Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Lesson in Period of Significance

Demolition is a dirty word for preservationists, but Historic Hudson, the not-for-profit that has been advocating for the appreciation and preservation of Hudson's architectural heritage since 1996, is currently engaged in a demolition project. They are demolishing, with the blessings of all the preservation powers that be on the state and national levels, part of the Dr. Oliver Bronson House, Hudson's only National Historic Landmark. The reason teaches something about the important concept in historic preservation of period of significance.

Dr. Oliver Bronson House did not start out looking the way it does today, but the only evidence of what the house looked like when it was built for Captain Samuel Plumb in 1812 is this watercolor by William Guy Wall, done around 1819.

The house's period of significance, though, begins later, in 1839, when Dr. Oliver Bronson, who had purchased the house the year before, hired Alexander Jackson Davis to "refit" the house in the Romantic-Picturesque style that was popular at the time and for which Davis has gained a reputation at the time. Davis's work on the house in 1839 is the earliest surviving example of the style he is credited with inventing: Hudson River Bracketed. Ten years later, Bronson hired Davis to expand the house, which he did, adding two semi-octagonal parlors and a three-story Italianate tower on the west side of the house.

It is A. J. Davis's work on the house in 1839 and 1849 that elevates it to the status of National Historic Landmark and determines its period of significance: 1839-1849. What is being demolished this week is an addition to the south side of the house added when the house was the home of the McIntyre sisters, Elizabeth and Matilda.

Had there been a Historic Preservation Commission in Hudson back then, the McIntyres would likely have argued that the proposed addition to the house, to accommodate a new kitchen that was not in the cellar, was aesthetically sensitive to the design of the house. After all, it mimicked the semi-octagonal shape of the parlors in the 1849 Davis addition.

But the addition also destroyed the perfect symmetry of the house and inspired many to call it the "goiter kitchen." Even more serious than its effect on the integrity of the house's design, the addition was compromising the structural integrity of the south side of the house. So, starting on Monday, the goiter kitchen is being carefully and meticulously excised.

Photos courtesy Lisa Weilbacker, Historic Hudson


  1. Interesting.

    The Secretary of the Interior indicates that the most desirable approach to rehabilitating historic buildings, preservation, “places a high premium on the retention of all historic fabric through conservation, maintenance and repair.” Further: “It reflects a building's continuum over time, through successive occupancies, and the respectful changes and alterations that are made.”

    I guess a determination was made that the addition is (was?) not considered part of the “respectful changes” made to the building. Stripping historic fabric to restore a building to its 1839-1849 period of significance appearance is not justification for the destruction of historic building fabric, even if structural issues exist that need to be addressed.

    See: http://www.preservationconsultant.net/blog/-when-do-building-materials-metamorphose-into-historic-fabric