Monday, July 15, 2019

Good Fences . . . and All That

When James Howard Kunstler was in Hudson in May, he spoke, among other things, about "impoverished public space and aggrandized private space." Although there are lots of efforts being discussed and underway to improve Hudson's public spaces, i.e., its parks, the aggrandizement of private space continues—transforming the character of neighborhoods with the erection of fences. Not only is it happening in the mid-century neighborhoods of Hudson and Greenport . . . 

but it also in Hudson's historic neighborhoods.

Two years ago, the Historic Preservation Commission angered some parishioners at St. Mary's/Holy Trinity by its scrutiny of a fence that was to surround a garden next to the rectory. The concern was that the fence and the garden would obscure the view of the rectory and destroy the symmetry of the lawn and walk leading back to the house where Catholic Charities is now located. The house, designed by J. A. Wood and probably built in the 1860s, was moved from its original site at the corner of East Allen and East Court streets to make way for the construction of the church. Eventually, the fence--not the vinyl fence that was originally proposed but a metal fence--was approved, and the garden planted.

This past Friday, another fence in a historic district came before the Historic Preservation Commission for a certificate of appropriateness. The proposal is to fence the entire property—front and backat 10 Willard Place, the smaller of the two anachronistic Greek Revival houses that were introduced into this historic neighborhood in 2004.
Correction: The owner of 10 Willard Place has corrected this account. The proposal is not to fence the entire property but only "the grassy area in front of [the house], along with the abutting porch (for security reasons)."

The original proposal was for an eight-foot fence—six feet of solid fence topped with two feet of lattice. The owner argued that he needed the fence not only for privacy but also for security, because people trespassed on his property and a neighbor's dog once attacked him in his own yard. Three of the five HPC members present had concerns about a privacy fence in front of a building. Miranda Barry suggested that a gate that lined up with the front door would be "mitigating." Phillip Schwartz, who was sympathetic to the need for a fence, suggested that the fence in front of the building might be only six feet high--four feet of solid fence and two feet of lattice. John Schobel warned, "If everyone starts putting fences in front of their houses, it will change the character of the neighborhood." He urged that there be a public hearing, saying, "The collective aesthetic of this historic district belongs to all of us."

Since any motion requires four votes—the majority of the full commissionto pass, neither the motion to hold a public hearing nor the motion to waive the public hearing passed, and in the end, it was decided there would be a public hearing, despite the fact that Schwartz and HPC chair Phil Forman felt it was unnecessary. The public hearing is scheduled for 10:00 a.m. on Friday, July 27. At 9:30 a.m. on that same day, the members of the HPC will make a site visit to Willard Place.

The proposal presents an interesting conundrum for the HPC. Preserving the historic integrity of neighborhood should be paramount, but the existence of the two houses is already an intrusion on the historic character of the neighborhood. Willard Place was established in 1872 as a private neighborhood, and it remained a private neighborhood for almost a hundred years, until 1969. All the historic houses on Willard Place were built within twenty years--between 1872 and 1892—and are examples of the architectural styles that were in vogue during those two decades. Second Empire predominates, but there are also examples of Colonial Revival and Tuscany style architecture. Greek Revival, the style imitated by the two houses built in 2004, fell out of favor in America around 1860.

Not only are the two Greek Revival style houses an architectural anachronism, they alter the intended design of Willard Place. The street was designed as a dogleg, culminating in a park at the end of the street. There was no intention in the original design for houses to ring the park. When they were built, the two Greek Revival houses had no access to Willard Place. To provide access, a strip of land between the southern boundary of 317 Allen Street and the roadway had to be acquired from the City of Hudson. It was argued at the time that the sale was illegal because the land, which was part of Willard Park, was designated park land and its sale required approval by the state legislature.

Given the history of Willard Place, it's possible that the proposed fence and accompanying plantings may be taking Willard Place back to an earlier time. In 1872, when Willard Place was created, there was a grand house at 317 Allen Street, with grounds that extended back to what is now Willard Park. The house is included in an article that appeared in the Hudson Evening Register for March 28, 1867. The article inventoried what were considered to be the best and most elegant houses in Hudson at the time. The house at 317 Allen Street, then the residence of R. C. Mitchell, was said to be, in 1867, "of ancient build." The only visual evidence we have of that house is this photograph of the rear of 325 Allen Streetthe house next doorprobably taken in the early 1860s. The back of the house that originally stood at 317 Allen Street can be glimpsed through the trees at the left.

From this picture we can surmise that, in 1872, when Willard Place was created, the grounds behind 317 Allen Street were probably not greatly dissimilar to the grounds behind the house next door—with a notable absence of what we today know as privacy fences.

Soon after the turn of the 20th century, 317 Allen Street was acquired by Morgan Jones, and the original house "of ancient build" was demolished to make way for Jones's dream house, a Jacobean and Dutch inspired mansion reminiscent of the medieval architecture he had seen while traveling in Europe.

The architect for the house was Marcus Reynolds, and all of the drawings for the house and grounds, as well as Reynolds' journals and records from the period he was working on the house, are preserved in the Albany Institute of History & Art. Those records indicate that while Reynolds was working on the design for 317 Allen Street, William Traver, who lived at 1 Willard Place, the first house to be built on the private street, and whose son lived at 8 Willard Place, the last house to be constructed, visited Reynolds' studio. It is easy to surmise that Traver's visit was inspired by concern about what was in store for his neighborhood.

Photo: Historic Hudson
The plans for Morgan Jones's house included a carriage house and a formal garden and grounds designed by Townsend & Fleming, landscape architects.

What today is the site of the two faux Greek Revival houses was in the early part of the 20th century the location of a tennis court, a lawn, and a pathway from the formal garden to an overlook at the southern end of the property. The drawing suggests there may have been a fence around the rear of the property, but it's not entirely clear.

The picture below, which appeared in 1910 in the architectural magazine Brickbuilder, shows the carriage house, the formal garden, and the path leading back to the tennis court and the overlook.

This picture certainly gives the sense of enclosure and privacy, but whether there was an actual fence around the perimeter is unclear. Screening and demarcation of property lines seem to have been achieved to a great extent by plantings.


  1. Great piece of work. Thanks, Carole...!

  2. Yes, excellent article, Carole. I love the last picture and it certainly would be wonderful if a hedge or plantings could be utilized instead of a large fence. Those houses juxtaposed as they are to the logical original layout of Willard Place, stick out like sore thumbs as it is.