PART I BY MARIA MIRAKAJ BROWNSELL
Back in December, numerous residents of Clarkstown attended the monthly board meeting with pins on their shirts that exclaimed, “History Matters.” After the Teaberry Port House in West Nyack was demolished, many people were worried about the fate of another historic property in Clarkstown.
The Vanderbilt-Budke on Germonds Road is the second oldest house in Rockland County. Clarkstown purchased the property that also has the Traphagen House on it for $900,000 in an effort to preserve its history. The town board has to decide whether or not they are going to save the entire property including both houses, or save only the older house. If they don’t preserve both, they are considering subdividing the land and selling the Traphagen House in order to offset some of the costs to fix the Vanderbilt-Budke House.
Councilwoman Stephanie Hausner has been the bridge between the town board and several historical groups such as the Historical Review Board, the Historical Society of Rockland County, and the Heritage of West Nyack.
Clare Sheridan, the President of the Historical Society of Rockland County presented the board with formal recommendations from the collaboration of the groups. The first thing that they suggest to be done is that the land be declared as parkland. This was it is protected from any investors trying to develop the property.
Afterwards, the town board needs to devote the necessary resources to the houses and bring them up to code. About $50,000 is needed for stabilization and protection. A non-profit group, possibly a Friends of Clarkstown, is suggested to form to help support and raise money for the preservation projects. They ask the town board for their continued support of this task force for further research and suggestions.
Many different ideas of how the property can be used were suggested. Some of the possibilities include an art gallery, a nature center, an archeological dig site for students, a museum, a zoo, and a sculpture park. Beekeeping, community garden plots, and winter recreation, such as cross country skiing and sleigh riding, were also mentioned.
“We want Clarkstown to establish themselves as protectors of our town and history. The Heritage of West Nyack will continue to support tirelessly this project and the invaluable tools to teach our youth about our past. This can be a great victory to the town of Clarkstown,” said Michael Gach, the secretary for the Heritage of West Nyack. “We are asking you to do the right thing. We’re asking you to say we care and show we care. We are more than tattoo parlors and tanning salons. We could be a classy town. It is a remarkable site that we should not let slip through our fingers.
Clarkstown Town Supervisor Alexander Gromack agreed about protecting the land and houses. He did not suggest a decision on whether or not to split up the property or to keep it whole. “Clarkstown has been a leader to preserve properties and houses in our town and to protect our heritage,” said Gromack. He commended all the groups for all their efforts and hard work.
Councilwoman Shirley Lasker was in favor of “incorporating the entire parcel into parkland,” but thought that incorporating the Traphagen property may be too much to handle. Councilman Frank Borelli expressed his support for the groups. Councilman George Hoehmann, who grew up down the street from the property, said he would love to see it revitalized.
“This is a very unique opportunity for us given the vast size of the property and the historical events that occurred there,” said Hoehmann.
PART II BY BOB KNIGHT
(Disclaimer: This writer is also the official appointed Town Historian in the Town of Clarkstown, and serves as a member and chairman of the seven-member Historic Review Board. Because of this vested interest, and the controversy surrounding the town’s purchase and proposed use of the site, I have refrained from writing about the situation until now. I was also an active participant in Tuesday night’s meeting, and am only reporting my views at this time because the Town Board now appears united in its own approach, with all five council members expressing unofficial support for the preservation effort. Details remain to be worked out, but initial action in that direction could begin within the next few weeks.)
Almost from the start, historians and preservationists began lobbying for the preservation and restoration of both historic homes on the site, and the maintenance of the nine-acre track in its entirety.
The smaller sandstone house, which sits on a knoll in the middle of the nine-acre tract, was built about 1723 by early Dutch settler Jacob Vanderbilt. It remained in that family until about the turn of the 20th century, when it was purchased by George Budke, Rockland County’s pre-eminent county historian for most of the first half of the century. Because of those connections, it is known as the Vanderbilt-Budke House, and is thought to be the oldest house in Clarkstown, and one of the oldest in all of Rockland County.
In front of it, much closer to Germonds Road, is the white frame house purchased just prior to the Second World War by Hugh C. Traphagen. He also bought the Vanderbilt-Budke house at the same time, as well as hundreds of acres of farmland surrounding the site, encompassing about a half-mile-square tract of mostly vacant land.
Traphagen later sold several hundred acres of his farm to Clarkstown, which created its Germonds Park there, and also sold large parcels to the Catholic Church for construction of Albertus Magnus High School and to BOCES for creation of its own sprawling campus campus on Parrott Road.
The large Traphagen House appears to have been built in sections, with the oldest dating to about 1820 with narrow “eyebrow” windows on the second floor. A much larger main house was added about 1850 in the Federal or Greek revival style and more additions were added from about 1900 to 1920. It contains about 12-14 rooms, and has been continuously occupied until Traphagen’s death nearly two years ago. Caretakers were in residence until a few months ago when the town took ownership and possession.
The nine-acre parcel and the two homes have remained in limbo since last year. The site was purchased for “general municipal use,” meaning the town was not restricted in what it could do with the land or buildings. Gromack and Mele explained that the town purposely did not designate the property as parkland, because that would have placed severe restrictions on what the town could do with the land and buildings. If for example Clarkstown wanted to sell any of the property and/or buildings, it would have to get a special act of the state legislature to divest itself of officially designated park land, an almost insurmountable task which is rarely successful in New York State.
Historians, preservationists and West Nyack area residents were already nervous about the future fate of the two historic dwellings following the demolition last fall of the historic Teaberry Port house, located nearby on Strawtown Road in West Nyack.
Groups, including the Historic Review Board, had launched a two-year campaign to save that house, owned for the past half-century by the United Water Company, as part of its adjacent Lake DeForest Reservoir. At one point the firm gave the house, but with no land, to Clarkstown. With no use for the structure, the town eventually gave it back to the water company, which then sought to demolish it. Clarkstown at first denied a demolition permit, but relented after the rear wall of the structure collapsed, and the whole building appeared in danger. After being ruled unsafe demolition was granted, and was carried out a few months ago.
With no assurances from the Town Board that the two homes on Germonds Road might not meet a similar fate, pressure started mounting quickly for a preservation movement to insure their maintenance, restoration and future preservation. Supporters of that effort met with the Town Board in November, and were given three months to come up with a plan for preservation and restoration that could be accomplished at little to no cost to the town itself.
That effort resulted in Tuesday evening’s workshop meeting, attended by about 50 interested residents. This author began the presentation with a brief history of the land and the two houses, and a plea that both buildings be preserved if at all possible, along with the entire property being declared town parkland and added to the adjacent Germonds Park.
Historical Society President Clare Sheridan presented a three-page report and recommendations from both her society and the town-wide task force, which had been created to study the situation and come up with one or more possible solutions as to the site’s ultimate future.
A two-page report was also presented by William Krattinger, historic preservation program analyst for the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Reports were also submitted by several officers and members of Heritage of West Nyack, all of who strongly urged the Town Board to retain and restore both homes and use them for public purposes.
A surprise appearance was made by the Vanderbilt sisters, two women who are direct descendants of Jacob Vanderbilt. Still local residents, they presented the town with a set of restoration plans for their progenitor’s home prepared 40 years ago by nationally known historical architect Loring McMillan, president at the time of the New York Historical Society. They strongly urged the board to restore both homes and put them to public use so they can become an important asset in the town’s future.
Supervisor Gromack said he and the town Board are sympathetic to historic preservation and restoration if it can be done at little to no cost to the town’s beleaguered taxpayers. As a show of good faith, he said the town’s Code Enforcement Officer, Joel Epstein has been assigned as the liaison between town government and historic preservationists, and has the authority to make minor repairs and improvements, as needed, from the existing budgets of various town departments such as Parks and Recreation, Highway, building and property maintenance and others.
Epstein in turn listed some of the work already done, and said his next project will be the temporary repair of the cedar shake roof on the Vanderbilt House, where two holes currently exist where chimneys use to protrude but have long since collapsed. He has also secured both homes and fenced and locked the entire nine-acre site to hinder vandalism.
Epstein is also the contact person for persons, groups and firms wishing to tour the site and inspect the homes for potential restoration projects.
Hausner then introduced various people in the audience who made their own presentations to the board. James Palmer of the Historical Review Board, for example, read a list of about 20 potential uses for the land and the two houses, while fellow HRB member Larry Kigler listed several potential supporters of the restoration effort, including schools, unions, contractors, landscapers, merchants and businesses, among others.
Questioned by audience members at the conclusion of the two-hour meeting as to how to proceed, Gromack and other council members said they were giving the Historical Review Board, the Historical Society, the task force and Heritage of West Nyack the green light to continue planning a restoration effort for the two houses, along with use possibilities.
The board is so receptive to the concept, Gromack said, that the groups could report back with further recommendations within the next few weeks, and the council would seriously consider them for adoption. The groups immediately announced both their thanks to the Town Board, and their plans to meet as quickly as possible to follow up on the supervisor’s offer.
The Historical Review Board was to meet the following night, Wednesday, to devote most of its session to the Traphagen property. Heritage of West Nyack will meet next Wednesday for the same purpose, Chairman Bert Dahm announced, and Sheridan said the town-wide task force would probably meet the following Wednesday.
Representatives from all four groups said their primary objective would probably be a joint recommendation that the town move the site from “general municipal use” to “park land” as quickly as possible, to help insure protection of the site from other potential uses.
In his two-page letter to the town, Krattinger called the Vanderbilt House “an exceptional example of Dutch vernacular architecture in Rockland County,” noting “and it has survived, perhaps somewhat remarkably, with its original floor plan and the bulk of its interior features intact.”
“Our office would be pleased to assist the town in any way possible to see to the stabilization and reuse of this rare and somewhat irreplaceable expression of Colonial-era Dutch culture in the Lower Hudson Valley, which is clearly eligible for listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Sites.”
Sheridan, in her report on behalf of the historical society and the task force, said “The restoration, refurbishment and adaptive use of the two structures and the inclusion of these structures on the 9-acre parcel located on Germonds Road as part of the Clarkstown Parks would be an ideal part of the West Nyack Revitalization Plan,” an town effort now underway to enhance the historical appearance of that hamlet.
To accomplish this, Sheridan requested immediate conversion to park status, devoting “the necessary resources” to restore the Vanderbilt-Budke House (she suggested at least $50,000) and bringing the Traphagen dwelling up to code and meeting federal ADA regulations for public use.
Sheridan also suggested the town contract with a private, not-for-profit group to help run, manage and do fund-raising for the long-term restoration effort and on-going future use of the site and buildings. She cited as an example the Friends of the Orangetown Museum that helps support and fund two museums owned and operated by that neighboring township. She also suggested that Heritage of West Nyack might fulfill that role, if they were interested in doing so. Representatives of the group indicated they might indeed be willing to act in that capacity, and will discuss the possibility at their meeting next week. The group is currently headquartered in the West Nyack Public Library.