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ONCE-MIGHTY TROY, N.Y., one of the nation’s wealthiest cities in the glory days of the Industrial Revolution (iron, steel, precision tools, shirts and collars), fell on hard times in the 20th century, but much of its impressive — in fact, gorgeous — architecture remains intact. Some of its brownstones are more stellar, even, than Brooklyn’s best, and its commercial buildings, in the uniformly antique downtown area, are great beauties.

There’s much for an architecture aficionada to explore, and explore I did last Saturday, in the company of my travelin’ cousin Susan and Brownstoner columnist Suzanne Spellen (aka Montrose Morris), a new Troy resident and now expert on the buildings of that city. (Her recent New York Daily News article on the revitalization of Troy is here.)

photoHere we are at Lucas Confectionery, a hip new wine bar/ restaurant/grocery that retains the name of the original 1863 store in this space, toasting the wonders of the city named after the ancient Troy, whose motto is “Ilium fuit, Troja est (Latin for “Ilium was, Troy is”) — and, young entrepreneurs and real estate developers hope, will be.

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Above, Suzanne with Lucas Confectionery owner Vic Christopher, formerly of…Brooklyn!

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The obvious place to begin a walking tour of vintage Troy is Monument Square, where a towering column topped by a figure of Liberty commemorates Civil War dead, and around which are a few thriving boutiques like Truly Rhe and a phenomenally unspoiled Victorian bar/cafe, Illium Cafe (photos below of the building that houses it and its wholly original interior). Try the strawberry mimosa.

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The elegant 1904 McCarthy building on Monument Square, of terra cotta with a proscenium-style arched window, below, just waiting for the right tenant.

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Angling off Monument Square toward the Hudson River — narrower here than in New York City, but the original source of Troy’s commercial success — is River Street, below. The spectacular wedge-shaped Rice Building, an 1871 High Gothic landmark at the corner of River at First, replaced an earlier structure wiped out in an 1820 fire that destroyed all the businesses and warehouses along River Street, which had been a busy commercial district since the 1790s.

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River Street is optimistically dubbed Antiques Row. More buildings are vacant than occupied at present, though the potential in its sturdy, attractive building stock, below, is evident. One of the best stores now open: Country Charm at #188, where painted cupboards and iron bedsteads similar to those found in Hudson, N.Y., shops are offered at a fraction of the price. Another goodie: Playing on the Furniture, a place to find cheerily repainted and refurbished secondhand pieces.

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Off Monument Square in the other direction, on River and Third Streets, are livelier boutiques, vintage clothing stores and flower shops (The Botanic Studio specializes in terrariums), and more fine commercial buildings in need of tenants.

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Above, Dang! That’s Cherry, a vintage clothing boutique that also sells mid-century kitsch and kitchenware.

Troy seems to have no shortage of fine public buildings. Below, the interior of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, an 1870s auditorium with original pipe organ, long famed for its acoustics, has a full calendar of important names in classical, jazz and popular music.

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Below, the Troy Public Library, remnant of proud bygone days, with magnificent iron sconces.

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Below, two early buildings at Russell Sage College, founded in 1916 in a public park in Downtown Troy.

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There are numerous blocks of well-preserved row houses — a few early Federal clapboards and many later homes of brick or stone, in Italianate, Romanesque Revival, and other fanciful late 19th century styles. The best of them seem to be along 2nd Street, which we wandered, admiring bay windows, cupolas, friezes, ironwork, cornices, and other details.

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Above: the Federal style Hart-Cluett House, built in 1827 with a marble facade, now the home of the Rensselaer County Historical Society.

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Eventually we came to Washington Park, below, established in 1840 and one of only two private ornamental parks in the state, open by key to residents of surrounding buildings (the other such park is Gramercy Park in NYC). Some of the homes are freestanding mansions, below; others are row houses.

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Above, one of the last remaining cobblestone streets in Troy.

We returned to Monument Square along 3rd Street, where the homes are more modest. There are two interesting houses of worship: the 1827 St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, below, whose 1890s interior is all Tiffany; stained glass windows, woodwork, metalwork and lighting. And a cute blue-painted 1870 synagogue, in continuous use for the past 144 years.

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Wherever you roam, there’s interesting stuff to see, like the leaded glass storefront and rusting Art Deco hotel sign, below.

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That’s Troy 101 for you. What do you make of it?

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I’VE JUST RETURNED from a four-day vacation in Virginia, taken with my wasband to commemorate our 40th unniversary and shared interest in American history, old houses, gardens, and many other things. We both recently read Founding Gardeners, Andrea Wulf’s story of the early founders’ vision of the U.S. as an agrarian society, full of fascinating details such as Thomas Jefferson experimenting with 40 kinds of rice on a Philadelphia windowsill and George Washington planting trees in January (they failed, but he just couldn’t wait). Each owned thousands of Virginia acres planted in tobacco and wheat, and hundreds of slaves, the irony of which became clearer and more bitter as our trip unfolded.

Our first stop was Alexandria, a convenient base for visiting Washington’s Mount Vernon a few miles to the south. I had a single distant memory of Alexandria from a long-ago visit — a rose bush climbing out of the sidewalk to arch over the doorway of a tiny brick row house. I knew there had to be more to Alexandria, and indeed there is.

Founded in 1749 by Scottish merchants, Alexandria’s Old Town has an extensive collection of 18th and 19th century townhouses on a grid of streets surveyed by, among others, a young George Washington. You can walk along streets named Prince, Princess, Duke, Queen, and King reading commemorative plaques (Robert E. Lee grew up here, and Washington kept a pied-a-terre), glimpse Colonial-style gardens down alleys and over fences, and tour the c.1750 Carlyle House, below, for a real sense of gentrified life in that era.

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Unlike at Mount Vernon and Monticello, photography is permitted in the Carlyle House,  modeled on an English country manor and painstakingly restored with bold wall colors and fine antique furniture. The house is currently decked out for Halloween, set up to look as if John Carlyle had recently died. His coffin is in the main parlor, below, and mirrors and portraits are draped in black. Mannequins of slaves in livery kept startling me as we traipsed through the rooms with a docent and one other visitor, a woman veiled and draped in black herself (she had just attended a witches’ tea on the back porch).

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John Carlyle 1720-1780

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The wonderful yellow entry hall

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The bed in which John Carlyle died, predeceased by two wives and all but two of his eleven children

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Carlyle’s manservant, Moses, above

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A bed set up on the floor of an upstairs landing for the physician who attended Carlyle’s death, part of the Halloween display

More of what Alexandria has to offer the history- and/or architecture-obsessed visitor, below. (These are private homes, closed to the public.)

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Replica of George Washington’s townhouse on Cameron Street, above, based on a sketch done by a neighbor

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The John Douglass Brown house, above, a farmhouse that may date in part to the 17th century

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Alley, above, was used for walking horses through to the backyard

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The c.1806 Patton-Fowle House, above, possibly by architect Charles Bulfinch, considered one of the country’s best examples of Federal architecture

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Above: Elegant 19th century townhouses in styles from Gothic to Italianate to Greek Revival

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Above, “Captain’s Row,” a street sloping down to the Potomac River, paved with stones originally used as ships’ ballast

DSC_0885We stayed at the 42-room Morrison House, left, a comfortable boutique hotel built in the 1980s but passable at a glance as a Federal building. We missed the lantern tour and the view of the ballroom at the c.1790 Gadsby’s Tavern, but enjoyed our dinner in one of four candlelit rooms (the fried oysters and porter stand out). In any case, I can see the original ballroom woodwork here in New York City; it was removed in 1917 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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JUST BACK from a few days visiting a friend in Western Massachusetts, where I was amazed at the number of Victorian villas. The area is a catalogue of 19th century styles including Second Empire and Italianate, with details like arched, porthole, and bay windows; porches, balconies, and cupolas; and all manner of decorative molding.

Sadly, these grand dames of yesteryear are often located on now-busy roads, and they mostly look like white elephants  — enormous and drafty and difficult to heat without servants to stoke the many fireplaces. Some are in sorry shape. Others, like the blue- shuttered example here, in the town of Lee, seem well-maintained.

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We stopped in Lee for lunch at the Cakewalk Cafe, then checked out a couple of thrift/antique stores on the intact 19th century main street, below.

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Then into nearby Lenox, where my friend had managed to dig up the one historic house in the area — of some 75 such Berkshires “cottages” — open on a mid-winter weekday: Ventfort Hall, below, a 28,000-square foot Jacobean Revival mansion with 54 rooms, designed in 1893 by the Boston architectural firm Rotch & Tilden for Sarah Morgan, sister of financier J.P., and her husband George.

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Like so many unwieldy mansions of that era, it had been abandoned for some time and fallen into ruin. As recently as the 1990s, the floors were ice-covered and littered with chunks of fallen ceiling plaster. Oak wall panels were missing, and the exterior was crumbling.

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Docent Marsha McDermott, above, showed us ‘before’ photos — that is, before a small group of concerned locals formed the non-profit Ventfort Hall Association and purchased the property, then raised $4million in private and public funds to restore it and open it to public view. Then she sent us off to explore, giving us carte blanche to open doors and poke around.

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Being avid Downton Abbey watchers, my friend and I could well visualize the family that lived here, enjoying such amenities as indoor plumbing, electric and gas lighting, radiant heat in the basement ceiling, a burglar alarm system, internal fire hoses, copper speaking tubes in the walls, and an electric elevator. Above, the Great Hall. Newly carved American red oak panels were left unstained, below, to distinguish them from the original woodwork. Unfortunately, there are no original furnishings left in the house; they were sold off long ago.

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Below, the dining room, which suffered a great deal of water damage. The Cuban mahogany ceiling was restored with new Honduran mahogany.

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Below, new plasterwork recreated from molded casts of the original ceiling.

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Delicate plasterwork and an onyx marble fireplace in the drawing room, below, which was used by Sarah Morgan and her daughter Caroline to entertain guests. It’s now a gift shop.

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We exited onto the rear verandah, below, made of wood painted a ruddy color to match the stone facade. (If this elevation looks familiar, it’s because it was used as a set in the film The Cider House Rules.) The breeze coming off Stockbridge Bowl Lake, now obscured by trees, gave the house its name: Ventfort means “strong wind.”

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Open 360 days a year, Ventfort Hall is available for weddings, receptions, dinners, parties, corporate meetings, and Victorian teas — not to mention picnicking on 12 acres of surrounding park. For more info: 413/637-3206, www.GildedAge.org

IT’S BEEN A TRADITION on Long Island’s East End for almost three decades: the East Hampton House & Garden Tour, held Thanksgiving weekend to benefit the East Hampton Historical Society — a worthy cause if ever there was one. It’s scheduled for Saturday, November 24, from 1-4:30PM, with a benefit cocktail party on the evening of Friday, November 23.

My favorite of the five houses on this year’s self-guided tour is (no surprise) the oldest: the late 18th century Stafford-Hedges House above and below, said to have a tumultuous history of scandal and rumor over the course of its 230 years. It’s a “half house,” with the front door to the extreme right of the original structure, intended later to be expanded with its mirror image. In this case, that never happened. Instead, there’s a modern addition at the back.

The other houses represent a mix of periods and styles, from an 1894 Amagansett farmhouse to a cottage described as “East Hampton meets Nantucket via Harbour Island (Bahamas),” designed by a prominent interior designer and owned by a local landscape architect, below.

There’s also a 21st century modern home in Wainscott, heavy on the glass and incorporating indoor hanging gardens, designed by East End architect Maziar Behrooz, and a newly built “Tuscan casetta” in the Northwest Woods section.

The Opening Night Cocktail Party on Friday Nov. 23 from 6-8, a fund-raiser for the Historical Society, will be held at the 1891 William E. Wheelock House on 10 manicured acres, one of East Hampton Village’s first grand shingle-style cottages.

Tickets to the Opening Night Cocktail Party start at $200, which includes entry to the tour the following day.  Tickets to the House & Garden Tour are $65 in advance and $75 on the day of the tour.  Ticket proceeds benefit the East Hampton Historical Society and are on sale via:

  • EHHS office, 101 Main Street, Tuesday – Saturday, 10-4
  • By phone at 631-324-6850
  • Website: www.easthamptonhistory.org.
  • Clinton Academy, 151 Main Street, Friday, November 23 and Saturday, November 24, 10-4

I COULDN’T HAVE SAID IT better myself…and that’s why I’m lifting, wholesale, a sidebar that appeared in the November 5 issue of New York Magazine to counter-balance a real estate story on brand spanking-new condos. Under the headline “Old Rules! A Contrarian’s View,” architectural conservator James Boorstein, a man after my own heart and mind, explains the enduring advantages of vintage construction. If there’s a manifesto that expresses the guiding principle behind this blog, this could be it. Bolding mine.

I’m an architectural conservator, and my firm, Traditional Line, restores interiors for museums  and homes. I own most of the building I live in, which I’m guessing is from the 1860s. Tearing it down and putting up a seventeen-story building would be a financial boon, but I don’t want to live in a new building. In most new condos, the spaces are tiny, the ceiling heights are low, the materials are poor, and things are not well made. In the old days, labor was cheap and materials were expensive. Now material is cheap and labor is expensive, so things are fabricated in factories and brought in. But labor is a big part of making something right. My building has the kind of ornate plaster molding in the hall that not even a very wealthy person would typically reproduce today.

New has become synonymous with good, which means we don’t fix things anymore. A lot of old buildings have 100-year-old wooden windows that just need to be repaired. Instead, people replace them with aluminum windows that are more like appliances than part of the architecture: When they get old, you throw them out. Everything used to be built of wood, and when you get a dent in it, you scrape it out and refinish it and it’s literally as good as new. In a lot of cases, you don’t have to do anything at all. An old wood-paneled library doesn’t require any maintenance. That woodwork just sits there and looks good for years. It’s like the food in some very expensive restaurants: The attention to detail shows, and it can be a source of deep pleasure.
As told to Justin Davidson.

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