BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
A project to improve the historic 350-year-old Tappan Green that was estimated to cost nearly $1 million is now well under way, and is expected to be finished by this summer at a total cost of only about half that amount.
A synopsis of the project was given at last week’s Orangetown Town Board meeting by its manager, Town Highway Superintendent James Dean; and partner Rev. Donald Hoover, pastor of the Tappan Reformed Church which owns most of the property involved.
The “Green” is an elongated triangular park of less than an acre in size, located directly between the Tappan Reformed Church and the church manse, across the street. Its ownership has been in question for centuries, but Dean and Rev. Hoover said all involved parties now seem to agree that the church probably owns most of the vacant land, while the town owns the three streets surrounding the park.
The town has maintained the green as an assumed town park for decades now, Dean acknowledged, but again all parties have agreed that once the upgrade is completed, maintenance will be turned over to a new three-way partnership of the church, the Tappantown Historical Society and the Tappan American Legion Post.
Dean described for the board the work his department has accomplished so far. The original estimate for the entire project was nearly $1 million, he said, but this was eventually pared down to $800,000. The town council approved a bond issue in that amount last summer, and work proceeded immediately.
Work completed so far includes enlarging the park slightly by narrowing Greenbush Road on its western side and Main Street/Kings Highway on the eastern boundary. Parking was also eliminated along the Greenbush block, and restricted to one side of Kings/Main. Curbs were constructed around the park and on the other sides of both Greenbush Road and Kings Highway, and a sidewalk was built along the church and its cemetery, on the eastern side of Kings Highway.
Two additional sidewalks were constructed at the north and south ends of the park, new lighting of historical design has been installed, both around the park and throughout downtown Tappan; and a new drainage system has been installed to divert storm water directly into the nearby Sparkill Creek instead of flooding downtown streets.
All of the curb and sidewalk work consists of granite block curbing and brick sidewalks, matching the colonial design of work done recently by the Rockland County Highway Department on county roads within the hamlet’s historic downtown district.
By coordinating with the county’s contractors to begin where they left off, Dean said the town was able to save considerable money, and the total estimated cost of the project was lowered to $650,000. By doing the remaining work in-house, with highway department crews and equipment, Dean said the cost can now be lowered again to a final estimate of only $535,000, nearly half of the amount originally anticipated just a year ago.
Asked what will happen with the revenues from the $800,000 bond, Dean explained that the bond was never actually issued, merely authorized. As a result, the actual bond will only be for the reduced amount of the project, thus saving taxpayers a considerable amount of money.
Most of the money has already been spent and the work completed, Dean explained, with only about $40,000 needed for the final five phases of the project.
They include constructing a new sidewalk through the middle of the park on a north-south axis, connecting the two existing sidewalks; reconfiguring the various historic and war memorial monuments now scattered throughout the park to a central location, placing a flagpole at the park center, surrounded by a circular walkway, benches and planting of shrubs and flowers; and removing most of the existing trees and replacing them with new ones.
There are six trees in the park now, Dean said, of which five are old, diseased, and have outlived their useful and aesthetic life cycle. Those trees, two maples and three pines, will be removed, and replaced with 12 new shadberries, he added. The shadberry is a native tree to this area, is long lasting and was selected by his department and the three co-sponsoring groups as the most appropriate for the historic park. One large pine tree in the center of the park is healthy and will remain, Dean said.
The final phase of the project will involve landscaping of the entire park, including the possible planting of shrubs and flowers, and the installation of the final colonial style lamps within the park. Dean noted that the tree, shrub, flower and landscape work have all been approved as appropriate by the town’s Historic Areas Board of Review, Share Tree Committee and other necessary agencies.
Dean and Rev. Hoover also noted that the completion of the park and downtown restoration projects this summer is aimed at coinciding with two other large-scale efforts in the overall revitalization of downtown Tappan.
His own church is in the midst of a total restoration of its historic structure bordering the park, Hoover explained. New windows have already been installed and restoration of the brick walls and white wooden trim on the front façade should be done this May. Remaining work on the 185-year-old building includes a new roof, repairs to the belfry, and work on the remaining two exterior walls.
Down the street the Tappan Library is expected to begin work this summer on a large new addition, connecting its existing building on Main Street with the former carriage house next door, which it purchased several years ago from historian Paul Malone.
All of the properties involved in the upgrade of the hamlet center are centerpieces of the Tappan Historic District, created by the Town of Orangetown in 1966 as the first such town-created historic district in New York State history. Originally 85 acres in size, it was enlarged slightly in 1991 with the addition of the Bogert-Haring House (now known as the Bulkwang Church on Route 303). Also in 1991, the district was placed on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places.
“It’s wonderful,” Hoover said of the overall restoration of the Village Green as well as surrounding buildings. “It will be a grand addition toward beautifying the downtown area of Tappan for our residents and visitors alike.”
Dean also praised the “adoption” of the green by the three organizations, and said it will end years of squabbling over ownership, and set a hopeful precedence for future cooperation projects throughout Orangetown. Under the agreement, the town will continue plowing the streets and sidewalks, including snow within the park, while the three groups will take over all other maintenance within the park itself.
Ownership of the orphan Village Green in Tappan has been in question for centuries, with all sides now agreeing that it probably belongs to either the church or the town. As long as both agree to share in its maintenance and upkeep, however, along with the other two groups, legal and technical ownership doesn’t seem to matter. To Tappantowners, all that matters is that the park belongs to all of the residents, and is indeed a public park.
Tappan was created about 1640 when the British monarch the Duke of York granted the Tappan Patent to David Pietersen DeVries, who first settled the land two years later and called it Vriesendale. Thought to refer to present-day Tappan, it was later discovered to actually be located a few miles south, in what is now New Jersey.
Fellow Dutch settlers did acquire land within that patent from DeVries shortly after, however, including in what is now the hamlet of Tappan, in Orangetown. Landowners donated a large parcel of land at the heart of the tract to the Dutch Reformed Church, which was founded there in 1694. It is the oldest church in Rockland County, and church records seem to indicate that the church owned all of the land in the hamlet center by the turn of the 18th century. Following the destruction of the first two churches on the present site by fire, the current structure, the congregation’s third building, was constructed in 1835 in the federal and Greek revival style of architecture.
Tappan was also the seat of government of the Town of Orangetown, the first to be created in what is now Rockland County in 1686; as well as the county seat of Orange County when it was first formed in 1683 (Rockland County didn’t break away from Orangetown and establish itself as a separate entity until 1798).
The church manse, across the street and the green from the church, was built in 1724, and is recognized as the oldest continuously occupied manse (church pastor’s residence) in America.