Cornerstone Saved at Historic Home; Future of Orangeburg Structure Remains Doubtful

BY ROBERT KNIGHT
CITY EDITOR
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES

At least the cornerstone of the historic Dutch sandstone house in Orangeburg slated for demolition will apparently be saved, according to Orangetown Historian Mary Cardenas. She said this week she has received a verbal commitment from the property owner to allow its removal from the site when the house is eventually razed.

For the time being, Cardenas says, the stone will probably be stored at one of the town’s two museums, in Pearl River and Orangeburg, where it can be protected from vandalism and theft while its future is debated.

Cardenas gave a short history of the home at a meeting of the Rockland County Historic Preservation Board in Pomona Monday, where its’ fate was briefly discussed under an agenda topic called “Properties of concern.”

The house was built in 1752 by Jeremiah Lent, she said, and that information is carved into the sandstone cornerstone. The one and one-half story house is built entirely of native red sandstone, she explained, which was probably quarried nearby and dragged to the building site, South Greenbush Road, which was originally part of the old Kings Highway which ran from New Jersey to Albany on the west side of the Hudson River.

That was the first road in Rockland County after its 17th century settlement by the Dutch and then the English, Mrs. Cardenas said, and is still lined by many of its original 18th century homes. The road enters Rockland at Tappan, by the ’76 House Restaurant and meanders northward through Orangeburg, Blauvelt, West Nyack, Valley Cottage, Congers, Haverstraw and Stony Point before eventually going into neighboring Orange County at Fort Montgomery and West Point.

Mrs. Cardenas said the home and property were owned by William and Mary Chownes during much of the 20th century. She and Rockland Highway Commissioner Charles “Skip” Vezzetti recalled at the meeting that the Chownes family battled for years with Orangetown officials over the status of the long winding driveway to the home, starting at the present Greenbush Road opposite the old Orangeburg Railroad Station.

Complicating the Orangetown insisted the driveway was the Chownes’ private property and it was thus up to them to maintain, while the Chownes countered that it remained part of the original Kings Highway, and was thus the town’s maintenance responsibility. Complicating the debate was the fact that the original Kings Highway in that area was split with the construction of the West Shore Railroad about 1880, and re-routed to become the present Western Highway, which skirts the house just to the west.

The issue was finally resolved when then Town Supervisor John B. Lovett and some council members hand painted the yellow stripe on Chownes’ driveway, thus acknowledging their claim of town ownership. The driveway has since been re-routed twice more, with the demolition of the old Orangeburg Pipe Factory to the north and east of the Chownes’ house 30 or 40 years ago, and more recently by the construction of the new Lowe’s Home Center, Stop and Shop Supermarket and Marriot Residence Inn to the east.

Mrs. Cardenas said the Chownes eventually sold their house and property when William retired, and it became the headquarters for a landscaping firm run by Thomas Graff. Graff parked various construction and landscaping vehicles and storage sheds on the property, and housed his day laborers inside the deteriorating house.

She said Graff closed his landscaping business this past winter, and now wants to demolish the house to prepare the property for sale. Apparently he feels it will be easier to sell the land without the old house, she theorized.

In preparation for that demolition, Graff applied for an official demolition permit with Orangetown’s building inspector, John Giardiello.

News of the impending demolition became public knowledge last week when Giardiello acknowledged at a public Town Board meeting that he had received the request, but had not yet granted the permit. Based on a preliminary investigation, he told the council he probably has no choice but to issue the permit, since it does not appear to fall into any of the known restrictive categories.

He explained that if Orangetown, Rockland County, New York State or the federal government had ever officially declared the house a historic site that would allow him to deny the permit application while the owner and the governmental authority having jurisdiction work out an agreeable compromise.

Mrs. Cardenas said earlier this week that Graff seems willing to allow preservation of any parts of the house deemed worthy of salvation and preservation, and indicated she could cart off whatever remains she wants. A preliminary tour of the structure revealed the carved cornerstone, but the historian said little else of value remains in the house, which has been severely altered and “modernized” over the past two centuries.

Some of the sandstone blocks may be preserved for other historic projects within Orangetown, she indicated, but the huge wooden beams in the ceiling and attic appear to be partially rotted from numerous long-time roof leaks that were never repaired.

The two museums owned and operated by Orangetown, through its Museum and Archives department, are in two similar Dutch sandstone homes from the 18th century, located on Blue Hill Road in Pearl River and Chief William Harris Way (formerly Blaisdell Road) in Orangeburg.