BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Rockland County and Clarkstown officials are rushing to try and save a nearly 300-year-old Dutch barn in New City before it collapses from old age and lack of attention.
And those officials have more than a casual interest in preserving the old barn at the Cropsey Farm off Little Tor Road: they own it.
The barn has stood here, behind the Cropsey’s sandstone house, since the mid-18th century, well before the revolutionary War and during the period the original Dutch settlers in the HudsonValley were still the predominant population.
Historians and preservationists throughout RocklandCounty had noticed a strange tilt to the barn recently, however, and began inquiring about the structure’s stability, ownership, usage and future.
That curiosity culminated in a “Community View” article in The Journal-News last week, written by architect and attorney Rick Tannenbaum, questioning whether the barn’s lack of maintenance was accidental, an oversight or “demolition by neglect,” a derisive term indicating an owners’ desire to eliminate an undesirable structure by purposely neglecting it and allowing it to collapse.
It is the same term that was applied to the United Water Company a few years ago when historians were attempting to rescue a Dutch sandstone home on water company property on Strawtown Road in West Nyack. A battle raged between the firm and the preservationists until a storm reduced one exterior wall of the home to ruble.
United Water then successfully applied for and received a demolition permit for the shell of the remaining structure, and the fabled 18th century “Teaberryport” home fell to a bulldozer within days.
In the case of the Dutch barn at the Cropsey Farm, however, all sides appear to be united in an effort to salvage the old wooden structure before any further decay befalls it.
According to engineers, historians and architects who have examined the barn recently, it appears to have been constructed in the mid-18th century in the traditional Dutch building style, using huge trees found on the property and built atop a stone foundation.
By the early to mid 19th century, new owners enlarged the barn by adding wings to the building and converting it from a Dutch structure to an English barn, with doors on the opposite two walls.
The upper structure of the barn appears to be fairly intact and in sound condition, those examining it last week indicated. The main problem appears to be the footings, where the wooden beams of the structure sit on the rock foundation, at soil level.
Some rotting has occurred there, they agreed, and this appears to have caused the listing or “lean” of the structure that passersby notice today.
In quick response to Tannenbaum’s article, and to inquiries they were already receiving from concerned residents, town and county officials decided to nip the controversy in the bud by holding a joint public meeting at the farm site last Friday, and allowing interested parties to join elected officials and structural experts for an hour-long tour of the structure.
Based on informal comments by those engineers, architects, building inspectors and other experts, the officials announced by the end of the tour that they would act jointly to try and preserve the barn as a historic structure.
Restoration would come first, County Executive Edward Day and Clarkstown Supervisor Alex Gromack declared; the possible million-dollar cost of that restoration would be figured out later.
The Cropsey farm has been owned and operated as a fruit and vegetable farm by the Cropsey family for generations. It is one of the last two or three such operating farms in all of RocklandCounty, where there were once hundreds of such operations.
James and Pat Cropsey, in their eighties, decided to retire a few years ago, and gave up on active farming. After selling some of their property, they ended up with 24 acres of tillable land, and no heirs to inherit it.
Seeking to avoid even more housing or retail centers, the most obvious replacement, they negotiated instead to sell the land to Clarkstown and RocklandCounty, to preserve forever as open space parkland.
To cover the $6.5 million cost, the two governments split the price, and the ownership of the farm, at $2.5 million for the Town of Clarkstown and $4 million for the county. Each entity paid the Cropseys by floating bond issues, which they are still repaying. Clarkstown also reduced its share by obtaining a $1 million state grant. According to the transfer agreement, the county now owns 61% of the farm, while Clarkstown owns 39%.
The agreement also allowed the Cropseys life rights to continue residing in their 1769 Dutch sandstone home until they both die, at which time that too will revert to the town and county, as part of the farm package.
No specific mention was made of the large Dutch-English barn, or the other scattered outbuildings on the property.
After an absence of a few years, active farming returned to the Cropsey farm in 2010 when the non-profit Rockland Farm Alliance leased the 27 acre farm, including the barn and outbuildings, from the county and town, and gradually began utilizing the vacant acreage for its original purpose once again.
The Alliance pays no rent for the farm, but is obligated to maintain the structures, such as the barn, which it uses in its daily operations there.
John McDowell, president of the Alliance, was one of several officials of the organization present for last Friday’s tour, along with town and county officials.
He said his group uses the barn on a daily basis, and has also constructed several other smaller buildings on the site, to make the farming operation easier and more productive for its members.
They would like to save the barn if at all possible, McDowell said, but they lack the financial resources to accomplish that without outside assistance. He said they did shore up one weak corner in 2011, on the recommendation of an engineer at the time. He told the group the barn should last well into the future with that repair, McDowell added, and so far it has, although they too are worried about its long-term future.
Day noted that he had included $1 million in the county’s budget for 2015 to repair or replace the Cropsey barn, and he would push to have that budget line funded and used for that purpose. Unexpectedly, he said the legislature refused to provide the money to fund that line item, even though they left the item itself in the budget. He attributed the difference to a “typical squabble” between political parties, noting that he is a Republican and the legislature is heavily controlled by Democrats.
He will now work to get that money appropriated, since it is already in the budget, and used for restoration of the barn, as he originally intended.
Gromack echoed Day’s sentiments, saying he to favored restoration of the barn, and would actively seek state grants and other aid to assist the town in that effort.
“The money is available in Albany for such restorations,” Gromack said. “It is our job to find that money, with the aide of our state legislators and lobbyists and grant writers, and actually get it so we can use.”
Gromack, a Democrat, is a former state Assemblyman, and heads a Town Board in Clarkstown that his party controls, 3-2.
He brought along his building inspector, parks director and several other town officials, including three members of the town’s Historical Review Board.
That agency was expected to vote on designating both the Cropsey house and barn as official historic sites in Clarkstown at their August meeting last night (Wed., Aug. 26). If approved, that resolution will be sent to the Town Board for ratification, probably in September. If the resolution is affirmed, following a public hearing, the house and barn will be added to the town’s list of about 32 other historic sites, protecting them from demolition or unsympathetic alteration, and requiring their continued maintenance.
At the same time, the countyHistoric Preservation Board is also expected to discuss the Cropsey barn at its Sept. 21 meeting, with a view toward recommending that it be listed on the New YorkState and national Registers of Historic Sites. Such a designation gives added protection to a building or site and can generate federal financial aid, but does not prevent destruction.
To get restoration started, Day authorized the county to hire Suffern structural engineer Brian Brooker, of Brooker Engineering, to assess the current status of the barn. Brooker and some associates were part of Friday’s tour and, after crawling and climbing throughout the structure, declared it is “probably salvageable,” although he could not estimate at what cost.
He will now do a thorough analysis of the building, and come up with a written report to Day in about two weeks, Brooker said. In that report he will detail the current status of the barn, what it would take to restore it, and what the projected cost would be.
It will then be up to Day, the legislature, and the town to see if they can come up with the necessary funds to do the work.
Day was encouraged by Friday’s tour, however, noting that as a community activist a decade ago, and as a county legislator from New City from 2006 until last year, he was a frequent champion of preserving the Cropsey Farm.
“This is a special place in my heart in this community,” Day asserted Friday, adding, “Whatever we can do to both ensure safety and to ensure tat part of our history remains, we’ll do. We’ll be guided by (Booker’s) report. Then at least people will have the belief in the process.”
Gromack was in complete agreement, noting: “The first priority is to save the barn. It’s part of the history of our town and the county.”