Union Street Historic District
The Union Street Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. 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 Street Historic District consists of approximately 190 properties located along both sides of Union Street, with contiguous properties at 20 1/2 Union Avenue and 2 and 4 Nott Terrace. Residential architecture predominates in the district but there are a substantial number of commercial, public and religious buildings as well. A range of American architectural styles of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is represented, with examples of turn-of-the-century eclecticism most prevalent.
Union Street is a major thoroughfare leading from the old Stockade area of the city past Union College and eastwards towards Troy. The western section of the historic district, between the railroad and Union College, is the older part, its buildings dating primarily from the mid-nineteenth century. Density is high, but most structures are detached and some have landscaped yards. All structures on the north side of Union Street between Barrett Street and Seward Place were set back at least twenty feet from the sidewalk in order to provide a view of the Union College campus, but most other buildings on lower Union Street abut the sidewalk. Most buildings in this section are two-story brick structures, but size, style and materials are quite diverse. There are a few non-contributing modern buildings and some intrusive parking lots.
East of Nott Terrace, beyond the imposing Second Empire style Ellis Mansion (#802) and the remarkable glass spire of St. John the Evangelist church, Union Street becomes a more homogeneous residential neighborhood. This section reflects a later period in Schenectady's history, at the time when expansion of the locomotive industry and development of the General Electric Company stimulated rapid suburban growth. Most of the houses date from the period 1890-1920, and many are excellent examples of Queen Anne and Colonial Revival architecture. The neighborhood, with its tree-lined sidewalks, spacious landscaped lawns, and elegant architecture, presents a cohesive streetscape reflecting Schenectady's turn-of-the century prosperity.
The historic district boundary has been drawn to include only those historic structures which relate to the historically significant Union Street corridor. At the western end, the district boundary is a railroad overpass beyond which is Erie Boulevard, a broad thoroughfare bordered by modern commercial development. West of Erie Boulevard lies the Stockade Historic District (listed on the National Register 4/3/73). South of lower Union Street are parking lots, modern office buildings and scattered older structures which mark the outskirts of downtown Schenectady; to the north is a neighborhood of modest older homes. The central section of the Union street Historic District abuts the Union College campus to the north, while the General Electric Realty Plot (listed on the National Register 11/18/80) lies only a few blocks north of Union Street and east of Union College. The eastern boundary of the historic district delineates the approximate limit of development in the 1920's. The neighborhood east of Phoenix Avenue and streets north and south of Upper Union Street are similar to the historic district in their residential character, but the houses there generally post-date 1930 and reflect the simpler and less distinguished examples of mid-twentieth century domestic architecture.
The Union Street Historic District contains a significant concentration of nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings which reflect several historic periods in the development of the city of Schenectady. Originating in the old Stockade area of the city, Union Street was one of two roads leading east to Watervliet and Troy, providing a direct route from the Mohawk River to the head of navigation of the Hudson River. Primarily a transportation route during the eighteenth century, Union Street remained largely uninhabited until the growth of Union College in the early nineteenth century and the mid-century development of the locomotive industry. As the city grew outward from the Stockade, a fashionable residential neighborhood with accompanying commercial services developed along Union Street west of the college. The city experienced another distinct phase of development at the turn of the century following the founding of the General Electric Company. The elegant residences which form a homogeneous streetscape east of Union Avenue give evidence of the tremendous prosperity created by the growth of the electric industry.
In 1661 Arendt Van Curler and fourteen other Dutch patentees settled a small fur trading outpost on the Mohawk River just west of Fort Orange (Albany). It was a thriving and peaceful community until February, 1690, when a raiding party of French and Indians attacked the unprotected fort, massacred almost sixty settlers and burnt the village to the ground. However, within two years, the determined Dutch had rebuilt their settlement.
The lucrative river trade and production of broomcorn provided Schenectady with economic security during the eighteenth century. With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the expansion of the railroads in the 1830's, Schenectady was transformed from a quiet little village into a bustling mercantile center. Residential and commercial areas expanded well beyond the boundaries of the Stockade area, particularly along Union Street, the Troy-Schenectady toll road. The development of Union Street was initially stimulated by the decision to relocate Union College to a large tract of land in the sparsely settled area at the top of Union Street Hill. Founded originally at Union and North Ferry Streets in the Stockade, the college moved to its present location in 1814. President Eliphalet Nott obtained the services of the noted architect Joseph Jacques Ramee to design the campus, the first planned campus in the nation. Parcels of college-owned land not to be included in the campus were sold to individuals and developers with strict building stipulations attached: "Each house built on Union Street on college land is to be stepped back a width of an average veranda, so as to permit a view of the college edifices from the street, on the approach to the grounds from the west."
The effects of this stipulation are evident on the north side of Union Street between Barrett Street and Seward Place (#601 - #713). Noteworthy examples on these two blocks of elegant residences include the Walter McQueen Residence (Second Empire Style, #613), The Hook House (Greek Revival Style, #705), The President's House (Gothic Revival Style, #709; thought to have been constructed by Eliphalet Nott), and the General Francis Fisk House (Greek Revival Style, #711).
Also contributing to the increased development along Union Street was the establishment of the Schenectady Locomotive Works in 1848 near Jay Street. The new industry created a need for more housing and services, and Union Street grew to meet this need. Many of the buildings between present-day Erie Boulevard and Union Avenue were constructed during the third quarter of the nineteenth century,, including the Old Schenectady Free Dispensary (#408), Mercy Hospital (#404), the German Methodist Church (#614), and numerous business interests and private residences.
John C. Ellis, president of the Schenectady Locomotive Works, later to become the internationally known American Locomotive Company (ALCO), chose Union Street as the location for his palatial residence, establishing the precedent for upper Union Street's development during the forthcoming five decades as an elegant residential neighborhood. The Second Empire style Ellis Mansion was completed in 1878 (#802). Completion of the Willis T. Hanson Estate ten years later strengthened the prestigious character of the neighborhood. Suffering financial difficulties in the 1880's, Union College had begun to sell its tracts of unused land east of the campus. On land purchased from the college, Hanson built his Queen Anne style mansion in 1888. Together with a picturesque carriage house, servants' quarters and landscaped gardens, the Hanson Estate is but one illustration of the wealth enjoyed by Schenectady's elite late in the nineteenth century.
The most dramatic addition to Union Street in the late nineteenth century was St. John the Evangelist Church. After the death of John C. Ellis, his family began selling parcels of land around the mansion. Monsignor John L. Reilly acquired some of this land and in 1898 began raising money to build a new cathedral there. The unique church was designed by Monsignor Reilly from ideas he had gathered while visiting churches in Europe. Edward Loth of Troy was the supervising architect.. The resulting stone structure is 120 feet by 130 feet, with small towers placed at each corner and a central spire reaching 230 feet in the air. The roof of the spire is constructed of steel and glass and casts light on the sanctuary below. The interior is elaborately decorated in plaster and has a unique amphitheater style of seating. The church now owns the Ellis mansion and utilizes it as a rectory.
The city experienced another distinct phase of development with the growth of the electric industry at the turn of the century. In the summer of 1886, Thomas A. Edison purchased two deserted factory buildings in Schenectady to house the newly formed Edison Machine Works. After an extended period of industrial amalgamation, Edison's company became the General Electric Company, and in 1894 Schenectady was declared General Electric's official headquarters. Prospering from the locomotive and electric industries, Schenectady was incorporated as a city in 1907. Rapid population growth and expansion of the trolley lines (electrified in 1891) encouraged suburban development. Union Street continued to be the city's most prestigious residential neighborhood and was fully developed as far east as Phoenix Avenue by 1930. Elaborate examples of Queen Anne and Colonial Revival design characterize the area of Union Street developed in the period 1890-1920. The uniformity of lot size and setback, the homogeneity of scale and materials, and the harmony of design produce a remarkably cohesive streetscape representing the prosperity enjoyed by Schenectadians in the early 1900's.
Union Street has retained its visual character despite major changes in occupancy: lower Union Street includes apartments, social clubs, service organizations, professional offices, and businesses, large and small. Located only a few blocks from the city center, the area has suffered some development pressure, as evidenced by some parking lots and modern buildings. Upper Union Street has retained its residential character, but most houses have been divided into apartments and many ground floors house professional offices. Nevertheless, Union Street continues to be an area of fine old buildings notable for their architectural quality and state of preservation.
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Hart, Larry. Tales of Old Schenectady, Vol. 1. Scotia, N.Y.: Old Dorp Books, 1975.
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Temey, Joseph. History of Albany and Schenectady Counties. Albany, N.Y., 1886.