Jul 25, 2015

The Ellises of Jay Street...

A parking lot now resides on the site of the "Ellis Building"
I recently published a blog post about Alan and Corinne Luke, two friends of my parents.  It has triggered memories of several other couples with whom my parents socialized -- what we today might refer to as "hung out with."  One of these couples was Bill and Eleanor Ellis.  A search for Bill (or William D.) Ellis in Schenectady, New York, yields very little.  What does show up are a number of newspaper articles describing golf tournaments in which he (Uncle Bill to the Mead children) was either an official or a participant.  A search for Eleanor Ellis in Schenectady results in the same findings.  And indeed, my memory of the Ellises is that they were people of liesure.  They lived in a beautiful building on Jay Street, near the main Post Office in our fair city.  I believe it was the apartment building now at 49 Jay Street.  The numbers in the addresses may have changed since the 1950's, when I last visited the Ellises.  I don't believe they had any children, and as a result they really showed their affection for the Mead kids whenever we visited them, which was fairly often.

49 Jay Street
One measure of how close my parents were to their acquaintances was whether the friends got invited to Lake George in the summer when my folks rented a cabin on Basin Bay.  The Ellises were there every year, which tells me they must have been close friends.  I once asked my father if Uncle Bill Ellis worked and was told that he maintained his rental properties, one of which was the "Ellis Building" at the northeast corner of the main intersection in town -- Erie Boulevard and State Street.  Apparently the Ellis Building was a source of drama in the 1970s.

According to information on Schenectady's digital archive site, "The Ellis Building was built around the time that the Erie Canal was dug through that part of the city in 1825 and was considered to be one of the last surviving buildings from the Canal era. From the beginning, public sentiment was against the proposal. One local attorney who opposed the demolition of the buildings argued that it would "increase the size of the hole on our main street," and pointed out that the buildings "form a fa├žade that gives our main street the appearance of a street rather than wasteland."   The proposal in question was to demolish several older building to create downtown parking along both Erie Boulevard and State Street.  The discussion continues, "By 1974, the city's Urban Renewal Agency [URA] had taken title to the Ellis building and was now insisting that these buildings make way not for a parking lot, but a "modern office building or a shopping complex."  But the city still felt that it would need the Bucci building to create a parcel that would be large enough to entice developers. The owner of the building, Earl Bucci, fought the city for years to prevent them from taking his property through eminent domain. The sentiment of the of the city was expressed by Councilman Ray Vacca who said, "Fight them" which was followed by Councilman Charles Seber who suggested that the city should "Demolish the building and let them take us to court." Councilman Erwin Shapiro thought that even though the building had three tenants, it looked bad and that "a vacant lot would look a lot better."  A number of residents continued to fight to keep the historic Ellis building and sent in an application to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Wayne Harvey, vice chairman of the Schenectady Bicentennial Commission pointed out the irony of a city being nominated as a National Bicentennial Community while seeking to tear down so many buildings that were linked closely to the city's history. He said visitors could be taken to the site of the old train station or the Ellis Building to view the plaques and the pictures of what was once there and the city could say, "Isn't the plaque interesting?" or "Are not the pictures great?" The visitor would then be told by the city, "We had the building but we tore it down."  But the city council remained determined to get rid of these buildings. One exception was Councilman David Roberts who thought that the city should at least have a proposal for redeveloping the properties before rushing to demolish them. Later he stated that he had "been 'besieged' by phone calls from residents all urging preservation of the building."  But after owning the building for a number of years and allowing it to deteriorate further, the city stated that they just didn't have the money to sustain the building. After years of protests (and urging) from residents to save the building, Councilman Erwin Shapiro admonished the "anti-demolitionists for 'doing a great injustice to the city. When you let the city spend a great deal of money to buy the building knowing that it was to be demolished, you've done a great disservice to the majority of the city taxpayers, you should have come forth earlier.'"
Demolition of the building
The demolition contractor choose the first day of Spring in 1975 to begin the job. On the following day the Schenectady Gazette featured a picture of the Ellis Building being torn down with the caption titled: "Super Spring Cleaning." However, Earl Bucci continued to fight the city's attempts to take over his property, eventually taking it to the state's highest court.  By 1976 the city was insisting that they needed both sites to attract a developer.  The new plan: A rail transportation center with a 900 car parking garage. Soon after the city found a developer, the firm was indicted for fraud by the county, although the charges were later dropped. In the end, Bucci lost his court fight and the city started demolition in August 1978. Unfortunately the city was never able to interest a reputable developer in the site. Later modest landscaping improvements were added — despite the mayor's protests; in the end the buildings were sacrificed for less than fifteen parking spaces. Plans being drawn up now would place an office building on the site as part of the new Western Gateway Transportation Center."

Uncle Bill had inherited his wealth from an uncle, William D. Ellis, his namesake, who was the last President of the Schenectady Locomotive Works before it became the backbone of the American Locomotive Works in 1901.  That uncle left an estate of over $2 million in the early years of the twentieth century.

Unfortunately, Uncle Bill had a tragic dark side.  He was an alcoholic who struggled with his addiction throughout his adult life.  Sometimes when we would visit Aunt Eleanor in her apartment on Jay Street, Uncle Bill would be gone.  He had gone to a "farm" to be "dried out," and she was more than willing to share that with our family.  As was common in those days, an alcoholic could go through life with periodic episodes of sobriety, punctuated by binges and periods of detoxification.  All my recollections of Uncle Bill are of that pattern.  I never heard of his finding long-term recovery.  He passed away in 1980, so obviously he had lived through all the drama of "his" building's demolition.

Aunt Eleanor died in 1992.  In the Schenectady Gazette for March 10, 1992, was the following:
"A private service will be held for Mrs. Eleanor Rice Ellis, 84, formerly of Balltown Rd., who died Sunday at St. Clare's Hospital after a long illness.  Born in Chicago, Illinois, Mrs. Ellis lived in Schenectady most of her life.
She was a former member of the Mohawk Golf Club.  Her husband, William D. Ellis, died in 1980.  Survivors include a nephew, Robert J. Raab, of Chicago.

Burial will be in Vale Cemetery.  There will be no calling hours.  Arrangements are by Daly Funeral Home, 242 McClellan Street."  Rest in peace, my beloved "non=relatives."  I often wonder how your path crossed that of my parents.