Take a walk through the Stockade Inn, and you’ll understand why neighbors were so opposed to a plan to turn the stately old building into an apartment complex.
To see this building is to be charmed by it, even dazzled.
The interior is simple yet elegant, recalling the Schenectady of yesteryear while also beckoning to the diner and traveler of today. Aside from a few workers, the building was mostly empty when I toured it. But it didn’t feel that way. It felt alive with the past, but also future possibilities.
Up until about a week ago, it was difficult to know what was in store for the property, which was built in 1814 as a bank, reopened as an exclusive men’s club in 1903, and transformed into a small hotel and restaurant in 2003.
The proposal to turn the building into apartments was withdrawn by Redburn Development Partners earlier this summer, and while that was the outcome neighbors wanted, it didn’t resolve the question of what would become of the building, which closed in January after a kitchen fire and never reopened.
Indeed, some wondered whether the opponents had overplayed their hand, scuttling a project that, while perhaps not perfect, would have ensured that the property, in the heart of Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood, didn’t fall into ruin. Maybe the developer behind the apartment proposal was correct, and the building was no longer viable as a hotel/restaurant.
We’ll soon have a chance to find out who's right - the cynics, or those who believe a hotel/restaurant with old-world charm and a rich history can succeed and even thrive in the Stockade.
Local developer John Samatulski has purchased the building with the goal of turning it into a unique destination for locals and visitors alike, where hip, modern elements are juxtaposed with historic features and people are welcome to grab a light lunch or sit down for an expensive and memorable meal.
Samatulski plans to reopen the building as an inn, but an inn that he promises will be unlike any other in the Capital Region.
His vision for the property is compelling, and his drive, creativity and track record of success suggest he’s just the person to reinvent an institution that would benefit from an infusion of energy and new ideas.
“I absolutely am confident this can work, or I wouldn’t have taken it on,” Samatulski told me, during our tour of the property.
Samatulski isn’t as well known as other local developers, but he has been purchasing and rehabilitating older properties since 2012, under the auspices of his Urban Initiatives Group.
He tends to stay out of the limelight, but is something of an innovator, with a longstanding interest in downtown revitalization, historic preservation and adapting older buildings for new uses. He is passionate and hard-working, with a strong belief that Schenectady’s resurgence is genuine, deep and exciting. He wants to help bring back downtown, and sees himself as just one small “piece of the puzzle.”
“I knew it would take 1,000 different projects, and I just wanted to be one of the 1,000 helping rebuild my hometown,” said Samultuski, 56, a Schenectady native who graduated from Linton High School. “I feel the job here is not done, in terms of creating a downtown for everyone.”
In the early 2000s, Samatulski served as director of the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp., and helped oversee the reconstruction of the Proctors block of State Street.
I first spoke with Samatulski in 2013, about his work helping turn St. John the Baptist on Franklin Street into a performing arts space for the Schenectady Light Opera Company.
I caught up with him again in 2017, when I learned of his effort to transform three flood damaged apartment buildings on Ingersoll Avenue into what he called “flood-friendly” properties.
Recognizing that their close proximity to the Mohawk River all but guaranteed that they would flood again, Samatulski sought to minimize the damage, moving the wiring upstairs, out of the flood plain, and installing hard insulation that can be taken out, hosed off and reused. Without his intervention, these buildings might have sat vacant for years, like so many others.
Through UIG, Samatulski is seeking $300,000 in funding from the $10 million state grant the city of Schenectady received to fund projects aimed at revitalizing downtown. His proposal is one of the more interesting ones in the mix.
It calls for transforming a large, high-ceilinged warehouse at 140 Erie Boulevard into something called Alchemy Urban Playground, a mix of artist studios, carpentry workshop, culinary space, job training and retail gallery, with an emphasis on antiques and architectural salvage.
Samatulski purchased 140 Erie in 2014. The front of the building is home to a number of small businesses, such as Yoga Bliss, and also has co-working spaces to rent.
All told, Samatulski owns 14 commercial and residential rental properties.
The Stockade Inn is his most ambitious undertaking thus far - a multi-phase project aimed at filling a niche.
Rather than compete with the newer hotels that have opened in Schenectady in recent years, Samatulski hopes to appeal to a different market - the person seeking a distinctive dining and lodging experience that's a little bit off the beaten path.
He hopes that the inn will be a place for travelers but also for locals to stop by for a bite to eat, drink or hear music. Some rooms will be devoted to extended stay travelers visiting Schenectady for longer periods of time.
There will be a day spa, space for small events and a number of different food options: a juice and coffee bar, a cafe with meals at more affordable prices and fine dining. Pop-up culinary events, where guest chefs are invited to create custom dinners for a small group of diners, are also a possibility.
If some were convinced that Schenectady’s downtown renaissance had rendered the small, neighborhood inn obsolete, Samatulski believes the opposite: That the redevelopment makes it possible for his vision for a boutique hotel to come to fruition.
“I don’t think some of the things we’re talking about would have been successful 10 years ago,” he said. “There are a lot of young professionals here now. People are rediscovering Schenectady. I know from my rental properties that we are attracting renters from throughout the Capital Region.” All of it adds up to an exciting environment where new trends and markets can emerge and find a customer base.
Samatulski is the Stockade Inn’s third owner in three years. The building was sold to Gregor Hotels in 2019, but the new owners shut it down in January after the kitchen fire.
The Stockade Association, which represents the neighborhood, was prepared to fight Redburn’s plan to turn the Inn into apartments. That hostility has been replaced by enthusiasm.
“(Samatulski) has the full support of the neighborhood,” said Suzanne Unger, who heads the Stockade Association. “We’ll be some of the Inn’s best customers, as we have been in the past.”
Gloria Kishton, a Stockade resident who serves as chair of the Schenectady Heritage Foundation, believes Samatulski has a vision that will enhance downtown Schenectady.
“The key to successful cities is diversity,” Kishton said. “People move to cities for their vibrancy.”
When I visited the Stockade Inn, signs of progress were already evident. Rooms had been aired and cleaned out, and the kitchen will soon be sealed off and restored. The goal is to have rooms available by the end of the year.
“It’s exciting and a little scary,” Samatulski said.
After learning more about what he has in mind, I’m more excited than scared.
This is a project that can work - and I believe it will.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.