As anyone can attest who has attended a meeting of any of New Paltz’s municipal boards and commissions recently, such gatherings typically offer an excuse for disgruntled residents to vent their unhappiness over one issue or another. It’s rare to find one where the audience seems almost unanimous in its approval of the proceedings. But that happened on the New Paltz Community Center on Wednesday evening, April 15, when the town’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) concluded a calm and orderly public hearing on the Mohonk Preserve’s application for a Certificate of Appropriateness (CoA) for proposed exterior renovations to the Mohonk Testimonial Gateway at 1 Gatehouse Road. Neighbors conferred their blessings on the project and urged that the landmark 1907 stone building on the Flats be renovated as soon as possible.
Perhaps the lack of rancor expressed at the meeting can be attributed to the fact that the controversial components of the Gatehouse restoration project — the parts subject to State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) and currently under scrutiny by the New Paltz Planning Board, with impacts on traffic flow, creation of new parking lots and so on — do not come under the HPC’s purview. Under SEQRA, explained town attorney Mike Moriello, only development that involves “physical changes to land” requires an Environmental Impact Statement. The HPC’s discretionary role applies only to the proposed changes to the building itself, since it is a designated historic landmark structure.
The good news is that the Mohonk Preserve is committed to exterior restoration of the Gatehouse as a “historical artifact” and “part of the experience of arriving at Mohonk,” as Glen Hoagland put it. The Preserve’s executive director said that a $100,000 grant had already been secured for the project from the Fidelity Foundation of Boston, and that $17,000 in local support had been raised toward the required one-to-one match. The bad news, Hoagland said, is that the original $250,000 pricetag of the restoration project would likely fall far short of the funding actually needed.
The problem that has arisen is what architect and planning consultant Carl D. Stearns of Crawford & Stearns called a “hazardous materials mitigation issue.” While the conditions study done in 2013 to support the application for Local Historic Landmark Designation for the Testimonial Gateway posited that many original building materials could be reused, a more recent toxics report revealed that the structure’s red clay roof tiles will have to be replaced with identical tiles completely, not just the broken ones. According to Hoagland, an “asbestos-based subbase material” in the roofing must be entirely removed, and the tiles themselves are contaminated. The company that manufactured the original tiles no longer exists, according to the Local Historic Landmark Designation Nomination document.
In addition, said Hoagland, the toxics report identified lead, radon and mold as potential problems in the building, which has sustained heavy water damage due to broken tiles, rotted copper flashing, broken window glazing and leading and a wood-and-metal roof hatch that has completely rotted through. Groundwater also infiltrates the basement level. Architectural historian Bill Rhoads, who termed himself a “longtime admirer of the Testimonial Gateway,” delicately described the condition of the building’s interior as “disheveled, to say the least.” But the Preserve’s director of land preservation and stewardship, Peter Karis, was blunter: “It’s a train wreck inside. It’s bad, bad, bad.”
Hoagland agreed that, although it had been occupied as recently as 2010, the interior space is now uninhabitable. “Our goal is to gut the building,” he said, adding that this is a “low priority, as a land preservation organization.” He estimated the cost of a full interior restoration as “probably over a million dollars.”
For the near term, the Preserve proposes only to “arrest deterioration,” stabilize the building and make it “weathertight,” according to Hoagland. That more achievable goal consists primarily of replacing the leaky roof and windows and repointing the mortar, which is cracked and seamed in many places. A couple of interestingly shaped and reasonably intact original windows will be restored with historically accurate materials, but most of the others will be replaced with energy-efficient thermopane casement windows manufactured by Marvin. They will have frames and muntins made of wood like the originals, but with a weather-resistant aluminum cladding in a bronze color that “we think is a very good match for the surviving window,” and the leading will be decorative only, according to Stearns.
Efforts to utilize historical materials where possible will require further analysis — particularly of the mortars used on the building’s massive “raw masonry” façade, which Rhoads said was typical of the Richardsonian Romanesque style. The 2013 conditions study took note of the fact that two shades of mortar occur, perhaps suggesting that different mixtures were used for the original construction and later patching and pointing. Taking note of hints that the original mortar may have been made from Rosendale cement, HPC member Dave Gilmour urged that every effort be made to utilize the authentic material. “This is our Washington Monument, in a sense,” he said.
Because the HPC’s authority over the project is “ministerial” rather than discretionary, said Moriello, “I don’t think you have that authority at all” to specify materials. “They may not be able to secure Rosendale cement in a timely manner. If they can’t, they’ll try to secure something equivalent.” “They’re making it again,” noted Stearns, and Moriello promised to give Hoagland contact information for someone who is currently mining small quantities of Rosendale cement for a niche market.
After determining next steps that included amendments to the CoA application to reflect the results of the toxics study and the submission of more detailed specifications on proposed materials before the certification can be awarded, the HPC voted to close the public hearing. “I’m pleasantly surprised that there is not a lot of controversy,” Moriello marveled. “There is no hue and cry from the public. People want to see the stabilization and restoration done.” While Gatehouse neighbor Sue Stegen said that she was “concerned” about potential traffic impacts of the larger Mohonk Foothills project, she expressed strong support for the iconic building’s exterior renovation, at least. “After 100 years, it deserves a new roof,” she declared.