Saturday, August 26, 2017

Of Garages and Mid-Century Modern Buildings

On Friday morning, the Historic Preservation Commission considered two proposals that presented different but significant challenges. The first was the proposal to demolish the garage behind 439 Union Street, built sometime in first half of the 20th century, and replace it with a new building that would be both garage and living space. The proposal had been introduced at the HPC's August 11 meeting, at which time the application had been determined to be complete. At yesterday's meeting, the HPC heard public comment and prepared to make a decision.

The justification for demolishing the building is that, because of structural issues, it cannot be converted into a residence. It has no foundation, it has "undersized framing," and it was built with "poor quality materials." What's being proposed to replace it is a new building that would "fit the neighborhood in a complementary manner."

The one person who commented during the public hearing pointed out that Partition Street was one of the oldest streets in Hudson and wanted to know if the new building would be "a nod to the proportions of the old building" or an actual replication. He was told by the applicant that it would be a "simple style building, taking the form of what was there."

Partition Street is indeed the oldest street in Hudson, predating the Proprietors by well more than a century. Franklin Ellis in History of Columbia County (1878) explains: "This road or "Waggon-Way" led from the interior farms to the landing, and passed nearly along the line of Ferry and Partition streets." It got the name Partition Street because, when the vast lands of Jan Frans Van Hoesen were divided up among his children after his death in 1703, the road that is now Partition Street marked the boundary between the tract south of the road, which went to Johannes Van Hoesen, and the tract north of the road, which went to Catherine Van Hoesen and her husband, Francis Hardick. 

In the discussion of the proposed project, HPD member Rick Rector stressed that, although it is sometimes thought of as the equivalent of an alley, Partition Street is a street in a historic district. John Schobel expressed the opinion that it was "extremely difficult to demolish something with character that is not dilapidated." Miranda Barry advised, "We need to balance the owner's desire to utilize the building with preservation." She went on to comment that the existing building has character but the current plans for the new building "do not reflect the original structure" and are "not compatible with the rest of the neighborhood."

When the applicant suggested that some elements of the existing structure might be retained, Rector responded, "Demolition is the first task. If you want to come back with a new proposal, you can, but we need to deal with what's before us." He then explained, "Our mission is to protect the historic character," and reminded his colleagues, "Our big question is: Are we going to allow a building to be demolished?"

At this point, before the HPC could vote to grant or deny a certificate of appropriateness, the applicant decided to withdraw the application.

The other proposal that raised interesting questions was a proposal to renovate the facade of the Half Moon at the corner of South Front and Allen streets.

The current design of the building was characterized as "gas station architecture," and the proposed changes, which involved applying reclaimed brick to the facade and replacing the "Alamo" parapet at the front with a "Dutch staggered" parapet, were meant to make the building more compatible with its context with no reference to the building's original design.  

The applicant dated the building based on materials used in its construction, saying they were not historic. When the HPC asked about historic photographs of the building, it was indicated none had been found. The application was declared incomplete for want of historic photographs.

Yesterday afternoon, two discoveries were made. In one of Peter Cipkowski's grandfather's home movies, it was discovered that the building was constructed in 1946.

The owners of the Half Moon drove out to the Taconic Wayside Inn, where they'd been told there was an old photograph of the building, and indeed there was.

By a happy coincidence, most of the changes being proposed to make the building more compatible with its 19th-century surroundings, without reference to the building's original design (in fact, it was suggested that the building was not historic because it was not of the same vintage as the buildings around it), would bring it back to the way it looked seventy-one years ago, when it was first constructed.


  1. We have a housing shortage in Hudson. We also have an enormous potential for new housing to be constructed, or converted from existing barns and garages, on our alleys — and on Partition Street which is, functionally in many respects, another alley. A great advantage of infill with "Auxiliary dwelling units" along alleys is that they get distributed throughout the city, at small scale, so they fit in easily. Another advantage is that property owners can realize rental income from them — individuals renting a single unit, or maybe two, but no opportunity for large-scale developers or speculators.. Sometimes existing barns or garages can be converted and their exterior character maintained without much visible change. But many existing alley buildings are wrecks, regardless of their dates of origin or historic character. And many spaces on alleys where housing could be infilled have no existing buildings at all. If Hudson were to take advantage of this hidden housing potential — by changing zoning and perhaps creating incentives to encourage it — we might have to take a more open attitude toward historic preservation concerns. But we could establish design codes for new alley buildings that would ensure they be compatible. This has been done in many cities (ones lucky enough to even have alleys). It's not rocket science.

    1. To those with homes on Partition Street, it's not "functionally" an alley." It is a street, as named.

      Where other's interests at stake, City officials will kindly get it straight.