CANAJOHARIE - Ten years after students last walked its halls and sat in the classrooms, the former West Hill Elementary School building remains vacant, gutted and partially exposed to the elements, as its owner faces possible foreclose for failing to pay more than $2 million in mortgages locally and in New York City.
The Canajoharie Central School District closed the historic school - which once employed Susan B. Anthony - in 2002 and sold the property in 2004 for $155,000 to School House Lofts, a Massachusetts-based company that converts school buildings into apartments.
Zdislaw "George" Czachor of Brooklyn bought it from School House Lofts a year later for $250,000. Now the mortgage holder, New York City-based Eastern Capital Group LLC, has filed suit against Czachor in Queens County Supreme Court demanding simultaneous foreclosure on three properties: one in Queens, one in Brooklyn and the former school in Canajoharie.
The owner of the former West Hill Elementary School building in Canajoharie
is facing foreclosure and thousands in back taxes.
The Leader-Herald/John R. Becker
According to the suit, Czachor owes $1.6 million on the Queens mortgage and $450,000 on a loan to cover the other mortgages.
Locally, he also owes more than $27,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties on the West Hill property, according to the Montgomery County treasurer's office.
The property was scheduled to be included in a foreclosure auction in May 2011 but was withdrawn before the auction took place.
"What caused the removal [of the West Hill property] was the fact that certain creditors came forward," Montgomery County Attorney Douglas E. Landon said. "Lienholders objected to the building changing hands."
Foreclosure is still a possibility, Landon said.
"The pending foreclosure was not removed, and it could very well be renewed," he said.
Foreclosure auctions are usually held once a year, Landon said.
According to public records, Czachor lives in Brooklyn. Attempts to reach him for comment have been unsuccessful.
Local officials are unhappy that the building sits empty. The windows and doors of the building are boarded up with sheets of plywood, but since many of the openings are taller than the 8-foot length of a standard plywood sheet, gaps exist between the wood and the window frames.
Richard Rose, who retired as superintendent of the Canajoharie Central School District Dec. 1, said he and others are concerned about the long-term effects on the condition of the building.
"It was solid when we closed it," Rose said. "You can't just board up the windows and leave it."
Cathy Smith lives on Otsego Street in the village. She helped form Friends of the West Hill School, a group that was interested in making sure the building would be used in a way that would benefit the community.
"We thought it would be an ideal location for a museum and a community place for meetings," she said.
Smith said she wished School House Lofts could have kept the building.
"The loft place would have done a really nice job," Smith said. "Historically, I'm disappointed for the community. We've lost a gem."
Smith said she wanted to work with Czachor as well, but hasn't been able to contact him recently.
"We tried to encourage the current owner to do something constructive with the building," she said. "We haven't heard from him in some time."
The West Hill School, designed by architect Archimedes Russell, was built in 1892 out of native limestone. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places April 11, 2002.
"A lot of houses in Canajoharie are made of that same stone," Rose said.
Rose enjoyed the West Hill building during his time in the district.
"It's a great old building," he said. "I used to love to go up to the top floor and look out at the beautiful view."
Rose agreed that School House Lofts was a good choice when the building had to be sold.
"We did a great job of finding a buyer for the building," he said.
The building was closed in June 2002, when the elementary school moved to a new wing of the Canajoharie Central School campus. By that time, the West Hill building was used only for kindergarten and first grade, Rose said.
"We eventually moved the first grade to East Hill [Elementary School]," he said. "I don't know if you'll ever see a single building for kindergarten only."
For more than 30 years, the second and third floors of the building were used for storage, not for classroom space.
"Starting in the '70s, we couldn't use the top two floors," Rose said. "They didn't meet code, and we had to close them off because it would have cost so much money to bring them up to code."
A big problem with building codes was the existence of an enclosed central staircase, Rose said.
"It could act as a chimney if there ever was a fire," he said.
Thomas Mickle, who preceded Rose as Canajoharie district superintendent, recalled that the West Hill School was originally called the Canajoharie Academy.
"Susan B. Anthony was headmistress there," he said.
Mickle also is unhappy that the building has been left vacant for so long.
"It's tragic to see it deteriorate," Mickle said. "It's sad for the community, for the tradition it enjoys. It was a wonderful place for primary grades."
John R. Becker covers Montgomery County news. He can be reached at email@example.com.