Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Saga of the Chicken Shack

While the fate of 211 Warren Street hangs in the balance, comments on Monday's post about the building, from Peter Meyer and former mayor Richard Scalera, who also provided the picture below, inspire me to tell the story of the Chicken Shack--a story that is both similar to and different from the story of 211 Warren Street. I don't know exactly when, during the last days of the Chicken Shack, the picture was taken, but it appears, from the rubble around the building, that demolition may have already begun.

The house stood at 346 Columbia Street, where today there is the two-tiered parking lot for the county office building across the street. How the house came to be known as the Chicken Shack is a tale told by Bruce Hall in this book Diamond Street, which I retell here.

In the 1940s, a woman named Annabelle, living with her children and husband in Harlem, worried about the troubles and temptations that beset her family in the big city. She wanted to live in a more wholesome place, where they would be surrounded by good, decent people. Her husband, Richard, found what he believed to be such a place: a big, old house--seventeen rooms--at a price they could afford, on a quiet, sleepy street in a friendly community, with clean air, surrounded by green fields. So the family moved to Hudson and settled in the house on a street that was quiet during the week but became strangely alive on the weekends. Unbeknownst to them, until they had been here for a few weeks, and a comment by the pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church paying a visit to his new parishioners revealed the awful truth, their house was in the middle of "The Block," the epicenter of Hudson's notorious red light district. Annabelle was in despair. Had she, as Hall puts it, "uprooted her family from a big-city Purgatory only to plant them in a small-town Hell?" In a classic example of making lemonade when life hands you lemons, Annabelle decided to cash in on some of the action on the street and opened a restaurant called the Chicken Shack. The restaurant could seat seventy-five people, in little wooden booths made by Richard. Annabelle and her sister-in-law cooked; other relatives kept the books and waited tables. On the weekend, the Chicken Shack was frequented by the johns who came to Hudson from all over the region; during the week, the madams and girls from the brothels dined there.

Fast forward to 1998. At that time, the house, then abandoned and in disrepair, was owned by Hudson Community Development and Planning Agency (HCDPA) and had been for at least five years. There were structural issues, and in April 1998, HCDPA offered to sell the house for $1 to anyone who could present a viable plan for the immediate stabilization of the building. That was when Historic Hudson, then in existence for fewer than three years, began negotiating with HCDPA to take responsibility for the house. The organization faced two challenges beyond coming up with a viable plan: the obvious challenge of raising the funds and also the challenge of committing to a future use of the building that complied with the mission of HCDPA. In the early summer of 1999, everything came together when Peter Meyer, a vocal advocate for the preservation of the house, suggested it could be a community education center--a use that complied with both HCDPA's mission and Historic Hudson's desires for the house. 

The sad story of what happened to the Chicken Shack, despite efforts to save it, was told by Joe Brill in an article that appeared in the Register-Star on July 29, 1999--a month after the house had been demolished. The following is quoted from that article.
City resident Peter Meyer first led the charge to save the building, wanting to see it turned into a community education center. He later played the part of a mediator between the city agency that owns the property and Historic Hudson, Inc., the preservation group that wanted to save the building and set up its offices there.
On the part of city officials, Historic Hudson President Timothy Dunleavy said at the time of the demolition, "it's very clear that they have no sensitivity to historic structures or historic preservation in the City of Hudson, and the mayor's record speaks for itself."
Dunleavy had said he hopes that in the future Historic Hudson and the city can work together to prevent buildings from deteriorating to a level that would cause them to be demolished.
In a letter to the editor, Meyer wrote that the real safety issue was securing the building so that no one could enter it.
While the mayor [Richard Scalera] voiced his concerns about youths getting into the building, Meyer wrote that the building was left wide open for a year, so the mayor's reason for demolishing it didn't hold water. . .
On June 29, 1999, just as HCDPA officials and members of Historic Hudson were trying to figure out a last-minute plan for saving the structure, a portion of the building's back wall was torn down when the contractor hired to do the job received no word not to proceed.
HCPDA Director James Dolan, saying a breakdown in communication resulted in the contractor restarting demolition work, said he would take responsibility for what happened. 
With a large portion of the back wall gone, Scalera said he considered it "a building dangling in the breeze," and did not want to hold his breath worrying about some youth getting injured or killed.
Still, those looking to save the building, and who continued to believe the structure could be saved, took a dim view of the decision to raze it.
David Biggs, a structural engineer hired by Historic Hudson, took a look at the building after the back wall had been torn down.
He said the damage might not have been as bad as it looked, but that temporary braces should be placed to give the building more support. He also recommended putting a fence around the building to keep people out and to prevent any "spillage" should the house crumble on its own.
[Building Inspector Frank] March said that saving as many historic buildings as possible is a very worthy concept that should be carried out whenever possible.
"However, when a building is in eminent danger of collapse and endangers the public and the neighborhood, such considerations cannot be entertained."
While a fence might have possibly kept smaller children out, March said, it would not have prevented access to a vandal intent on starting a fire.
March also questioned how long it would have taken to raise the money necessary to restore the building.
Within a 36-hour period, Historic Hudson was able to raise $20,000 in pledges the group hoped to use to start the stabilization process.
To prevent the walls from collapsing, March said, at least $30,000 worth of stabilization work would have had to be done before any restoration work could have been done on the inside of the building. He said he believes the complete restoration would have run between $170,000 and $200,000.
Yes, the building could have been saved, March said, but not in the time it probably would have taken to raise that amount of money.  
As someone involved in the effort to save the Chicken Shack, I would like to point out that Historic Hudson raised $20,000 in thirty-six hours before there was such a thing as crowd sourcing. I would also like to elaborate on the "last-minute plan" mentioned in the article. On that fateful day in June, Peter Meyer, Timothy Dunleavy, and I met with Jim Dolan and Frank March to make our case and present our plan for stabilizing the building. The meeting took place at Dolan's office, which, if memory serves, was on the second floor of 444 Warren Street. Toward the end of the meeting, Rick Scalera appeared, but since the small office could not accommodate one more person, he remained standing in the doorway.

We succeeded in getting Dolan and March to agree to allow Historic Hudson to take possession of the building and undertake its stabilization and restoration. Leaving the meeting elated, Meyer, Dunleavy, and I decided to go to the St. Charles Hotel for a celebratory drink. (This was back in the day when the St. Charles still had a bar.) We agreed that, on the way to the St. Charles, we would pass by the house. As we drove up Columbia Street, in three separate cars, each of us came to a screeching halt when we saw a backhoe on the hill behind the house. It didn't take much investigation to discover that a big part of the back wall had been ripped away. I immediately called Frank March (no crowd sourcing but there were cell phones), who mercifully was in his office. He seemed as shocked as we were, saying the demolition permit was still lying on his desk in front of him. It was not the case that the contractor had "received no word not to proceed," as reported in the Register-Star; he acted without receiving a demolition permit.

To return to 211 Warren Street, whose situation inspired telling the Chicken Shack story, code enforcement officer Craig Haigh informed Gossips this morning that the plan submitted by the engineers for Passive Aggressive Housing has been accepted by the engineers retained by the City of Hudson, and the process of shoring up the building will begin today. If everything goes according to plan, the building--or at least the facade, which is all that was meant to be preserved in the plan for the building's rehabilitation--will be saved. As I said at the beginning, there are both similarities and differences in the stories of the Chicken Shack and 211 Warren Street. Let's hope the biggest difference is how the stories end.


  1. The Saga of the Chicken Shack would make a wonderful movie.

  2. At long last, a Gossips post on the Chicken Shack (with a photo no less!). Most grateful.

    To borrow a phrase from the Register-Star, we're probably not in "eminent danger" of a reply from our ex-mayor (heh).

    The phrase really fits: municipal vandalism.

  3. please note your article is relative to Chicken Shack 1.

    1. Something about that rings a bell. Please refresh the memories.

  4. Rick Scalera submitted this comment:

    Twenty years is a fair amount of time that passed and while our recollections differ considerably as to what was said and when events took place let’s just say…”It all worked out well and we have moved on!” The irony is that Historic Hudson President Tim Dunleavy and I became good friends over time.

  5. The contemporaneous news report by Brill certainly matches my recollection of events. And my recollection also matches to a tee Carole's. It was too bizarre to forget. And a couple details that need need mentioning was the several times I climbed through that house with two of the best construction guys in the county; one, still working strong, is still the best structural guy around. Both said, in so many words, Sure you can save this. And that sums up pretty nicely the current issue at 211 Warren. Can it be restored? I'm sure the answer is Yes. It should then be a straightfoward matter, as Carole, Tim, and I thought it was once we had secured the perimeter, raised the money requested by the City, and shook hands with James Dolan. Rick Scalera would, of course, like to tell a different tale; unfortunately, the facts don't like. And of course we have all moved on, but if he's quoting himself in that comment above, he's also wrong that "it all worked out well." Losing the Chicken Shack, built by a sea captain in the early 19th century and donated a few years later to one of Hudson's first black churches, we had a chance to save one of Hudson's historic buildings; from my point of view, it didn't work out well at all. Let's hope the owners of 211, and the City through them, fare better.