BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Historians lost one historic house in Rockland County last week when the 240-year-old “Teaberry Port” was demolished, but they are now turning their attention toward saving the also threatened Vanderbilt House a few blocks away.
Both early Dutch sandstone homes were located in the historic hamlet of West Nyack, and were constructed by hand from locally cut red sandstone, a geologic formation found only in Rockland and Bergen Counties, making such structures unique in colonial American architecture.
Teaberry Port was constructed about 1772 by settler Resolvert Stephens, who reportedly fought in the Revolutionary War, and served as the homestead for a succession of dairy, fruit and vegetable farms on the western shore of the Hackensack River for the next 140 years. Prior to World War II it was purchased by Stephen Leeman, a businessman who imported tea from China and gave it its popular name. Leeman was intrigued by local history, probably the result of residing in such a historic home, leading him to also purchase several old buildings in the downtown business district of West Nyack.
While he “modernized” his own home to 20th century comfort, incorporating an office, he restored the downtown buildings to their 18th and 19th century glory. By about 1970 he renamed them collectively as Clarksville Corner, including the well-known Clarksville Inn.
The Water Company
Around 1950 Teaberry Port was acquired from Leeman by the then Spring Valley Water Company, as part of its vast assemblage of hundreds of acres of land on which it created the Lake Deforest Reservoir by damming the Hackensack at Old Mill Road. Most of the farm eventually disappeared beneath the new lake, and the house was rented to tenants.
More than a decade ago the water company, now known as United Water Resources, leased the house to the Town of Clarkstown for 99 years at a fee of $1. After raising the rent on the holdover tenant, and then evicting her for non-payment, the town sealed the structure and unsuccessfully attempted to find new uses for it, as well as funds for its restoration.
Eventually frustrated and with no use in sight, Clarkstown gave the house back to United Water about two years ago and the utility re-sealed it against vandalism. Deterioration, which began under the town’s ownership, continued under water company stewardship. It culminated with the collapse of an entire section of the north stone wall about two months ago, rendering the building open to the elements and being declared unsafe. Estimates to restore the home ranged from $500,000 to $1 million, according to company officials.
Efforts by the water company to demolish the structure were initially denied by the town, through its Historical Review Board, but following the collapse the permit was eventually issued, and the actual demolition occurred on Tuesday, Nov. 27. The site was leveled, graded, and covered with topsoil, with grass seed scattered over the remains. Visible today are just the former two-car garage and a small pile of sandstone salvaged by the demolition firm for future use elsewhere in Clarkstown.
Efforts by historians and local residents who had worked for over two years to save the house and find a new use for it have now turned to a nearby endangered structure known locally as the Vanderbilt-Budke House, on Germonds road.
Built about 1729, it is reportedly the second oldest house in Rockland County, following only the DeWint House in Tappan, constructed in 1700.
It was built by the Dutch Vanderbilt family, probably Jacob Vanderbilt Sr., and was also the center of a large farm for nearly three centuries. It was purchased in 1868 by George Henry Budke, and inherited by his son, George H. Budke Jr. about the turn of the century. Following his death in 1933, it was purchased by John C. Traphagen, whose family gradually sold portions of the farm until the last vestige was a nine-acre parcel containing both the Vanderbilt House and the slightly newer white frame dwelling known as the Traphagen House.
The last actual occupant of the Vanderbilt House was Rockland County Historian George H. Budke, who resided there until his death in 1933. The house has remained vacant ever since, and is gutted today with only its exterior stone walls and its original roof still intact.
Clarkstown purchased the bulk of the Traphagen farm several decades ago, and used it to create the Germonds Park, the town’s largest and most developed, with numerous athletic fields, several swimming pools and other recreational facilities. Last year the town purchased the remaining nine acres for $900,000, including the Vanderbilt-Budke and Traphagen Houses, and was planning to annex the land to the existing park next door.
The town had no use for the two houses, however, and had discussed either demolishing them or carving them out of the larger parcel on small lots and selling them to private buyers.
Following a protest to this plan at last week’s Town Board meeting, however, council members are now reconsidering their options and have given historians the green light to explore other potential uses for the two dwellings.
Leading that effort will be the Town’s Historical Review Board and the town historian, aided by the Historical Society of Rockland County and the newly formed Heritage of West Nyack organization, along with the town’s Code Enforcement Officer, Joel Epstein.
Historical Society President Clare Sheridan and Executive Director Richard Anderson, along with several trustees, as well as Heritage of West Nyack Vice President Madeline Muller, led the group of historians attending last week’s Town Board meeting. With about 10 of the group of some 25 historians speaking at the podium, they made an impassioned plea to the council to not allow what happened to Teaberry Port also occur at the Vanderbilt House.
They also agreed with town officials to research potential grants and other funding opportunities for its restoration, and to come up with suggested uses for its new life once the historical structure is actually restored and usable.
Speaking for the town, Epstein said, “We won’t let what happened to Teaberry happen again. We’re on the road to a positive outcome.” He said he would lead the effort to “button up” the deteriorated house for the winter, so it doesn’t meet Teaberry Port’s fate, hopefully using a combination of town workers from various departments, as well as donated materials and labor.
This will allow the special task force of the combined organizations and other interested residents time to formulate plans and present them back to the Town Board early next year.
At Epstein’s suggestion, and with Supervisor Alex Gromack’s blessing, it was also announced that because Clarkstown is a member of the Rockland Community Foundation, a special account could be created there to allow individuals and groups to donate money specifically for the Vanderbilt House restoration, with such gifts being tax exempt to the donors.
With Epstein calling the Vanderbilt House “the crown jewel of historic houses in both Clarkstown and all of Rockland County,” Gromack added that its fate could be different from that of Teaberry Port “because Clarkstown owns the Vanderbilt House, and that means that we control its future. It is certainly under our control now,” Gromack added optimistically.
Councilwoman Stephanie Hausner was also optimistic, noting that she is the council’s liaison to the Historic Review Board. The HRB has already prepared a preliminary plan for the restoration and re-use of the Vanderbilt House, she pointed out, and will hopefully present a revised version to the council at its February workshop meeting.
It was left unclear if either the special task force, or the town itself, will attempt to restore and re-use only the Vanderbilt House, or the Traphagen House as well. That frame structure appears to have been constructed in three major sections, with the earliest dating to about 1820 and additions about 1860 and 1890. It was continuously occupied until earlier this year, initially by members of the Traphagen family and later by their property caretakers. The last family occupant was Hugh Traphagen, who reportedly died about two or three years ago. The house is said to be in good, livable condition, with the exception of having most utilities piped in several hundred feet from the rear, from the remains of an old barn in the backyard that was destroyed by fire several years ago.
According to Epstein, depending on whether the house is subdivided from the rest of the property and to what use it is eventually put; the utilities may have to be relocated to come in the front from Germonds Road, which could prove costly.