Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hudson as Palimpsest

Architect Harry Kendall, in a lecture sponsored by Historic Hudson back in 1998, was the first to use the metaphor of a palimpsest to describe the architecture of Hudson. A palimpsest is a page of parchment manuscript from which the text has been scraped off so the page can be used again, but traces of the original text remain, making it possible to decipher what was previously written there.

The word palimpsest has come to describe anything having diverse layers, and so it is with Hudson architecture. Until the latter part of the 20th century, when urban renewal money from the federal government fueled demolition fervor in Hudson, buildings were sometimes destroyed by fire, but they were rarely willfully razed. Instead they were enhanced and updated--"refitted" was the term used at the time--to make them conform to the fashion of the day and to give evidence of the owners' taste and affluence. Over time, early vernacular and Federal style buildings were adorned with cornices and corbels, ornate Victorian window and door surrounds were added to Greek Revival buildings, simple early Italianate buildings sprouted oriels and bay windows, and, in the latter decades of the 19th century, additional floors with mansard roofs, characteristic of Second Empire style, were added to buildings. The history of our city--its periods of boom and bust--and chronology of American architectural styles can be read in the buildings of Hudson.  

Fascinating as it is, the palimpsest quality of Hudson architecture presents a challenge for historic preservation. When an addition or alteration is an example of 20th-century "remodeling"--or "remuddling" as Old House Journal calls it--the decision to remove it and return the building to an earlier style is easy. It's another story--or should be--when the additions and alterations are themselves historic. 

The Dr. Oliver Bronson House, for example, is significant because of the alterations and additions that were made to the original Federal style house. The house was built in 1812, possibly by local master builder Barnabus Waterman, but it became a National Historic Landmark in 2003 for its association with the architect, Alexander Jackson Davis, who substantially redesigned the exterior appearance of the house in 1839 and designed a significant addition to the house ten years later. Davis's work on the Bronson House is an early example of the Hudson River Bracketed style which he originated, and as a consequence, the changes to the house are historically more significant than its original design. 

It's obvious that returning the Bronson House to Federal style would be highly inappropriate, but for other Hudson buildings the decision about what's appropriate isn't always as clear. Take, for example, 314 Warren Street. This picture shows the building as it was in about 2002, when the facade restoration was just getting started. The pediment, the fanlight, the pilasters reveal that this was originally a Greek Revival building to which Victorian window hoods and a Victorian door surround were added. The picture also shows very inappropriate 20th-century alterations: changing the size of the ground floor window openings to accommodate smaller, standard size windows.

The facade restoration took place before the Historic Preservation Commission came into existence, so there was no discusssion about the appropriateness of the changes undertaken. The later Victorian elements were stripped away, and new door and window surrounds, inspired by Greek Revival style, and a larger ground floor window, in keeping with a commercial use, were introduced. Whether the removal of authentic historic fabric to achieve a level of architectural "purism" would have passed muster with the Historic Preservation Commission will never be known. 

On Thursday, December 23, the Historic Preservation Commission meets to consider the appropriateness of returning General Worth's birthplace--211 Union Street--to its "original" Federal appearance. In some ways, this seems like a no-brainer. Period of significance is usually the deciding factor in making decisions of this sort, and for 211 Union Street the period of significance is clear: 1794 to 1812, the years during which the house was home to William  Jenkins Worth, one of Hudson's most illustrious sons. William's mother died when he was a child, and his father was killed when William was 18, so it's unlikely that he had any connection with the house--or with Hudson for that matter--after 1812 when he left to pursue a mercantile career in Albany and then joined the army. The problem is that there is no archival evidence that shows what the building looked like during the time General Worth lived there. What is being proposed is speculation based on another building in Hudson of more or less the same period and what's known about the size of window panes at the time. It's very likely that by 1854, when the monument to General Worth in New York City was dedicated with an elaborate procession involving 6,500 soldiers, General Worth's birthplace already looked pretty much the same as it does today. 

So the question is: Should the extant historic features, which have been part of the house for more than 150 years, be discarded in favor of creating something that we cannot be sure is what the house actually looked like during the brief period when General Worth lived there?     

1 comment:

  1. The latest book from the Chair of the Historic Preservation Program at Columbia addresses this very topic, The Row House Reborn. He has an anecdotal story in the beginning about watching a brownstone that had long since been altered - stoop removed, studio windows in the attic etc - and the owner proceeded to "preserve" it by removing all the circa 1920's alterations and bringing it back to an 1870 Italianate, thereby ruining whatever architectural significance the building had, even though the LPC looked fondly on this.

    I think it should also be noted that the folks proposing this have a long list of precedents in Hudson. We should look to these, rather than some quick mock-up, to see what we may get in the end. While I think this is rendered nicely, I don't buy it. All the other examples of what they've done demonstrate a inability to grasp significance without turning it into Lollipop.