Thursday, June 20, 2013

"The De Luxe Dining Car of the Mohawk Valley:" Schenectady's Silver Diner

Advertisement in the 1936 city directory for the Silver Diner. The image in the directory shows the diner as it existed in its earliest days, before its 1937 expansion. From Grems-Doolittle Library Collections. 

Diners first operated in Schenectady in the late 1880s as night-time, mobile lunch wagons that descended upon downtown Schenectady and served G.E. and American Locomotive Company workers, mostly from the hours of 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. These night-time, mobile diners petered out during the years following World War I, as the use of automobiles grew and the city passed ordinances restricting the operation of lunch wagons. Displaced lunch wagons or railroad dining cars could be purchased and converted into stationary diners. In the late 1920s, restaurants with the word "Diner" in the business name began to emerge; the earliest in Schenectady were the Palace Diner, Gaylord Diner, and Belleview Diner.

Intersection of State and Erie, ca. 1940. Part of the Silver Diner is barely visible past the large building at left. The G.E. plant, visible at the end of Erie, was a major part of the diner's customer base throughout the history of the business. Photograph from Larry Hart Collection. 

Early in 1936 (not on Election Day, as many past newspaper articles have claimed), Dominick and James Cecilian opened the Silver Diner at 167 Erie Boulevard. The diner soon became a fixture in the city, drawing in G.E. and ALCO workers, downtown shoppers, and night-time theatergoers. The diner was made from a converted 1918 Pullman railroad car that the brothers had purchased from the Delaware and Hudson Railroad for $100.00. According to a letter to the editor written by James' son (also named James Cecilian) in the January 22, 2001 Schenectady Gazette, the brothers "had it hauled to a lot on upper State Street, where it was converted into the diner. My dad did most of the work himself. Meanwhile, a basement was prepared on Erie Boulevard. When the diner was completed it was moved to the present site." In 1937, the diner underwent a stainless steel Art Deco renovation and expansion of the original railroad car. "Another railroad car was bought for parts and parked in the back yard of our family home in Rotterdam," James Cecilian remembered. "The basement was extended and a new floor built. The building was split in half, the front wall moved forward and the roof joined together, during all this renovation the diner never closed, customers continued to be served 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Dominick bought all the waitresses and counter help sunglasses. Fortunately, it never rained."

1937 newspaper advertisement for the Silver Diner. Image obtained  via www.fultonhistory.com

The dining are was on the ground level, and food was prepared in the basement. The diner featured a water-controlled dumbwaiter; a faucet went on and off to move the dumbwaiter between levels. Billed as "The De Luxe Dining Car of the Mohawk Valley," the Cecilian family put forward this pledge in many of their advertisements: "Our Constant Endeavor is to Serve the Best Food We Can, as Clean as We Can and as Cheap as We Can." "The food was good, the service friendly," Phyllis Von Linden remembered of the Silver Diner in the 1930s and 1940s. "The menu was ample and entrees such as roast ham or liver and bacon cost 35 cents." Von Linden remembered the Cecilian brothers as "smiling, soft-spoken men who must have been sometimes tired and frustrated, but never showed it." Joseph Dubinett recalled that the diner's short-order cook in the 1950s was "one of the best in the area. He could take care of 10 dinners at one time on the grill." The Cecilian family continued to operate the business until 1975.


The Silver Diner is visible at left in this 1964 photograph looking north up Erie Boulevard toward State Street. Photograph from Larry Hart Collection. 

The family sold the diner to Ruben Michelson, who took over the business in February 1975 and renamed the business Ruby's Diner. Michelson had long run Ruby's Luncheonette at 10 Erie Boulevard, in the Ellis Building, before the building was razed. "For six weeks, I walked the streets unemployed before I happened to become connected to this place," Michelson remembered. Michelson continued the tradition of good, inexpensive fare in a homey atmosphere. "It's like going home for lunch," said customer Sal Constantino. "You can get anything you want." Schenectady Gazette reporter Barbara Mitsch visited the diner in 1986 and remarked, "stools with green seats line the front of the counter. Peach-colored curtains frame the mahogany thumb-latch windows on the opposite wall, where the original mahogany booths are. On one end, scene from the Pine Grove Farm in Duanesburg adorn the wall." An article a few years later remarked, "the home-style cooking and the friendliness that pervades the space are reminders of an earlier generation." Donald Kaplan and Alan Bellink featured the diner in their book Diners of the Northeast, and proclaimed that the diner was "home of some of the best potato salad we ever had on the road." Bernie Witkowski liked the atmosphere at Ruby's and the variety of people who came in to get a bite. "You see some people come in suits. Some are working class, maybe people on a tight budget." As the years turned, the reduction of the G.E. Schenectady workforce impacted the volume of business in the diner. Ruby's Diner scaled their hours of operation back from a 24-hour schedule, opening at 5:30 a.m. and closing mid-afternoon. Ruben Michelson's son, Bob, saw each round of layoffs mark fewer customers coming in. "Business is not like it used to be. We're hanging on, " Michelson said in 1995.

Ruben Michelson inside Ruby's Diner in 1980. Copy from clipping file, Grems-Doolittle Library. 

The business changed hands soon after, in late 1996, when George Hutton bought Ruby's and renovated it with a $20,000 loan from the city. He renamed the business the Silver Diner and promoted it as a classic greasy spoon. "We serve all the food that's bad for you," Hutton quipped in a 1997 interview. "Caffeine, sugar, butter and salt. Those are our four food groups. All the food the surgeon general has warned us against." The Silver Diner soon folded for good a year later. Hutton cited his own inexperience and a lack of afternoon customers. "I just couldn't produce," Hutton said in 2000.

Ruby's Diner, ca. 1980s. Photograph from Larry Hart Collection.
With the closure of the Silver Diner in 1998, another piece of Schenectady's history was laid to rest, and the Silver Diner joined a long list of lost diners of Schenectady, including the Belleview, Coons Brothers, Cross-Town, Everready Dining Car, Flite Dining Car, Ladd's, MacDonald's, Miss Schenectady, Modern, Oven and Griddle, Palace, State, Van Curler, and Victory Dining Car. In October 2009, the Silver Diner was demolished. The diner had closed its doors for good in 1998, and had been vacant since then. The city took possession of the property in 2000 following a foreclosure. Over the last years of the building's existence, various ideas and plans were promoted to salvage the building -- from restoring its use as a diner, to converting it to an office space or retail store, to moving it to become an exhibit for the Schenectady Museum. In the end, the Silver Diner was not saved. The city performed an emergency demolition of the building, saying it feared the long-vacant structure could collapse "at any time." Thus, the history of one of the few remaining converted railroad car diners in the United States was brought to a close.

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