Saturday, February 19, 2011

Hudson in 1969: The Intrusion of Outsiders

A reader recently told me that, when he was a graduate student at Columbia in the early 1970s, he heard the story of how James Marston Fitch, a distinguished professor at the School of Architecture, was nearly "run out of town" after giving testimony at a public hearing here in Hudson. The hearing in question took place on September 15, 1969. The topic of discussion was the demolition of the General Worth Hotel. Here's Chris Martin's report about the hearing, which appeared the Register-Star the next day.     

"YOUR FIVE MINUTES ARE UP--SIT DOWN"--Theodore Super, left, cuts short a statement by Professor James Fitch, right, of the Columbia University School of Architecture, who was promoting preservation of the General Worth Hotel. Fitch, who was engaged by professional planners several years ago to conduct a study of the city's historical buildings, sat down, but was allowed to complete his statement after intervention by Carl Mays, executive director of the Hudson River Valley Commission, and Mayor Samuel T. Wheeler. 

Feelings Run Hot At Hotel Hearing

The controversy over demolition of the General Worth Hotel blazed last night during two hours of debate sparked by pleas for preservation and local demands for outside funds to adapt the building for a practical use.

More than 150 Hudson and Columbia County residents and out-of-county historians and architects attended the public hearing conducted by the Hudson River Valley Commission. Assemblyman Clarence Lane also attended.

The commission and its supporters, concerned over destruction of the hotel because of its historical significance, faced Hudson taxpayers, who for several years have been urging the city to remove the hotel because of fire and safety hazard.

Many of the Hudson residents agreed the hotel was of great historical significance, but questioned how funds for restoration and maintenance would be raised. Estimates have ranged from $100,000 to $500,000 to restore the structure.

John Waite, senior historical architect for the New York State Historic Trust, said the building could be adapted for use as a youth facility, community center, housing for the elderly, or city and county offices.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, he said, already had expressed an interest in exploring the possibilities for federal funding, if local initiative was forthcoming.

According to Waite, HUD could provide up to 100 per cent financing for acquisition and development of a community center or, under another program, a full grant for developing housing for the aged. Up to 75 per cent aid would be available to develop county or city offices, he said.

Waite pointed out that Hudson's 1965 master plan lists the General Worth Hotel among seven important examples of historic architecture. He renewed the Trust's offer for a 50 per cent grant in aid to Hudson to develop the site. Other outside agencies, he said, could lend financial assistance and technical advice. He closed by handing Hudson Mayor Samuel T. Wheeler an application to HUD for federal funds.

Wheeler traced the decline of the hotel for the last three years, and asked Trust and Commission representatives what they would have done with the existing "threat to life and property."

He asked the state representatives to understand Hudson's position: "We must consider the people in the area and the costs to taxpayers of preservation."

"Generally, the feeling here is resentment of the intrusion by the commission and the trust because they don't trust us to govern our own city," Wheeler said.

He demanded again a 100 per cent grant to renovate the hotel, assurances of full costs of maintenance and that the work would be done immediately, or full clearance for the city to demolish the structure. Vague promises of money, he said, are not good enough.

Supporting Wheeler's position were Alderman Thomas Quigley, Republican candidate for Common Council president; Frank Nero of Hudson, president of the city Democratic Club; Theodore Super and Burton Sanford of Hudson.

Super and Charles Van Buren of Hudson interrupted a statement by Prof. James Fitch of Columbia University School of Architecture, who promoted the value of tourism and related preservation of historic sites.

Super and Van Buren objected because the professor "talked too long." They generated applause from sections of the audience, until Carl Mays, executive director of the commission who moderated the program intervened. Mays, who said he was "seldom confronted with such rudeness," asked Mayor Wheeler if Prof. Fitch should continue. Wheeler urged the audience to allow Fitch to finish his talk.

Van Buren left a short while later.

Tourism in this area, Fitch said, is an untapped resource. He noted that Hudson has "as fine a collection of houses in the 1790 to 1914 period as any place in the state."

Mrs. Walter Reineck, president of the Columbia County Arts and Crafts Guild, presented a petition signed by 82 persons interested, she said, in saving the hotel for a practical use.

Telegrams and correspondence urging preservation were read from the Village Neighborhood Committee, Inc.; a New York City man, Chauncey Stillman; the New York State Hotel and Motel Association; the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C.; the New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown; and the Victorian Society in America.

Greenport Supervisor Frank Nabozny said the hotel could be saved and noted that the Rev. Cletus Dello Iacono, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Hudson had expressed an interest in the hotel over a year ago for use as a church youth and recreation center. Wheeler explained that at the time it was impossible for the city to deed the building to anyone.

Howard Topper, a member of Hudson's Planning Commission, said the group took into account the building's historic significance but found that development was not economically feasible.

Mrs. Alexander Aldrich, wife of the Hudson River Valley Commission's former executive director, appealed for the hotel's preservation in a city whose "historic [sic] and tradition is  unspoiled."

Mrs. Aldrich, who now lives in Brooklyn, said she boasts about Hudson and Columbia County.

"Slap a coat of paint on this place, and there will be thousands of people coming through here," Mrs. Aldrich said, noting the value of tourism.

She suggested forming a tourism organization that would point out in a brochure tourist points of interest in the county.

Representatives of the National Park Service and the Society of Architectural Historians urged Hudson to explore every avenue to find a practical use for the hotel.

Prof. Bernard Foerster of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's School of Architecture and a member of the Board of Trustees of Olana noted that "preservation can be progress."

"I hope the building will remain a reality rather than a portrait in a gallery," he said.

Joseph Cordato, Hudson Democratic chairman, said demolition of the hotel would mean its death, and the bulldozer will be the undertaker.

"If the Hudson River Valley Commission can assure that the hotel could be brought to a fruitful use at no expense to the city, we would be crazy not to let it stand and be an historic attraction. If it doesn't cost us anything, what are we hollering about?" he said.

Philip Pomerantz, Hudson businessman and chairman of the Citizens Advisory Committee, suggested a practical approach. Referring to the city's Housing Authority plans for public housing for senior citizens, he said: "The General Worth versus new public housing? It's a lot to be thought about."

Al Michaels of Hudson, who has restored two Warren Street buildings, asked that the hotel be preserved and a use found for it. William Kane, McKinstry Place, said that if only token financial support were required locally, he would like the building preserved.

Mrs. Charles Holcomb of Old Chatham, president of the Columbia County Council on the Arts, said the hotel "holds the whole block together."

"Warren St. potentially is one of the most attractive main streets in the state," she said. "If it can be saved, why not?"

Thomas Koulos of Copake Lake, formerly of Hudson, recommended coordination of all county activities, including tourism.

Mrs. Gale Smith of Hudson suggested the building be adapted for use by community organizations.

Speakers from the Hudson River Valley Commission included Mays and Lewis Rubenstein, historian. Mays said the commission's findings would be announced on or before Oct. 11, the day the commission's 60-day stay order expires on demolition of the hotel.

NOTE: Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church was located at the corner of Union and Second streets. The building is now St. Nicholas Ukrainian Church.  


  1. Carole,
    Do you know where I could find a copy of the 1965 Master Plan for Hudson that you reference in this post?

    1. Well, first, it's not me doing the referencing. This post is an article from the Register-Star, written by Chris Martin and published on September 16, 1969. I have no personal familiarity with the document, and it's not clear from this article if the 1965 master plan was created by the City of Hudson or by the New York State Historic Trust. I don't have a complete grasp of what went on in Hudson in the 1960s and '70s, but my sense is that there was a lot of state intervention in an effort (largely unsuccessful) to stay much of the demolition that went on here during that era. As for finding a copy of the 1965 master plan, I would suggest starting in the History Room of the Hudson Area Library. Many of the documents from that era are preserved there.

  2. Unbelievable. Glad to know, though, that there were people and organizations far and wide that recognized the value of historic preservation.