space, so we put in a real basement, and we added two floors on top of what was the main sanctuary.”
While much of the building is now compartmentalized, there is an open section where people on the third and fourth floors can look down at what was the main sanctuary on the second floor, and observe most of Creative Advantage’s 18 employees at work at their desks.
“We did a lot of work, but this is a great old building,” said Supley. “The superstructure of this thing is all steel, and the columns are cast iron, all made back when GE had its own steel foundry here. They don’t make them like this anymore.”
Before the bones disturbed by the rehab were confirmed to be someone’s ancient supper, Supley had been afraid they were skeletal remains of the 57 American Revolutionary War veterans who were originally buried at the site and then removed to Vale Cemetery just before the start of the Civil War.
Building a barracks
It was back in 1776 that Gen. George Washington, in command of the Continental troops, suggested that barracks be built on the site to serve the Northern Department of the Army. Marquis de Lafayette reputedly surveyed the area for Washington, and Albany’s Philip Schuyler was in charge of construction. At the same time and in the near vicinity, Schuyler also built a hospital that eventually cared for the 57 soldiers, most of whom lost their lives in the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 or soon thereafter.
“It was during Washington’s first visit to Schenectady, in 1776, that he either suggested or authorized them to build the barracks,” said former Schenectady County Historical Society president and local historian Frank Taormina. “They also built what turned out to be a hospital at that site, and it remained a pretty busy place throughout the Revolution.”
The German Methodist Episcopal Church in Schenectady was organized in 1849, and it was Rev. I.I. Grau who performed the first service at its initial church building on Jay Street in May of 1850. The current structure held its first service at Lafayette and Union streets in 1872, and according to Howell and Munsel’s “The History of Schenectady County from 1662-1886,” it was 53 feet by 82 feet and had the capacity to seat 800.
In the first decade of the 20th century, when there were more than 500 families attending two different services on Sundays, it was considered the largest German Methodist church in the entire country.
“By the 1870s, there was a substantial German population in the city of Schenectady,” said Taormina. “Most of the foreign-born people living in the city during that time period were either from Germany or Ireland. It soon became more and more Poles and Italians in the latter part of the 19th century, but before that we had the German Methodist Church, we had St. Joseph’s for German Catholics (1877), and we had the German Lutheran Church (1872).”
When the GME church was built in 1872, a parsonage was also created for the pastor across the street on Park Place.
“The extension of the city eastward had gone at least as far as Nott Terrace and perhaps a little bit further,” said Taormina. “So, the German church was within that area of the city, but it was a pretty nice area. Right along Union Street there during the same time period you have Levi Case building his home along with many other people with money. It was a very nice neighborhood.”
Services were actually held in German well into the 20th century, and according to one source the final German sermon was delivered in 1943 during the middle of World War II. Four years earlier the congregation, with the urging of the Uniting Conference of the Methodist Church, had officially changed its name to the Union Street Methodist Church.
“I guess it wasn’t cool to be German anymore,” said Supley, smiling.
While the interior of the church looks plenty different than the way it did 100 years ago, Supley tried to keep the original look as best he could. The entrance to the building hasn’t changed much at all, and leads to a landing where visitors can either go up half a floor to what was the main sanctuary, or walk down a couple of steps to office space on the first floor. Stained-glass windows also left over from the original building give visitors the impression they’re in the midst of something special.
“We took out all of the stained-glass windows and re-grouted them and fused them back together, and we insulated all the walls and we put in a new artificial slate roof,” said Supley.
“The bell tower had been struck by lightning in 1942, so they rebuilt it with a flat roof. We took out the roof, where we came across all this pigeon guano, and put in a skylight.”
All the work has been well worth it, according to Supley, who began his business in 1978.
“I have had the opportunity to work for my clients around the world; in England, Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Singapore, South Korea and Russia,” said Supley, who added that his first employee was his mother, Elsa, who passed away in 2005.
“I have seen such great historical sites, and I realized how short our country’s history is. I felt it was a great opportunity to be able to have my business showcased in a beautiful building, which happens to be at the same location where even earlier another building was built by order of our country’s first president.”