Glens Falls Journal: Historic Adirondack Mill Town Brings New Life to Downtown

View of downtown Glens Falls (photo courtesy Behan Communications)

BY RON BERNTHAL

In the early 18th century, about a hundred years after Henry Hudson sailed from Manhattan up the river that would be named after him, early Dutch, and then British settlers, began moving into the upper reaches of the Hudson River Valley.

After the Revolutionary War the Adirondack timber industry fueled a population boom in the wooded mountains north of Glens Falls, and small towns developed in this once remote area, with rivers providing the water power for early tanning, paper and apparel industries, the free flowing Hudson becoming a watery highway used to transport the heavy logs downriver from Adirondack forests.

Warren County was established in 1813 and Glens Falls, with its industries and rail and river transportation network became, at that time, the county’s largest city. After 1950, however, when the mills began closing, and urban renewal and new shopping malls changed the area’s demographics, the city’s population began to fall, from almost 20,000 to the current 14,000 residents. It is no longer the largest town in the county, that honor belongs to the more suburban oriented Queensbury, but after 15 years of public and private efforts to revitalize its downtown, Glens Falls has become one of New York State’s “Main Street” success stories.

“I think Glens Falls’ location, between the forests and mountains of the Adirondacks north of us, and the state capital so the south, helped us grow when the region was first settled, and is now providing the impetus for our downtown resurgence now,” said Amy Collins, director of tourism and business development for the city of Glens Falls. “Our roots came from being a mill city, and we are now converting many of our historic buildings into affordable residential lofts, restaurants, and public facilities.”

Beginning in the 1990′s, attracted to the city’s affordable downtown real estate, local residents began opening restaurants and shops, developers began converting formerly abandoned buildings into residential apartments and commercial uses, and after 9/11 many New York City residents found Glens Falls to be a safe alternative for their family, with a surprising amount of shopping and culture.

The city’s Hyde Collection displays original works from Rembrandt, Rubens, Picasso, Renoir, and dozens of other major European and American painters. A large part of this collection is installed in the elegant atmosphere of historic Hyde House, an American Renaissance mansion built in 1912. The World Awareness Children’s Museum, the Chapman Historical Museum, and several downtown art galleries contribute to the city’s cultural ambience.

When Rick Davidson and his brother opened Davidson Brothers Brewing Company in the middle of downtown in 1996 it was the first new brew pub restaurant to open downtown in years. “Much of what happened in the past 17 years is because local residents like us saw the potential in our downtown. We were pioneers then, but slowly the enthusiasm caught on, and even today, after so much has changed for the better in Glens Falls, many of us see the area getting even better, with more to offer both local residents and visitors,” Davidson said, as he helped his staff serve a busy lunchtime crowd of downtown workers.

“Planning for more people to actually live downtown is an important facet of the city’s current long range development plan,” said Edward Bartholomew, a former mayor of Glens Falls and currently the city’s economic community development director. “One of the important features if Glens Falls is to grow is to provide residents with comfortable and affordable living quarters within our downtown area. We have made great strides in doing this, through historic renovations, and new buildings as well. Many of our downtown buildings have been converted for commercial use as well, restaurants, offices, and shops.”

One of the historic building business conversions Mr. Bartholomew is talking about is the Troy Shirt Factory. The red brick building was designed by Ephraim Potter and constructed in 1902. Originally known as the The McMullen-Leavens Company, it was known for producing mens’ shirts before expanding into dressmaking as well. In 1939 the company acquired the label of the Troy Shirt Makers Guild from a competitor in Troy, New York, and the label would eventually account for almost 70 percent of domestic shirt sales in the United States. A retail outlet was located at the Cooper Street entrance, and one can still see the marks, grooves and indents in the wooden floors of the building from the sewing machines and other equipment.

The 1902 McMullen-Leavens Company, which manufactured shirts and dresses has been converted into a large space with artist studios, shops, and small businesses, and is known locally as the “Shirt Factory.” (photo courtesy Chapman Historical Museum)

The factory continued operations until 1996 when globalization of the textile industry took its toll on domestic textile manufacturing, and in 1999 the building was converted into a location for art galleries, studios and other small businesses, becoming a popular destination for residents and visitors.

The “Shirt Factory” today is a complex of artist studios, crafts shops and cultural organizations (photo courtesy Kate Austin-Avon)

Another successful downtown restoration is Warren Street Square, a new complex with two dozen luxury apartments, offices and retail space. Tenants are currently moving into the renovated Joubert & White Carriage Co., a carriage and buckboard manufacturer that inhabited the building in the early 1900’s.

Warren Square, a mixed-use downtown development project offers luxury apartments in a former carriage and buckboard factory from the early 1900′s. (photo Ron Bernthal)

Forbes magazine has rated the city as the 8th best small city for jobs, pointing to a 5.4 percent increase in jobs in 2011-2011, and with only 14,000 residents, it may be the smallest American city with its own symphony orchestra, a fact not lost on the city’s marketing officials, who can’t wait to rebrand Glens Falls as the “Arts and Cultural Capital of the Lower Adirondacks.”

Contact Information for visiting Glens Falls, Warren County, and the entire Lake George Region: www.visitlakegeorge.com

Lake George Village, only ten miles north of Glens Falls, is quiet and snow-covered before the summer brings crowds of visitors to 32-mile long Lake George and the surrounding Adirondack Mountains (photo Ron Bernthal)

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