BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Rockland County executive Edward Day and the Historical Society of Rockland County honored several county residents Sunday at the 26th annual Historic Preservation Merit Awards dinner.
The event was held beneath a giant tent erected on the front lawn of the society’s New City headquarters and museum at 20 Zukor Road in northern New City, across the street from Clarkstown’s Street School Community Center.
The prestigious annual ceremony drew a sold-out crowd of residents and dignitaries to the museum’s own 1820 Jacob Blauvelt House restoration, and highlighted activities and efforts aimed at preserving similar historic structures and sites throughout Rockland County.
County Judge Alfred Weiner, president of the Historical Society’s board of directors, acted as master of ceremonies for the event, joined by Executive Director Susan Deeks and other society officials.
Prior to the ceremony itself, guests were invited for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres along with tours of both the Dutch colonial style sandstone and brick Blauvelt House and the adjacent Rockland County History Center, the setting of the society’s four-acre headquarters for the past half-century.
Deeks and Weiner noted that the awards presentation is held each May, as the society’s contribution to National History Month. Day, Rockland’s third and current county executive, was present to congratulate each winner and to express his own appreciation for the multitude of historic activities, restorations, programs and other efforts that are undertaken each year to preserve the county’s rich cultural heritage.
Former President Clare Sheridan noted that the society and the county executive have presented more than 75 awards to public agencies, privater individuals, community-based and religious organizations in recognition of their preservation efforts in Rockland since the program began in 1991. “The society also supports continued, critical action to help save Rockland County’s environmentally sensitive areas and endangered architecture,” she added, with those efforts culminating each May during Rockland County Preservation Week.
“With a rapidly growing population of newcomers to the area, one challenge has been to help the public understand the value of preservation as well as being involved in their community,” she continued, adding “Addressing this challenge, the society’s Preservation Awards program has recognized preservation efforts of individuals and groups,m increased awareness of our historical resources, helped local communities to recapture history and pride of place, advocated for the purchase of endangered sites for the public good and attempted to unit all five townships in the support of historic preservation.”
“The awards help to get out the word that it is in everyone’s interest to restore and retain the richness of the past,” Sheridan continued. “The process is self-fulfilling, and it helps to unify and inspire a community.”
This Place Matters
A blue ribbon committee is selected by the society each year to judge the dozens of entries that are submitted for the prestigious awards, which are actually presented by the county executive. This year’s committee included Mary Cardenas, Michael Davidson, Robert Masiello, Madeline Muller, Winston Perry and Mrs. Sheridan, who served as the chairperson.
The theme for this year’s event was “This Place Matters,” Deeks noted, who also introduced the evening’s guest speaker, Liz McEnaney, executive director of the SS Columbia Project and adjunct professor at Columbia University’s graduate school of architecture, planning and preservation., and also a well-known architectural historian.
The Columbia is a 114-year-old steamboat built in 1902 which is today the largest and oldest river passenger steamer in the United States.With a capacity of 3,200 passengers, the 207-foot long ship was built inn Wyandotte, Michigan and served Detroiters for nearly a century. Out of service for decade now, it underwent extensive hull repair in Toledo last year, and was towed to New York where it was first docked at Buffalo. After a final refitting there, currently underway, the Columbia will be towed again next year, this time to the Hudson River, where it will be placed in service between Manhattan and Albany like the old day liners of a century ago. Its home port will be Kingston, with stops up and down the river at any port large enough to accommodate it.
During the awards portion of the gathering Sunday, the Margaret B. and John R. Zehner award for historic preservation was presented to Corinne McGeorge. A Congers native but 70-year Haverstraw resident, McGeorge was a bank bookkeeper before retiring and starting a whole new chapter in her life with the founding of the Haverstraw Brick Museum. Developing a keen interest in local history, the spry 88-year-old has held virtually every position with the museum, and eventually started her own firm called Hudson Valley Exhibits. The firm creates traveling displays on local history topics and circulates them through municipal buildings, schools, libraries, senior centers and other public facilities where they can get the greatest exposure. Exhibits to date have included Letchworth Village, the Minisceongo Creek, women in the military, water, looking back at yesterday, Dutchtown and the history of Major Andre in Haverstraw. She is now working on her latest exhibit, on the Italian festival held on Warren Avenue at the Hudson River, and is also a member of Haverstraw Town’s 400th anniversary committee.
The Preservation Leadership Award was given to There Friends of Harmony Hall, which is leading the effort to restore and preserve the historic Jacob Sloat house in downtown Sloatsburg.
The large three-story frame building on Route 17 is considered an exceptional surviving example (built circa 1848) of the Greek Revival style of architecture in America, including an Italianate enlargement. Long a private home of the Sloat family, for whom the village was named, it later became a hotel (Henry Inn) and restaurant and was eventually the Martin Home for Women, a senior residence for homeless women. Closed by the state for safety violations two decades ago, it lay dormant and deteriorating for years before activist residents Harrison and Peter Bush decided to try and rescue it before its remains were demolished.
Facing demolition plans by a developer to create dormitory-style housing on the mansion site, they secured a listing of the house on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places, and eventually convinced the Town of Ramapo to purchase the land and home from its private owners. The town cooperated in the purchase, and still owns the site, but no funding has been made available for restoration.
In desperation, they began a long and arduous task of creating a non-profit organization to raise the money toward that effort, and have been successful so far. Some repairs have already been made, but many more are needed before the building can be habitable and open to the public. The Friend’s group continues to build on the original site reuse scenarios for the interior using there 1848 footprint of the house, and believes that, architecturally, Harmony Hall holds great promise for adaptive reuse.
This year, the Friends plan to restore the main floor dining room to its 1848 appearance,m and start fundraising to restore the front veranda.
The Preservation Leadership Award went to the John Green Preservation Coalition, a historical society in Nyack formed last year to acquire, restore and operate Nyack’s oldest residence and only surviving Dutch sandstone house, the John Green House at 23 Main Street at the Hudson River shoreline.
Built in 1819, the house was converted into an illegal boarding house before being closed and abandoned by its owner more than a decade ago. Acquired by a mortgage company, it was slated for sale and demolition as an unsafe structure when a group of residents decided last year to try and save it from the wrecking ball.
Green was a leading merchant in Nyack’s formative years, being a sloop owner and lumber dealer, and an original sponsor of creating the Nyack Turnpike as a paid highway connecting Nyack and Suffern. Successful for nearly a century, it was eventually taken over by New York State and is today Route 59.
The residents first formed the Save the John Green House, which a few months later became the John Green Preservation Coalition. Under the presidency of Rick Tannenbaum they convinced the mortgage company to donate the house to the fledgling non-profit, instead of spending money to demolish the structure, Fund raising has been going on in earnest ever since, with sufficient funds already raised to remove part of the exterior walls, stabilize the structure, and begin work on the roof and the interior.
Coalition member Tom Morrison says current plans are to complete exterior restoration by 2018, coinciding with the opening of the need Tappan Zee Bridge, with interior restoration to follow in 2019, marking the 200th anniversary of the building’s original construction. In the meantime, the coalition ids seeking state and national listings on the Registers of Historic Sites, and is busy planning future uses of the building, including a local history museum, Nyack welcoming center and possible rental of the upper floors for offices or apartments.
The adaptive use award was presented to Richard Sena for work he did on a century-old brick building at 151 Broadway in downtown Haverstraw.
The simple Italianate two-story structure was built about 1900 by prominent businessman Charles Waldron as a speculative venture for rent to immigrants trying to re-locate to Haverstraw to work in the prosperous brick works of the day. About 1895 Italian immigrant James Gamboli arrived and housed his family in a cramped apartment on Railroad Avenue for several years. When the brick industry started collapsing in the 1920’s he moved to a larger apartment in Waldron’s building, just as Waldron was starting to sell of his real estate interests because of the depression.
He and his son Nick eventually bought the building and Nick became a barber, opening his shop on the first floor, while living with his family upstairs. Later taking in his brother Anthony, they ran the shop until the late 1970’s when they retired and sold the building and the shop to Mario Colecchia, who ran it further next 36 years as Mario’s Barber Shop. He retired in 2015 and sold the building earlier this year to Sena.
He restored the building outside and inside, and now runs it as a commercial real estate office. In the restoration process, he kept and upgraded the original Koken barber chair, Carrara marble mirror and mid-century chairs manufactured in Haverstraw’s own Empire State Chair Factory.
Now Sena wants to bring in more investors who want to restore the beauty of Haverstraw’s historic brick buildings, many of which are currently covered up by aluminum siding.. A longtime local resident, Sena says he wants to apply his skills as both a realtor and redevelopment specialist “to help revitalize the Village of Haverstraw, once known as the brick-making capital of the world.”
A similar adaptive re-use award was presented to the Tappan Library for their creative re-use of a century old funeral home and carriage barn into a modern library in the hamlet center of downtown Tappan.
The library began in the 1750 house at the corner of Main Street and Tappan Road, buying it some 50 years ago from the funeral director who had owned it previously but, needing more space, re-located to a new and larger building on nearby Route 303. It has operated successfully from this house ever since, and went through an extensive enlargement and renovation in 1995-96.
Needing even more space, however, the library board purchased the former Borcher stable next door in 2005 when it became available from then owner Paul Melone. The barn was the stable for Henry Borcher, who owned and operated a bar and restaurant across the intersection known as Borcher’s Inn. Upgraded itself a few years ago, it is today the Il Portico Restaurant.
The barn burned to the ground in 1920 and was replaced the same year by Borcher with the current structure. In the decades since it has been a garage, a warehouse and an antique shop, among other incarnations. Over the past two years the library raised the barn four feet and built a two-story connecting building to join the barn with the main structure. The completed structure re-open last year, and has become the focal point of community life in Tappan.
The Historical Society and Day also presented four special commendations Sunday for other projects around the county that did not meet the criteria for the designated awards. They included:
James and Luke Reilly for sympathetic renovations they did to the old Manse in Palisades. Built in 1868 on Washington Spring Road at the entrance to Sneden’s Landing, it was the parsonage for the Presbyterian Church which had been built across the street three years earlier. When the Reillys purchased the abandoned manse from the church it hard long been vacant and fallen into significant disrepair. They undertook a meticulous year-long renovation, using the professional resources of architect Meg Fowler and contractor Seth Glasser.
John Gromada for his leadership of the Save the John Green House, and continued leadership in the John Green Preservation Coalition. He was the first to notice the deteriorated condition of the house and rallied friends and neighbors to try and save it. A Broadway composer and sound designer, Gromada and his wife restored and occupy two other Victorian homes in Nyack, and has devoted the past year of his life to insuring a future for the John Green house as well.
Paige Danzig, Taylor Wald, Devon Keeley and Danielle Manos, four local Girl Scouts who researched the history of the century-old Antrim Playhouse in Suffern, combed its archives and built several shadow box display cases now located inside the amateur theater displaying the long-forgotten artifacts.
A few posters of earlier productions were about the only wall displays the theater had for the past 80 years, until the Scouts discovered a treasure trove of memorabilia carefully preserved and stored in a filing cabinet in the basement by long-time Antrim activist Tom France. Among the items found and now on display were letters from actors Fred Gwyne and Tyne Daly, former politicians Averell Harriman, Katharine St. George and Jacob Javits and a pair of red socks worn by France, the theater’s long-serving official.
Glenn Sungela, who had been dismayed by the deterioration of several historical markers around the county, and took it upon himself to restore them to their pristine glory. The first two were in Congers, on Kings Highway and at the railroad station, where the paint had peeled off to the extent that they could no longer be read by passersby. Receiving permission from the historical society, which had created them, and the property owners who had paid for them, he restored those two but quickly learned of several others in similar condition.
He next refurbished markers in New Hempstead, Suffern, Blauvelt and Orangeburg, along with additional markers in Congers. When cold weather last winter curtailed further outdoor projects he got highway departments to dismantle additional signs, so he cold refurbish them at home, and have them replaced this spring. He intends to continue the project into the future, restoring not only markers erected by the Historical Society but others from Bicentennial Commissions, State Education Department and similar sponsors from decades earlier.