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Cohoes, Reinvented

With an eagerly awaited craft brewery about to begin production in a landmark building, the Spindle City is on a roll

by Ann Morrow on May 15, 2013 · 4 comments

Cleary found a happy home in the Cohoes armory. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

“They let me buy a castle,” says brewer Brennon Cleary with a broad grin. The first-time business owner is talking about his New Jersey investors, but he could also be referring to the city of Cohoes, which made his purchase of the historic Cohoes Armory as painless as possible. Nicknamed “the castle” by Cleary and his associates for its crenellated front tower, the 1891 fortress is now the home of Ravens Head Brewing Co., a craft-beer production facility with plans for a restaurant in the drill shed and private dining rooms in the gunner towers. 

Making the sweeping view from Cleary’s third-floor office all the sweeter is the citywide welcome the company received from Cohoes. It was a dramatic change from last year when Cleary, the company president, and his partner, Brent Decker, also of New Jersey, spent months of valuable product-development time trying to obtain St. Joseph’s church in Albany. Cleary says he “fell in love” with the fanciful—and suitably lofty—Gothic Revival structure after it was shown to him by Jasen Von Guinness (who has since become an associate with Ravens Head). Von Guinness, who lives nearby, knew the long-vacant church was in urgent need of an owner. Cleary moved his family from Toms River, N.J., to Kinderhook in anticipation of an Albany DBA.

The brewery’s zoning application was denied, however, partly because of complaints by the church’s neighbors in the Ten Broeck Triangle who did not want the brewery’s potential patrons—or their cars—in the vicinity. After 10 months and nearly $28,000 in expenses, Cleary reluctantly gave up, declaring that he would take his brewery business plan only where it was wanted. It was very much wanted in Cohoes, which put out an invitation to the company while Cleary was scouting properties from Tannersville to Lake George.

“Nothing had that ‘pow’” except the armory, Cleary says. Ravens Head paid $220,000 (partly self-financed) for the empty building and took title last month. The brewery expects to roll out its first barrels by the end of summer.

Craft beer isn’t the only amenity on tap for the formerly beleaguered city, once considered among the most hopeless of the region’s blighted mill towns. Around the corner from the brewcastle, a new performance and event venue is taking shape at soaring St. Joseph’s church. The French Gothic on Congress Street will soon be available for concerts, weddings, banquets, theater, art shows, and community gatherings.

The Foundry for Art Design + Culture is expanding into the annex of the Cohoes Library (itself an early church retrofit that’s been nationally cited for adaptive excellence). The gallery’s new Foundry Press is a letterpress collective that will provide artisanal book printing and book making, and classes and tours, with the goal of furthering traditional book arts dating to the 15th century.

House of Angels, a partnership between master artisan Mico di Arpo and Troy entrepreneur Sandra Vardine, is transforming Sacred Heart church into a studio and museum dedicated to the medieval art of buon fresco—making this urban renaissance practically authentic. As these and other one-of-kind endeavors coalesce, the Spindle City is acquiring an unexpected cachet.


Jennifer and Dan O'Neill are proud of their project. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

“It’s primed for an upturn,” says Dan O’Neill, a contractor from Schodack who bought the Cohoes St. Joseph’s two years ago. “It has the potential to be a really cool place.” O’Neill was one of the first to reach out to Ravens Head. “You could read the writing on the wall,” he says of following the brewery’s attempt to locate in Albany. “I called those guys and told them, ‘You should come to Cohoes and see what we’re doing. There are good things happening over here.’”

O’Neill says he and his wife Jennifer bought St. Joseph’s simply because “It’s such a beautiful place that we wanted to open it back up to the public.”

All it needed was cleaning and painting, he says, and refurbishing it as a venue is a return to its original purpose of assembling people for a shared experience. That includes, he says, “anything that needs a big space and celebrates life.” The capacious church retains all of its ecclesiastical artistry and will be offering wedding-and-reception packages that may eventually include lodgings for overnight guests. Wedding parties will have the option of customizing their very own celebration beer from Ravens Head.

The venue has a 60-foot-long sanctuary stage and balcony seating in the choir loft. O’Neill estimates it will easily host 300 attendees, and more than 600 for stand-up events such as cocktail parties and concerts. Cleary says the proximity of St. Joseph’s was one of the reasons he wanted to locate to Cohoes. With a performance venue a keg toss away, “I don’t have to do everything,” he says. “I don’t have to have live music.”

Even though the church venue and brewcastle area were already zoned for mixed use, when dealing with alcohol, navigating city permits is a notoriously complicated process. But not, apparently, in Cohoes. “We have all our approvals,” says O’Neill. “The city is very cooperative.”

So cooperative, in fact, that Cohoes is the only city in the Capital Region that is gaining in population. The city got a big push in 2005 with the initial conversion of the 19th-century Harmony Manufacturing cotton mills— a complex large enough to earn its own historic district status—into loft apartments. The lofts are walking distance from Ravens Head and St. Joseph’s.


The interior of St. Joseph's in Cohoes. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

Even depressed Congress Street is adding residents, with the conversion of the church rectory. O’Neill modernized the former home for priests into housing for students. Except for wiring, “It was perfect for community housing the way it was,” he says, right down to its now-retro kitchen. Open and renting for almost a year, “It’s working out pretty good,” he says understatedly. “The location is perfect.” The house, which features luxury-level appointments such as pressed-tin ceilings and carved woodwork at exceedingly modest rents, is four miles from RPI.

At the same time as the Harmony Mills conversion, Remsen Street began to revive as an artsy retail avenue, culminating with the Foundry’s restoration of the Timpani Jewelry bank building in 2010. The street now has an eclectic coffee shop, a Lebanese café, a funky second-hand store, and a full-service bike shop—and also such prestige establishments as Vince Kendricks Jewelers (relocated from Colonie), and Dennis Holtzman Antiques (relocated from 30 years in downtown Albany).

“When I came on board nine years ago, an entire block of Remsen Street was empty,” says Ed Tremblay, director of Community and Economic Development. “Now every storefront is full.”

Cohoes, he says, is reaping the benefits of a decade-long effort—begun under then-mayor John McDonald and continued by current mayor George Primeau—that has flexibility as its most important byword. “As a smaller city, we have challenges,” he adds, “but it helps that many of the staff know each other and work closely with each other.” Among the city’s many updates were changes to the zoning code to increase the ability of new businesses to utilize new technologies.

A fourth-generation Cohoosier, Tremblay also describes the uniqueness of the city’s predominantly late-1800s buildings, and the necessity of having an IDA that will go the distance with extremely large projects such as the Harmony Mills lofts and the Van Schaick lofts, while also encouraging the refurbishment of mixed-use buildings that haven’t been updated since the 1950s.

“Cohoes is an old industrial city that’s becoming a bedroom community,” says Tremblay, adding, “One of the biggest things we have going for us is location. We’re just off 787.”

The city recently completed a bike-hike trail connecting it to the Mohawk Hudson bikeway, and is readying another one. It’s also pushing for a CDTA rapid-transit route from Albany to Waterford similar to the Albany-Schenectady Bus Plus route (currently there is regular bus service from Cohoes to Troy).

Cleary and O’Neill are hopeful that Ravens Head and St. Joseph’s will attract a clientele from around the region, and perhaps farther. But for now, they are appreciating the ease of being a start-up in the old mill town, whose blueprint for success may be as simple as O’Neill’s assessment: “It’s a nice place to do business.”