Sunday, May 19, 2013

Historic Buildings, Present Day Needs

There are two projects in Hudson, at different stages of development, that involve additions and adaptations to significant historic buildings: the Columbia County courthouse and the Hudson Opera House. In both cases, the changes are necessitated by requirements of building use in the 21st century.

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.

On May 10, the elevator tower project came before the Historic Preservation Commission. In the preliminary review, from which two of the seven members of the HPC reclused themselves (Peggy Polenberg, because she is on the HOH board, and Jack Alvarez, because he has a current business relationship with one of the people presenting the application), two of the five remaining--Tony Thompson and Scott Baldinger--had concerns about the design. 

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.


  1. 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.

    Was there no design review of the interior floor plans / details for the proposed changes to the main entrance ...

    1. Obviously, there were plans that somebody reviewed and approved. That may have been the Board of Supervisors' Public Works Committee. But they were not reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission, because they didn't have to be. Although I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that, as an audience member, I don't get to see all the plans and drawings that are presented to the HPC, in my communication with some of the members on this issue, no one told me that I was mistaken and they had in fact seen the plans for alterations to the interior of the courthouse.

  2. The new addition introduces a lack of symmetry in the "very visible and very beautiful" south facade of the opera house. I feel the elevator addition should be reduced in size (to cover only one set of windows) and a twin be placed on the other side. The second elevator would also allow handicap access to the other half of the balcony. The additions could be made transparent to allow light through the original windows. I. M. Pei introduced a beautiful the glass addition to the Louvre, why can't we do the same for our landmark?

  3. David Kermani submitted this comment:

    So, major changes are being made to the most public and important part of the interior of our courthouse (the entrance and lobby), and apparently the public has not been told that these changes were going to be made because there was no legal requirement for any official to do so. This is obviously what the political powers-that-be wanted, and it's the reason they fought so hard to prevent this building from being listed in the first place (and they won!), but it should be pointed out that because of this situation we didn't even have a discussion about the alteration of the interior space, whereas if the building had been listed the law would have required a public "discussion" in order to get the permits; then, win or lose, at least the public would have known what the issues were and arguments could have been made representing different points of view, and the final decision would have been an informed one rather than the result of one or two people's arrogance and/or ignorance.

    As for a possible solution, one might have involved using the basement space, accessed unobtrusively somehow via the new ramp structures on the front (which are not really objectionable in my view); another, as David Robinson has described, involved closing the front entrance and making all access through the new building. Anyway, I don't have time right now to second-guess the architect and come up with a creative solution to the problem. In any case, once it had been decided that the only realistic way to proceed would be to significantly alter the space, there should have been meticulous documentation of the original/existing conditions (photos, measurements, architectural drawings [if they didn't already have those], etc.) and careful removal and preservation of the original materials (especially trim elements, doors, etc.) so that at some point in the future (if, say, the building were no longer used as a courthouse, or if security technologies evolved and no longer required the amount of space they now consume) the space could be restored to its original condition using as much of the original material as possible. That's responsible stewardship, and I'll bet that none of that was done in this case. The point is that the way one approaches a situation and the way that different contingencies can be planned for can make all the difference in successful long-term preservation strategies.

    However, I think it’s important to recognize that this situation represents a failure of the process by which we try to protect historically and architecturally important structures (especially public ones!) -- here, something drastic has been done to a major, architecturally-significant public building without the public being made aware of the situation at all. That's system failure.

  4. Pardon me, but this is the kind of discussion I geek out over. From the Secretary of the Interior's preservation brief on the topic:

    An addition should be designed to be compatible with the historic character of the building and, thus, meet the Standards for Rehabilitation. Standards 9 and 10 apply specifically to new additions:

    (9) “New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction shall not destroy historic materials that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and shall be compatible with the massing, size, scale, and architectural features to protect the historic integrity of the property and its environment.”

    (10) “New additions and adjacent or related new construction shall be undertaken in such a manner that if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.”

    The subject of new additions is important because a new addition to a historic building has the potential to change its historic character as well as to damage and destroy significant historic materials and features. A new addition also has the potential to confuse the public and to make it difficult or impossible to differentiate the old from the new or to recognize what part of the historic building is genuinely historic.

    A new addition to a historic building should preserve the building’s historic character. To accomplish this and meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, a new addition should:

    •Preserve significant historic materials, features and form;
    •Be compatible; and
    •Be differentiated from the historic building.

    Rather than differentiating between old and new, it might seem more in keeping with the historic character simply to repeat the historic form, material, features and detailing in a new addition. However, when the new work is highly replicative and indistinguishable from the old in appearance, it may no longer be possible to identify the “real” historic building. Conversely, the treatment of the addition should not be so different that it becomes the primary focus. The difference may be subtle, but it must be clear. A new addition to a historic building should protect those visual qualities that make the building eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

    Generally, constructing the new addition on a secondary side or rear elevation—in addition to material preservation—will also preserve the historic character. Not only will the addition be less visible, but because a secondary elevation is usually simpler and less distinctive, the addition will have less of a physical and visual impact on the historic building. Such placement will help to preserve the building's historic form and relationship to its site and setting.

    Source: TPS Brief no. 14 "New Exterior Additions to Historic Buildings: Preservation Concerns," by Anne E. Grimmer and Kay D. Weeks

  5. What Mr. David Kermani said! Right on point!