Friday, January 28, 2011

Rebuilding the Second Ward

Someone asked me recently what I thought the houses that Habitat for Humanity plans to build on the 200 block of Columbia Street should look like. The classic historic preservation response to this question is that new construction should be compatible with the existing historic fabric but not imitative. The test of compatibility involves three elements: mass--the proportions of new structures, especially height and width, should be similar to those of existing buildings; texture--the surface quality of the new structure's material should be harmonious with the predominant surface quality of the existing buildings; and continuity. This final element, continuity, is more complicated. It involves the placement of a new structure and its spatial relationship to the street and neighboring buildings (setbacks). It involves the relationship of solid and void (walls and windows) in the new structure and the existing structures. It involves the continuation in the new structure of the predominant lines--vertical, horizontal, diagonal--found in the existing structures. It involves roof shapes, window shapes, projections, and architectural details.

Compatibility is not an easy or obvious concept. Book length studies have been devoted to it. There was a time when historic preservationists were in agreement that new construction--even additions to existing structures--should be compatible but  differentiated from historic buildings to reflect the architectural style of their time. The townhouse on West 11th Street in New York City, which replaced the one destroyed in 1970 when a pipe bomb being built by the Weather Underground accidentally detonated, is often cited as the perfect example of new construction that is both compatible and differentiated. In recent years, however, the issue of differentiation has be revisited by some historic preservationists in light of very Modernist additions to historic buildings and new buildings in historic settings in New York City and Charleston, South Carolina.

The finer points of compatibility and differentiation seem rather like splitting hairs when faced with the question of what to do on the 200 block of Columbia Street. There is so little of the original architectural fabric left. On the south side of the street, a few of the street's original houses remain, spaced out by vacant lots where presumably similar houses once stood. Tucked into one of these vacant lots, surprisingly, is an occupied house trailer, something I always imagined was not permitted by Hudson's zoning code. On the north side of the street, the row of little setback single-story houses constitutes the majority of the buildings on that side of the block. There are three surviving buildings near the east end of the block--two that the mayor and Fourth Ward Supervisor Bill Hughes have indicated they would like to see demolished and one that is currently the office of Housing Resources of Columbia County. If new construction should be compatible with existing buildings, the question for this architectural hodgepodge of a block is: With which buildings should the new construction be compatible?

Sadly, hodgepodge describes the architecture of the Second Ward as a whole. There's a nine-story "high rise" apartment building and several two-story "low-rise" apartment buildings; there are straight rows of two-story attached houses, a row of single-story detached houses, a "quadrangle" of duplex apartments, a complex of garden apartments, and a five-story apartment building that fills an entire block--all built in the 1970s with no apparent concern for how the buildings relate to one another or how the whole assortment of structures relates to the rest of the city. Juxtaposed to this is State Street, which, above Second, retains most of its original houses, some of which are examples of Hudson's very early vernacular architecture. And then there is Robinson Street, with its vernacular houses and its own unique scale. 

The Second Ward is distinguished by its architecture but not in a good way. If Bliss Towers is to come down--and not everyone agrees with the necessity or advantage of this course of action--a great swath in the center of the Second Ward will be a tabula rasa, and it will take some very smart visioning and planning if the Second Ward is not to become more of an architectural hodgepodge than it is today. 

A few years ago, Housing Resources did a project on the north side of town that they called Hudson Homesteads. The goal was to create new houses that fit in with the existing architecture, and they worked with people who had done a similar project in Poughkeepsie. They built two houses on North Second Street, another on Robinson Street, and several on Columbia Street, across from the Cannonball Factory. Many of the houses are brick or brickface and have bracketed cornices. That's one approach--compatibility bordering on replication.

A few years ago, too, the PARC Foundation proposed an extensive redevelopment plan for the Second and Fourth wards, designed by California architect Teddy Cruz, which took the shantytowns of Tijuana as its inspiration. That was another approach, which claimed compatibility but seemed to some to be quite radical for a Northeastern city.  

All this brings us back to the original question: What should new construction in the Second Ward look like? Perhaps it would be better to ask what it should try to achieve. The primary goal should be to create buildings that bring architectural integrity back to the neighborhood and make it feel more like the rest of the city. Here's a suggestion for how we might achieve this.

All of the Second Ward is included in the Waterfront Revitalization District--the area included in the Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan. Appendix G of the LWRP (the last eight pages of the draft document) provides a "Design Guidelines Template," the main objective of which is to "ensure that new development fits in well with its surroundings." There are many people with expertise in architecture, historic preservation, and urban planning who live in Hudson or its environs and care deeply about Hudson and its future. The Common Council should create an ad hoc committee made up of some of these people to review the design guidelines included in the LWRP, determine if they are adequate to ensure the desired outcome for the Second Ward, and refine or modify them as necessary to create design guidelines that are uniquely appropriate for the Second Ward. When the committee has made its recommendations, they could be adopted immediately by the Common Council, as an amendment to the current zoning code, to inform redevelopment and encourage revitalization in the Second Ward.            


  1. Sounds like a SMART approach to a devastated "ground zero" of Hudsons previous "urban renewal."

  2. I'm all for hodgepodge — some might call it instead "eclecticism" — if the component parts are interesting, are built to last more than 30 years, and serve the needs of those who live and work in these buildings.

    By the standards of the original Proprietors, Hudson in 1890 might have seem a disjointed hodgepodge of newfangled styles.Some who loved early Dutch and Colonial architecture no doubt scoffed at Federal pretensions, much as others may have pooh-poored the advent of new Greek Revival and Victorian buildings or additions.

    Today, this 19th Century hodgepodge looks harmonious to our 21sr Century eyes mainly because those buildings were unified by materials and craftsmanship we now deem both precious and sturdy, in comparison to the throwaway structures of the last 50 years.

    Old buildings which were not considered special when built, or were put up solely for utility, now draw sophisticated buyers (witness the Basilica and Cannonball purchases).

    So when it comes to infill housing and the like, I'd focus on quality and durability of design less than perfect contextuality. Hudson is a catalogue of vernacular structured today because that vernacular was able to evolve. Unfortunately, that evolution stopped some time ago, favoring what could be built to maximize the profit of the lowest civic bidder.

  3. David Voorhees submitted this comment:

    Too many modern architects in their rush for "style" forget the important role of climate in design. Hudson Valley vernacular architecture developed through generations of practical responses to regional climatic conditions. Peaked roofs, attics with ventilation systems, and so forth, are all responses to the region's cold snowy winters and hot humid summers, when the sun is directly overhead. Tiny plazas, suitable for a tropical climate, are totally impractical for snow removal and long periods of ice; huge loft-like spaces without the buffer of an attic space, perfect for the sea breezes of the West Indies, can become unbearably hot in the summer when the sun beats mercilessly down and expensive to heat in the winter. I hope that whoever designs Hudson's future buildings considers the vernacular example of regional climatic considerations and its cost effectiveness in their design.