Clarkstown To Preserve Oldest House 1730 West Nyack Relic to be Restored

VANDERBILT HOUSE in West Nyack, built circa1730, will be preserved through joint town, BOCES & Cooperative Extension agreement. Gristmill millstone, right foreground, used to operate adjacent mill, now covers abandoned water well.

BY ROBERT KNIGHT

CITY EDITOR

ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES

(See Editor’s Note at Concluson)

The Clarkstown Town Board voted unanimously Tuesday evening to sponsor restoration of the town’s oldest known structure, a Dutch sandstone colonial homestead in West Nyack which has been vacant, neglected and deteriorating for more than 75 years.

The move to restore the crumbling old home was sponsored by Councilwoman Stephanie Hausner, and was supported by Supervisor Alex Gromack and Council members Frank Borelli and Shirley Lasker. Councilman George Hoehmann was absent, but has also expressed support for the move in the past.

The small stone cottage at 131Germonds Road, thought to have been built about1730, is variously known as the Vanderbilt, Traphagen or Budke House, and is one of the oldest buildings in all of Rockland County. The oldest existing structure in the county is the DeWint House museum in Tappan, built only 30 years earlier in 1700.

Dutch settler Jacob Vanderbilt reportedly built the West Nyack house about 1730, containing of three rooms on the ground level, one huge unfinished room in the attic or garret and a full basement. He was the progenitor of the large and prestigious Vanderbilt family of banking and railroad fame which was also famous in the mid to late 19th century for constructing some of America’s largest and most prestigious mansions in upstate Hyde Park, Long Island, Newport, Rhode Island and North Carolina, all of which are also national historic landmarks and public museums today.

House History

Jacob was apparently a successful farmer and businessman and owned a large farm bounded roughly by Germans Road to the north and east, Route 304 to the west and Bardonia Road to the south. With the exception of small parcels sold for construction of Albertus Magnus High School and a few private homes along the perimeter in the 1960’s and 70’s, most of the land remained intact as a farm for over two centuries until most of it was sold to the Town of Clarkstown 40 years ago for the creation of the Germonds Park, the town’s largest and busiest such facility.

Vanderbilt’s grandson, also named Jacob, sold the estate about 1868 to George H. Budke Sr., who continued farming it. His son, George Henry Budke, inherited the estate upon his father’s death. George Jr. was the Rockland County Historian for more than 30 years and a prolific writer and collector of historical documents and artifacts on Rockland history. He decided to retire to New York City in 1934 and sold the property to businessman Hugh C. Traphagen.

Following Traphagen’s death a few years ago his executor sold the remaining property to a local developer, who planned an upscale housing subdivision on the approximately eight acres of vacant land.

The Town of Clarkstown then discovered it had a right of first refusal on the Traphagen estate, at a bargain price, of which it hadn’t been aware. The town went to court, successfully voided the sale, and quickly bought the property for the $900,000 price stipulated in Traphagen’s will. The town then sealed the two homes on the site, fenced it in two years ago, and began trying to figure out what to do with its newly acquired treasure.

In addition to the 1730 Vanderbilt house, vacant since Budke vacated it in 1936, the site contains the Traphagen house and the remains of a stone barn, a well, two ponds and other vestiges of early farm life. The large Traphagen house, in livable condition since it has only been vacant for a few months since termination of a caretaker’s lease, was built in stages starting about 1820 with additions about 1860 and 1900.

Plans Change

Clarkstown initially sought the farmstead as an addition to adjacent Germonds Park, the towns’ largest and busiest recreational and sports facility. Plans were to demolish the two houses and create more ball fields and similar recreational facilities.

After some deliberation the town shifted gears and decided to try to sell the two houses instead, and use the revenue to help reduce the bond floated to purchase the site, or be used toward creation of more recreational facilities there.

A survey determined the Vanderbilt house had no utilities whatsoever and was thus virtually unsaleable, while the larger home had antiquated utilities satellited to it from adjacent sites and structures, considerably reducing its potential resale value.

At the same time a grassroots movement developed to preserve the two homes as historic treasures in Clarkstown.  Leading that movement were the town’s own Historic Review Board, the Historical Society of Rockland County and the newly formed Heritage of West Nyack civic organization along with other history minded groups and individuals.

Funding is Key

Town officials were supportive of preservation as a concept but questioned where the funding would come from, and were initially hesitant of endorsing preservation efforts if it were going to cost the town, and ultimately its taxpayers, money.

That view shifted dramatically over the last couple of months as organizations stepped forward pledging to support the financial burden of preservation.

Key to that effort so far has been a commitment of $12,000 and a staff leader to head the preservation effort by Cornell Cooperative Extension Service of Rockland County, headquartered in Thiells; and Rockland County BOCES, which has committed its vocational education home building students to the actual work effort, as part of a new construction major in historic restoration and preservation instead of concentrating solely on new construction techniques, their emphasis for the past half-century.

The Cornell staff leader for the BOCES students will be Chuck Stead, who led a similar effort last year with the restoration of the Ramapo Salt Box House outside of Sloatsburg. The success of that initial CCERC and BOCES project last year led both agencies to quickly agree to a continuation this year, and a pledge to commit at least four years of effort toward the Vanderbilt project.

Town Support

In a recent letter to Cornell Director Susan Jaffe, Clarkstown Supervisor Alex Gromack noted how impressed he and other town officials were by Stead’s presentation to them about the restoration project.

“I feel that under Chuck’s expert guidance, a partnership with the Town of Clarkstown, Cornell Cooperative Service and BOCES will be a great benefit to the town”, Gromack wrote Jaffe.

“On behalf of the Town Board, we are committed to raising the matching funds required to launch this project and intend to sponsor and pass a Town Board resolution to that effect at our next Town Board meeting…”Gromack wrote, a pledge that was consummated at Tuesday evening’s Town Board meeting.

In the actual resolution the three parties recognize the historic importance of the 1730 Vanderbilt House, and the significance of its restoration project to the fields of education, horticulture, local history and historic preservation.

In return for the town’s cooperation and co-sponsorship, BOCES has committed two classes of students for the 2013-14 school year. One will be a carpentry class for historic preservation of the building itself, probably concentrating this year on creation of authentic style new doors and windows to replace the plywood slabs now covering those openings.

At the same time a second group of students from the horticulture department will begin creating various flower, herb, vegetable, butterfly and other gardens surrounding the house, along with authentic period landscaping.

The agreement with BOCES and CCERC also allows for the project to continue for three additional years, with classes in future years tackling other aspects of the restoration project, all under Stead’s guidance and leadership.

Trails & Gardens

Yet another proposal for the Vanderbilt site is a series of botanical trails and butterfly gardens from Nyack naturalist and artist Paul Tappenden. Stead has extolled Tappenden’s virtues and endorsed his concept of creating a series of nature trails and gardens throughout the eight-acre site.

Stead noted that Tappenden has walked the site extensively and identified two pristine meadow areas containing more than 60 native plant species, “some of which have not been noted here in Rockland County for more than 100 years.” This means, Stead added in a letter to the Town Board, “that essentially we have a heritage butterfly garden there for the nurturing.”

Tappenden’s plan, if accepted, would create three gravel trails totaling about 3,570 linear feet and five feet in width. A parking lot for 20 cars would also be created.

The trails would have about 60 plant signs identifying local flora and fauna, and possibly 20 other signs identifying old building sites (of mills, dams, barns, etc.), tree species and plants in the herb garden.

Town Participation

Town efforts at enhancing the historical attributes of the Vanderbilt site and coordinating town efforts with those of BOCES, Cooperative Extension and other outside agencies are being led and coordinated by Joel Epstein, the town’s code enforcement officer.

Epstein noted in a memo to the Town Board last week that his efforts are being assisted by the town’s own cul-de-sac crew, the Parks and Recreation Department and the DEC’s Operations Department.

Epstein added that town workers will assist in the house restoration project by power washing the interior, bracing ceiling joists, installing temporary interior plywood where needed, helping construct five temporary wooden doors and temporary faux wooden window inserts until authentic replacements can be constructed and installed.

Other projects on the short list include temporary power to the building and assisting O & R to install permanent underground (and thus invisible) permanent wiring and installing interior wiring, outlets and switch boxes; and assisting with the construction of raised gardens in the yards.

Town officials have committed themselves to assisting with various aspects of the restoration project of the Vanderbilt and Traphagen houses, with a joint goal of achieving as authentic a restoration of the buildings and site as possible at the least cost to the Town of Clarkstown. Leading that effort are Epstein for coordination of town departments and agencies, Knight for the Historic Review Board and Ms. Hausner for the Town Board; with outside leadership from Maddy Muller of Heritage of West Nyack, Stead for Cooperative Extension and BOCES and Clare Sheridan of the Historical Society of Rockland County, headquartered in adjacent New City.

Officials said actual work on the site should begin later this month, now that the town has ratified its agreement with Cornell Cooperative Extension and BOCES.

(Editor’s Note: The author of this article and the Clarkstown Town Historian mentioned within the article are one and the same person. While your editor has attempted to be as fair and unbiased as possible in this report, this information is mentioned here for purposes of full disclosure.)