Saturday, October 7, 2017

Musing on the Alleys of Hudson

This past January, an exhibition at the Hudson Opera House called No Parking: The Alleys and Garages of Hudson was one of Hudson's many memorable events. The exhibition celebrated the unconventional, "accidental" beauty of the buildings on the alleys and on Partition Street--the smaller streets that run parallel to Hudson's major east-west thoroughfares.

Photo: William Hellermann
Some of the pictures in the exhibition had been taken nearly twenty years earlier, and those familiar with the alleys of Hudson could recognize changes. Some of the buildings no longer existed, some had since been altered with new garage doors and paint.

Nantucket style house that once stood on Partition Street near West Court Street

Despite the changes over the past couple of decades, the alleys, as those who often walk these back streets can attest, retain much of their authenticity and idiosyncratic charm, but things are afoot that could change that.

In the past year, the Historic Preservation Commission has granted certificates of appropriateness to two projects that involved replacing original buildings on Partition Street--buildings that were constructed to serve as garages or carriage houses--with new buildings intended to be residential spaces. Granted Partition Street is a street not an alley, but in many ways it embodies the characteristics of an alley both in the nature of its buildings and in its principal use. 

In February 2017, the HPC granted a certificate of appropriateness to replace an existing one-story garage behind 317 Union Street with a two-story residential unit with an attached garage. According to the applicant, the design of the new building was meant to be as much like the building it was replacing as possible. The first picture below is a Google Street View capture of the building that once stood on the site. The second picture shows the building that took its place.

Recently, the HPC was asked to grant a certificate of appropriateness for a project that involved the demolition of an accessory building in 400 block of Partition Street, behind 439 Union Street, and the construction on the site of a new building, which one member of the HPC described as a "generic modern building." The building to be demolished (shown below) was an early 20th-century garage which was perfectly sound for its intended use. The HPC initially denied a certificate of appropriateness.

When the applicant came back with a different design for the new building--one that replicated the existing building--the HPC granted a certificate of appropriateness for the demolition and new construction.

Replication, of course, is meant to preserve the integrity of a streetscape, but at what point does replication result in total loss of authenticity and character?

Last year, farther down Partition Street in the 200 block, folks wanted to build an accessory building behind their house on Allen Street. There had once been a building on the site, a very old and unusual building, but it had been demolished by a previous owner almost twenty years ago, before there were historic preservation laws in Hudson. When their original plan to build a little barn with a gambrel roof was rejected by the HPC, the applicants came back with a new design that imitated an early 20th-century garage two doors up from their property.

The new building provides a starting point for imagining what Partition Street and the alleys would look like if all the original buildings were to be replaced with replicas. But this may be where we are heading. 

The need for affordable housing and the desire of property owners to generate income from their property are driving an interest in converting structures in the alleys and along Partition Street into habitable dwellings. There is legislation now before the Common Council that would facilitate converting "rear yard" buildings into dwelling units by waiving the requirement for off-street parking for such units. Alderman Michael O'Hara (First Ward), who chairs the Common Council Legal Committee, talked about this legislation as a means to ease Hudson's housing shortage at the most recent Affordable Housing Hudson forum. You can access the video of that forum here. His comments about this legislation begin at 26:19.

The problem with this initiative was seen with the garage behind 439 Union Street. The buildings along Partition Street and the alleys are accessory buildings; they were not built to be residential dwellings. They typically do not have foundations, and a foundation is a present-day code requirement for buildings used as residences. It was argued that the garage behind 439 Union Street, perfectly sound as a garage, would not survive being lifted for a proper foundation to be constructed beneath it and then lowered onto that foundation. It's unlikely that any other 19th- or early 20th-century carriage or garage on Partition Street or in one of the alleys could survive it either.

So the likely consequence of encouraging people to convert historic accessory buildings along alleys into housing is the loss of these historic buildings, with the best outcome being having them replaced by replicas that would have none of the character and unconventional beauty of the originals.


  1. Thanks for the photo of the Nantucket style house that once stood on Partition Street near West Court Street. Was thinking of this place recently. It was the most exquisite house I had ever seen. The owner lived behind it on Union and couldn't wait to remove it.

  2. It will not be possible to increase the supply of housing without constructing new buildings. Period. It is not possible to build new "historic" buildings, although it is possible to build new buildings that respect the historic character of their surroundings. We cant have it both ways. The precious urban character of Hudson is not only found in the antique styles and detailing of its buildings, but also in their massing, scale and density. Those who care about maintaining the city's urbanistic character while addressing the shortage of housing might consider relaxing the fixation on architectural style and detail. Personally, I'd welcome even modernist accessory buildings replacing disused (and mainly characterless) old garages on the alleys as long as they were in scale. Historic preservationists can choose whether their desire for architectural purism will pose an obstacle to infill construction, or instead to help ensure that new buildings contribute to a coherent urban fabric.

  3. wow
    cant wait to see all the new airbnb structures

  4. The problem with this ill considered initiative is that the new residential housing resulting from the demolition of historic buildings on the alleys will NOT be "affordable" by any definition. The costs involved in new building construction are simply too great. So the result, instead, will be additional luxury housing and transient rental accommodations, plus soaring property taxes for those rash enough to engage is such a venture - because their properties will suddenly be reassessed as having two houses rather than one. This initiative is ill considered, will destroy a large part of the architectural history of Hudson, and should be abandoned in favor of the construction of truly affordable new housing, from scratch, on available vacant land.

    1. "... on available vacant land," there's the rub.

  5. Whether it is or not, facilitating the demolition of alley buildings will not provide "affordable housing." This has nothing to do with relaxing parking restrictions, as Mr. O'Hara has suggested. Those homeowners who try this will have a rude awakening when confronted with the construction costs and consequent reassessments - which could well double their property taxes, depending on the structure they build. And dare I say it, elected officials serve none of their constituents by deluding them with the notion that any remaining middle class homeowners in Hudson, who now pay an aggregate mil rate of 37, have the luxury of being "sensitive" and deciding to subsidize their tenants by charging "affordable" rents in brand new structures. Not when failure to pay their ever-rising property taxes would mean losing their homes.