At the Columbia County courthouse, many things are happening. Handicapped ramps are being constructed at the front of the building, a two-story addition with an elevator and public bathrooms is being constructed at the back of the building, a new heating and cooling system is being installed.
Public Works commissioner David Robinson was justifiably proud of the exterior design. On the front elevation, the ramp balustrades replicate the detail of the original building and appear --in the elevation drawings, at least--to blend seamlessly into the facade. The new addition to the Beaux Arts building designed by Warren and Wetmore meets the standards of compatibility--mass, texture, continuity--yet there is differentiation. It is clear where the original building ends and the later addition begins.
When the plans were presented to the Historic Preservation Commission, the commissioners seemed impressed not only by the designs but by Robinson's knowledge of and admiration for the historic building. Although the plans presented were only for the exterior, Robinson's obvious respect for the building and his reverent statements about the main staircase and the light coming through the window in the south facade were reassuring and encouraged confidence on the decisions being made about changes to the interior of the building. For this reason, there was surprise and disappointment--and indeed some outrage--when it was discovered by someone living in close proximity to the courthouse that interior walls at the main entrance to the building have been demolished.
As shown in these pictures, which were taken a couple of weeks ago, the east wall of the vestibule has been demolished, and the large marble plaque, which creates symmetry in the vestibule with a similar commemorative plaque on the opposite wall, has been removed and remounted, centered, on the west wall of the lobby, just inside the vestibule. The east wall of the lobby has also been demolished.
The reason for the demolition is the desire to move the security checkpoint and metal detector out of the lobby, where it took up half the space. The idea is that when you enter the building, instead of going straight ahead toward the monumental marble staircase, you will go to the left, into a side room where you will pass through security, and then exit that room and enter the lobby through a door in the east wall.
The changes are meant to restore the lobby to its intended function as a lobby by moving the security checkpoint to a side room, but critics see the changes as destroying the integrity of the interior space and spoiling the symmetry and the progression of spaces people entering the building were meant to experience.
Architecturally, the courthouse is one of the most significant buildings in Hudson--indeed, in Columbia County. It was designed by the famous architectural firm of Warren and Wetmore at about the same time they were working on the design for Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Advocates for the building believe that there was a relationship between the main entry spaces of the courthouse and the entry spaces at Grand Central, that Warren and Wetmore may have "tried out" some of their concepts of spatial relationships with the design for our courthouse.
The courthouse is a contributing structure in the Hudson Historic District listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the locally designated Union-Allen-South Front Street Historic District. Back in 2004, soon after Hudson's preservation law was adopted and the Historic Preservation Commission created, there was an effort by the HPC to designate the courthouse as a local landmark--a designation that would have extended protection and review to the public spaces inside the building. This initiative was foiled by the late Gerald Simons, then chair of the Columbia County Board of Supervisors, and, at the time, some believed that Simons was acting at the urging of then Hudson mayor Rick Scalera.
In the intervening decade, the embattled HPC never again tried to give individual designation to the courthouse. In 2006, however, the Common Council stood up to a request from county government to exempt the courthouse from the wide-ranging Union-Allen-South Front Street Historic District created that year. As a consequence, any exterior alteration to the building requires review by the HPC, but interior alterations do not. Had the courthouse been individually designated as a local landmark, plans for the interior would also have come before the HPC, and a more public discussion might have resulted in different solution to the problem of accommodating 21st-century needs for security within an architecturally significant early 20th-century building.
The Hudson Opera House is struggling with its own challenges of adapting a historic building to 21st-century uses. Like the courthouse, the opera house is a contributing structure in a National Register historic district and a locally designated historic district, but unlike the courthouse, the opera house's restoration, which has been going on for close to twenty years, has been a much more public process. Because the financing for the opera house restoration has involved grant money from state and federal sources, the New York State Historic Preservation Office and the National Parks Service must approve plans and the work as it is being done.
The Hudson Opera House is now embarking on its final phase of restoration: reopening the second floor as a performance and assembly space. This requires--for ADA compliance--an elevator, which will be housed in a tower constructed behind the building, connected to the building and differentiated from it by a glass "hyphen"--a recommended strategy for providing elevators in historic buildings. This month, the proposed elevator tower, which has already been approved at the state and federal levels, started the review process at the local level with the three agencies involved: the Planning Commission, the Historic Preservation Commission, and the Zoning Board of Appeals.
On May 8, as Gossips reported, the elevator tower project was presented to the Planning Commission for site plan review. The Planning Commission was concerned about visibility for vehicles approaching City Hall Place on Cherry Alley and about noise from a transformer to installed on the site and requested more information about decibel levels and sight lines.
Observing that the south facade of the opera house was "very visible and very beautiful," Baldinger expressed the opinion that the proposed tower "upstaged" the facade. Thompson wanted to know why the tower had period windows and why there were lintels where windows might have been, concluding, "This thing is very different from the opera house, and sticking a few things on it doesn't make it so."
After the discussion, it was decided that the application was incomplete because there were no renderings that showed the elevator tower in its context from different directions.
On May 15, the elevator tower proposal was presented to the Zoning Board of Appeals. Area variances are needed because the tower will come right up to the sidewalk on the east side, as the opera house itself does, and to within a foot or two of the alley on the south side. The ZBA accepted the application as complete and scheduled a public hearing for Wednesday, June 19, at 6 p.m.
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