Thursday, September 29, 2011

Self-Proclaimed "Princess" destroys 294 Genesee Street

The genteel and elegant interiors of 294 Genesee St, The former "Catholic Women's Club", was gutted by the infamous "Faux Princess," Diana Lenska. 

The hand carved Carrara Marble fireplaces, of which there were 6 throughout the house, were ripped from their chimney mounts where they have resided since construction in the 1850's.

The Roccoco Pier and Overmantel Mirrors-gone. In their place is crumbling grey plaster and exposed lathe.

 The crowning glory of the mansion, the electrified gasoliers, that have hung from the ornate center medallions since Lincoln was in the White House, vanished. Everything was bundled on a huge moving van and shipped to secret destinations.

The Mansion is a shell of its former self. All the stunning achievements in architecture and decor installed by the original owner, Orasmus Mattison, are but a memory.

 Mattison, a Congressman, was unseated by Roscoe Conkling. He was so upset by the loss that he set about to build the finest mansion in Utica. He imported plate glass from France, installed ridiculously ornate chandeliers and had silver plated door knobs and hinges installed on the 8 ft high rosewood doors.

Numerous craftsmen who had worked on some of Washington's finest landmarks traveled to Utica to carve woodwork, build the rosewood doors and run some of the most beautiful and ornate plaster ceilings ever seen in this region!

All of that is now gone-ripped from our city by a greedy and pretentious woman who rode into town on the proverbial "high horse." She proclaimed that she was a Princess and at first, she talked a good game.

She was connected, it appeared, to a Hong Kong billionare. Paul Kan was the reputed "Bill Gates" of the Orient. He paid cash for the mansion and had his Princess begin plans to hold court there.

I was introduced to her one day in City Hall when Angelo Roefaro, the Mayor's Assistant at the time, called to breathlessly tell me "come quick, Princess Diana is here!"

Anticipating yet another City Hall crackpot, I strode down to the Mayors office to find an Ivana Trump look-a-like in a red and black velour running suit (this outfit would reappear on occasions too numerous to mention.)

Her heavily made up face was crowned with cotton-candy hair dyed a color not found in nature. She demurely held out her hand, introduced herself, and eyed me up and down as if waiting for me to bow in her presence.

I did not.

After explaining that her "benefactor" had purchased the mansion for her, she coyly asked if there was any "help" the city could provide.

At this point, I was a bit suspicious but still curious. I mean, she did have the key to the huge front doors of 294 Genesee St!

The Catholic Women's Club was a structure that I knew well. Several years ago, when I owned and operated Thornberry's, we had catered a luncheon there for the ladies. I was stunned by the beauty and grandeur of the place. It was exquisite when done up for a party. I thought, why not cater here for regular folks?

I approched the ladies with a proposal. We would cater events at the mansion and give them a fee for the use of the place. We also agreed to have our restaurant staff help with some of the maintenance that was so badly needed.

It was a perfect arrangement!  We catered weddings, communion luncheons, christmas parties and even political fundraisers there. Every one who attended an event was flabbergasted by the sheer elegance and historical ambiance of the place.

One day, we were told the women had made a decision-they wanted to sell the place. I was devestated and had a terrible fear that this fragile beauty would eventually meet a cruel and destructive fate.

I never thought it would be at the hands of a......Princess!

In any event, the place was sold, much of the original furnishings, including two life sized portraits of the bible characters "Ruth and Rachael" that flanked the front parlor fireplace, were removed. Even nearly empty now, the home still had the look and feel of a grand French Salon or a Washington Embassy. It was truly a remarkable place.

The mansion was eventually purchased by a man from California, John Kane. He had envisioned a high end B&B at the location. At the selling price of 180k, compared to the price of something similar in California (if it could even be had) it was a bargain.

Several years after the purchase, his plans seemed to fall through. His two sisters, who had been residing on site, moved out and the place was empty. Talk of  his selling the artifacts filtered throughout the town and into City Hall, where I was now Commissioner of the Urban & Economic Development Department. I was obsessed with the possible destruction of the interiors and worked tirelessly to try and find someone who could save it.

Enter the Princess. It was wierdly surreal that, after so long trying to match a buyer with the building, that almost overnight someone appeared that seemed to have access to the capital needed to stabilize and preserve it.

I was doubtful about her claim of "Royalty." She seemed more like an aging "Real Housewife of New Jersey" than a European Princess. The city helped her out with a small facade grant so that she could stabilize the exterior. 

Then the O.D. discovered her. It was all downhill from there.

A local reporter, Jen Bogden, did a story that insinuated the Princess may be a "fake." It seemed that no one from the Polish Embassy in Washington had ever heard of her. In any event, they said, Poland does not recognize royalty, so her claims meant nothing to the Polish Government.

Almost overnight, her financial backers vanished. She had contributed to them "losing face," an Asian equivelent of being branded a loser or worse!

She blamed the O.D. for destroying her mission. She struggled and appealed to the Polish Community for help. She was profiled by Cassandra Harris Lockwood, publisher of the Utica Phoenix. She announced in this front page article that the shame and scandal that her Asian benefactors had suffered at the hands of Utica and the O.D.had to be undone if she was to be able to stay in Utica. The mansion would have to be sold and she would leave town if they did not feel vindicated.

At one point, she did begin to assemble a team of local supporters. She mounted an exibition of important polish World War 2 memoribilia. She seemed to be gaining a toehold in our community. She held elegant teas and parties with the requisite dose of high drama well suited for a royal living in Utica.

Then, she disappeared.

What happens next is not clear but it appears that there may have been a health issue. In any event, it all lead to the events of today-destruction of the Mansion interiors and the all but certain eventual demolition of the landmark.

The question is-why? Cassandra Harris-Lockwood claims she had  approached Lenska weeks ago to let her know that, if the rumors of her selling the contents of the mansion were true, The landmarks Society could step in and assist in preventing that radical decision.

That never happened. Everyone was caught off guard by what happened today. We had thought, maybe the light fixtures and possibly a mirror or two could be removed and sold. We never, ever thought that the complete and total dismantling of the entire interior could ever be a possibility!

I realize today that, at one point in time, I was perceived as "supporting" her claim of royalty. I never could prove or disprove it. I always was a bit suspicious and thought it was a stretch at best, but I truly didn't care. Utica is full of colorful people that have delusions of who they are and where they come from. We had a Contessa that shopped on Mohawk St, a Priest with a thick Irish brogue that was born in Kossuth Ave. and numerous people walking around downtown believing that they came from Venus. 

This case was different. She had the deed to the palace! Unfortunately, she ultimately was the one who destroyed it.

What follows is a letter that I hastily penned after the destruction was revealed. i think it says it all.

Diana Lenska
294 Genesee St
Utica N.Y. 13502 Sept. 29, 2011
RE: Catholic Women’s Club destruction
Ms. Lenska,
To say that I am shocked by the destruction of this stunning landmark at your hands is the most egregious understatement that I will ever utter in my life. Appalling and wanton destruction that left me physically nauseated and emotionally devastated. You should be ashamed of your actions and, if it was possible, be brought up on charges for desecrating a nationally significant landmark.
There is absolutely NOTHING you could say, no excuse, no reason, to carryout the deed you have done. 
Revenge- that is the only reason I can think of. 
Revenge against Utica, the Observer Dispatch, the citizens of our city, revenge against anyone you can think of. And, why would you carry out this twisted and sick plot to punish a place you have called home, a place where some people did support you? Because you were not treated like the “royalty” you fancy yourself to be!
Let me say this-no one with a drop of royal blood in their veins would have allowed the destruction of your “tidy little palace,” as it was referred to once in a Phoenix article. Yes, the same paper that supported you, defended you, and helped you when you arrived and were not regally welcomed in the manner that you were so accustomed to.
For to carry out this act, you have doomed the future of this important and historic structure, for now it is worthless. It will either be vandalized and stripped of any thing left of value or remodeled into an office building that cannot possibly hint at the grand past that you have so callously wiped away for your own greed and profit.
And, you han no right to come into this town and carry out such an act! I do not believe that you even paid for the structure with your own money! And, if Mr. kan or anyone else instructed you to do this senseless and shocking deed, they too will be exposed for this travesty.
What will Mr. Kan say about “face” when, throughout the world, he is known as a man who allows priceless historic artifacts to be callously ripped from a landmark of such beauty and grace.
A crime of rape was committed against this building and our community. We will not forget. And we will talk, take action and, make sure that, wherever you go, what ever community you move to, they know to protect their landmarks against you.
I hope that you leave town quietly, like a thief in the night, because that is what you have proven yourself to be.
Not a “Princess.” But, rather a common criminal, no better than the drug crazed goons who steal copper plumbing from buildings in the night.
So sad.
Robert Sullivan

Utica's Mayoral Election

Today I began to realize that the election for a new Utica Mayor is actually little more than a month away! The campaign season seemed to heat up a bit before the September primary but has now fizzled away like the summer.

Where is Bob Cardillo?

Steamrolling across the city throughout late spring and early summer, after his Republican primary loss to Mike Cerminaro, Cardillo seems to have retreated into anonimity. Is he still in the race? One would doubt his commitment to the election judging from his actions the past few weeks.

That seems to leave Democrat Palmieri and Republican Cerminaro as the only real contenders.

Both men are alumni of the Common Council of the 1990's. Palmieri is the only member of this group who has not yet run for Mayor. Remember, Barbara Klien, Roger Palek, Roger Amodio, Mike Cerminaro and yours truly all attempted to capture the top spot in city hall. And, we all failed!

Rob Palmieri has been a man with a mission as long as I have known him. As "Weed and Seed" liason, he was on the frontlines in Utica's worst neighborhoods, trying to bring some peace and stability to the pockets of remaining residents victimized by a system that contributed to the decline of their streets.

Mike Cerminaro was DPW Commissioner for many years and now has been Comptroller for the last five. He also has street smarts and obviously cares for the city he represents.

The question is, which man will be a better mayor?

I realize we have three other candidates-the afore mentioned Cardillo running on the Independence and Conservative lines and two other lesser known candidates, Sanita and Clemente, running under their own party affilations.

The reality is, Utica will most likely pick their next Mayor from one of the major party lines. That makes the choice obvious-Palmieri or Cerminaro?

We have the month of October to listen to both candidates and pick the one who most realistically charts the course that he will take our city in for the next four years.

Let the campaign begin!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Oneida Square Roundabout

Yesterday I drove through the nearly completed Oneida Square roundabout. To my surprise and delight it truly works! Here are a few reasons why I think it's so great:

Traveling South on State St., you now have the opportunity to get any where in the city in record time. No more sitting in the middle of traffic waiting for some ancient signal to crank over from red to green. Smooth, almost rythmic flow around the center island allows you to get north, south or east in fluid motion.
I can drive up State St. and get immediate access to Park Ave, Oneida St, Genesee St. north or south-something that was impossible before.

The landscaping that will be completed will transform the shabby, down and out Oneida Square neighborhood into something that the city can actually be proud of. The historic lighting, pavers, new granite curbs and trees and shrubs that will be planted as part of the redesign will hopefully inspire the business and property owners to start enhancing and improving their properties.

Who deserves the credit for this project? The Mayor would like the city to believe that this was his "brainchild," as he has stated in the past. True, he does deserve some credit. As chief officer of the city, he could have stopped the project with the wave of his hand. But, he actually listened to his staff, of which I was one voice, when we advised him to consider the options presented early in his administration.  Where was the original idea concieved? Who thought it up?

One person deserves the credit-Mike Shamma, regional D.O.T. Director.

In late 2007, the Julian Administration came up with a plan to re-route traffic around the Oneida Square Monument. It was a hastily thought up, election year proposal that was met with resounding criticism from the city. It did, however, get people thinking- what can we do to address the horrific condition of most of Oneida Square and at the same time improve traffic flow?

One of those people was Mike Shamma. Realizing that Utica was about to embark upon a costly replacement of the antiquated traffic signals on the square, he thought "roundabout." Why would we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on replacement traffic signals when we could use that money to truly transform the area with a signature project that could be the catylist for change in the heart of the city?

The City of Glens Falls, near the Capital District, had recently completed such a project in their downtown. Initially met with criticism and anger, the project had,after completion, helped transform the neighborhoods that surround it. The business community of Glens Falls  assembled a team armed with a video and testimonials that traveled to Utica and made a presentation in City Hall. Their city had benefitted from this project and they believed ours could as well.

If it worked there, could it work here? After initial engineering studies and cost estimates, the D.O.T. staff came to the conclusion that Oneida Square was a perfect candidate for a roundabout.

For once, Utica acted "progressive." We did not reject an idea based on false information, fear of change or just because, well, we like to reject ideas.

Construction started inthe spring and proceeded pretty much on schedule. Now, it's open and traffic seems to be running smoothly. Utica "gets it ."

The Mayor made a statement recently that, because of the roundabout, "everyone will want to move down here." That's probably not true. What will hopefully happen is that, because of the public improvements and investment that has been pumped into the area, property owners will feel inspired to make investments of their own. That will be where the true change will come from-the people who have a stake in the neighborhood.

For me, I'm gonna go drive around it again!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Economic Development in Utica

Gov. Andrew Cuomo was featured on "The Capital Pressroom" last night on NPR. He discussed his new approach to economic development across the state.
While serving as Director of HUD under President Bill Clinton, he noticed that the most successful economic development programs across the country were competitive in nature. He was determined when elected to the top spot in the state that he would change the culture of how business was done in N.Y.
Ten regional "supercommittees" were formed and charged with competing with each other for a prize of 40 million dollars-each!
The only caviat was that only six groups would win and the other four would be left to split an as  yet undisclosed sum of money.
Where does that leave Utica?
As only one of the urban centers in a region that now goes as far east as Amsterdam, it is not apparent how the city will benefit. And, what if our region is not chosen as one of the top six? What does that mean for a city whose condition is one of the worst in the state?
Will Utica be left to languish in despair and decay while other regions of the state prosper under the Governors new plan?
Lots of questions, lots to think about.
Cuomo defended his plan by saying that it would promote competitiveness between regions to craft the best plan. The question is, in a state with the depth of problems that N.Y. has, is forcing one down and out region to comepete against the other fair?
Cuomo feels that for too long, provincialism has ruled N.Y. He is right. In our own area, New Hartford competes against Utica, Rome and just about everyone else for any drop of new retail development. Towns and villages hate the cities, the cities feel they bear the burden to care for the downtrodden of the region, and so it goes.
The Govenor wants no "pie in the sky" plans. He wants tangible, realistic and doable proposals that will quickly transform each region.
So, to answer an earlier question of its fairness I say, its about time! Finally, a political leader in Albany that actually understands the state of N.Y. and the crazy way we do business here. Towns, villages, hamlets, cities all competing for the same dwindling resources. Putting them on notice that cooperation with each other is the only way to grow and prosper is an idea that has finally arrived.
The only problem for Utica: will our committee rise to the occasion and craft a plan that is not only beneficial to the city but the region as well?
We will soon see!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Monday Morning in Utica

On a cool, crisp early autumn morning the city of Utica is never lovelier! The trees are just beginning to change color and the crickets are singing their greeting of the new day.
Ah, to be alive in Utica!
Ok, so its a bit dramatic. But, so much of what we read and see and hear is so negative about Utica and our region that I just have to try and pull out something positive about where I have chosen to reside.
And make no mistake, I have chosen it.
So many people feel trapped in life. They let family, jobs or lack of them, fear and even laziness dictate where they live. The city of Utica is no different. What is different here is that people tend to blame the city for their problems. "Utica sucks" is their motto. And they truly believe if they lived some other place they would, as if by magic,have the perfect life that they see on the nightly TV shows that form their reality of what life should be.
That is not to say that our city is without problems. BIG problems! That is an area that we will explore on this site.
The issues that confront our city are similar to those shared by lots of metropolitan areas across the country, especially in the Northeast. The difference is that, while other places are working on solutions to those problems, we just keep lamenting them.
Case in point-downtown.
Why is Downtown Utica not the premier social, business and cultural draw for our region? In a time in our culture when downtowns across the country are enjoying a renaissance, why is our downtown limping by?
True, several high profile projects have been undertaken by dedicated urban pioneers who believe that downtown is "the place to be." Unfortunately, these are the exceptions to the current conditions of high vacancy rates, crumbling infrastructure and a weak market.
What can be done to change those conditions?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why is Utica so....... Utica!

Lets talk about Utica. HMMM......what can I say? It's my hometown and the place where I still reside. My mother's family came here over 100 years ago. They arrived from the Amsterdam/Auriesville area in the 1880's. My mother still lives in the house they bought on Cottage Place in 1894. Why did they come? And why do we stay?
My maternal great-grandfather, Levi W. Snell, was a traveling salesman. He sold Singer sewing machines and was very successful. In his travels he happened upon the bustling city of Utica. He immediately thought that it was the kind of town he could make his fortune in!
His wife, Anna C. Van Antwerp, was not convinced. Her parents owned a successful farm and orchards in Glen, N.Y. Her father, Cornelius Putnam Van Antwerp was a Civil War veteran and something of a local celebrity. With her background of privledge and status in the community, she was not eager to move to the city and the beginnings of a new life so far from home.
In typical 19th century fashion, the husband prevailed and they came to Utica with their 3 young daughters.
They settled in a small frame house in West Utica and Levi continued as a salesman and carpenter.
At one point, Levi made the acquaintance of another traveling salesman, F.W. Woolworth. Together, they lamented the hardscrabble life of road sales. One day, F.W. had an idea. Instead of bringing the merchandise to the people have the people come to the merchandise! Levi was fascinated. What an idea! Perhaps he could even sell the sewing machines out of a central location.
In downtown Utica there stood a remarkable structure on the site of the circa 1940 Boston Store Building. It was called "The Arcade Building" and was a remarkable engineering accomplishment of the mid 19th century.
The interior of the building featured a central court topped with a magnificent stained glass skylight. It was ringed by ornate iron balconies and had an exquisite fountain in the center. Later, an ornate glass and iron elevator was added to transport busy Uticans' to the upper floors of offices, retail and doctors.
F.W. and Levi were convinced-The Arcade was the perfect spot!
The only problem was, how to finance this endeavor?
F.W. hatched a plot-investors! Levi was in with a 400 investment.F.W. worked the circuit and got enough capital to open his first retail location.
It was an unmitigated disaster!
Utica was not ready for this "newfangled" way of doing business. The citizenry turned their backs on the idea that they should travel to buy goods. They were used to peddlers going door to door and were not going to let these "upstarts" change the tradition.
After only several months, F.W. headed out of town and Levi was out his investment. Later, according to family legend, F.W. contacted Levi to re-invest in a new store in Watertown, N.Y. He had figured it out, and he wanted his old friend to be in on the ground floor. Now, with 9 children and one on the way, Levi was in no position to invest in anything. He politely declined and later, when "Woolworth's Five and Dime" proved so successful, Levi was not bitter. He joked that "he could have been a millionaire but was too busy delivering the mail." (Deprived of his left hand as the result of a 4th of July fireworks accident, Levi became a Mail Carrier. A familiar site on the streets of Utica, he delivered mail from his old wagon pulled by his trusty horse "Frank" for over 30 years, retiring in 1929.)
You see, stories like this are what makes me love Utica. The history, the heritage and the connection that we have to the past makes this a special place-at least to me.
In future posts we will talk about how this connection can be used to save our city and make it a place that we can all be proud to call home-just like our ancestors did!

The Mayoral Election

As a former office holder (Utica Common Council 5th district representative 1991-1994 At large 1994-1996) I am very interested in the outcome of this years election. And, contrary to some posts and rumors, I am not supporting any particular candidate! I am a registered Democrat and Have known Rob Palmieri and his family for many years. I also have known the Republican candidate Mike Cerminaro, having served on the Common Council with both candidates and was a fellow department head with them in City Hall for many years.
I am looking forward to examining both of their platforms and suggestions that they will have for the future of our city.
Bob Cardillo,  having lost the Republican primary, will however still appear on the Conservative and Independence lines, still has a chance to win the electorate over with his ideas and platform. Winning the election on these lines is a long-shot but Utica is always unpredictable-anything is possible!
Rainbow Party candidate Sanita and Green Party candidate Clemente are trailing in the distance.  With a 5 way race and the generally unhappy voting populace I would not rule anything out!
Coming up: an examination of why Utica is in the condition it is and how to turn it around.


Hello to anyone who has taken the time to view my blog! I created this blog as a way to communicate with my friends and fellow citizens about issues important to our city and our region. Also, I hope to reconnect with old friends and make new ones!
This site will be unlike others in our area as it will be focused on positive initiatives and help point out the good reasons to love living in our area.
Criticism of current events will be allowed as long as viable solutions are put forth as well.
Once again welcome and lets start blogging!