The words “Hudson Valley architecture” usually inspire images of the grand architect-designed mansions built for the wealthy along the Hudson River in the 19th century. But go back two centuries prior to that, to the homes built by the Dutch who settled the region in the 17th century, and we find Hudson Valley architecture more modest, but just as characteristic of the region.
Vernacular architecture – the common way of building – is based on needs and preferences as well as the local construction materials available. In the case of the Dutch who settled the Hudson Valley, they brought with them the traditional building practices and preferences of the Netherlands, but adapted the designs of their homes in the New World to the materials available locally and the demands of their new environment. Even so, the houses and other structures they built reflected a distinctly Dutch character.
The Society for the Preservation of Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture (HVVA) documents and preserves the area’s Dutch-American architectural heritage. According to Walter Wheeler, the group’s president, the not-for-profit, volunteer-run organization has its roots in the mid-Hudson chapter of the Dutch Barn Preservation Society. The purpose of branching off as the HVVA – established in 1998 by Peter Sinclair, a longtime enthusiast of folk arts and vernacular architecture – was to expand research efforts beyond the Dutch barn to the vernacular homes and buildings of the Hudson Valley.
Within a year of its founding, the group had set its name as the Society for the Preservation of Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture. But, notes Wheeler, “When we got our provisional charter from the state Department of Education at the end of 2000, we were asked to shorten the name. So legally, it’s just ‘Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture,’ but we still call ourselves ‘The Society for the Preservation of.’”
The group sought a charter from the state education department because its members consider their primary purpose to be educational above everything else, says Wheeler. “We have an interest in preserving and sharing information about these buildings in a permanent manner. We do that through our website and newsletter, and we’ve published some monographs on particular buildings or building types, and published a book.” Authored by HVVA trustee and architectural historian John Stevens, Dutch Vernacular Architecture in North America: 1640-1830 (2005) is the definitive guide to Dutch-built American architecture and early Dutch-American culture.
The group’s monthly study tours are also educational opportunities, Wheeler adds. “We generally have one activity a month, on the third Saturday; frequently it’s a house tour. We try to have the tour focus on either one town or one type of building. And one of the features of our tours is typically a lively discussion about what it is exactly we’re looking at.”
HVVA will host a tour of Kripplebush and Lyonsville on Saturday, August 18.
Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture also collaborates with other not-for-profits. They lend their collective expertise to the Wallkill Valley Land Trust for that group’s annual “Houses on the Land” tour in Ulster County, and consult with the Winnakee Land Trust on its annual Dutchess County tour of historic barns and working farms.
HVVA will work with private individuals who own historic properties, as well, but it stays away from steering people toward specific contractors, Wheeler says. “We do share our opinions about what features in a building are important, and give guidance to the homeowner in that way.”
The approximately 320 members of the group, who hail from all over the country and even the Netherlands, includes several subsets of people concerned with historic preservation, according to Wheeler. There are “folks who are just really interested in the subject” and homeowners with vernacular properties interested in learning more about their homes. Some members are professional restoration builders, who do work like timber-framing or masonry, while others, like Wheeler himself, are professionals in the field with scholarly concerns.
As a senior architectural historian at Hartgen Archeological Associates, Inc. of Albany, his work is multifaceted, involving a variety of objectives from identifying architectural remains to doing surveys of standing structures. Too often, he says, he’s called in to document buildings that are being taken down. “Sadly, I tend to do a lot of those. The intent is that, if it’s impossible to save a building that’s been determined to be historically important, to at least try to record as much information about it as possible.” Those reports, supplemented with photographs, are usually put into public repositories in the town where the building was. Wheeler also makes National Register nominations and determinations and does structural reports to help in restoration work.
He has authored numerous articles and two monographs on New York State architecture, and is currently at work on a book for the SUNY Press documenting vernacular architecture of the upper Hudson and lower Mohawk Valleys. In addition to serving as president on HVVA’s board, Wheeler is currently vice president of the Dutch Barn Preservation Society, a 12-year board member of the Albany County Historical Association and chair of the City of Troy Historic Review Commission.
Wheeler’s interest in being a part of HVVA, he says, is based on the opportunity it affords to expand upon his education and look at a lot of buildings: “to just be able to see more examples, and to build on what I know. You learn something from every building you go into.”
New members in the Society for the Preservation of Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture are always welcome, he says; the cost is $25 per year. One can join by visiting the website at www.hvva.org.