BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
The sudden and unexpected demolition of the historic 1752 Abram Lent House in Orangeburg Saturday has led to an outpouring of outrage throughout Rockland County and even the United States, and has led to the creation of online media efforts to “make sure this never happens again anywhere here in Orangetown, Rockland County or America,” in the words of one of the site’s creators, Cynthia Artin.
The Dutch sandstone-style pre-Revolutionary War home stood just east of Western Highway and the West Shore Railroad tracks in Orangeburg for 263 years. Built of hand-carved blocks of quarried native red sandstone and massive hand-hewn wooden beams 40-feet in length, it was estimated to have taken a year or two for settler Abram Lent to construct, completely by hand, according to Orangetown Historian Mary Cardenas, who witnessed its unexpected demolition over the weekend.
Cardenas was one of dozens of spectators who literally cried as they watched the graceful historic structure tumble in a cloud of dust in less than two hours, at the hands of a backhoe operator Saturday morning. All that remains today is a pile of rubble, most of the sandstone having been buried in the basement and then covered over, and a few of the unbroken beams which were set aside for later sale to salvagers and scavengers.
In its place, developers of the large parcel of land on which the house sat say they want to construct a strip mall of 10 to 12 stores between the Stop and Shop Supermarket and the Marriott extended Stay Motel. The specific plot the house occupied is destined to become a parking lot for the strip mall, part of the larger overall project known as the Orangeburg Commons.
Reaction to the demolition was swift and almost universally negative. Within minutes of the first spectator seeing the backhoe in action, word spread quickly over cell phones and the internet, and a crowd started forming along with print, radio and TV journalists as well as historians, bloggers, politicians and just plain folks attracted by the clouds of dust, noise, and unexpected commotion in the otherwise quiet commercial area on the Easter & Passover weekend.
“I am shocked and saddened by the sudden loss of this historic home,” Orangetown Supervisor Andrew Stewart said of the demolition. After expressing his dismay, Stewart also used the occasion to suggest that Orangetown consider revising its historic preservation ordinances to prevent such destruction to other historic sites located within the township. His extended comments on the demolition can be found in a Letter to the Editor in today’s editorial page.
“Orangetown has a motto of ‘Rich in History’,” Mrs. Cardenas noted, adding sarcastically: “Well, so much for history” with tears on her cheeks as she witnessed the demolition Saturday morning.
She did end up with the only known souvenir from the sudden and unexpected demolition, when co-owner of the property Charles Graff presented her with the home’s cornerstone, with its neatly carved date of 1752 and builder Lent’s initials.
That stone is now stored at Orangetown’s official museum on Chief William Harris Way off Orangeburg Road, a few blocks west of its original location. That stone, and hundreds of photographs taken of the home’s interior and exterior on Saturday as well as earlier, are now the only remainders of what had been the graceful Abram Lent house.
Mrs. Cardenas said Lent was not only an early settler and founder of Orangetown, but was also an American patriot and one of the signers of the famous “Orangetown Resolutions” on July 4, 1774 at what is now the ’76 House Restaurant in Tappan. That document was used as a model for America’s Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, two years later to the day, when the original 13 colonies broke from mother England and formed a new nation; the United States of America.
“263 years in that pile,” Mrs. Cardenas said as she pointed to the mound of rubble that had been the Lent house two hours earlier. “It breaks my heart to see that pile of rubble that it’s become,” she said with tears in her eyes as fellow shocked onlookers consoled her
“We had no notice at all that it was going to be demolished,” she added, explaining that she had been working with town officials, the Graff brothers, the Dodge family of Orangeburg, historians and others for months, right up to Friday evening, to save the house, and was under the impression that everyone was on the same page with that preservation effort, including the home’s owners and developers.
“It was definitely a surprise to me,” Supervisor Stewart added, agreeing that he had been participating in on-going negotiations between historians, preservationists and the owners and developers and believed a satisfactory agreement had been reached between all of the involved parties.
Like Cardenas, Stewart said he met with the Graffs as recently as Friday afternoon, and had no hint they were going to demolish the house the next morning.
Just as stunned was James Dodge, who was spearheading the effort to dismantle the Lent house and have it moved to his property a few blocks away on Route 303.
Dodge is the grandson of Joseph Dodge, who owned hundreds of acres between Route 303 and Clausland Mountain, using it for farming, horse breeding and racing at the old Rockland County Fairgrounds and manufacturing a famous early patent medicine call the Bell-Ans pill in a large wooden factory he built on the site.
The racetrack was eventually re-developed as a Volkswagen parts and distribution center and the factory became known as Udelco, a seller of used denim clothing. When Udelco moved out, the factory was converted once again into a thriving artists cooperative studio and exhibition center, which it remains today, owned and managed by the Dodge family.
Dodge’s grandmother Ruth Dodge was a co-founder of the Historical Society of Rockland County and his mother, Catherine Dodge, was a founder and the immediate past present of the Orangetown Museum’s volunteer board of directors.
The Dodge estate contained two Dutch sandstone homes that the family lovingly restored and maintained, one still occupied by Catherine and the other rented to tenants. A huge tree struck the tenant house two years ago and demolished it, leaving today only the foundation and a single room.
Dodge said he offered to dismantle the Lent house and move the parts to his property, where it could eventually be reconstructed in its original form on that remaining foundation. It would then be used as part of the growing arts foundation the family is creating at their estate.
Dodge said he received estimates of about $50,000 to carefully dismantle the Lent house piece by piece and move the remains to its new home at Bell-Ans.
To accomplish this he created an on-line web site and had already raised about $10,000 of the needed funds, he said, and was in the process of getting the rest when he was informed of Saturday’s demolition.
Like Mrs. Cardenas and others, Dodge said he was both in shock and in tears when he was told the house was being torn down about 9 a.m. that day, and that no effort was being made to preserve the historic elements of the 263-year-old structure.
“I had an agreement with the Graff’s that we had until April 30 to come up with the funds to purchase the house from them and dismantle and move it, and I was in the process of meeting that deadline and fulfilling our contract” the stunned Dodge said hours later, still in a state of shock.
While Dodge, Mrs. Cardenas and others were working with Charles and Thomas Graff and were under the impression that preservation of the house was virtually assured, others were taking to the internet and social media to accomplish the same purpose.
Led by 21st-century preservationists like Rick Tannenbaum, Cynthia Artin, Walter Urell and others, they are using social networking to advance the cause, and have reportedly met with tremendous success. “This should never happen again,” Ms. Artin said of the unexpected demolition, adding that the group’s efforts are dedicated to creating a lasting monument to the memory of American settler, founder and patriot Abram Lent.
Called “The Abram Lent Project,” it includes a website at Abramlentproject.org and an interactive Face book page at both “Save Lent House” and “Abram Lent Project.”
“You can demolish a house but you can’t demolish the spirit of a community,” Ms. Artin said Tuesday, noting that Face book hits jumped from 2,000 on Friday to more than 8,000 by noon on Saturday, while demolition was underway. The demolition, shown in numerous on-line still and movie videos, has now gone viral, she added.
While historians, preservationists and town officials seem perplexed and saddened by this sudden turn of events regarding the Lent house, the owners of the site have a far different view of the situation. Negotiations over the fate of the house have been going on for nearly a year, with the owner being represented by Thomas Graff, a long-time area resident and commercial landscaper from Tappan.
Graff said he purchased the approximately one-acre property a few years ago from the estate of the late William Chownes, who had owned and occupied the house since about 1916. Graff used the house as his office, and also stored landscaping equipment in the yard and allowed several migrant labor employees to reside on the second floor.
Last year he signed an agreement with RD Management, a corporation that owns more than 50 acres surrounding his own property, and is developing it as the Orangetown Commons shopping center.
Built on the remains of the long-defunct Orangeburg Pipe Manufacturing Company, it already includes a Home Depot, Stop and Shop Supermarket and Marriott Motel. RD Management wants to expand that center to include the new 10 or 12-store strip mall, independent banks and restaurants and a second Marriott motel.
Under the terms of the agreement, Graff will lease his one-acre to RD Management for 75 years, devoid of any structures, so they can begin construction of the strip mall, whose parking lot will occupy the home site.
Thomas Graff had earlier said publicly that he would give preservationists until April 30 to find a way to remove the Lent house, so RD could begin work starting in May.
On Saturday, his brother Charles Graff was at the site and directing the demolition, saying he and his brother were partners in the deal.
According to Charles Graff, the agreement with Dodge and others was that the house had to be removed by April 30. When the brothers became convinced that this could not occur after they realized he had only raised a fraction of the needed funds, they consulted with their local attorney and took his advice.
Charles Graff said the attorney told them they had to act immediately, because if they didn’t turn over the vacant land to RD Management by May 1, their agreement could be jeopardized and their investment in the site lost.
Acting on that advice, Graff said he hired a contractor friend of his and commenced the demolition Saturday morning.
He noted that he had every legal right to do so, since the Orangetown Building Department had issued him a demolition permit for the house almost a year ago.
That permit was due to expire soon, Graff said, and if it wasn’t acted upon, they risked losing it. He and his family sensed this was a real threat with the growing opposition of historians and preservationists who they felt would have opposed any extension or re-issue of the demolition permit, which in turn would have scuttled their contract with RD Management.
“We are the owners of this property, we have a valid demolition permit, and we have every right to tear this house down,” Charles Graff said at the site Saturday.
He said he and his brother felt badly about having to demolish such a historic structure, but that it was “strictly business” to them, and that their attorney had advised them they must act immediately to preserve their own agreement with RD Management, and protect their investment.
“This acre of land is my future and my brother’s future,” Graff said. “This is all we own and we are pinning our future retirement on whatever income we can derive from this property. That’s why we bought it several years ago, that’s why we still own it, and that’s why we are keeping it, for our retirement years.
Graff acknowledged that he visited Orangetown’s Building Department Friday afternoon to request that his application for development of the site be removed from the next Planning Board agenda, scheduled for last night, Wednesday, April 8.
He gave no reason for the request, which was granted, and town officials say they are equally as puzzled by the removal. Supervisor Stewart said applicants can always request an appearance before the Planning Board, and can also always request removal or postponements.
He said he was given no reason for the removal request, but that this isn’t unusual. The item can be put back on the board’s agenda at any time, by a request from the Graffs, RD Management, their attorney, or other interested parties.
The item under discussion, Stewart and the Graffs seemed to agree, was the overall site planning for the entire RD project, including Graff’s acre. Part of that site planning process is the requirement of a SEQRA form, certifying that there are no environmental obstacles in the way of further development.
Opponents of the Lent house demolition have seized on that state-mandated requirement, noting that questions regarding the existence of any historical assets on the property were checked off as “No” by the developers.
They contend that by demolishing the house first, and then seeking their SEQRA authorization from the Planning Board later will make re-development of the site much easier and less costly for the developers, RD Management and the Graff family.
To date, no one from the developers has commented on those allegations, or about the Internet buzz storm the demolition has created.