She saves old buildings, hopes idea spreads

NEW LEBANON–Last fall Deborah Gordon purchased two houses on state Route 20 in the heart of New Lebanon at a foreclosure auction. Both date back to the 1800s and appear to be falling down. But Ms. Gordon, a retired 30-year employee of the state division for historic preservation, saw potential.

She watched the buildings sit until she concluded, “I was just going to have to do it myself…. When I talked to people about buying these buildings and wanting to rehab them, people thought I was crazy.” Before restoration could begin the two buildings had to be emptied of clothes, books and furniture, wet from holes in the roof. That took most of the winter months.

This project is meant to be the beginning of a larger goal for Ms. Gordon to “take really dilapidated buildings that are likely to be torn down or fall down [and] fix them up again so they can rejoin the economic life of the community.” Once they are fixed, she will sell the buildings. This is the mission of her non-profit entity, Phoenix Project of Eastern New York.

The New Lebanon site is a project she would like to replicate throughout Eastern New York, working with communities to save and repurpose historic buildings in central locations.

The building on the corner of Route 20 and West St. was built in 1880 and functioned as a general store for many years, with an upstairs apartment. Ms. Gordon has decided to remain true to the floor plan. “It’s structurally sound, just shabby,” she says. An electrician is currently wiring the three-bedroom apartment, while the downstairs is getting a new heating system and insulation. It’s a high visibility spot in town and people have already begun to notice construction.

Although Ms. Gordon plans to sell the building upon its renovation she imagines the downstairs could again be a working market.

The house next door will not be quite as easy to fix. Ms. Gordon believes it dates to 1812 (she found a Boston newspaper from around this time used as wallpaper), the outside is marked where large white columns used to stand, and old pictures reveal it was once one of the nicest homes in New Lebanon. Today it is being held together by constructed supports, and in some spots improvised beams and milk crates. On the first floor peeling linoleum, a refrigerator, bathtub and hearth all share a room. A family portrait from the last tenants remains smiling in the empty living room. In one wing of the house ceiling joists have begun to pull out of the walls. “You could push this wall in with your hands,” she says. There’s a new fireplace where unearthed antiques from the house including a clay pipe, stirrup and an 18th century English knife are displayed. More startling are the two shoes, black cloth in child and adult sizes, which builders found in one wall. A lasting medieval superstition, shoes were built into homes to ward off evil spirits.

Ms. Gordon plans to put the shoes back before repairs are complete.

While restoration continues with the help of volunteers and contracted builders, she hopes the project will start a chain reaction. “If we can supply planning and capital to do this, this is what we did in New Lebanon, think about your town.”

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