Monday, April 13, 2015

Another Challenge for the HPC

On Friday, The Historic Preservation Commission received an application for a certificate of appropriateness to build a new single family dwelling on Rossman Avenue. This is the sort of thing that challenges historic preservation commissions, which exist to protect the character and the architectural integrity not only of individual buildings but of neighborhoods. 

Rossman Avenue is the principal part of the Rossman-Prospect Avenue Historic District, which is not only locally designated but also, since 1985, has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places because, among other things, it was the first planned subdivision in Hudson, developed in the late 19th century, outside of the city's original grid plan. The National Register identifies the architectural styles in the Rossman-Prospect Historic District as "Late 19th and 20th Century Revivals, Bungalow/Craftsman, Late Victorian" and recognizes the period of significance for the district as 1925-1949, 1900-1924, 1875-1899. Into this collection of late 19th and early 20th century houses, the introduction of this one-story house is being proposed.

Last Friday, the five members of the HPC present for the meeting (Chris Perry, the architect member, and Miranda Barry were absent) voted that the application was complete. They also voted on whether or not to waive a public hearing. HPC members Peggy Polenberg, who opined during the meeting, "I think it's fantastic, because I like modern," and Phil Forman voted to waive a public hearing; Rick Rector, who chairs the commission, Gini Casasco, and David Voorhees voted against waiving a public hearing. Consequently, a public hearing on the proposal will take place on Friday, April 24, at 10 a.m., at City Hall.

In making a decision about granting a certificate of appropriateness, the Historic Preservation Commission must determine if the proposed building is compatible with the surrounding neighborhood. Chapter 169-6 B provides the following guidelines:
In applying the principle of compatibility, the Commission shall consider the following factors:
(1)  The general design, character, and appropriateness to the property of the proposed alteration or new construction;
(2)  The scale of the proposed alteration or new construction in relation to the property itself, surrounding properties, and the neighborhood;
(3)  Texture, materials, and color and their relation to similar features of other properties in the neighborhood;
(4)  Visual compatibility with surrounding properties, including proportion of the property's front facade, proportion and arrangement of windows and other openings within the facade, roof shape, and the rhythm of spacing of properties on streets, including setback; and
(5)  The importance of historic, architectural, or other features to the significance of the property.
Obviously, the scale of the proposed new building is not compatible with its closest neighbors. It's a one-story building tucked between two substantial early 20th-century houses with two stories and attics, but the reason for its diminutive stature may complicate things for the HPC. According to the applicant, the house is close to the ground "so as not to obstruct the view of the people across the street."

What may also complicate the issue is that some members of the HPC seem uncharacteristically (for members of a preservation commission) motivated to want to see 21st-century design interjected into Hudson's predominantly 19th-century assemblage of buildings. At the last HPC meeting, Polenberg professed her fondness for modern architecture, and Forman questioned "how clear the existing code is in offering guidelines for new construction in a historic district," lamenting, "If you simply look at the viewscape, modern architecture cannot happen." It will be remembered that a couple of years ago the HPC had problems with the design originally presented for the elevator tower at the Hudson Opera House because it was considered not contemporary enough.

The argument has been made that because Hudson has fine examples of the numerous architectural styles of the 19th and early 20th centuries, we should also have fine examples of early 21st century design. Most new construction in Hudson in the past decade or so has taken the cautious route of being imitative of 19th-century styles, and while we may not want to see any more Greek Revival imitations, we should not rush to embrace anything of contemporary design. When contemporary design is to be introduced anywhere in Hudson, but especially in a discrete and intact neighborhood like Rossman Avenue, the standards of compatibility must be applied. 

It is acknowledged that compatibility is a subjective thing, but much has been written to inform and guide judgment. In 2007, the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia published a booklet that defines best practice: Sense of Place: Design Guidelines for New Construction in Historic Districts. It is recommended reading for everyone who cares about preserving the historic character of our city and its neighborhoods.


  1. I live on Rossman Avenue (for what it's worth, near the bottom of the hill), and am disappointed in the design as illustrated here. Aside from the generic pergola for the car, it looks more like a dentist's office than a house in any context, let alone an historic one. As to its aspirations as an example of 21st century architecture, to quote Truman Capote's famous remark regarding a book he obviously disliked, "That's not writing; that's typing".

  2. I find the general tone of this pc and the "neighbor" above to be stuck in some historical dogma. Do the publuc/neighbors benefit from a big, faux-period house being squeezed on that lot? Nope. Why then would we not want to accept a project that saves the direct views of the Catskills from Rossman and those of the neighbors across the street, instead of blocking those views and actually taking away from the 2 neighboring houses, as a traditional house would indeed do? The owners plan is the least-intrusive, best design for that lot as it leaves the views!

  3. I am with Dan: My immediate thought was how much it looks like a doctor's office and not a residence. It has absolutely nothing to do with its surroundings. It is only one story and a short one at that, set down the hill, it seems, rather than at street level as the others are. It also looks to have a deepter set-back from the street so doesn't "line up" with the neighbors. It has that carport for off-street parking in front of the house, another "feature" not shared by the historic houses it wants to live amongst.

    It may be a decent design for a modern home, but it has no business on Rossman Avenue. Hopefully the HPC will see to it that this home is not allowed to alter forever what is so wonderful about Rossman Ave.

    Elizabeth Nyland

  4. I agree that a contemporary house could have a place amongst 19th and early 20th C homes should the design fit in in the neighborhood. It does not have to be a replica of the others but should have a distinctive and attractive design - the building featured is anything but distinctive or attractive. For a contemporary home, look to Arne Jacobsen, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn or Frank Gehry for inspiration and surely one could come up with a more attractive design that fits the landscape

  5. First of all, the picture posted with this article does not do justice to this project.

    Secondly, the fact that the house is set back from the road and slightly down the hill is a positive because it doesn't obstruct the view from the street or the neighbors. The article fails to mention that the historic committee has already approved a number of modern homes in historic districts in Hudson. There are also a number of non-historic homes on the same street that don't detract from the beauty of the neighborhood.

    I think this house is an excellent solution to keeping the views for the street and neighbors and will be an overall asset.

  6. Thank you Jennifer - very nicely put. To clarify my earlier comment, I never expressed a preference for faux historicism. Great modern architecture is always welcome (especially on Rossman Avenue!); what's being proposed, alas, isn't even good modern architecture...

  7. The proposed design could be more gracefully integrated into its context with a few simple tweaks: Finish the exterior of the house in muted colors that visually recede into the viewscape, and install a period-style picket fence across the front of the lot, in a manner that reinforces the prevailing setback line of the adjacent houses, and softens the parking-pergola.

  8. This house is hideous. It is a Frank Lloyd WRONG! Everything about it is in defiance of the principles of compatibility. The carport (and let's be honest here, it is not a pergola, which is defined as "an archway in a garden or park consisting of a framework covered with trained climbing or trailing plants") is completely out of character with anything else in the neighborhood, as is the color, the design, the textures, the materials, scale, proportions, roof shape, facade, etc. In addition, this owner always has three or more cars parked in front of his lot, so this rendering which shows a single car parked neatly in the unsightly carport is completely misleading. Any Historic Preservation Committee member that would approve this design does not deserve to sit on a committee for Historic Preservation. Lastly, in order to build this monstrosity, a very large, beautiful and old evergreen tree will need to be cut down, and there will be serious changes to the natural slope, raising issues of drainage and erosion which will affect the rear yards on either side of the property as well as the properties below. The Committee should be ashamed to call themselves an HPC if they approve this design.

  9. This house looks like a storage unit or a shipping container rather than residence. It is a blight on the neighborhood.