Union Avenue Historic District
The Union Avenue Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
The Union Avenue Historic District is located in Saratoga Springs, a city of 25,000 people. Union Avenue is a broad tree-lined avenue which begins at Congress Park in the center of the city. The avenue extends to the east for 1.5 miles to meet the Adirondack Northway, Interstate Route 87.
Union Avenue is 60 feet wide at its western end and has a median strip lined with trees where it runs through the Saratoga Race Track property. The avenue is flanked by large Victorian mansions of the late 1800's. The skyline is impressive with the many-towered houses set back from the street, surrounded by expanses of lawn, and displaying the rusticated masonry and elaborate carvings of the era.
The race track property has a plethora of Victorian structures, including the turreted grandstand and many horse barns dating from 1864 onwards. New construction has been carefully monitored by the Racing Association so as to blend with the old.
The district culminates at Yaddo, a late Victorian, castellated stone mansion which surveys the surrounding regions from a hilltop. The Corporation of Yaddo owns approximately 245 acres on the north and south sides of Union Avenue, all of which acreage is included in this district. On the property are the mansion, an immense formal rose garden, five lakes and thirteen buildings executed in cobblestone, shingle and stucco.
The district as a whole is a monument to the influence of the Queen Anne style.
Union Avenue's mansions could serve as a textbook for the study of the "Queen Anne" mode. No less than fourteen of the residences are classic examples of the Queen Anne style, complete with towers, turrets, sweeping verandas, shingles, half-timbered work, bay windows, decorative stonework, small-paned window sash and other picturesque details.
The next most popular group of motifs were derived from the "colonial" period. There are exceptional buildings with columns and other Classical details. The New York Racing Association has also favored colonial designs for buildings in its complex. There are a few homes with Italianate details.
Number 149 Union Avenue is in a class by itself with its baroque parapeted gable end checkerboard porch railings. Most of these residences are remarkably intact on the exteriors.
There are two intrusions in this part of the district. Number 2 Union Avenue is an undistinguished institutional building which has not been designated an intrusion because it is fairly inconspicuous. However, 32 Union Avenue, built by Skidmore as a dormitory and dining hall and designed by Henry L. Blatner of Albany, is a large structure of bright pink cast stone, with a large one story dining hall attached, which dwarfs the surrounding mansions. It is definitely an intrusion. Another intrusion is 139 Union Avenue — an old mansard-roofed residence which has been unsympathetically altered by a restaurateur.
The most elaborate and grandiose buildings are located at the western end of Union Avenue, while the more modest ones are located near the race track. Numbers 223 and 241 are small restaurants which are intrusions. Other intrusions are a 1955 gas station and a small cottage at Number 237. The total number of intrusions in the district is six.
The property of the New York Racing Association consists of about 350 acres with two race tracks, dozens of stables, facilities for the jockeys, blacksmith shops, living quarters for the manager, clubhouse, etc. In all there are over 200 structures located on the property. The finest of these is, of course, the grandstand with its turreted roof.
The Union Avenue Historic District encompasses a remarkably homogeneous group of splendid late nineteenth-century mansions associated with the period of prosperity engendered by the Race Track. This district also fostered the early development of Skidmore College. The college took over the district's elegant homes at a time when the popularity of the Race Track as a national center for the social elite had begun to decline. The district also includes Yaddo, the famous artists' retreat which was built, conceived and endowed by Spencer and Katrina Trask. Together, the Union Avenue mansions, Race Track and the picturesquely landscaped Yaddo property provide a graphic reminder of the luxurious life which was the prerogative of the wealthy at the turn of the century.
Saratoga Springs is situated on a geological fault which has caused mineral springs of varying qualities to come to the earth's surface. While these famed springs originally made Saratoga internationally known, the race track filled the void as the springs lost their original appeal.
The Saratoga Race Track is the oldest continually operating track in the country. Stake races, such as the Travers (run since the inaugural meet in 1863), are world famous. Individuals connected with the operation read like Who's Who — Jerome, Vanderbilt, Whitney, etc. Despite renovations, the track buildings retain their Victorian architectural character, and constitute an important site in the history of horse racing in the United States.
Union Avenue began to develop in the 1800's as a seasonal resort for the socially prominent. Many homes and a hotel, the Kensington, were constructed in the Mansard and Queen Anne styles. The majority of the homes were originally built for Saratogians, and three of them can definitely be identified as the work of R. Newton Brezee, a Saratoga architect. Gradually, many members of the "cottage" colony moved onto the Avenue as seasonal renters or, in some instances, as owners.
Samuel Riddle, owner of the race horse Man of War, maintained 125 Union Avenue until his death and Samuel Hildreth, an outstanding owner-trainer, owned Number 2 Union Avenue. Though not a member of the racing crowd, Mrs. James Robert McKee, daughter of President Harris, lived at 72 Union Avenue for several years. Two colorful, but less aristocratic individuals lived farther up Union — Sam Rosoff, of subway fame, and James McBrode Davidson (or Davison), connected with the Hudson River Day Line, the Victoria Theatre in New York City and a safe manufacturing firm, purveyor to the Tweed Ring. Another resident was Margaret McKnight, an inventor credited with work on automobile engines and wheels, etc., and co-owner of the K-K Motor Co. of New York.
In 1907 Mrs. J. Blain Scribner started the Young Women's Industrial Club in a building off Union Avenue. By 1912 it became the Skidmore School of Arts and in 1922, having expanded to Union Avenue, it became a four year liberal arts college. The homes on Union Avenue were gradually taken over as dormitories and the carriage houses became classrooms and art studios.
Skidmore College started to build a new campus in the late 1960's on the north end of Saratoga Springs and the Union Avenue buildings were sold to Verrazzano College. The Verrazzano College charter has been rescinded by the Board of Regents of New York State and the college has been placed in Court Receivership. All of the buildings have been rented by the Receiver and there appear to be persons interested in purchasing the buildings, once the legal difficulties are cleared.
Yaddo Mansion was built in 1892 by Spencer Trask and his wife Katrina. Trask is known as the founder of the well-known Wall Street firm. The architect, William Halsey Wood, did little but execute the designs provided by his clients. The 55-room mansion has a medieval hall and a tower constructed especially for Katrina Task's use. Spencer Trask laid out the grounds, creating ponds, walks and romantic landscape features. Barns and other outbuildings were also built.
Since her own three children had died in infancy, it was Katrina Trask's inspiration to have Yaddo become an artists' retreat. In 1901 the corporation was formed. Many of America's most famous writers, composers and artists have been guests of Yaddo, such as Carson McCullers, Truman Capote and Aaron Copeland.
The evolution of Victorian Architecture from the 1830's to 1900 is demonstrated in this short mile and a half district. Already on the National Register is Circular Street and Congress Park, where fine examples of Greek Revival architecture, the Italian Villa style and the Mansard style are found. Union Avenue completes the composition with magnificent examples of the Romanesque, Queen Anne, High Victorian Gothic and Colonial Revival styles.
Activities associated with the use of the property may have produced archeological remains which enhance the historical value of the district.
Archives of the Saratoga Springs Historical Society.
Assessment records and maps of the City of Saratoga Springs.
Feinberg, Jane. Yaddo: The Growth and Development of Spencer Trask's Country Estate, 1881-1901. Thesis, Brown University, 1975.
Saratoga Springs City Directories.
Sanborn Insurance Maps.
Trask, Katrina. Yaddo. Privately printed, 1923.
Waite, Marjorie Peabody. Yaddo: Yesterday and Today. Saratoga Springs, N.Y.: Argus Press, 1933.
Research Files, Office of Parks and Recreation, Division for Historic Preservation, Bureau of Field Services, Albany, N.Y.