Saturday, July 2, 2016

Form Follows Function

On Wednesday night, I went to the second of two public forums about the Hudson City School District capital project. It had been announced that there were now "detailed preliminary designs" for the capital project that were available for viewing and comment by the public. I don't know what I expected, but I was surprised to find George Keeler, HCSD superintendent of Buildings and Grounds, sitting in the cafeteria with a laptop computer, surrounded by drawings and diagrams and accompanied by school board member Carrie Otty. Besides me, four other people showed up for the forum. There was talk about storm water run off, the needs of the students for whom the proposed addition is intended, natural versus artificial turf for the new athletic field, but what I had come to see was this: the elevation drawing for the proposed addition to the 1937 school.

I took only this one bad picture of the elevation drawing because Keeler offered to send me the elevation digitally, but since he hasn't done so, we have only this. Bad as it is, it's adequate to illustrate the dilemma. As a single story, the proposed addition is painfully incompatible with the original building but given its function--classrooms for kindergarten and first grade students--it's unlikely the compatibility issue can be resolved.

In 1997, a major addition to Montgomery C. Smith was constructed, designed by the same architectural firm that was been engaged to design the proposed new addition, Rhinebeck Architecture. The 1997 addition is an almost textbook example of a compatible addition to a historic building.

Two of the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties--our national guidelines for responsible preservation practices--apply specifically to new additions: Standards 9 and 10:
(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, exterior alterations, 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.
HCSD and Rhinebeck Architecture deserve props--with the 1997 addition and the proposed one--for their efforts to preserve the historic materials and details that characterize the 1937 building. In the design for the new addition, there are elements that echo some of the architectural features of the original building. The material proposed for the new addition is red brick; there is a central gable similar to the gable over the entrance to the historic building; the windows are in ranks of four as on the historic building. There's a hyphen to ensure (as if it were necessary) that the new work is differentiated from the old. But no amount of design detail can make up for the fact that a single story building can never be "compatible with the massing, size, scale" of the historic building.  

Not apparent from the elevation drawing is the fact the addition will sit back 20 feet from the facade of the historic building. How much the setback will reduce the visibility of the addition from the street is not clear. What's needed are renderings that show the addition in the context of the historic building as it would appear approaching from the south and from the north, but it doesn't seem that the architects intend to prepare such renderings. Without renderings though, it appears that unless the school district is willing to redesign the addition as a two-story structure, which is unlikely, the only remedy for its incompatibility is to conceal it with landscaping.

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