Rosendale’s Century House looks to crowdfunding to repair Brooklyn Bridge gates

Century House Historical Society trustee Althea Werner in front of the historic gates to the Snyder Estate in Rosendale. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

When you look at a place every day, you might not notice over time that it’s falling into disrepair. That’s when a fresh pair of eyes can come in very handy.

Rosendale resident Althea Werner, secretary/treasurer of the Board of Directors of the Century House Historical Society (CHHS), says that she “grew up there” as the daughter of the organization’s co-founder Dietrich Werner. Nowadays she is raising her own family in the building that houses Vision of Tibet in the Main Street business district. The CHHS’ Snyder house, located on the former A. J. Snyder estate further west on Route 213, is the home of Werner’s widow, Gayle Grunwald.

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Maintaining the site — which contains three main buildings including a museum of Rosendale’s cement-mining industry, extensive grounds, the A. J. Snyder Cement Company’s onetime canal slip and the renowned Widow Jane Mine — on the lean budget of a small not-for-profit has been primarily Grunwald’s responsibility since her husband’s death in 2009. Each year, through sweat equity, the occasional historic preservation grant, income from rental of the cave for special events and as a movie shooting location, membership dues and small donations, she managed to make small improvements. But large renovation projects such as roof replacements have, for the most part, been put on hold for years.

Then, last winter, Grunwald suffered health problems that required her stepdaughter Althea to take a more active role, spending more time at the site than she had since her girlhood — just as a weather emergency struck the site. “We got hit really hard by some early spring storms,” Werner relates. “A willow tree lost a limb and took down the guardrails along the bridge over the canal.” The driveway had to be closed off to motorists until the barriers could be replaced, which involved on-site fabrication and considerable expense. And so the Snyder Estate’s iconic front gates — shaped to resemble the profile of the Brooklyn Bridge, whose footings had been constructed with natural hydraulic cement supplied by Snyder’s own company — had to be shut for the first time in close to two decades. “It was a safety issue,” she recalls.

Newly designated acting site coordinator to fill in for Grunwald, Werner sought bids on the repair job, haggled with contractors and insurance companies and obtained approval from the board to allocate $7,000 from the organization’s carefully shepherded “rainy day fund.” “That depleted us,” she notes.

But in the process of walking around the grounds to survey the damage, Werner also realized that the estate had a lot of other infrastructure issues resulting from deferred maintenance and budget constraints over many years. Some, including three leaking roofs, are major projects that will require a capital campaign to accomplish. But there was one project that struck her as particularly urgent, and doable with the sort of limited funding that might be raised via CHHS’ first-ever social media campaign: renovating those deteriorated front gates, and the two pillars that support them. Standing about ten feet tall, the massive square pillars were constructed by the late Andrew J. Snyder II in the early 1960s from blocks of native Shawangunk conglomerate, mortared together with Rosendale cement. The ornamental gates themselves are made from steel, painted green, but now are encrusted with patches of rust and lichen.

“The pointing” — the exterior layer of cement that’s supposed to keep water from wicking into the mortar beds between the stones in the pillars — “was Number One for us, because it was holding up the weight of the gates,” recounts Werner. “I could put my hand through the pointing, it was so brittle. I said, ‘If we don’t act fast, we’re going to lose it. Let’s try social media.’”

Working with a tech-savvy new board president who also came aboard at CHHS last winter, Henry Lowengard, Werner proposed starting a crowdfunding appeal on GoFundMe, setting a goal of $1,500. This was projected to cover the costs of repointing the pillars, wirebrushing and repainting the steel gates and running new electric lines so that the lights that once shone out from behind amber glass panes at the tops of the pillars could be lit once more.

Werner and the board put the word out, and the results were stunning: Within five days, the goal had been exceeded. There were pledges from five donors, with a $1,225 gift from Robert Furniss-Roe putting the fundraising effort over the top. Furniss-Roe has a “special interest” in the historic site, Werner notes: His artisanal spirits company, Samson & Surrey, uses Rosendale limestone water exclusively to manufacture his Widow Jane brand of bourbon!

The fundraising campaign still had two weeks to go as of presstime, and the pointing/resealing work had already been completed by Artistry in Motion of New Paltz. Original Rosendale cement — which today is in such short supply that it costs $200 per ounce, as compared to the usual $9 per ounce for ordinary Portland cement — was not used for this project, alas. “We’re on a shoestring budget,” says Werner. “We have to do as much as we can with as little as possible.”

She thinks there may still be enough time before the ground freezes to excavate trenches and lay new electrical cable: “Hopefully we’ll have the lights on in two weeks.” Painting the gates themselves will likely be reserved for warmer days next spring.

Meanwhile, it’s still possible for supporters to add pledges to the fundraising campaign, which can be found online at www.gofundme.com/help-repair-the-snyder-estate-gate. Any monies left over from the gates project will be applied toward ongoing maintenance of the Snyder Estate property and its structures. The organization has stockpiles of historically appropriate materials stored up for building repair, as funding for the labor costs becomes available, according to Werner.

You can also help by volunteering skilled labor toward future reconstruction projects, as an active CHHS member. Pro bono architectural and engineering expertise are especially needed, Werner says, along with grantwriting skills.

Meanwhile, she’s looking to expand the not-for-profit’s cement-themed merchandise line over the coming months, to provide an additional income stream. Further uses of crowdfunded resources and other high-tech approaches such as self-guided tour apps are also being explored. “Part of preserving the past is flashing forward to the future,” says Althea Werner. To find out more, visit www.centuryhouse.org.

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