Friday, April 14, 2017

How Many Penn Stations?

Late yesterday afternoon, code enforcement officer Craig Haigh returned my call to answer questions about the demolition of the 111-year-old building at the Firemen's Home. When asked why the building was demolished, Haigh said simply, "Because they wanted to demolish it." When I protested, he informed me that there was nothing to protect the building. He had checked. It wasn't listed in the National Register of Historic Places. He was right. In 2004, when the Firemen's Home wanted to demolish all the old buildings, Historic Hudson appealed to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). They sent people down to assess the buildings and determined they were "too compromised" to the eligible for historic designation. The surviving building, said Haigh, wasn't locally designated either. But, I insisted, the Firemen's Home promised to preserve this building. They offered its preservation as a concession to the people arguing for the preservation of all the buildings. Haigh said he could find no record of that in the minutes of the Planning Commission.

Finding the claim there was no record of this hard to believe, I checked the Planning Commission minutes for myself and found it recorded twice. In the minutes for May 12, 2004:

This commitment was reiterated in the minutes from the public hearing, which took place on June 9, 2004:

When confronted with this evidence, Haigh was quick to inform me that it was insufficient to stay the demolition of the building, and, of course, he's right.

In a perfect world, the Historic Preservation Commission would have acted immediately in 2004 to designate the building as a local landmark, making a certificate of appropriateness from the HPC necessary if the building were to be demolished, but, alas, in 2004, the HPC was a fledgling commission, trying to navigate uncharted and hostile waters. A few months later, then mayor Rick Scalera suspended the preservation law that created the HPC after the commission tried to designate the courthouse and 400 State Street as individual landmarks. As a consequence of that action, the preservation law was revised to require Common Council approval for all historic designations--districts as well as individual properties. As a consequence of that revision, all the designations that now exist, with few exceptions, were made during a two-year period--2006-2007--when Scalera was not the mayor and the combination of the weighted votes of the Common Council president, the First and Third Ward aldermen, and one Second Ward alderman who was willing to go along with historic preservation so long as it did not affect his ward were sufficient to approve designations proposed by the HPC.

In years that have passed since the Firemen's Home stated they would preserve the 1906 building, there was ample time to get the building some legal protection, but taking the Firemen's Home at its word and considering it a small battle won, the self-appointed guardians of our architectural heritage moved on to other things.

Photo: John Peterson
This needs to be a lesson. Vigilance is always required. How many more losses of our historic architectural character can our city endure before it becomes part of the geography of nowhere? (Pace James Howard Kunstler)

1 comment:

  1. Rick Scalera just sent me the following message as an email, with "Accuracy please" in the subject line, which I think he meant for me to publish as a comment:

    "I suspended the preservation law that created HPC? Or did I put the power of individual designations in the hands of the legislative branch where it belonged instead of a commission heavily persuaded and lobbied by a private citizen and you can read between those lines.