On Friday morning, the Historic Preservation Commission grappled with the question of whether it was their responsibility to protect the architectural integrity of buildings or if their charge was merely to protect the appearance of buildings, and they may have come to the wrong conclusion.
The project before them was 211 Union Street, the birthplace of General William Jenkins Worth. In September, the Historic Preservation Commission granted a certificate of appropriateness to the project as it was then outlined: replacing the roof with a new asphalt shingle roof; replacing the windows with new wood true divided-light windows; correcting the bad repointing job done recently (during the time it's been owned by Eric Galloway) on the front wall. On Friday morning, however, Kevin Walker, accompanied by Charles Vieni, a structural engineer from Claverack, appeared before the HPC with some "modifications" to the original proposal. The modifications they were proposing were quite catastrophic.
According to Walker and Vieni, the house has structural problems that must be addressed--problems so severe, the two seemed to imply, that the house could fall down any day now. Walker expressed the opinion that "if this house weren't the house that it is [i.e., a building of national significance because it is the birthplace of a national hero], it should be demolished." (At one point in the meeting, Walker also shared his opinion that 226-228 Warren Street should have been torn down.) To address the structural problems at 211 Union, they are proposing to take down the front wall in sections and rebuild it, but they don't plan to rebuild it as a three-brick wall, as it was originally constructed, but as a one-brick wall--a brick veneer--behind which a new load-bearing wall will be constructed.
In addition to "taking the components of an old house and building a new house," as HPC member Jane Smith described what they were proposing for the front wall, the modifications involve bringing the building back to its "original Federal look"--that is, eliminating the Italianate door surround (at the September HPC meeting, Galloway representative Dan Region told the commissioners that the original Italianate door had been found in a shed behind the house); creating a simple fan light similar to the one found on 26 Warren Street, which Walker speculates might have been the original door treatment (Walker thinks he has an 1810 six-panel door, from who knows where, to use here); replacing the current Victorian era wood windows with new nine-over-nine true divided-light wood windows, with insulated glass; and creating a stoop that would be a smaller version of the stoops found on the Robert and Seth Jenkins houses at 113 and 115 Warren Street.
For a while it seemed that HPC Chair Tom Swope and Jamison Teale felt that Walker and Vieni should be allowed to solve the building's structural problems in any way they saw fit, but architect member Jane Smith and Nick Haddad repeatedly expressed concern that the building would end up looking like a reproduction rather than a genuine late 18th-century house. Swope suggested that, instead of a "veneered wall," the front wall should be rebuilt in its original three-brick configuration. Walker seemed open to this, noting that if some of the bricks from the General Worth house could not be reused, he had 5,000 bricks from another house (Could that be the section of the house at State and Seventh they demolished in February without a certificate of appropriateness from the HPC?) that look exactly like the bricks at 211 Union Street. Vieni, however, protested that if the wall were rebuilt exactly as it was "you lose all the R-value of creating the veneered wall." (R-value is a measure of thermal resistance.)
The discussion went on for an hour and a half, and at one point, Swope asked the HPC to "take off your preservationist hats and decide what is best for the owner and the house," adding that "the house has been a blight on Union Street for years."
Although Teale expressed the opinion that it was "perfectly appropriate to go back to the building's original Federal appearance," citing the concept of "period of significance," Andrew Rieser cautioned that this was "one of the biggest changes to a historic building we have ever considered" and suggested that the decision required a public hearing. (It should be noted that the house's period of significance would be the time it was General Worth's birthplace and childhood home [1794-1812], but since there are no images from the period to show what the building looked like at that time, re-creating that appearance would be a matter of inference and speculation.)
When Smith suggested that the HPC should take the proposed modifications under consideration until their next meeting, telling her colleagues "I'm not ready to decide," Walker objected heatedly to the possibility of a postponement. Tony Thompson then expressed his dissatisfaction that "time [that is, the applicant's claim of urgency and demand for an immediate decision] is what dictates our decisions."
In the end, it was agreed that a public hearing on the proposed modifications will be held on Friday, December 17, at 10 a.m., followed at 10:30 by a special meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission to decide whether to approve or reject the changes to the original certificate of appropriateness application.