Wednesday, March 21, 2018

West Hill, An Innovative Community

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Pamphlet for West Hill. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives Collection.

As mentioned in a previous blog about Lustron homes (https://gremsdoolittlelibrary.blogspot.com/2018/01/schenectady-countys-lustron-home.html), the post-World War II housing shortage was critical throughout the country and Schenectady County was not spared.  Many suburban subdivisions were springing up but not fast enough to meet the demand.  In 1946, the General Electric Engineers Association formed a housing project committee to try to come up with a solution to meet the needs of the young families of engineers from the Schenectady plant. They decided to take matters into their own hands and plan a community where the homeowners would design and build their own homes. 


These two images show the proposed land that the West Hill neighborhood would occupy. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives Collection.
After searching for property around Schenectady, the committee narrowed down land options to two; a parcel on Balltown Road in Niskayuna and a property off Putnam Road in Rotterdam.  The latter was familiar to many in the group who hiked there and gathered wild blueberries. After careful consideration, a decision was made to purchase the 271-acre property off Putnam Road.  Several names for the area were debated, including Westwood and Crestwood which were already in use in New York state. Finally, the wife of one of the committee members suggested “West Hill” which was quickly approved by the group.   In September of 1947 The West Hill Development Corporation was formed and 286 shares of stock were sold at $100 a share to be used, in part, to purchase the property.  There was one small glitch however - the land was not for sale.  After speaking with nearby farmers, the committee learned the property was owned by Virginia Peyton, having passed down her family line from ancestor Daniel Campbell, an early Schenectady fur trader and businessman.  Finding and negotiating with Virginia was difficult.  She refused to give anyone her address or phone number, so messages were sent to her in New York City through her boyfriend and meetings took place in parking lots and dark Greenwich Village bars.  The group persevered, however, and finally make a cash sale for $12,000 taking care to follow her instructions to deliver the money in a brown paper bag. By early 1948 the group was ready to start building.

The association drilled a well and put in the first road, Terrace Road, which boasted views of the Heldeberg Mountains.  The first group of “pioneers”, as they called themselves, hiked the property and staked out plots.  Water mains were laid out and by the end of the year sixteen homes were underway.   The lots were large, some an acre or more and the houses were varied in style; many were contemporaries - now called mid-century, as well as colonials, ranches and Cape Cods.  Some of the original owners designed their own homes.  Others used architects such as John M. Johansen (one of the famed Harvard Five), Victor Civkin (pioneer of the split level) and Schenectady architect Eric Fisher. Because of the large lots, there was plenty of room between homes.


Stephen Clark at 230 Juniper Drive did most of the work on his own. Photos in our West Hill Collection show him clearing and leveling land, building the foundation and pouring concrete. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives Collection.
The original owners were an intrepid bunch.  Some lived on their property in tents while they actively worked on building their houses.  Others lived in unfinished basements as the buildings went up above them.  The early West Hill pioneers had a strong “neighbor helping neighbor” philosophy and assisted each other with building projects, meals, watching young children and dealing with the ever-present mud.  Kitty Gibson recalled that her family camped on their property for three summers as they worked on their house while each morning her husband emerged from the tent shaved and in a suit to go to work.  Jane Root was on her roof nailing shingles two months before her twins were born and recalls buying the bell from the old Putman Hill School, installing it on their roof and ringing it every morning when the school bus was coming and at 5:30 to send children home to supper. 


These photos show the exterior and interior of the Clark residence at 230 Juniper Drive. Marjorie Clark installed the insulation seen above the fireplace. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives Collection.
Materials were bought in bulk and shared among homebuilders to save on costs and those doing a majority of the building themselves were able to build homes very cost effectively.  By 1949, there were eight families living on Terrace Road and twenty one houses under construction.  Sixty-nine new lots were approved for the next phase of building.  An additional well was drilled, Terrace Road was expanded and Cricket Lane, Juniper Drive and Oakridge Drive were laid out.  The original plans for West Hill included 300 building lots, a school, church, park and small shopping area along Putnam Road.  In 1960, when plans for the third phase of building were submitted to the New York State Board of Health the Association was told that common sewers would need to be installed before any additional building could be approved.  Since funding was not available such a large project, the next phase was scrapped, and building was completed at just 83 homes.  The entrance to West Hill off Putnam Road is still a wide expanse of open land.   Tennis courts and a small pond with a lean-to were built and sit off to the side, making the entrance seem more like that of a recreation area than a subdivision.  Half of Juniper Drive -- the only road leading in and out of West Hill – remains undeveloped.

The young families who settled West Hill contributed to the post war baby boom.  By the mid-1950’s over 150 children were living there.  The community was very active.  Even when houses were under construction, the early pioneers would gather late at night in unfinished basements for beer and poker parties.  There were annual Memorial Day and summer Field Day parades, picnics and events.  Decorated trikes, bikes and floats would compete for prizes.  The pond was stocked for fishing and used for skating in winter.  A  group banded together to build a lean-to shelter to use for the skaters.  The women of West Hill formed a gardening club to help combat the mud and erosion caused by years of building which is still going strong.  They also formed a social club, the WOWS (the Women of West Hill) to help new neighbors, hold twice a year exchanges of outgrown children’s clothing, publish the West Wind* newsletter and provide a social and artistic outlet for members.  There were active Brownie, Girl Scout and Cub Scout troops as well as a rifle club.  Cross country ski trails provided another winter sport option in addition to skating. 


A few of the photos from the issue of Living for Young Homemakers featuring West Hill. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives Collection.
The July 1951 issue of Living for Young Homemakers, a national home and decorating magazine from the 40’s and 50’s, featured a twenty-page spread about the West Hill.  The article highlights several of the original families who built there along with photographs and floorplans of the homes calling West Hill “a model and inspiration for young families everywhere.”  Considered a hidden gem in Schenectady County, West Hill continues to be a thriving community and a good place to live.
Thanks to the Coggeshall family for their generous donation of West Hill memorabilia used for this blog.

*If anyone has copies of the West Hill newsletter “West Wind”, or any other West Hill material,the SCHS would be happy to accept donations.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent overview of West Hill. As a current resident in an Eric Fisher designed home, I can say it remains a unique community! Thank for this posting. We'll look for copies of the West Wind!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Carl! I'll pass along your compliments to the author.

      Delete