Historic Hudson walking tour spotlights rescued architectural gem

Dr. Oliver Bronson House in Hudson (Photos courtesy of Historic Hudson)

Dr. Oliver Bronson House in Hudson (Photos courtesy of Historic Hudson)

Consider this little drop of a story as a symbol for something larger happening up and down this valley, as well as very specifically within the fast-renovating City of Hudson.

There was once a pretty big Federal-style home built for a local merchant who owned a fleet of boats plying the harbor of what was then one of the river’s great ports. The year was 1812, and the site chosen was on the upland side of the small, fast-developing city, where many homes were built in what’s now called “Nantucket style” and assembled from what would nowadays be called prefab kits built in New England. The views were said to be magnificent, and oft-painted in the day.

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By the mid-1830s, original owner Samuel Plumb sold his estate to the city mayor, who subdivided the 160-plus-acre property to stay afloat following the Crash of ’37. A Dr. Oliver Bronson of New York City, heir to a banking fortune that maintained itself through those troubled years, bought the house and brought in the young architect Alexander Jackson Davis to renovate and expand the place. His friend Andrew Jackson Downing reportedly helped out on the grounds’ design to give the place a “fully realized Romantic-Picturesque landscape” that Bronson kept paying to expand and improve upon – until he sold the estate to a man who renamed it Glenwood in the 1850s, who sold it to an heiress, who passed it on to a businessman, who eventually sold the massive site to the adjacent New York State Training School for Girls (where Ella Fitzgerald spent several of her younger years), which eventually became a prison (and the grand old inmate-renovated home for the facility’s superintendents). By 1972, the old Plumb-Bronson house was abandoned and derelict.

spiral staircase VRTThen, in the mid-1990s, the local owner of a home furnishings business heard about the derelict house, home to piles of trashed tires and other debris, and about the local plans to demolish it. At the same time, a number of new residents in Hudson, drawn by the city’s grand architecture and large numbers of fine antique stores, came together to form a preservation organization, Historic Hudson, designed to save places like that grand estate absorbed by the state prison system.

“I was bowled over. I thought,  ‘I can’t believe this exists,’” noted that local businessman, Timothy Dunleavy, one of the founders – and longtime president – of Historic Hudson, in a National Trust for Historic Preservation assessment of the house a few years back. “I think it’s a remarkable product of American ingenuity and creativity from an early period of American history, before America’s ascendance as a world power… It’s just something beautiful. Beauty is a rare thing. You see this beauty, and you want to make sure it doesn’t go away.”

Since then, Historic Hudson not only found National Landmark status and renovation funds for the Dr. Oliver Bronson House, as it’s now known (and on which it has a 30-year lease), but it has also shone a spotlight onto its home city’s remarkable architecture, which many have noted is about as fine a cross-section of 18th-, 19th– and early-20th-century buildings and “veritable dictionary of American architectural style” as can be found anywhere in the nation. The organization helped feed a historic preservation commission in the city’s planning processes second to none in the state, and keeps adding programs to draw attention and loving care for what Hudson was, and is, and hopefully will always be.

In addition to its careful, non-fussy renovation at the Dr. Bronson home, which was featured in the last (2012) outing of the Bourne films and served as the setting of an art show featuring works by Kiki Smith (among others) last summer, Historic Hudson now presents regular lectures, exhibits and annual preservation awards. Moreover, it collects and maintains classic photographs of the city’s history, has one of the best architecturally minded websites around and has produced a remarkably educational and fun walking tour for all interested in not only the city’s past, but also that of the entire valley and the nation’s cultural arc of 300-plus years.

“Despite depredation caused not only by neglect and the passage of time, but by planned demolition and ill-considered destruction, it remains a cause for celebration that the City of Hudson has retained so much of its superb architectural heritage,” the organization notes, online, of its city’s history (along with a breakdown of every style of architecture visible within its boundaries). “In the past two decades, Hudson has renewed itself as it had twice before in the 18th and mid-19th centuries. The city, with its architecture and unique character, has come once more to be avidly appreciated, and more importantly, saved and restored by some longtime residents and by many new devotees of the city: all the spiritual if not the actual heirs of those who built – and rebuilt – Hudson better than they found it.”

Walking tours of Warren Street, Historic Hudson, 552 Warren Street, Hudson; (518) 828-1785, www.historichudson.org.

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