Preservation league eyes former Starin Hotel and Opera House
FULTONVILLE — Officers of the Preservation League of New York state recently toured the former Starin Hotel and Starin Opera House as a part of their “Seven to Save” initiative.
The Main Street building, also known as the Donaldson Block, sat directly on the Erie Canal and hosted entertainers, dignitaries and tourists from across the nation, according to a news release. Montgomery County resident and Preservation League President Jay DiLorenzo, Erin M. Tobin, vice-president for Policy and Preservation, and Frances M. Gubler, manager of Technical and Grant Programs, met with Fort Royal Foundation Executive Director Karen Chaplin, Montgomery County Historian Kelly A. Farquhar, and town of Glen Historian Steve Helmin earlier this month to tour the third floor of the historic building. Chaplin represented the Fort Royal Foundation, which has owned the building for several years.
Noted photographer and historian Bruce Harvey took documentary photographs of the former opera house on behalf of the society. The Preservation League will be exhibiting these and other photographs of the properties it plans to sponsor as a part of the Seven to Save in November.
The Starin Hotel and Starin Opera House was heralded as “the Jewel of the Village” when it was first opened in 1878. The backdrop of the stage is a hand-painted mural of the Mohawk River, which can still be seen today. Prominent in the mural are Montgomery County’s famous “noses,” from a bird’s eye view — a very unusual perspective before air travel. The floors of the opera house were laid diagonally for extra strength. The ceiling is decorated with intricate, hand-stenciled designs in turquoise and coral, a color combination that has gained renewed popularity recently.
The third-floor opera house was originally accessed via a front stairwell, the group discovered during their inspection tour. The stairwell opened up onto a 60-foot by 80-foot space that hosted balls, banquets, and live performances in addition to operas. The grand room featured several chandeliers that could be raised and lowered, as needed. The medallions for the chandeliers can still be seen.
“Entertainers would often travel via canal or rail to Fultonville from New York City or other East Coast locations,” Chaplin said. “In the 1920s, the opera house found new life as a theater for silent movies. In fact, the ‘square’ grand piano that can be seen in the opera house was played to provide live accompaniment for the movies.”
The piano was saved separately by the Fort Royal Foundation.
“Square grand pianos aren’t actually square, but are referred to as ‘square’ to differentiate them from their curved cousins,” said Chaplin.
John Henry Starin, who laid out the village with Thomas Robinson, chose the location for the hotel and opera house to be convenient to the available modes of transportation. The building sat directly on the Erie Canal with the South Shore Railroad depot on the opposite side.
“It’s absolutely great that the preservation society has chosen Montgomery County as one of the places to highlight in their mission to save these historic opera Houses,” said Chaplin. “You know, the Starin Hotel was said to have been visited by two presidents, Chester A. Arthur, and Ulysses S. Grant, both good friends of Starin. It was considered the height of luxury during their visits for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the bathroom was ‘just down the hall,’ as opposed to requiring a visit to the outhouse outside.”
“This is yet another example of the rich cultural heritage, history, and hidden treasures of our area,” said Hemlin. “Built in the heyday of the Canal Era, resources like this do not exist in many other parts of the country. I am thrilled that the preservation league is looking to highlight these opera houses and by the prospect that we might be able to see the Donaldson Block’s Opera House restored.”
Farquhar also expressed her pleasure with the initiative.
“I’m glad to see the opera house garnering the attention of the preservation league.” said Farquhar. “I am happy that I was able to make the connection between the society and the foundation though my network of municipal historians. At the Montgomery County Archives, we have original photographs of the Starin Opera House, as well as pictures of the Fultonville National Bank building, which was a second Starin property that hosted live performances.”
Starin provided the space in the bank building to be used locally for village events.
“Montgomery County has a long and diverse history and that the county’s archives are the third largest in New York state,” she said.
The County Department of History and Archives in Fonda is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The preservation league announced its Seven to Save project in April of this year. In addition to historic opera houses, the seven include locally the Schoharie Aqueduct, and two historic districts in Albany County, as well as Wells Barns statewide and projects in Greater Rochester and the Southern Tier.
The spring 2018 issue of “Preservation Advocate” describes the Seven to Save program, “The Preservation League of New York state’s 2018-19 Seven Save Endangered Properties List draws attention to the loss of historic fabric in National Register-listed Historic Districts; development pressures; and reuse challenges. These seven valued historic resources are in danger of disappearing because of vacancy, disinvestment, and lack of public awareness.
Since 1999, Seven to Save has mobilized community leaders and decision-makers to take action when historic resources are threatened. A Seven to Save designation from the league delivers invaluable technical assistance, fosters increased media coverage and public awareness, and opens the door to grant assistance for endangered properties.”
Starin was a two-term congressman who obtained funding for the Saratoga Monument, the Commissioner of the Port of New York under Grant, and made his home at the renowned Starin Place in Fultonville. He was also nominated for governor in 1888, but declined the nomination.
According to Beer’s History of Montgomery County, he built “32 businesses by 1877 in Fultonville in anticipation of the [expanded] Erie Canal.”
He was also developer and proprietor of a 105-acre amusement park in New Rochelle known as “Glen Island,” which he named for the town of Glen.
The Fort Royal Foundation is a 501(c)3 not-for profit started in 1985 to promote arts conservation and preservation. The foundation sponsors Starin Place and the Donaldson Block in addition to their other projects.