CHRISTMAS BREAK CALAMITY


WRITTEN BY BILL ORZELL  |  PHOTOS PROVIDED


The resort of Saratoga Springs enjoyed a building boom in the 1880s, as the refinement of railway and Hudson River steamboat transportation allowed many non-residents to erect summer cottages at the Spa. One fine example was Stoneleigh, at 2 Union Avenue, across the street from the recently completed Kensington Hotel. Harry S. Leech of New York, track maven and sportsman who competed in high-stakes billiard contests, hired local builder William S. Robertson to construct the impressive manse, with a porte cochère, lots of porches, balconies, turrets and towers galore. Mr. Robertson, along with his father Andrew, had built some of Saratoga’s most notable structures including the Saratoga Hospital, State Armory, Inniscara, the Canfield Casino, the race track’s grandstand and clubhouse, and many homes on North Broadway.

By 1887 Harry Leech was improving Stoneleigh, adding a third cupola tower to the Circular Street side of the dwelling, which many thought enhanced its symmetry. The villa was centered on a two-acre greensward, with extraordinary flower beds which contained exotic tropical plants. The property was surrounded by a massive capped masonry wall.

Mr. Leech died in France in 1896, and in 1898 title to Stoneleigh was transferred to Mr. and Mrs. Douglass W. Mabee. He was a principle in a Saratoga financial institution and a civic leader; she was the heir to several paper mills. In the early twentieth century, the Mabees hosted many gatherings of Saratoga’s citizens, and the owners retired the Stoneleigh name, preferring “Mabee residence.” Mr. Mabee was part of a group of Union Avenue residents known as the Neighborhood Realty Company, which in 1909 purchased the Kensington Hotel. Fearing the deterioration of that enterprise, the group had the building razed and the land cleared. In 1916 this group gifted the former Kensington property to the Skidmore School of Arts. 

The Mabee estate transferred the home to Skidmore College, the October 25, 1930 Saratogian reported, “In agreement with the expressed wish of Mr. Walter Mabee that some part of the present campus should keep the family name of the old estate, it is proposed that this building should bear the name ‘Mabee Hall.’ The residence is for the time being known as South Hall.” Skidmore remodeled South Hall into a freshman dormitory, adding a dining-hall. Outbuildings were repurposed for the joint use of Secretarial Science and Psychology; the stable became the Skidmore Nursery School.

During the closing days of 1937, with Skidmore on Christmas break and all the girls home from school, South Hall burned to the ground. The December 21, 1937 Schenectady Gazette published  a heartbreaking account, “Swept by one of the most spectacular fires in the history of Saratoga Springs, South Hall, Skidmore College dormitory at Union Avenue and Circular Street, was completely destroyed early today. Cause of the blaze was undetermined at a late hour tonight. . . Hundreds of residents of the city roused from their beds by the light of the blaze, gathered on the campus. Especially spectacular was the collapse of three circular towers, two on the north and one on the south side of the building. . . each tower came crashing down into the blazing furnace that a few minutes before had been one of the city's outstanding landmarks.” The losses included a safe containing the china service owned by the principal founder of the college, Mrs. Lucy Skidmore Scribner.

Local legend had always embellished the former edifice, such that Stoneleigh was constructed from the red stone from the old State Capitol, or that South Hall’s mysterious destruction was the work of arsonists with poor geographic skills whose intended target was another Circular Street mansion.

It is always difficult to deal with loss, and sometimes small tokens and gestures help to ease the regrettable. As the season of giving continued, the January 5, 1938 Saratogian wrote of a gift, “George H. Bull, president of the Saratoga Racing Association, has presented to Skidmore College a sepia wash sketch of South Hall, done by Stuyvesant Van Ween when he was a member of the Yaddo Artists' group in 1932. Mr. Van Ween became interested in the old houses of Saratoga Springs and made a number of sketches which aroused the interest of Mr. Bull. . . In making the gift to the college Mr. Bull said: ‘I thought that perhaps the sketch would have a special interest for Skidmore since the destruction of the building in the recent fire. I was originally attracted to it as a representation of one of the old Saratoga landmarks.’”


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