Built in 1812, and once endangered, the Plumb-Bronson House may soon be reborn

This is a story about a house, a very fine house, built by Samuel Plumb, a businessman who owned a fleet of tugboats on the Hudson River. In 1812, he commissioned an architect-builder to design a home in Hudson, N.Y. Plumb had an eye for the dramatic, as evidenced by his choice of a hillside setting overlooking the river and the Catskill Mountains. And soon, visitors were admiring the house’s splendid interior touches, as well: the elegant entrance hall, for example, and the majestic spiral staircase.

The original entry hall in the Plumb-Bronson House. Credit: Steve Gross & Susan Daley

Yet the house would have become nothing more than a footnote in a local history journal if not for a fortuitous family connection. In the late 1830s, an affluent doctor named Oliver Bronson purchased the property and hired Alexander Jackson Davis, a friend of his brother-in-law’s, to work on it. This is how Davis, one of the most influential American architects of the 19th ­century, left his distinctive mark on the Federal-style structure—first updating it in 1839 and then building an expansive addition a decade later.

Soldiers reunite on the porch of the Phoenix House (Plumb Bronson House) after the Civil War. Credit: Rowles Studio Collection

Inspired by the serene beauty of the Hudson River Valley, Davis revolutionized the design of country estates in the United States and, along with such contemporaries as the painter Thomas Cole and the writer William Cullen Bryant, helped usher in the Romantic movement in America.

This may be a story about a house, but it is also a story about the ­present-day quest to save it. Fast-forward to the late 1990s, when Timothy Dunleavy, the founder of a nonprofit group called Historic Hudson, first heard about the Plumb-Bronson House. New York State, which acquired the property in the early 1900s, had built a correctional facility adjacent to it—and, as Dunleavy discovered when he visited for the first time, the site had become a dumping ground for old tires and other trash. Decades of neglect had turned the house into a decrepit curiosity, a candidate for demolition.

But Dunleavy saw past the rotting verandas and the garbage-strewn lawn. “I was dumbfounded because it was such a magnificent house,” he recalls. “I was bowled over. I thought, I can’t believe this exists.

The house as it stood in January 2010. Credit: Lvklock, Wikipedia.com

Here stood, he soon realized, the earliest surviving example of Davis’ Hudson River Bracketed style. Inspired by the beauty of this forgotten landmark, Dunleavy embarked on a slow but steady campaign to revive it. And if his quest was fueled largely by hopeless romanticism, as he readily admits, you can’t help thinking that Davis would have approved.

Alexander Jackson Davis was born in New York City in 1803. After apprenticing as a printer, he discovered his talent for architectural drawing. His career blossomed in 1838 with the publication of a slender book called Rural Residences, which called for a dramatic new approach to architecture. “The bald and uninteresting aspect of our houses must be obvious to every traveller; and to those who are familiar with the picturesque Cottages and Villas of England, it is positively painful to witness here the wasteful and tasteless expenditure of money in building,” Davis wrote.

Forget massive Neoclassical structures conspicuously plunked down on the landscape. Davis wanted to build houses in the Picturesque style, giving “as much character to the exteriors as possible.” And he wanted to blur the boundary between those structures and nature through his design of asymmetrical features and bay windows that offered stunning views.

Davis made few alterations to the Plumb-Bronson House during his 1839 renovation, consciously respecting the original design. But the changes he did make—building an ornamental veranda in the front, extending the eaves, adding brackets decorated with cutouts of acorns and other natural elements—went a long way toward creating greater harmony between the house and the surrounding landscape. Andrew Jackson Downing, the preeminent American landscape architect of the time and Davis’ partner for many years, contributed to the project, though no record of his designs has surfaced.

Davis fully realized the house’s transformation in 1849, with a substantial addition facing the river and the Catskills. He fronted the west extension—Italianate in influence, and about the size of the original house—with another ornamental veranda. And he included window bays that framed scenic views, as well as a third-story tower, designed to mirror the gabled loft of the original house. Dunleavy describes Davis’ design as “almost like a fairy cottage,” a magical, fantastical dwelling straight out of some Gothic novel. The style that Davis created would later be given a name, popularized in Edith Wharton‘s 1929 novel, Hudson River Bracketed.

The Plumb-Bronson House survived the threat of demolition in the 1970s, and in 2003, Historic Hudson helped win National Historic Landmark status for the structure. More recently, Dunleavy secured a lease for the property after years of negotiations with the state and thousands of dollars in legal fees. Insurance on the house now costs Historic Hudson upwards of $17,000 a year, a rather large financial burden for a small organization undertaking only its second bricks-and-mortar project. But Dunleavy, who owns a home furnishings shop in Hudson, has managed to keep the project afloat through fundraising and grants.

In 2008, his organization made use of a state grant to restore the house’s 41 windows. Contractors’ Millwork, a Sharon Springs, N.Y., company, used period machinery to manufacture replacement sashes and inserted antique panes with all the irregularities and waviness of the long-lost originals.

A grant of $175,000 from the ­Environmental Protection Fund, administered by New York State, enabled ­Historic Hudson to hire Mesick-Cohen-Wilson-Baker-Architects to stabilize the house. John Mesick, the firm’s principal and an architect known for his restoration work on historic sites such as Monticello and Montpelier, conducted an initial survey that revealed, apart from a few areas with water damage, no major structural problems.

In the next two years, Mesick hopes to secure the building’s outer envelope and then draft a comprehensive restoration plan. “It’s one of the great survivors of Davis’ body of work,” says Mesick when describing the house. Walking through it is “a very moving experience, even given its present derelict state.”

Dunleavy hopes the full-scale restoration, whenever it happens, preserves the authenticity of that experience. “There’s a certain romanticism and melancholy about the house that I hope remains,” he says. “Houses get so over-restored that they have no emotional context, no sense of the past that is pervasive in the present. We are going to try to keep this one looking like an old house.” That means no fresh paint or refinished floors, no curtains, no sideboards or other furnishings—nothing to disrupt a visitor’s contemplation of the architecture.

Ultimately, Dunleavy wants Plumb-Bronson to become the centerpiece of a new park where Hudson residents will come to bike, stroll, and admire the river views. “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,” he says of the house. “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.”

(Courtesy Eric Wills, www.preservationnation.org)

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