Saving John Green

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“A house divided against itself cannot stand” – Abe Lincoln (citing a well-known Bible passage)
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BY TINA TRASTER

From www.facebook.com/JohnGreenHouseNyack

Lincoln’s words ring true for the John Green Preservation Coalition, the nonprofit that rescued the historic 1819 sandstone house in Nyack from the brink of ruin.

During the last four years, the group listed the house on the national and state historic registers, and began rehabilitating. Now the group, and the house, is at a contentious crossroad. Rick Tannenbaum, the group’s former president (he left the group) who was originally responsible for getting a bank to give us the house, negotiated a deal with investors willing to spend up to $1 million to restore the house to its historic origin. The investors were eager to begin work immediately, even though final approval of a transfer is needed from the State Attorney General. In a year’s time, people in Nyack and beyond would have been able to walk down Nyack’s Main Street and see the house that John Green built two centuries ago.
Most of the long-time members who are steeped in the world of historic preservation and architecture, understood the value of this offer. In four years, the John Green Coalition has raised less than $200,000, with $130,000 of that funding coming from a New New York Bridge Grant, a one-time offer. The John Green House does not have a high-profile pedigree. It is not, say, the Edward Hopper House. It is relatively small, 2,400-square-feet. The motive for saving it was its outstanding sandstone architecture.
The group has tried tirelessly to fundraise. The house has had no financial support from the Village of Nyack, Orangetown, Rockland County or the State. We have annually applied for funding from the state, to no avail. Some members of the board recognized the road was too long and onerous to complete this project, and were thrilled at the prospect of an investor wanting to complete it. This particular investor has donated time, labor and materials to the house, though a $1 million investment would require a return-on-investment.
Opposition from the board has come from two long-time members, and three newcomers who’ve been on the board less than a year. They want the house to be a cultural center for Nyack. The group has floated the idea of a cultural center during the years it’s been struggling to raise money, but no concrete blueprint for the house’s end use has ever been codified. Additionally, even if a portion of the house could be used for public space, the house would have needed to generate revenue, meaning at least two of the three floors would have needed to be rented.
Of course it would have been nice to have a building donated for culture and art, but sometimes when you’re stewarding a project you must pivot and be flexible. You have to be analytic and strategic when you are charged to complete a project. If the choice is to allow it to be finished and relinquish an aspirational plan versus let the building languish for years and years because you cannot raise money to finish it, well, then that is the right choice to make.
Those who rejected the opportunity believe they can raise this money, but have no plan, or fundraising experience, and they are unwilling to listen to those of us who’ve spent years trying to accomplish this feat. I can understand the newcomers are in the honeymoon phase and still feel excited about being part of this endeavor, but they are unwilling to defer to those of us who bring so much experience and knowledge to the table. If there’s a lesson here, it would be to more thoroughly vet new board members and to allot each a half vote for a year or so before their decision making carries the same weight as those who’ve invested so much time and labor.
It is quite likely many of the veteran members who have the institutional memory of this project will defect. Their collective experience will be nearly impossible to replicate. The John Green House won’t fall down physically, because those who’ve worked so hard to date have shored it up structurally. But the division has caused a moral crisis, and those who will leave and work on other projects, myself included, will do so with sadness.
Tina Traster
Former John Green Board Member