Saturday, September 28, 2019

The HPC, the Public, and 211 Warren Street

The Historic Preservation Commission held a public hearing on Friday morning about the new building proposed for 211 Warren Street. Although some public hearings held by the HPC in the past have been poorly attended, this one was not. The benches at City Hall were filled, and the hearing ran well beyond the thirty minutes that had been allotted for it. Five people expressed support for the design; four people expressed opposition, which ranged from misgivings about a particular element of the design to reprimand and rejection.

After making a presentation about the project, in which they affirmed their "tremendous affection" for the building that had to be demolished, the applicants read a statement from Nick Haddad, who owns the building next door at 217 Warren Street, itself a replacement building constructed in the late 1990s. In the statement, Haddad, who served on the HPC from 2008 to 2012, said he had "absoutely no objection to the design." Asserting "we are not historic Williamsburg," Haddad encouraged what he called "contemporary interpretation of historic architecture."

Chip Bohl, an architect and the owner of 418 Warren Street, acknowledged that the massing and addition of an attic story were appropriate, but focused his comments on the bay, or oriel, which according to the applicants was inspired by the bay, or oriel, on 209 Warren Street.

Bohl said the bay wrapping around the side of the building was an "interesting and dynamic" feature but said it "relies on the parking lot to be successful, and that will not always be the case." He also pointed out that bays, or oriels, typically have windows on all sides, creating an "interface of public and private," whereas the bay proposed only has windows in the front. He urged the applicants to "take another look at the bay" and perhaps create one that was "more delicate, more charming, and more transparent." 

The applicants responded that, because this was to be a passive house, the walls were eighteen inches thick, and it was "logistically impossible" to have windows on the side of the bay.

Joe Ahern, who lives at 244 Warren Street, called it a "pleasing and sophisticated design" that was "entirely respectful of other buildings on the block." He expressed the opinion that "faux Federalism is a disease inflicted on Hudson."

Recounting the recent history of the house, which was acquired by its current owners in 2011, Christabel Gough asserted that the law "forbids allowing a landmark to fall into disrepair" and despaired that we now have is "a hole in the ground and a new building that does little to compensate for the loss." She argued that a passive house did little to solve the problems of climate change and called it "a millionaire's feel-good toy." Calling the proposed bay an "excrescence," she said it had "none of the characteristics of a real bay."

Ronald Kopnicki, relying on HPC minutes and a post on Gossips, recounted the several times proposals for 211 Warren Street have come before the Historic Preservation Commission--in 2015, 2017, and in a workshop session earlier this year. The proposals in 2015 and 2017 both involved retaining the facade of the building and restoring it to the way it appeared in the oldest photograph that had been found of the building, while constructing a new passive house behind it. Kopnicki urged that they return to that plan, arguing that "demolition by neglect should not be an excuse for introducing discordance." 

The image below may not be the oldest photograph of the building, but it is certainly the one, to my knowledge, that shows it most clearly.

Responding to Kopnicki, the applicants asserted, "Once the house was demolished, we cannot go back."

Someone who did not state his name but said he owned property across the street stated, "What was there was no historic gem," and said of the proposed building, "This blends in." 

Mark Orton, who with his wife, Karen Davis, operates an art gallery in the 100 block of Warren Street, said he liked "what they are trying to do," adding that he particularly liked that the new design included retail space because there was not enough street traffic below Third Street.

Michael O'Hara, who lives next door at 209 Warren Street, defended the proposed design, saying that "each of the buildings on Warren Street was fashionable and worked for the era in which it was built." He maintained what was proposed "fits into the context and is not a jarring exception."

Matt McGhee, who called the design "very objectionable" and a "pastiche," read aloud a statement about the cultural significance of the building, copies of which he distributed to the members of the HPC. His statement is a fascinating example of historic preservation "forensics" and a compelling argument for the significance of the building now lost. The statement and the photograph that accompanied it follows.

A ghost on the wall is all that remains of the likely 250 to 300-year-old structure which stood on this site.
I believe it had been altered ca. 1800, some 50 to 80 years after it was first built, with an early Federal front of brick and marble. The east side wall retained cladding of cedar shingles attached with hand-forged "rose" nails. This was covered with wide boards, protecting it for more than 200 years, and is evidence of an earlier building.
The lack of a classic tri-part division of base, middle and attic (the 2nd floor windows are right at the roof line), and the look of the west silhouette also suggest an updated front on an older building.
211 Warren Street may have been one of the two oldest houses in Hudson, the other being the four-square Dutch house with gabled roof on 2nd Street and Montgomery Street. [The Robert Taylor House]
The side yard between the fence and the two-story ell (extension) has been made part of the foundation, and the front door has been moved to the right, changing the rhythm of the door and the window placement.
This needs to be corrected.
Then, this rather English four-bay house with lean-to the back (later changed to a two-story ell), with its side yard and rear yard, can and should be restored to at least its late 19th century condition.
I would add that Peter Stuyvesant was Dutch governor when England laid claim to New Netherlands in 1664. Soon after, what is now Hudson became part of English territory. Given this, a house of English nature could easily have been built in the early 18th century in this part of the Hudson River valley.
Both the cultural and historic significance of this house justify restoration as the just and right thing to do.
Since the building no longer exists, the appeal to restore it is an appeal to re-create it as it was in the earliest photographic documentation of the building.

Detail from c. 1900 post card image
When the public hearing was over and the HPC got around to discussing the project, after dealing with other business before them, Phil Forman, who chairs the HPC, framed the conversation: "It is, at the end of the day, new construction, and there are different paths: differentiate or re-create what was." He noted that "people come to Hudson for many reasons, one of them heritage tourism." He asserted that "Hudson is a living place not a museum" but acknowledged the need for "quality visual experience."

Forman told the other HPC members present--Miranda Barry, Hugh Biber, and Paul Barrett--that Kate Johns, the architect member of the HPC, had a specific objection to the type of brick proposed for the building: gray Roman brick, which is longer and flatter than typical brick. Forman reported that Johns thought it was an "unnecessary disconnect with the brick that tends to predominate in Hudson."

Barrett agreed that the brick was not in harmony with the architecture of Hudson. He was also concerned about the bay, not seeing "how it works visually."

Barry expressed her opinion that "new architecture is preferable because it is not ersatz" but stressed that "mass and proportion need to be consistent." She called a passive building "a hallmark of today" and "a good thing" but conceded that she didn't "love the finish of the building"--the gray Roman brick and the concrete fiber siding. 

Biber said he liked what was being proposed, pronouncing it to be "sensitive to what was there" and reiterating that "Hudson is not a museum."

Only four members of the seven-member HPC were present at Friday's meeting, and to grant a certificate of appropriateness all four would have to vote in support of the action. That did not happen. When the vote was taken, Forman, Barry, and Biber voted in support; Barrett was opposed. It is unclear if there would have been four affirmative votes if the entire commission had been present.


  1. It's not clear to me if the proposed design is supposed to be a house or a modern structure intended to host a business. I can imagine going there to have my teeth cleaned, but wouldn't be keen to call it home.

    1. I believe it is meant to be a residence with retail space.