Monday, August 14, 2017

Preserving Community Character

One of the thorniest issues that comes before the Historic Preservation Commission is a request for a certificate of appropriateness to demolish a building in a historic district. As HPC member and former chair Rick Rector said of demolition, "That's not what we're here for. That's not historic preservation."

The last time the HPC was asked to grant a certificate of appropriateness to demolish a building, it was 718-720 Union Street, a building that for at least two decades had been the epitome of wretched slumlord housing. 

After a public hearing at which no one had anything to say either in defense of the poor abused building or in support of its demolition, the HPC voted, with one abstention, to deny a certificate of appropriateness for its demolition. Sadly for the building, Ray Jurkowski, the engineer retained by the City of Hudson, and Craig Haigh, code enforcement officer, determined that the building was unsafe and ordered it demolished in the interest of public safety.

Photo: Hilary Hillman
The perspective owner of the building (he was in contract to buy it on the condition that he could tear it down) maintained that his research suggested that the building hadn't existed before the 1940s, minimizing its historic significance. It wasn't until after the building had been demolished--and after Gossips had published five posts about its impending demise--that someone in a comment on the post announcing the demolition was underway provided the information that this building had been the stable for the Silas W. Tobey estate, the Picturesque house that once stood at 729 Warren Street and is believed still to survive beneath what we now know as the Diamond Building.

On Friday, a proposal to demolish another building came before the Historic Preservation Commission: the carriage house behind 439 Union Street.

The building, which fronts on Partition Street, is an accessory building currently used only for storage. As an accessory building, code enforcement officer Craig Haigh says it is perfectly fine. But the owners of the property want to use the building for human habitation--as a studio or an apartment--and for that purpose the building needs a foundation. Haigh predicted, "This building will fall apart if they have to lift it and put it on a new foundation."

So what it being proposed is demolishing this building and constructing a "new, similar building" on its footprint. But the plans for the new building are not similar. The gable will be turned 90 degrees, and the overall design of the proposed building was described by HPC member Miranda Barry as "a new, generic contemporary building."

As always, in trying to understand a building's history, the HPC asked for historic pictures of the structure. The likelihood of there being historic pictures of an accessory building are very slim, but, amazingly, there are three pictures, two from the Evelyn & Robert Monthie Slide Collection at the Columbia County Historical Society, of a World War I parade down Union Street that show 439 Union Street in the background. Because the rectory at Christ Church had not yet been built, an accessory buildings behind the house is visible, but it doesn't appear to be this one.

What can be learned from these pictures is that the building in question was probably not there in 1917, but a building doesn't have to be a hundred years old to be historic or to be a critical element in the character of a streetscape.

The proposal raises some complicated issues. The applicant maintains that fixing the existing structure to make it suitable for the desired use would require completely reframing it. Hence the desire to demolish the existing building and construct something new. Rector argued, "Just because someone wants to do something doesn't mean they can do it. If everybody gets to do what they want, the whole complexion of the city can change." Barry suggested that it might be more acceptable if the new building replicated what is there now. Of course, that possibility surrenders authentic historic character for a kind of Disneylike imitation. And all this is further complicated by the fact the building is located on Partition Street, which, although HPC member David Voorhees stressed, "It is a street, not an alley, and it has a certain character," is occupied primarily by carriage houses, garages, and other accessory buildings sometimes thought to be not as architecturally significant and not as worthy protection as the houses behind which they are situated. 

A public hearing on the proposal will take place at 10 a.m. on Friday, August 25. Anyone with any information about the history and significance of this building is encouraged to share it here before the public hearing or in person at the public hearing.


  1. To my eye, this discussion is similar to that of the Fugary Shacks; it's the folk art wing of historic preesrvation. We just had a wonderful exhibit at the Opera House (a couple months ago) showcasing the unique and uniquely endearing garages and carriage houses on Hudson's alleys. I would suggest that this is a context in which these demolition decisions could be made. --pm

  2. The Code office has informed me that Partition Street is an "alley," but at other times said that it's a "street."