Last year, Pine Bush was gracious enough to host one of the Orange County Citizen Foundation’s placemaking tours. An energetic R.J. Smith delighted participants with his stories of how Pine Bush’s village renovation program was largely a home-grown success, and much of the effort to prepare useful materials, including their design vision for the downtown, was created by volunteers. They handled the creation of a new character on Main Street something like a stage set, relying on old photographs to guide them with the modification recommendations for the buildings, since much of the character and detail had been swept away with inappropriate modifications over the years. The result was a unified and cohesive downtown of which inspired pride and ownership by the community.
However one building on Main Street was a bit of an oddball (pictured above). It was last the office and home of a local doctor and had not been occupied for over 40 years. Despite several attempts to market the building and redo it, nothing had materialized. He said that the only use that the property had was that the community used one of the big spruce trees in the front for community holiday decorations. R.J. Smith challenged us with the question, “What do you do with this type of building?” I was drawn to the building, and the challenge of helping it become useful to the community again.
The building was originally a wooden Victorian Queen Ann style building, pictured in middle of this postcard dating from early 1900s. In the 1950’s, a local contractor was hired to brick the façade of the entire building and remove the wood porch. The new front porch is also shielded with brick, and a room over the porch was constructed. The imposing addition to the front of the building lacked a “face” on Main Street. This out of character feeling of this building was especially obvious since the buildings on either side of it retained their original Victorian charm and character.
The building had several positive attributes. A one-story addition was also added to the back of the building for the use of the office, and the building was large, about 6800 square feet. The one story addition could be easily expanded to two stories, with elevator access accommodated on the outside of the footprint next to the addition. And to my delight, many of the original features of the inside of the building harkened from the Victorian era, and were remarkably sound, dry and intact. Pictured here is a detail of the wooden staircase inside the building. The front foyer also had the original door, flooring and windows. Decorative Iron gas fireplaces were also still part of the original family room in the interior of the building. I spoke to architect C. Willumsen Magill about this building, and he agreed to do one drawing to help “vision” the building into a new use.
Magill puts a “face” back on the building. He recommended taking away the front two story brick addition in the front of the building, painting the exterior brick a lighter color to blend in with the existing Victorian streetscape, and creating a front porch on the building, wide enough to accommodate a generous seating area. Although it is not exactly in the same configuration as the original porch, it is complementary in style with the intact Victorian adjacent to the building. The porch provides sitting areas on the outside of the building that would most certainly be welcomed in this small village. Appropriate uses for this building could be residential or commercial. Not having to remove the brick sheathing would help to make this project more affordable. Since the interior was still mostly wood, plaster, and wallboard, interior renovations could also be affordable.
A pressing need of seniors in Orange County, New York is appropriate retirement age housing that will allow them to stay in the community that they have lived in most of their lives. As a result, there are a number of grant programs that can be used to create affordable senior housing within a community. Often it can be used within a partnership with a private developer and public entity or non-profit organization. There are also a limited number of programs that would allow for the renovation of a building such as this for commercial use headed by a private developer.
Almost every community has a building that becomes the impossible task in the minds of the residents. However, with the right vision and combination of grant and creative planning tools, these buildings can be put back to use again. The “Main Street philosophy” encouraged by the National Trust for Historic Preservation favors adaptive reuse of buildings, and it is a philosophy in which I also believe. The adaptive reuse of historic buildings, even if they have been modified, is still a useful approach in the redevelopment plans of a community; it embraces history and pride of community and is in my mind, the primary building block of a sustainable community.
Author: Susan Roth, AICP of Hudson Valley Planning and Preservation.
Notes: Postcard from R.J.Smith collection, and used with his permission. This article would not be possible without the generous contribution of the talented architect C. Willumsen Magill (Carl Magill), office located at 232 Ward Street, Montgomery, New York. His office number is 845-457-1955. He can also be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org