By Joseph Dalton
Times Union, July 17, 2014
The first in my occasional series of profiles of Capital Region architects.
During the 60-year career of Albany architect Harris A. Sanders, renovations of commercial spaces have been bread and butter work. Little did Sanders know, however, that a commission in the late 50s to update a rather mundane reinforced concrete building built during the teens on North Broadway would result in an enduring landmark. The site was to become the new home of RTA, an appliance distributor specializing in products of RCA.
“The client wanted something put on top that would tell people he’s in electronics,” recalls Sanders, who came up with the idea of a giant Nipper. The 25-foot tall white dog was fabricated by a firm in Chicago and shipped here in pieces on railcars and assembled by a 10-story crane.
If Sanders’ name isn’t particularly well known, his vision has been realized in countless commercial, residential and religious spaces across the Capital Region. Long time residents of the area may recall a couple of his more imaginative projects that are now shuttered, including the Golden Fox Restaurant in Colonie, and Story Town, an amusement park in Lake George. He also designed the worship spaces for Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany and Congregation Shaara Tfille in Saratoga Springs, and supervised the renovations of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church on Albany’s Whitehall Road. “Those golden doors are mine,” says Sanders, with a proud smile.
An Albany native, Sanders had early exposure to the workings of buildings, since his dad was a plumber. After some experience at the trade though, it didn’t take long to conclude that pipes and fittings weren’t his calling. Yet there was never any question that Sanders would return to his hometown after completing architecture studies at the Pennsylvania State University.
At college, Sanders delighted in exposure to the emerging language of modern architecture, a far cry from the environment of Colonial and Greek revivals in which he grew up.
“The only architecture we talked about in school was modern and the big leader in the late 30s and early 40s was Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Sanders. He recalls that Wright even appeared as a guest lecturer, if only for about 45 minutes. “He began by saying ‘You have a beautiful campus here,’ and that puffed us up. And then he said, ‘But the buildings spoil it.’ Then we knew who we had with us.”
Further contributing to Wright’s early influence on Sanders was a fieldtrip to Falling Water, the iconic Wright home in western Pennsylvania. Sanders explains that one of his professors was close friends with the Kaufmann family that built the home and that at the time of their visit some additions to the property were still in progress. “And I remember dachshunds running around and they matched the style of the building,” he adds.
Accentuated horizontal lines are a Wright trademark that appears in a number of Sanders’ own buildings, especially 331 Delaware Avenue. Originally designed for the Chicorelli Funeral Home, it was converted to a branch of the Albany Public Library a few years ago. It may be Sanders’ most recognizable local project after Nipper.
“Normally we try to sneak in some interesting ideas here and there,” says Sanders. “That’s what architects do.”
“But these were great clients and let me do anything,” continues Sanders, mentioning in particular the double cantilever on the building’s southwest corner that sheltered cars arriving at the front entrance.
When he could, Sanders also added touches of Wright to the houses he designed, which are spread across the region. Perhaps nowhere is the style more concentrated than in Sanders’ own home on Tampa Avenue, where he’s lived with his wife Pearl since 1958. During a tour of the home, Sanders points to some distinctive features that he unapologetically attributes to Wright. These include glass-to-glass corner windows, a floating staircase and the low ceiling in the entryway, which heightens the drama of stepping into the soaring and spacious living room.
Hidden from the street view is the main entrance. Though jobs on housing developments didn’t always allow Sanders to have his way, his preference is that the front door of a house not face the street. “Never show the front door, it’s a mystery,” he says. “Make a person come in and around the house to witness it, like it’s a sculpture.”
“The Sanders’ house represents one of those fascinating stories about our architectural history that’s just starting to be told,” says Susan Holland, executive director of Historic Albany Foundation. “We equate Albany with a Victorian sensibility but here is Harris in the 1950’s, designing a thoroughly modern house for his wife and growing family.”
A couple of years ago the Sanders residence was on Historic Albany’s holiday house tour. According to Holland its inclusion amidst more stately and traditional dwellings was very well received and has helped spark the organization’s gradual expansion into advocacy for mid-century design.
While a front room of the Sanders house serves as a library and office, during a recent visit it was in the kitchen where evidence could be seen that an architect lived there. Adjacent to the breakfast table was a supply of translucent green stencils, the tools of an architect, or at least one from the days before computer aided design. Sanders likes to have those implements handy for when he takes work home. He still shows up at the office everyday.
Established in 1955, Harris A. Sanders, Architects is currently led by the founder’s son, Daniel Sanders. The firm has grown over the years, from a one-man shop to the current staff of 10 and operates out of offices at 252 Washington Avenue. The work continues to be a rather broad mix, mostly in the Capital Region and across upstate. A current focus is renovating former industrial buildings for residential use. The recently completed River Street Lofts in Troy is one example.
According to Daniel Sanders, one of his father’s legacies is in the training of newcomers to the field. “Many of the architects in the region started in this office,” he says. “We have three interns right now and they appreciate his presence.”
“One of his strengths is understating the building as a whole,” continues Daniel Sanders, referring to his dad, the son of a plumber. “He was trained as much in engineering as architecture and can focus on plumbing, heating and a/c, as well as design and form.”
Realizing such details of a building through mechanical drawings is Sanders’ main work these days. And though the firm bears his name, he carries on with a level of humility that might be considered rare for his profession.
“My son keeps me busy,” he says. “I’m the little guy in the corner.”
UPDATE: 12/8/14: “The Nipper Building” is for sale. See story at All Over Albany