Saturday, January 11, 2014

Coming Soon to a Block Near You . . .

The Galvan Foundation (or it is Galvan Partners?) unveiled the plans for reconstructing the remains of 900 Columbia Street at 215 Union Street at the Historic Preservation Commission on Friday morning.

At the outset, HPC chair Rick Rector stressed that, although there was "some attempt to give the proposed building a similarity to 900 Columbia Street," the proposed house should be considered new construction in a historic district. Rector advised his colleagues, "It shouldn't even be looked at as a replication of 900 Columbia Street." Although originally it was said the house would be "reassembled" in the new location, only some of the materials from the c. 1810 house will now be used: the bricks, the door surround, and the limestone window sills. It wasn't clear if the lintels were also to be reused or just the sills. 

Charles Vieni, who served for thirty-four years as the resident engineer for the New York State Department of Transportation and has in recent years been involved with such Galvan projects as rebuilding the north wall of the 13 South Third Street (now Fish & Game) and the "restoration" of General Worth's birthplace at 211 Union Street, presented the project to the HPC. He stated that the foundation, which has already been built, was "compliant with the offset of property linessitting in the middle of the lot." The issue of placement, particularly setback from the street, raised serious concerns for some members of the HPC, although HPC member Peggy Polenberg queried, "Setback? Is that something we worry about?"

HPC member David Voorhees was first to raise the issue of setback, pointing out that, given the placement of the foundation, the front wall of the building will not align with the front walls of all the other buildings on the block. He stressed the importance of setback to "maintaining a historic streetscape instead of turning it into a suburban mall." HPC member Tony Thompson concurred with Voorhees, saying that "numerous books and articles [about historic preservation] emphasize the importance of maintaining the line of the street."

Carl Whitbeck, counsel to the HPC, pointed out that Hudson's zoning code requires a five foot setback and to build a new building that aligned with the existing buildings would require an area variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals. Whitbeck seemed to have no knowledge of Appendix G in Hudson's LWRP (Local Waterfront Revitalization Program), which is a Design Guideline Template for the Waterfront Revitalization Area, within which the proposed new construction is located. The first issue addressed in those guidelines is Site Layout and Development, and the first item under that head is (1) Maintain Street Walls:
Street Walls should be maintained if a prevailing, historic pattern exists with buildings located on the property line. Where such a pattern does not currently exist, minor variation in setback/build-to line (less than 5 feet) for structures, porches, architectural elements, etc., should be encouraged.
The next item in the Design Guideline Template is (2) Building Continuity, followed by this commentary: "Buildings facing public streets and spaces should generally be located close together with minimal side yard areas."

So it seems that situating the building in the middle of a three lot parcel is not in keeping with the design guidelines that are part of the LWRP. Of course, given the uncertain status of the LWRP, it's unclear what force those guidelines have. Were they, as they probably should have been, adopted when the new zoning in the LWRP was adopted? If they were, do they amend the setbacks specified in the code? Do they have the force of law, or are they simply guidelines to help the ZBA make decisions about area variances?

Whatever the status of the guidelines, it may be a moot point so far as this building is concerned. Not only is the foundation complete, but HPC architect member Jack Alvarez recalled that when that HPC granted a certificate of appropriateness to move the historic house from 900 Columbia Street to 215 Union Street in May 2012, they also approved the site plan and hence the placement of the building. But did they?

Gossips' report on the May 11 meeting, when the application was presented, indicates: "The HPC requested a site plan for the house's new location on the 200 block of Union Street and historic documentation supporting its appropriateness to the new site and, contingent upon receiving this information, asked counsel to prepare a certificate of appropriateness." The request for a site plan is also recorded in the official minutes for that meeting. Two weeks later, on May 25, a certificate of appropriateness was granted to the project, but there is no mention of the site plan in the Gossips report on that meeting or in the official minutes.

Fenestration for the new building also raised concerns. What was proposed are two-over-two windows, the same as were in the house when it stood at 900 Columbia Street. Voorhees objected that such windows would not have been original to the house. The windows would have had smaller panes, since the ability to make panes of glass large enough for two-over-two sash wasn't developed until 1848, in England, and didn't become commonly used in the United States until after the Civil War. Thompson was also concerned with the windows, though he acknowledged, referring back to another Galvan project, that "putting in the wrong windows is not as egregious as putting a Greek Revival portico on the Armory." He supported the notion that historic accuracy required six-over-six windows. On the issue of windows, Rector declared, "It's your choice as the applicant in designing a new building." HPC member Phil Forman opined that the such choices in new construction were a matter of taste, implying that it was inappropriate for the Historic Preservation Commission to try to influence such choices.

While Rector's and Forman's arguments might have some cogency if the house proposed were of modern design, it seems that a house that is meant to have the look of a historic house needs to commit to some period in the history of the house and the history of architecture and be reasonably consistent. The decision to reuse the Italianate door surround fixes the house in its own history. Walter Ritchie's research on the house discovered that "Between 1859 and 1873 . . . the entrance was redesigned with a new Italianate-style frame of pilasters rising to a pediment resting on a pair of console brackets and the earlier windows were replaced with modern two-over-two windows." The configuration of the windows proposed is coeval with the door surround, which seems to be adequate historic justification for two-over-two windows.

What is interesting is the choice to preserve and reuse the door surround in the first place. When the application to move the house was presented to the HPC in May 2012, Tom Swope, then executive director for the Galvan Initiatives Foundation, told the HPC that they wanted to "restore [the building] to Greek Revival" and indicated that, once the building had been moved, they would seek a certificate of appropriateness to do that. The building was originally Federal in design, and there is no evidence that it ever had a Greek Revival period, so the current proposal, which is an homage to the demolished house as it had been for three quarters of its life, is much to be preferred to making it into something it never was, but the inconsistency in the Galvan approach to this house and to General Worth's birthplace two doors down is curious. 

In the case of 211 Union Street, the Italianate door surround, which had likely been there for 150 years, was stripped away to restore the house to what was imagined to be its original Federal appearance. Preservation professionals are usually wary about restoring a building to an earlier appearance when what exists on the building is itself historic, especially when there is no archival evidence of what the building looked like previously. But such caution didn't exist when approaching 211 Union Street--what was arguably Hudson's most significant historic house, certainly the one associated with Hudson's most famous native son--and the house today looks more like a reproduction than a historic house restored. 

Although the discussion of the house proposed for 215 Union Street went on at length, only one criticism of the design actually stuck. Alvarez pointed out that, at the gable ends of the building, the cornice proposed for the front of the building stops, and there is a modern, suburban-style facia on the eaves of the gable. He called it incompatible with the design of the rest of the building and recommended that this trim detail be changed to make it more like the cornice on the front.

With this change being the only condition, Rector called for a motion to waive a public hearing and authorize legal counsel to draft the certificate of appropriateness. When the motion finally came to a vote--after much discussion during which Forman expressed the opinion that if the HPC took the time to listen to the public it would be diverted from its "primary task to move projects through as expeditiously as possible," and Rector asserted that "the decision will be made by the commission whether we hear from the public or not"--Forman, Rector, and Polenberg voted to waive the public hearing, while Voorhees, Thompson, and Alvarez opposed waiving the public hearing.

Polenberg then wanted to poll the "dissenters" to learn their reasons for voting against waiving a public hearing. Alvarez said he considered it his duty "to allow public comment on a project that is fairly significant." Thompson told her he thought it was "quite possible that something will be said [in a public hearing] that could influence our decision." Polenberg didn't bother to ask Voorhees for his reasons.

So, despite code enforcement officer Craig Haigh advising that public hearings were usually held in a "neutral time frame of the day," between 4 and 6, so that it is possible for everyone to attend, Rector set the public hearing on the proposal for 215 Union Street for Friday, January 24, at 10 a.m., during the HPC's next regularly scheduled meeting. A maximum of an hour will be devoted to hearing public comment, after which the HPC will have its formal vote on the three applications before them.

At the end of the meeting, Rick Scalera, special adviser to Galvan, asked, "How many people need to raise their hand in a meeting for there to be a public hearing?" (Four audience members--Ellen Thurston, Sarah Sterling, Helen Arrott, and Gossips--had been recognized by the chair and spoke during the meeting.) The answer given was "None." Forman, however, assured Scalera that he "absolutely did not want a public hearing," stating his commitment to "help these guys get the project done."

John Mason's account of this meeting appeared earlier today in the Register-Star: "Public to be heard on 215 Union St."


  1. At the first meeting of Hudson's proprietors on May 14, 1784, they established a committee "to regulate streets, and to attend in a particular manner to the fixing [of] the buildings uniformly."

    Among the first acts in creating this city was to ensure design uniformity along streets; nor were the proprietors strangers to moving houses.

    However, at the same first meeting the proprietors directed that "no person should extend his steps more than four feet from his door or seller ways" [sic; proprietor's Minutes].

    I notice that they made no exceptions for moved or reconstructed buildings.

    Alas, whether authorized or not, the LWRP's Appendix G was never more than a suggestion:

    "The City supports enactment of uniform design standards .... [which] could be in the form of guidelines or requirements .... as more fully set forth in the Design Guideline Template found in Appendix G (FLWRP, p. 134).

    Thank you Gossips and thank you Chief/CEO Haigh.

  2. Have we established as fact the promise made by Galvan to "reassemble" the house? Is there a record of such a promise? And is it reasonable to assume that the permission to "dismantle" was given based on the promise to "reassemble"?

  3. Yes. Unheimlic, you are correct. Hudson's Proprietors wrote this all down.It's still,at least for now, visually and physically all around you here. This isn't hard to figure out.
    What must be hard for someone on HPC, with an iota of integrity left , is twisting yourself into a pretzel , to justify accommodated Galvan, consistently. The conflicts of interest, involved here, is sickening.

    1. completely agreed.
      difficult to understand the seemingly blind support of everything galvan.

  4. I'll never understand how someone with the money to "do it right" and people on his payroll can't be bothered. It's not that hard and there is extensive research on the subject.

  5. a doublewide would be more honest