Monday, March 15, 2021

The Charles Alger House and the HPC

The Charles Alger House, standing on the bluff on Allen Street, overlooking the South Bay and the river--and, of importance to Charles Alger, the Hudson Iron Works (Alger designed the Hudson Iron Works and was a partner in that enterprise)--is finally getting the attention it deserves. 

We have an amazing visual record of what the house looked like in its early years. The engraving above is from an 1858 map of Columbia County, on which the Alger House, along with other notable buildings, appears in the margin. 

Two years ago, when the house was shrouded in plastic as the yellow paint that distinguished it for probably close to fifty years was being removed, I wrote this about this house: 
This is an important house in Hudson, one of three in the city with links to the preeminent 19th-century American architect Alexander Jackson Davis. The Dr. Oliver Bronson House was designated a National Historic Landmark for its association with Davis. Charles Alger, the original owner of the house, was Davis's patron, and he and his house in Hudson are mentioned in Davis's day books. A noted A. J. Davis scholar who visited the house a few years ago, shortly after Galvan acquired it, reported that some of the interior woodwork showed definite Davis influence.
Now, when the house is finally being restored, its association with A. J. Davis is causing some problems. Sources Gossips has discovered indicate that the house was built in 1851, the same year the Hudson Iron Works was constructed. Walter Chatham, who is the architect for the restoration, believes it was built much earlier and is convinced that it was designed by A. J. Davis. That conviction is inspiring him to propose changes in the fenestration to make the house resemble more closely other A. J. Davis designs. The most significant changes have to do with the fenestration--the placement of windows, in some cases adding windows were none now exist, most notably in the "tower" on the east facade and on the north facade facing Allen Street. 

North Elevation (facing Allen Street)

East Elevation (facing the Second Street stairs)

South Elevation

West Elevation

The first to speak at the public hearing was Christabel Gough, who called the Alger House "a key visual landmark" in Hudson and urged the Historic Preservation Commission to recommend the house to the Common Council for designation as an individual local landmark and also called for the house to be individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Gough went on to advise:
This is a difficult restoration, and it would be important for the Commission to participate in reviewing and evaluating discoveries of original fabric that interventions will surely bring, incrementally, as new work moves forward. . . . Especially establishing the old window patterns here is problematic, and it would be highly desirable to keep as close as is feasible to the original design, given the national importance of the architect. I understand that we do not have absolute documentary proof of A. J. Davis's involvement, or his working drawings, but the house has his design fingerprints all over it, and much of its charm depends on the unconventional Gothic-revival-inspired spacing of the openings, departing from any conventional regularity. . . . 
Matt McGhee argued that the fenestration on the east and north facades "causes [the house] to have an unusual effect." He shared a picture of a 17th-century house owned by William Morris and suggested the Alger house "has all the look and feel of this house," with lots of blank space. McGhee asserted that "the blank spaces harmonize the body of the house."

McGhee acknowledged that re-creating the tripartite window in the east facade was a good idea and argued that were never windows below the gable to the left of the entrance, which he referred to as "the tower." 

He also mentioned the wrought iron fence at the site which was removed to be cleaned and repaired and urged that the reinstatement of the fence, which he said contributed to the "early medieval look," be included as a condition in the certificate of appropriateness. 

Photo: Matt McGhee
McGhee ended his comments by urging the HPC to "preserve it and keep it the way he designed it and not do a redo."

Photo: Matt McGhee

Ronald Kopnicki similarly warned against trying to "channel the spirit of A. J. Davis" and "doing what Davis might have done." He argued the house was an "idiosyncratic outlier" of the Davis canon and cautioned, if what was proposed was approved, "What you are approving may not be a true restoration."

When the public hearing was over, and the HPC took up its discussion of the project, John Schobel said he wanted to hear from Chip Bohl, the architect member of the HPC. Bohl said he had recently toured the building with Chatham and reported, "The building has so much original fabric." He said that the 1858 engraving of the house was critically important and noted that the engraving showed no windows in the tower.

Bohl referenced the earlier discussion of the Davis canon and the idiosyncrasy of this building. He suggested that the house could be an important stepping stone in the evolution of American architecture. He told his colleagues he would not be in favor of putting windows in the tower. He also advised against adding windows in the north facade, calling the blank column "a very powerful element" and asserting, "Verticality is what the design is all about." He also talked about the asymmetry of the house, suggesting it could mark "the birth of a lot of American architecture." He called the house "an extraordinary piece of American architecture" and urged the HPC, "Let's go through this very, very slowly and very, very carefully. If we're going to get this right, it's going to take a while."

Chatham said he was happy to forget about the windows on the Allen Street side but was committed to the windows in "the tower."

In the end, it was decided that the HPC needed new renderings showing everything that was "not controversial." Chatham was advised to "hold on everything that could be considered 'rewriting history.'" Consideration of the project is expected to be taken up again by the HPC at its meeting on Friday, March 19.


  1. Thank you Carole for writing about this.
    As a history enthusiast I find this so interesting.

  2. The house was designed as such.

    Leave it be !!!

  3. "That conviction is inspiring him to propose changes in the fenestration to make the house resemble more closely other A. J. Davis designs."

    No. This isn't a graduate seminar in possible worlds, where your 'inspiration' is privileged over and above the material culture itself.

    You are either engaging in a restoration or you are playing ersatz historicist- you can't have it both ways.

    Listen closely to the wisdom Christabel Gough has so generously provided you.

    Deny the COA.

  4. The original window placements had purpose. Likely coincide with how the interior rooms were used. And then of course, the overall architectural plan. This is not haphazard design. To properly preserve and restore the house, it should follow the original engraving. If NYS Preservation was not consulted, that would be a sound move. They will not designate a building that's extensively modified. At least, that's been my experience. As Chip Bohl is the true expert here, his thoughts should definitely be taken very seriously.

  5. The biggest problem here, but barely alluded to in Carole's report and not noted by the expert testimony, is Galloway. His reputation as a "preservationist" is pretty bad. Let the academics fight it out, but somebody has to track the actual work so we know when Mr Potter--excuse me, Mr. Galloway--starts gutting the interior or dismantling the whole thing and moving it to another location. -p meyer