Friday, June 2, 2017

The Church, the Garden, and the HPC

In Hudson, as is true in most cities in the United States and Europe, church buildings represent some of the most significant historic architecture, but, for various reasons, the governing bodies of churches don't like being subject to local rules and regulations, especially then it comes to historic preservation. Add to that the fact that, when dealing with a church, you're dealing not with just one person but with a whole congregation, and things can get difficult. 

Hudson's former code enforcement officer, Peter Wurster avoided conflict by simply letting churches do whatever they pleased. As a consequence of Wurster's policy, the historic First Baptist Church, where Sanford Gifford's family worshiped, is now, in its rebirth as the Rock Solid Church, surrounded by a white vinyl fence.

Wurster was also complicit in permitting Emanuel Lutheran Church, the church built in 1893, designed by Hudson architect Michael J. O'Connor, and included in Arthur Baker's book Wooden Churches: Columbia County Legacy, to be covered in vinyl siding in 2010, without review or a certificate of appropriateness from the Historic Preservation Commission.

Our current code enforcement officer, Craig Haigh is appropriately very conscientious about enforcing Chapter 169 of the City of Hudson code--the one that has to do with historic preservation. As a consequence, St. Mary's Church is before the Historic Preservation Commission seeking a certificate of appropriateness to erect a six-foot-high fence to surround a garden on the east side of the rectory on East Allen Street. The project was first presented on May 12 by Father Winston Bath. Not quite able to envision what was being proposed or to gauge its visual impact, the HPC requested a site plan. Last Friday, May 26, the project was back, this time presented by Charles Vieni, retired highway engineer who has been before the HPC many times as an architectural consultant for the Galvan Foundation. There was no site plan; instead there was a list of dimensions and setbacks  

Acting chair Phil Forman noted that a communication about the garden been received from Father Anthony Barratt of St. Mary's, now called Holy Trinity Parish, and that both he and former HPC chair Rick Rector had received phone calls from parishioners upset that the HPC would oppose planting a garden. Forman reiterated that it was the fence, which was a structure, not the garden that required a certificate of appropriateness from the HPC. He summarized the problem by saying, "The status quo is actually a pretty beautiful vista--very symmetrical." He called what was proposed "a significant change to a viewscape." "I don't see this as landscaping," Forman went on. "This is the introduction of new construction and the obstruction of a view."

HPC member Miranda Barry noted out that both the rectory and the Catholic Charities building were historic structures and opined that, although a wooden fence would be a great improvement over the vinyl fence originally proposed, it still wasn't a fence that had any "historic context." Member John Schobel concurred, asserting that a fence built at the time the rectory was constructed would have been different. He noted that they were proposing to put "a residential fence in front of a significant public building."

Architect member Kate Johns asked, "Could the church use traditional materials so that it looks like it was part of the building?" The traditional materials she had in mind were stone and wrought iron. Forman observed that wrought iron, with or without stone piers or columns, was prominent in that neighborhood. Barry suggested that iron fencing can often be found in salvage yards.

The plan is to plant a hedge along the fence which will ultimately mask it entirely, and that intention has been used to argue that it doesn't matter what the fence looks like. Vieni asked, "What if we just put a hedge around [the garden]?" Mitch Khosrova, counsel to the HPC, promptly responded, "You wouldn't be here."

In the end, it was decided that the HPC would, as a group, make a visit to the site at the beginning of its next meeting, which takes place on June 9. After the site visit, there will be a public hearing on the proposal. The site visit is scheduled to take place at 10 a.m. at 429 East Allen Street. The public hearing, which is expected to begin around 10:30 a.m., will be held at City Hall.


  1. So is "viewscape" a second cousin of viewshed? And are either one in the applicable law? Also, given the previous actions and inactions of the Code Enforcement office and HPC, as mentioned by Gossips, the current questioning of St. Mary's looks a tad bit like harassment.

  2. Yes Mr. Meyer, based on Carole's reporting, it clearly looks like there is an unequal application of the law, and frankly selective enforcement. And just because there were different Code Enforcement Officers at different points in history shouldn't matter. Either the law is the law, or it isn't. Either EVERY house of worship is subject to the same law, or EVERY house of worship gets a pass.

  3. Don't know why this HPC story has to be personal... good vs bad ... then we're all accomplices.

  4. Nothing Mr. Meyer or I wrote was personal, by a long shot. And if I am incorrect about the unequal application of the law, and how it has been pursued previously, and how vigorously it is being pursued now, with regards to Saint Mary's, which I know from being a long time reader of TGOR is NOT Hudson's "most beloved church", then please explain how I am wrong. Nothing personal here, just the facts as to how the law has been applied.

  5. Agreed, Leonardo. Governance by personality is a tried-and-true practice in Hudson (and elsewhere). It's kind of baked in to our democracy: if you don't like me, vote me out! But there is a law in New York, little known because it's rarely followed or enforced, Section 78 of the Civil Practice Law & Rules (CPLR) is meant to soften some of the excesses of that governance-by-personality by ordering governmental bodies to implement and enforce laws in a consistent manner. What Carole's reporting seems to suggest is that the HPC has not done that.

  6. I believe the point is that HPC did not have the opportunity to review the earlier projects because the former Code Enforcement Officer did not refer them to the HPC as he was supposed to. That was the "governance by personality". The HPC reviews the projects that are sent to it by the Code Enforcement Office.

  7. That's a valid point regarding process. However, as we are all often reminded, Hudson is two square miles with a consistently declining population and an active, vocal segment of that population for whom historic preservation IS their focus, their passion, dare I say, their religion. It's unlikely that in the cases Carole presented in this post regarding the other houses of worship, that the alterations were started and completed in the dark hours between midnight and 4AM. People saw what was going on, and perhaps both documented and reported the "unauthorized" alterations.

    So, where is the redress in those situations? And why is the fence at Saint Mary's under more laser-like scrutiny than redress of the other two houses of worship?

    And as far as supporters turning out on a weekday, mid-morning meeting, that in and of itself speaks of elitism on the part of the committee. People with regular jobs can't just walk into the boss's office and say, "Oh, I'm off to a Historic Preservation Committee meeting."

    My prediction of the outcome: Saint Mary's will be forced to abide by the law in a way no other house of worship in Hudson has been required to, while also being coerced into genuflecting at the altar of historic preservation.