It does not often occur, but on occasion I am asked to name my favorite examples of local architecture. I am sad to say that I don't really have a strong list of must-see favorites. Singular structures that can thoroughly wow tourists and locals alike are a rare breed in the Fulton-Montgomery region.
Now, that is not to say I loathe every building around here; I do in fact like some buildings, and I will get to that in a minute, but by and large, I struggle in my appreciation of local architecture simply because very few local structures have been built with the intent to wow anyone. I mean, really, when was the last time you walked into a local building and you were knocked out of your shoes by the sheer beauty and detail of a well-designed piece of architecture?
We very much live in a land of frugal pragmatics. It is a culturally ingrained, even celebrated perspective that seems to have taken hold over the prolonged years of decline in the area and has twisted our expectations for the quality of what we build. As a community, we value low-cost and minimal intervention, which drives us to accept less than we deserve.
Statuary and tall trees at the Johnstown Cemetery, above, contribute to its peaceful, stately ambiance. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
So the buildings and places I tend to appreciate and recommend to others usually pre-date World War II, built at a time when better-quality materials were in more abundance and a higher degree of craftsmanship was employed in their construction, and there was a greater demand for legacy structures. But even most of these places are not immune to the effects of our regional decline over the years, tarnishing the impact and essence of what might have been a great building at one time.
I guess my appreciation stems from my innate perception of quality imbued in the buildings or places that demonstrate authenticity. And I believe that is a shared ability among all of us. Let me explain. Authenticity can maybe best be described as a sort of extra revelation of truth connected to the relative quality of a particular experience or object.
Let me give you an example by way of food. I attended college in Buffalo and had many opportunities to experience authentic Buffalo wings. And you didn't have to go to the Anchor Bar to find authentic wings. You could trip into any locally grown bar or restaurant and find good wings.
Then I moved to Baltimore. I could not find a good, authentic dish of Buffalo wings anywhere. I once stopped into a local pub with a strong hankering for the spicy succulence of this now favorite food. They advertised the best wings in the city as named by one of the papers in town.
Imagine my horror and disappointment when my plate arrived with a mound of chicken wings covered in a sticky, clumpy sauce - that in no way resembled the authentic Buffalo wing sauce I was expecting - and the wings were undercooked so the skin was still fleshy soft instead of tight and crispy. I was so disgusted I didn't even finish the plate and left. One place even tried to pass off a peppered ketchup concoction as a legitimate wing sauce. It was just a heresy.
You will be relieved to know that I eventually found some Buffalo ex-pats that opened a wing shop in Towson. And I gladly drove the 30 minutes to satisfy my occasional cravings.
But this is the essence of authenticity. It is a state of mind where expectations meet experience to produce an enlightened sense of connection, joy and satisfaction in our lives.
So when I look around me, I struggle to find authentic architectural experiences. But they are there if you look and explore a little. Not every architectural experience needs to be a soaring grandiosity, although those kinds of places are pretty cool. Modest and simple works, too, when it is done well. What we want is something that uses physical structure that elevates our sensibilities and moves us even just a little.
For historical authenticity, I would recommend the baronial home of Sir William Johnson. This is a great example of preservation done very well. The architecture has been restored pretty faithfully to the original. But it is a historical relic preserved as a working museum, so its modern use slightly diminishes the overall effect.
A couple of other historical options are Fort Johnson, outside Amsterdam, or head west to Herkimer Home right along the Mohawk River.
If streetscapes are your thing, there are a few worth a walk. Kingsboro Avenue in Gloversville and William Street in Johnstown hold much of the essence and character of our cities in our mind's eye. When visitors come to town, we will inevitably take them there. Both neighborhoods have individual buildings and elements that disappoint, but as a whole there is much to love and enjoy, as they still employ the use of tall trees to create a canopy of shade over the streets.
For a quiet place of contemplation, I would recommend two locations. The first is a small garden area nestled next to St. John's Church in Johnstown. The space is intimate and quiet, with lovely flower beds that are meticulously manicured by church volunteers. What makes it special is the stone wall of the church and the stained glass windows that provide the backdrop. It is positively old-world.
The second location is the Johnstown Cemetery. Its meandering driveways and tall trees blanket the landscape with peaceful silence. The gravestones and memorials feature the names of many past citizens you will recognize, and along with the trees and creek, they create a fantastic space integrated with the landscape. It's as though Frederick Law Olmstead interned here.
There are other places and structures that tickle my fancy, but I need to do a little more exploring before I make any other recommendations.
My hope is this small list will give you a sense of what an authentic place looks and feels like and why these places are important. My hope is we can begin to restore more of our authentic heritage and to build new with an eye toward creating places that enhance our lives.
Like a good chicken wing, it's good for the soul.
David D'Amore is a member of the American Institute of Architects and owner of AND Architecture and Design, based in Johnstown (and-architecture.com).