BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Historians from around the region toured several historic Dutch sandstone homes and barns throughout Rockland County this week, admiring their architecture and contemplating ways in which some of those threatened with destruction might be saved and even preserved.
The tours were organized by the Historical Society of Rockland County and the town historians from Orangetown and Clarkstown who led visitors through the historic 18th century structures over a two-day period.
The visits will continue next Tuesday with a second tour of the threatened 1752 Abraham Lent house in Orangeburg, when Orangetown Historian Mary Cardenas will lead a group of town officials, as well as some historians, through he boarded-up sandstone structure off Route 303 which is facing eminent demolition.
Historians touring the vacant structure this past Tuesday expressed amazement at the home’s excellent state of preservation despite years of neglect, and use for the past several years as a boarding house for employees of the landscaping company that owns the acre parcel of land on which it sits. The house, barely visible from surrounding roads, is nestled between the West Shore Railroad tracks and the backs of the Lowe’s and Stop and Shop stores along Route 303.
Owner and firm operator Thomas Graff is contemplating leasing his property to FB Orangetown, the developers of the adjacent Orangeburg Commons which includes Lowe’s, Stop & Shop and a Marriott Hotel, so a strip mall can be added to the growing complex along the state highway, right where the Lent house now sits.
For the partnership to work, Graff must remove the Lent house and deliver the acre parcel vacant.
At first he was going to demolish the historic home but historians raised a ruckus over its pending demise. Graff, a long-time local resident, then announced he was willing to donate the house, or its parts, to any organizations interested in carting off the remains.
Historical societies, agencies and historians quickly responded, and through Cardenas’s office as Town Historian, a tour of the threatened structure was arranged for earlier this week. Nearly a dozen showed up and spent about two hours crawling through the vacant homeTuesday, from the attic to the basement.
All expressed enthusiasm for the salvage project, and Mrs. Cardenas began compiling a list of which historian, society or agency was interested in which pieces of the house, once it is demolished. Bids were expressed for everything from the sandstone blocks and huge hand-hewn wooden beams used to construct the building to its finer details such as doors and windows, door and window frames, mantles and fireplaces, wide board plank flooring, cabinets and hardware, rafters and even the hand-made trim in several rooms.
Each visitor indicated potential future uses for the home parts, most involving the restoration of similar 18th century buildings throughout the area. Included was the pending restoration of the 1732 Vanderbilt house in West Nyack, owned by the Town of Clarkstown.
Parts not needed immediately for other projects should be stored in a secure location, all of the historians agreed, although none could come up with any suggestions of where that might be. One of those offering assistance was Doug Johnson of nearby Rockleigh, NJ, a leader of the Dutch Barn Society, who has restored his own early Dutch home and barn and frequently works assisting other such preservation efforts in this area.
He called the elements of the Lent house “amazing” and well worth preservation. Examining every door, window, beam and post, he said the house was incredibly intact after more than 250 years of wear and tear and “modernizations” by various owners and occupants. He would assist in the demolition, he offered, and would be happy to provide guidance on how that could best be accomplished.
Johnson also pointed out to the group that the house is so intact that many of its windows are not only in their original sashes and frames, but still contain several panes of the original wavy hand-made glass, something he called “a miracle” for an abandoned building.
Mrs. Cardenas reported on the tour at Tuesday evening’s Town Board meeting in Orangetown, and received a pledge from council members that they would attend a follow-up tour next Tuesday, slated to begin at 10:30 a.m. at the beleaguered home. A handful of historians are also expected to attend.
One of the questions to be raised, many agreed, was where to store the dismantled parts of the house as it is demolished, if they can’t immediately be carted off to other sites and projects.
Yet other historians are exploring the possibility, feasibility and potential cost of trying to move the house, intact, to another site, preferably not too far away. Johnson and others noted that Dutch sandstone houses such as the Lent home have no internal structure, and consist merely of four walls of sandstone blocks piled on top of each other, with mud mortar and wooden beams between them to hold up the floors and roof. Any movement is liable to send the rock walls tumbling to the ground, they explained, making such maneuvers extremely difficult.
The tour of the Lent house followed an all-day tour of similar homes and barns throughout the area on Saturday, led by the county historical society, the Dutch Barn Society and the Society of Architectural Historians. That event began with a breakfast and tour at Johnson’s own Haring House restoration in Rockleigh, NJ, where he is a borough official and a noted expert on restoring both homes and barns of the Dutch period in America.
After poking around every nook and cranny of Johnson’s home and barn project, about a mile south of Tappan, the group traveled to James and Patricia Cropsey’s barn at 230 Little Tor Road in New City, where they also saw the Cropsey’s 18th century sandstone farmhouse. The Cropseys stopped farming their land a few years ago, retaining their home but turning their acreage over to Rockland County as a public park. The county, in turn, now leases the land to the Rockland Farm Alliance for a community farm project.
After lunch at the colonial Clarksville Inn in West Nyack, the group next ventured to the Vanderbilt/Budke house in West Nyack. There they spent two hours examining the shell of the 1732 Jacob Vanderbilt House, which Clarkstown hopes to restore. The home of Rockland County historian George Budke from about 1900 to 1938, it has been vacant since then. An adjacent barn was destroyed years ago, as were two adjacent dams, millponds and mills on the Demarest Mill Creek, which bisects the nine-acre parcel of land on Germonds Road.
Clarkstown purchased the site to add it to the adjacent Germonds Park, which contains numerous ballfields, swimming pools and other athletic facilities. Acquiring the vacant house in the process as well, the town is now considering restoring the long-abandoned home through a cooperative agreement with Rockland County BOCES and Cooperative Extension of Rockland County.
On the same site the historians also passed, but did not have time to explore, the Traphagen House. Built in various stages from about 1820 to 1930, it housed several generations of the Traphagen family until the last patriarch died two years ago. It was he who had given Clarkstown the right of first refusal to purchase his remaining nine-acre farmupon his death, leading to the town’s acquisition of the site and two homes.
The final visit of the day was to the Jacob Blauvelt farmhouse and barn complex in New City, which now serves as the headquarters for the Historical Society of Rockland County.
There the group toured the 1832 Jacob Blauvelt house and out kitchen, built in the Dutch style but of brick rather than sandstone, and the property’s complex of wooden barns. They spent nearly an hour in the barns alone, again crawling around hidden corners and steep staircases to explore every nook and cranny of the many-faceted structure.
The last moments were spent exploring a temporary plastic storage structure on the historical society’s ground, which contain the dismantled remains of the circa 1730 Dutch barn of the Hopper/Van Orden family farm in Nanuet.
Formerly located adjacent to the Hopper House on South Pascack Road, it was dismantled in 1995 by noted restorationist George Turrell to facilitate construction of a housing development there. The skeleton was stored in various locations until it arrived at the historical society a year or two ago.
It is now about to move once again, this time to Hillburn, where it will be reconstructed adjacent to the also reconstructed “Saltbox” house there.
Both the saltbox house and the barn reconstruction are the first two projects of the BOCES-Cooperative Extension collaboration, in which funding is provided to hire Dutch Barn expert Chuck Stead to teach BOCES vocational high school students how to construct and reconstruct ancient buildings using tools and methods of the period.
The same collaborative is then expected to tackle the reconstruction of the Vanderbilt house in West Nyack.
Contact information for any of the people and organizations involved in the various tours and restoration projects can be obtained from Clare Sheridan at the Historical Society of Rockland County at 20 Zukor Road, New City.