POTSDAM – Responding to calls to preserve a large house on Elm Street rather than demolish it and build a new town hall there, Potsdam Supervisor Marie Regan says she doesn’t believe it is a practical proposal.
If the house at 18 Elm St. was to be preserved, Regan said, “the public should have shown their concern for preservation many years ago when it might have been more feasible to achieve.”
But a promoter of the preservation idea says it’s not out of the question if enough donations and grants can be amassed for the job.
Regan says that to “preserve” the gutted structure would take a great deal of money – “two tractor trailers full of money,” one consultant to the town board has said.
After the town purchased the property and announced its plan for a new town hall on the site, a movement to preserve the 19th-century structure arose locally and from a former Potsdam resident now living in Phoenix, Ariz.
A move is afoot to organize a not-for-profit Potsdam Historic Preservation Society, with its first goal saving the house at 18 Elm St. A Web Facebook page promoting the formation of the society has drawn the interest several thousand people.
The building is notable as a private house built in the 1890s by the Dewey family, and, whether it is true or not, it is said to have been the inspiration for the horror film made by former Clarkson College of Technology instructor Wes Craven in 1984, “Nightmare on Elm Street.”
Regan provided some more history on the house:
“Prior to its purchase in 1952 by a group of students who would affiliate with Theta Chi, Clarkson's lone national fraternity, the building had been a funeral parlor.
“By 2006, the building had deteriorated to the point that the village code officer told the Theta Chi tenants that there were a number of ‘safety and health’ issues that had to be addressed before the January 2007 term began or the building could not house the students. They were either unable or unwilling to do the needed repairs and the water and electricity was turned off in January 2007. The building remained vacant since then. The Elm Street building became an attractive nuisance and had to be boarded up to prohibit contact by vandals. At this point, Theta Chi, nor Clarkson, nor Wes Craven, nor village officials, nor any concerned citizens' group came to the rescue. In 2009 it was purchased by the Blanchard brothers; I believe they intended to turn the building into several apartments.”
But Regan says the Blanchards changed their minds “after assessing the state of disrepair.
“They proceeded to strip the building of all materials that were saleable such as doors, windows, hardwood flooring -- even the copper pipes. The building is now virtually a shell.”
Early this year, Regan says, the Blanchards approached town government suggesting that the property might be useful as “a town hall or town court or combination office and court.” Regan says they were just then selling off the Lawrence Avenue property they had bought to put up a new town hall. That building plan fell through when a referendum was forced on the town and voters refused to back the plan.
Regan says the town still needs quarters as an alternative to the current offices and court at 35 Market St., a former bank building which is badly in need of renovation itself.
“Whether dissolution of the village occurs or not, most of the municipal employees will still need to be housed. Also, both the village and town courts do not meet state guidelines.”
The Elm Street spot, “across from the police station and near the Civic Center, seems ideal, if and when circumstances are right to build what is deemed necessary.”
“We would certainly have liked to, at the very least, preserve the building's facade, if not the entire building,” Regan said.
“We paid Tisdel Engineering to give us cost estimates and were told it would take ‘two tractor trailers full of money’ to do these things. We are now in the process of getting cost estimates from three firms to assess if there is any asbestos in the back shed and the fraternity itself. If asbestos is found, special procedures must be taken when razing these structures.
“What I am attempting to make clear is that the town would have liked to preserve this building, but we simply don't have a million dollars to reconstruct it, and then have to build an addition to give the municipality the needed space we envision as necessary.”
Mary Sherburne Ezell, the Potsdam High and Potsdam College graduate and Phoenix resident who has written to North Country This Week on the issue in favor of preservation, responded to Regan, saying the town should not have to shoulder the cost of restoration.
“I'm not sure that anyone would expect the town to restore it, nor should the town spend money on its restoration," said Ezell said in reply to Regan. "However, it is never too late to change your direction if it will benefit the long term economy, spirit, and interests of the people you serve.”
Regan does agree with the principal of preserving historic structures in the township.
“I am in total agreement that one of the village, town, and college responsibilities is to make Potsdam as visually appealing as possible,” Regan wrote. “Certainly, one of the ways to do this is to work together to do all that is practical to conserve our historic buildings. The formation of some board or commission to do just that sounds like a good first step.”
Ezell said, “Delaying any further action in regards to the house would be something which could be to the town's advantage. It will take time for a non-profit historic preservation society to be set up. With donations (if each of the 6,000 interested Facebook members gave $10, there is the $60,000 necessary to purchase the house), grants (it should be a registered historic home) and fund raisers, the restoration would begin.”