Sunday, February 27, 2011

Courthouse Renovations

Francesca Olsen reports in today's Register-Star on the progress of the plans to renovate the Columbia County Courthouse to achieve ADA compliance and improve energy efficiency: "Work on the courthouse could begin this year." In an interesting coincidence, on Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors Economic Development, Planning, Tourism, Transportation, and Agriculture Committee tabled a request for $78,600 to pay for a professional space needs and efficiency study for county offices, but two days later, the Public Works Committee approved a request for a similar amount--$78,200--to pay the architects working on the courthouse renovation for "designing first floor restoration 'to the period of the original 1907 design' and to design energy-efficient windows that would replace the courthouse’s current single pane windows."

At Thursday's committee meeting, Hudson First Ward Supervisor John Musall is reported to have raised the issue of review by Hudson's Historic Preservation Commission: "'We have a rather stringent historic preservation commission,' Musall said. 'I don’t know if you’ve met them?' He said that Hudson’s HPC has halted projects before because of windows." Hudson Fifth Ward Supervisor Bart Delaney, corroborating Musall's comment, raised the question of whether or not the HPC has authority over a county building. The article concludes by saying: "City Attorney Cheryl Roberts, who acts as the Hudson Historic Preservation Commission’s attorney, did not answer questions before press time relating to the HPC’s ability to oversee or approve courthouse renovations."

The history of the courthouse and the Historic Preservation Commission is an interesting one. One of the first things the HPC tried to do when it was first created back on 2003 was designate the Columbia County Courthouse--exterior and interior--and 400 State Street--since 1959 the Hudson Area Library--as local landmarks. When their intentions became known, the HPC received letters from the late Gerald Simons, chair of the Columbia County Board of Supervisors, and James Clarke, then superintendent of the Hudson City School District, which owned 400 State Street at the time, protesting the plan to designate the buildings. Oddly, both letters were worded in exactly the same way, as if someone had provided a model letter to both men.   

Not long after that, at the instigation of Mayor Rick Scalera, the historic preservation law was suspended and substantively rewritten. One of the major changes made to the law at that time was to take the power to designate historic buildings and historic districts away from the Historic Preservation Commission and give it to the Common Council. The HPC now reviews applications for designation, holds a public hearing, and makes a recommendation to the Common Council, and it is the Council that votes on whether or not to make the designation. The 2005 revisions to the law did not go so far as to require owner consent for historic designation, but it's an idea that seems always to have appealed to the mayor. 

Soon after the historic preservation law was reinstated, 400 State Street was designated a local landmark. By this time, the Hudson Area Library had purchased the building, and the library board enthusiastically supported landmark designation, but such designation was never pursued for the courthouse. 

In 2006, the Columbia County Courthouse was included as a contributing structure in the Union-Allen-South Front Street Historic District. As part of the process of creating the historic district, the proposal was sent to the Hudson Planning Commission and the Columbia County Planning Department for a recommendation. The Common Council, however, was not obligated to accept a recommendation from either body. The County Planning Department predictably requested that the courthouse be exempt from historic designation, but the Common Council Legal Committee, with the advice of the city attorney at the time, denied the request for an exemption, and the district was created with the courthouse as a contributing structure.

According to the decision made in 2006, the proposed addition to the courthouse and the replacement windows must come before the Historic Preservation Commission for a certificate of appropriateness, but Cheryl Roberts, the city attorney assigned to the HPC, has not yet weighed in on the question. Roberts has shown a penchant for revisiting and rethinking the legal interpretations of her predecessors and colleagues on the City's legal staff, so it's not certain if the HPC will end up having any say in protecting the integrity of the courthouse--an architecturally significant building designed by Warren & Wetmore, the celebrated architectural firm that also designed, among their many projects, Grand Central Station in New York City. 

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