Two recent fires in Hudson brought to mind a Hudson fire of the past that many of have heard of because it destroyed the top floor and the tower of 5 Willard Place, now the bed and breakfast called The Croff House.
The house was originally one of several examples of Second Empire design on Willard Place. With a mansard roof and a tower, 5 Willard Place was similar to 4 Willard Place next door and was the work of the same architect, G. B. Croff. The house was built in 1875 for Herman Vedder Esselstyn, a prominent attorney and surrogate court judge and one of the founders of Willard Place. A decade or so after taking up residence in his gracious home on Hudson's newly established private street, Esselstyn suffered a reversal of fortune and was forced, in 1887, to mortgage the house for $4,500. Five years later when the mortgage came due, he was unable to repay the debt. A lawsuit succeeded in postponing foreclosure for two years, but in 1894, the house was sold at auction on the steps of the courthouse for $5,166.73. Five years after losing his Willard Place home, Esselstyn died, leaving an estate valued at less than fifty dollars.
When the house suffered the damaging fire, it was was owned by another attorney, Samuel B. Coffin, who had been the city judge. Coffin wasn't at home when the fire occurred. He was in Rhode Island, about to embark on his annual cruise along the eastern seaboard in his yacht. But his wife, Frances Coffin, and his sister, Magdalen Coffin, were at home, along with a domestic named Alice Moore. At 2 a.m. when the fire started, they were all asleep--the Coffin ladies on the second floor, Moore on the third floor. Moore was trapped at the top of the house and had to be rescued by a young man named Francis Gannon, who was passing by on Third Street in the wee hours of the morning, on his way home from work, and heard her screams for help.
No one in the present day has been sure in what year the fire occurred. The history of the house on the Croff House website indicates it happened in 1939, but a Gossips reader recently discovered the account of the fire that appeared in the Hudson Register, which reveals that it occurred in early hours of May 29--Memorial Day--in 1941. Click here to read the detailed account of the blaze and of Francis Gannon's heroism.