Preserving New Paltz’s architectural heritage

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New Paltz takes justifiable pride in its record of preserving historic buildings, from the 18th-century stone houses admirably maintained as museums by Historic Huguenot Street to the commercial buildings of lower Main Street, constructed a century or more ago and bustling private enterprises today. These structures, full of interest because of their architectural design and because of the people and events associated with them over time, help make New Paltz a more pleasant and stimulating place to live or to visit.

But New Paltz, like every other community, has lost significant buildings through the years. In 1884, fire destroyed the 51-year-old New Paltz Academy, which overlooked the Wallkill River. The Academy was replaced by the New Paltz Normal School, which itself went up in flames in 1906. Years later, in 1991, the community lost to fire the towered Victorian home on Main Street, once occupied by principals of the Normal School but afterward disfigured by a gas station in its front yard.

More often, notable buildings disappear as a result of planned demolition, to be replaced by a new structure or use. On Huguenot Street, the stone LeFevre house was taken down and the site used in 1839 for construction of the present brick Reformed Church. Stones from the house and the previous (1772) church were reused in laying the foundations of the brick church. Is this evidence of frugality, or of a desire to memorialize the vanished house and church? In our own time, 19th- and early 20th-century houses have been removed to put up a fast-food restaurant or, more often, to create a parking lot, both damaging the character of Main Street.

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Alterations too can result in the erasure of a building’s essential character. In 1894 the circa-1700 Deyo house on Huguenot Street was expanded and transformed into a Queen Anne-style mansion. Soon, Huguenot descendants upset by the radical alteration of the Deyo house founded the Huguenot Patriotic, Monumental and Historical Society, which acquired the Hasbrouck house across the street and opened it to the public in 1899.

Now, almost a century-and-a-quarter later, on the SUNY-New Paltz campus, the Wooster Science Building, winner of a Progressive Architecture design award in 1966 but always controversial, is in the midst of a total renovation. Wooster, with its bold projections and hard concrete surfaces, stood out as a powerful example of Brutalism in architecture. In 2013 called “a monstrosity” by some campus sophisticates, Wooster will become something more pleasant (for some) to gaze upon, as well as more energy-efficient and adapted to new uses. But a landmark of modern design has been lost.

In recent years both the Village and Town have created Historic Preservation Commissions, which have been effective in advocating the cause of historic preservation and landmarking districts and individual buildings, including significant 20th-century and modern structures. But the local commissions have no authority over actions by the state on the SUNY campus, and state experts have declared that Hanmer House and the former Guest House, which some of us consider good examples of early 20th-century middle-class housing and a buffer between village and campus, in fact have no “special historical value.” So the expectation is that the two will be demolished in the next few weeks.

Oddly enough, historic preservation has rarely been a key priority in the thinking of American college and university leaders. In New Paltz, construction of Wooster followed demolition of a fine mansard-roofed house from 1870. Still, there have been happier and more enlightened campus projects involving historic buildings. When the Colonial Revival cupola of Van den Berg Hall was brought down by fire in 1990, the cupola and the entire exterior of the building were handsomely and accurately restored. More recently, the exterior of Old Main was preserved while the interior was successfully renovated for 21st-century education.

Historic preservation is not an exact science. Thoughtful people concerned about the welfare of the community and the college will disagree about the architectural and historical value of particular buildings. Still, it is important that those who decide the fate of historic buildings take into consideration the history of the people and events connected to the building, the significance of its architectural design and its place in the built fabric of the community. Further, we should recall that Colonial, Victorian and later architectural styles fell from fashion, only to be restored to favor some 50 years after their demise. Brutalism from the 1960s is just now emerging as a form of architecture worth preserving. May the original Wooster rest in peace, but may we become better informed and more vigilant as we protect New Paltz’s remaining historic buildings and neighborhoods.

“Preserving New Paltz Historic Architecture: Failures & Successes” lecture with Bill Rhoads, Saturday, January 25 (snow date Sunday, January 26), 4 p.m., $8/$5, Deyo Hall, 6 Broadhead Avenue, New Paltz; thomas@huguenotstreet.org.

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