at work: Mark Selmer and his crew.
Photo: Alicia Solsman
burst of interest in the long- neglected south end of Dove
Street has led to exciting rehabs
By alicia solsman
started to circulate two years ago on the Hudson/Park Neighborhood
Association’s listserv: 119 Dove St., the local eyesore,
had finally landed on the city of Albany’s demolition list.
For a building that had teetered on the edge of destruction
for at least 20 years, this was the third and final strike.
Historic preservation is a complex and unpredictable part
of urban politics. Irreplaceable treasures sometimes fall
to the wrecking ball with no public outcry, and other times,
residents threaten to form human chains to protect nondescript
buildings. But many structures, such as the decrepit little
yellow house at 119 Dove, halfway between Jefferson and
Elm streets, don’t fall into either category. They have
no outwardly apparent architectural or historic value, and
they also have no champions. Inertia and a collective public
shrug doom such buildings as surely as abandonment.
So when residents learned that 119 Dove had finally reached
the demolition list, feedback fell into two distinct camps:
Good Riddance, and Regret. From the outside, the house looked
like a burned-out shell. E-mails among residents debated
the prospect of demolition and opined the circumstances
that led to the building’s fate. But no one seemed ready
to step forward and save 119 Dove on their own, nor did
it seem the type of house to inspire a public preservation
The story of what happened to 119 Dove is also the story
of what has slowly, almost imperceptibly happened to the
south end of Dove Street in the last five years. Without
any designated program by the city, without any federal
or state officials gathering for photo-ops to announce a
new initiative, a renovation movement has taken hold on
the five blocks of Dove Street between Madison Avenue and
is the section of Dove that crosses the geographic and psychological
dividing line in Albany known as “the other side of Madison
Avenue.” The transformation of these five blocks started
at the height of a real-estate boom, and it has continued
through a recession that some economists now call a depression.
The south end of Dove Street—and especially the final block,
from Myrtle Avenue to Park Street—still has a long way to
go, but those who have watched its steady progress say the
differences are starting to show.
in the two years I’ve been at Historic Albany, there’s been
a significant improvement,” says Cara Macri, director of
preservation services at Historic Albany Foundation.
is a real neighborhood,” says Bernadette Ambrose, who has
owned and lived at 115 Dove, just south of Madison Avenue,
for 31 years. “I tell myself I should move, but I don’t
see any reason to. And the neighborhood gets better and
The buildings that have undergone renovations on the south
end of Dove since 2004, ranging from exterior makeovers
to gutted-to-the-studs rehabilitations, are impressive both
in their number, and because of the strong ties to Albany
held by several of the people responsible for the work.
The list includes 235 Elm St., which can claim a Dove Street
presence if not an address because the building’s façade
faces the intersection of Elm and Dove on the diagonal,
and also because it has a main entrance along Dove. The
building now holds apartments, but five years ago, it could
have vied for the title of neighborhood eyesore.
A quality paint job and exterior repairs drastically improved
the appearance of 128 Dove two years ago. Albany entrepreneur
Michael Gilhooly has restored numbers 139, 142, 146 and
149, three of which were abandoned when he bought them;
149 Dove was in such bad shape that part of it started to
collapse during the renovation. It has since won a preservation
award from the Historic Albany Foundation.
A lifelong Hudson/Park resident, Wesley Vroman renovated
132 Dove and now lives there; he had known the building’s
previous owners since childhood. At 136 Dove, owner Timothy
Dillon is removing modern shingles that clashed with the
19th-century townhouse, and has restored the façade with
historically accurate clapboard. No. 148 Dove was vacant
and in poor repair when the New Hope Assembly of God Church
bought it in 2003; it has since been restored by Pastor
Keith Davey, his wife, Susan, and their congregation. And
farthest down the block, on the edge of Lincoln Park, is
169 Dove, another recent renovation by homeowners who live
And now this list includes Mark Selmer, a 56-year-old plumber
who has worked in the building trades all his life but never
owned a house until he bought 119 Dove for $15,000 from
an owner who had decided to sell rather than tackle the
repairs. Selmer, who rents an apartment on Elm Street around
the corner from his renovation project, plans to live in
the house with his family. He expects to complete the foundation
for an addition this summer.
seen an enormous amount of rehabs in that area, much more
so than we expected,” says Keith McDonald, Albany’s commissioner
of Taxation and Assessment. “It just was in the right location.
It was ripe for a few people to go in and make a difference.”
Selmer can’t remember when he first noticed the house at
119 Dove, because he drove by it so often. But he does remember
when a tree in the house’s tiny back yard fell into a neighbor’s
yard, which in turn set off complaints that caught the attention
of city officials and landed the house on the demolition
list. He couldn’t stop thinking about the doomed little
in their right mind would have said, ‘Tear it down,’ ” he
recalls as he perches on a stack of lumber inside the house.
The interior walls have been ripped out down to the lathe
and the exposed posts are blackened from a long-ago fire.
Tools and rubble are everywhere, but there is also a serene
atmosphere inside the house, which is open to the daylight
on this June morning after so many years of neglect. It
is, even in this condition, a nice place to sit.
The rear of the house is a gaping hole that overlooks a
trench, 8 by 20 by 10 feet, which will hold the foundation
for the addition. Selmer and his crew dug the trench with
shovels and carried the dirt through the house to a dumpster
because they could not get a backhoe through surrounding
yards onto the property. His crew consists of his sons Bob
and Sean and two family friends, Dan Oldham and Matt Santola—all
in their 20s and unafraid of hard work.
The foundation trench was backbreaking and dangerous to
dig, but they took delight in the finds they uncovered,
which they would have never seen if they’d used a backhoe:
broken crockery; white clay pipes; old stoneware bottles
and several curious objects shaped like abstract figure
eights with flat backs, about six inches long, that look
like they might have been decorative motifs attached to
a wall or mantle; Selmer can’t tell if they are carved stone,
clay or some other substance. These discoveries, along with
the hand-pegged beams, attest to the house’s history, and
indeed, the house is marked on a city map from 1876, the
year that General George Custer and his men died in the
Battle of Little Bighorn.
Selmer’s love of putting buildings together dates to the
tree houses and forts he constructed in the woods as a child
in Greene County. He exudes a soft-spoken confidence, which
never waned even when he showed the house to an architect
and a structural engineer before he completed the purchase.
The front door and windows were long gone, feral cats had
colonized the interior, the foundation and chimney were
crumbling and the place was filled with junk. But the roof,
staircase and wood floors were intact, and Selmer wanted
to demonstrate that the frame could withstand the structural
strain that would occur when he shored up the walls and
gutted the interior.
took the people upstairs and jumped up and down, saying,
‘Look, it’s great,’” he recalls. The engineer replied, “It’s
doable. You’re crazy, but it’s doable.”
Susan Holland, executive director of Historic Albany, reached
out to Selmer when she heard he had bought the house, and
she also asked city officials to remove it from the demolition
list. She felt some concern that the house had gotten yet
another reprieve, not because she wanted to see it demolished,
but because she knew it would either fall down or be taken
down if this last-chance new owner started the project and
see that model a lot,” Holland says. “People get in way
over their heads. We want success stories. We work really
hard to partner those people, but Mark has been such a joy.”
For his part, Selmer sensed that some of his new neighbors
were also concerned, and with good reason—119 Dove had once
shared the same owner as the ill-fated 130 Dove: Dominick
Cubello, who has served two prison terms for egregious code
violations at his rental properties in Albany. About five
years ago, Cubello sold the vacant 130 Dove, and the new
owner did only cursory work before he too abandoned it—an
example of the failed renovation model that Holland cited.
In 2007, 130 Dove collapsed.
A rainy summer last year delayed Selmer’s work on the house,
but he’s made good progress this summer. He’s trying to
do the renovation and the addition for $70,000. He decided
not to apply for a Housing and Urban Development grant;
the application looked complex and he was too short on time.
He also didn’t want to be bound by requirements such as
using approved contractors.
trust my work,” he says. “There’s all different ways to
get to the same place, but I know my own work.”
For all the effort going into Dove Street, the last block—the
block between Myrtle Avenue and Park Street—remains a major
challenge to the city and to concerned homeowners. This
block has a decidedly mixed look that belies its inclusion
in the otherwise preservation-happy Hudson/Park Neighborhood.
There are longtime, stable and responsible homeowners, two
buildings that came back from the dead after new owners
renovated them, and several houses that speak of incredible
This block’s story can be told in the progressive decline
of assessed values and the increasing frequency of out-of-town
addresses for property owners as Dove Street moves from
Center Square toward Lincoln Park. In a random sampling
of Dove Street in the Center Square neighborhood—which contains
some of the most pristine and elaborate houses in downtown
Albany—the average assessed value of the 10 houses from
numbers 35 to 49 is $231,190, and all but one of the owners
lives on the premises, according to city assessment records.
A random sampling of 10 houses in that last block of Dove
is a very different picture: the average assessed value
from numbers 160 to 169 is $97,260, and only four of the
10 owners live on the premises. None of the off-premises
owners live in Albany.
Although not every property owner who lives out of town
is irresponsible, city officials have long noted a connection
between off-premises owners and an increase in code violations
and complaints about the properties. People change cell
phone numbers with increasing frequency, and it’s impossible
for the city to maintain emergency contact information.
The city once considered compiling telephone numbers for
property owners, but quickly gave the idea up as impractical,
Keith McDonald says. The city’s only recourse is to send
registered letters to notify property owners of complaints,
problems or a building collapse.
The result? A block like the last on Dove Street, where
one of the houses has a makeshift front railing of nailed-together
two-by-fours; another has a perpetually opened basement
door that reveals a bleak interior; and several others have
a look of decline underneath hastily slapped-on coats of
are hundreds of longtime Albany residents who remember the
great rehabilitation movement of the late 1970s in Center
Square and Hudson/Park—when suburban growth and the construction
of Empire State Plaza drove out so many city dwellers that
some downtown blocks had more vacant houses than occupied
houses. One Hudson/Park resident who remembers that time
is Ellen Picotte, vice president of the Hudson/Park Neighborhood
Association, a real estate agent with Prudential Manor Homes,
and the owner of a townhouse on Hudson Avenue that was a
shell when she got an $8,000 Urban Renewal grant in 1978.
Picotte knows the last block of Dove Street well; she sold
one vacant house on the corner of Myrtle and Dove to the
New Hope Assembly of God Church, and she sold the vacant
house on the opposite corner to Michael Gilhooly, whose
careful renovations of four houses along south Dove have
won widespread praise.
block, to be honest, has always befuddled me,” Picotte says.
“The rehabs that took place on Irving and even Jefferson
or Madison seemed to have missed that last block of Dove.
That has always troubled me.”
Keith Davey, the pastor of the New Hope Assembly of God
Church on the corner of Dove and Myrtle, calls the last
block of Dove “the most violent street in this area.” Crime
statistics specific to that one block could not readily
be obtained from the Albany Police Department to verify
Davey’s statement, but two residents of that block say they
believe that the police need to take a coordinated look
at the block and identify the cause of specific problems,
instead of repeatedly responding to individual complaints.
been here almost three years, I have a daughter now, and
I’m planning to move because I don’t want to be here when
she gets older,” said one resident who declined to give
her name. “And I don’t think it’s from the landlords; it’s
from the people who live here. But the landlords know who
they’re renting to.”
Her friend Tasha, who gave only gave her first name, agreed.
no place to raise children,” she said. “This street has
a reputation, and people know it. I was concerned about
it being Dove Street, but I don’t live outside; I live inside.”
The police have to respond to individual complaints in any
part of the city, said Albany Police Department spokesman
Detective James Miller, but that doesn’t mean that they’re
not also coordinating with other city agencies to gauge
overall needs on a street. The city’s fourth phase of the
Block By Block Program will include Dove Street from Madison
Avenue to Park Street, and will apply such a coordinated
response. The program uses several city agencies to address
crime, code violations and infrastructure problems, such
as broken sidewalks. Miller did not know the exact starting
date for Phase Four of Block By Block, but said it will
probably start before the end of the year.
Albany Common Council Member Dominick Calsolaro, whose 1st
Ward includes the south end of Dove Street, said he believes
that several buildings there not only do not meet current
city building code standards, but are not even in compliance
with basic code requirements.
think this last block of Dove has seen improvements already,”
Calsolaro said, but those improvements have been scattered.
He expects the Block By Block program to address the lingering
The bright spots at this far end of Dove include the New
Hope Church, which has assumed the role of a community center.
The church offers a free dinner to local children every
Wednesday, hosts a block party every fall and worked with
the city to clean up a trash-filled vacant lot on the street.
Progress comes slowly: The church has also been burglarized
several times, and Davey—who worked in the building trades
before he assumed full-time pastoral duties—lost all of
his tools twice in thefts while he was renovating the building.
Such setbacks demonstrate the need in the neighborhood,
as does the strong response to the Meals for Kids, says
Davey, who explains, “That’s why we chose this area.”
The last block of Dove is also now home to several Burmese
refugee families, who have fled violence and oppression
in their homeland and have been settled in Albany by the
federal government. Their immediate needs have been handled
by the Albany field office of the United States Committee
for Refugees and Immigrants, a private, nonprofit agency
that works with the government.
stable families,” says Jill Peckenpaugh, director of the
Albany field office of USCRI. “They’re raising children,
they’re hardworking. They’re going to be home in the neighborhood;
they’re very communal.”
And the entrepreneurial spirit is holding strong, even at
this end of Dove. Michael Gilhooly, who renovated four houses
here, would like to do other projects along south Dove.
think this is such a key area, bordered by Lincoln Park,
State Street, the South Mall—all the way up to Albany Med—this
is city living,” Gilhooly says. He uses the term as a compliment.
He sees this section of Hudson/Park as ripe with further
Selmer loves the area, too, but his vision focuses more
on the interior of his house than on the really bad sidewalks
in front of it.
When asked how 119 Dove will look when he’s finished, Selmer
raps out rapid answers.
got it all figured out,” he says. “I’ve got a floor plan
in my head.” Three bedrooms. Two and a half baths. Radiant
A radiant heat system, which generates heat from tubing
installed under a floor, creates a cozy warmth inside a
house, Selmer explains. It’s not an everyday feature in
a 19th-century structure, but “I’m a plumber; I can do all
that,” he says.
“The place I’m living in now is freezing,” he adds. “I’m
just looking forward to coming home on a winter’s night
when I’m done fixing everyone else’s heat, and it’s above
65 in my own house.”