History

Historic Hudson comes to the rescue for the architecturally important Plumb-Bronson House.



History

 

Plumb-Bronson House

 

A Regal Ruin

 

Concerned citizens in Hudson fight to save this
dilapidated architectural gem 

 

By Richard Buttlar

 

 

 

Historic Hudson hosts an open house at the Plumb-Bronson house in 2000.

Photo courtesy of Historic Hudson. 

 

I sort of wonder if I was a crazy person for advocating for this house for so many years.”

Those words, punctuated with a sigh, pour forth from Timothy Dunleavy near the tail end of a recent tour of the sadly dilapidated Plumb-Bronson House, not far from the antiquers’ paradise of Hudson’s Warren Street. Historic Hudson, the nonprofit group Dunleavy founded and leads, has helped spur the miraculous comeback of this Columbia County city, where loving (and intrepid) owners continue to renovate tumbledown homes, storefronts, and factories at breakneck pace.

 

But can anyone rescue the Plumb-Bronson House — architecturally one of the Hudson Valley’s most important buildings, and perhaps its most threatened? Sigh aside, Dunleavy and Historic Hudson are working hard to provide a happy ending for this riches-to-rags saga of America’s changing 19th-century tastes.

 

If the Plumb-Bronson House were a horse, it would be a Kentucky Derby winner. It’s got great bloodlines. The dwelling was originally built in 1812 for businessman Samuel

Plumb, who obviously spared no expense on its Federal-style construction. As depicted in an early engraving, it consisted of a large central block flanked by two smaller dependencies. The main section boasted an imposing central tower and a pair of hexagonal first-floor rooms that not only were breathtaking in their design but let in lots of sunlight (a key consideration in the days before electricity).

 

But it’s the attention to detail that really boggles the mind — and has led to the house being attributed to Barnabas Waterman, one of the most talented (and underrated) early 19th-century Valley architects. The fan-lighted front doorway is a model of the carver’s skill, as are the sole remaining Federal mantel and the keystone arches in the hallways.

 

But even these features pale in comparison with the house’s three-story elliptical stairway — a magnificent functional sculpture. Standing at its base and looking up, one has the feeling of peering into a giant chambered nautilus, or seeing a Piranesi print come to life. It’s not surprising that some experts have deemed this the most beautiful stairway in the Hudson Valley, if not the nation, and reason enough to save the house.

 

In 1838, the residence was purchased by Dr. Oliver Bronson, heir to a fortune amassed by his father (a founder of the country’s banking system). At that time, wealthy Americans — especially those who lived along the Hudson — were captivated by the Romantic movement. They delighted in the Gothic novels of Sir Walter Scott and made pilgrimages to Europe’s castles and cathedrals. If there were no castles for them to buy near the river dubbed “America’s Rhine,” then they would build their own (or something equally picturesque).

 

Through his brother-in-law, Bronson was introduced to the work of Alexander Jackson Davis. Arguably America’s greatest 19th-century architect, Davis had recently turned from designing imposing Greek Revival temples (including Newburgh’s Dutch Reformed Church) to satisfying clients with a yen for the exotic, whether Italianate, Egyptian, or Gothic. In 1839, Davis prepared a makeover for Bronson’s prim Federal dwelling that certainly looked foreign, but was purely the architect’s own creation. It marked a revolution in American architecture — a breaking away from European models in favor of a unique, homegrown style.

 

While respecting the best of Waterman’s work, such as the front doorway, Davis added a veranda with a chinoiserie roof (surviving pieces of woodwork attest to its intricacy) and extended the house’s eaves. Under them, he placed ornately crafted wooden brackets — a Davis signature piece and the chief feature of a style later dubbed Hudson River Bracketed. This ornamental touch was so influential that brackets came to adorn Victorian homes from Framingham to Fresno.

 

“This is where all the ideas for architecture in the 19th century began,” says Dunleavy, while gazing up at the brackets on the Plumb-Bronson House. Although Davis designed several earlier bracketed houses, today this is the oldest surviving building of his — or anyone’s — in this style.

 

A decade later — after Thomas Cole’s emotion-charged paintings of the Catskills and Washington Irving’s locally based stories had proven that America had its own Romantic potential — Bronson once again hired Davis for a second renovation. This time, the architect went all-out, turning the house into the epitome of Romantic design.

 

For starters, Davis reoriented the residence to the west, facing the Hudson and the Catskills. On this side, he added a tower in the Tuscan style and a house-wide veranda perfect for admiring the views and the breeze. Inside, two new rooms on the ground floor featured four-sided, window-filled nooks where you are as close to nature as you can get without going outdoors. Pocket doors in each room lead into a large central space — the house’s new entry hallway — which certainly would have impressed guests arriving for the first time. (Except for adding new spindles to the staircase and replacing several doors and mantels, Davis once again left the Waterman portion of the house alone.) When seen amid the park-like grounds that once surrounded it, Davis’s creation must have looked magical — “like elves and fairies built it,” suggests Dunleavy.

 

The elves would be sorely disappointed if they happened upon the house today. It looks more like the setting for a horror story than a Romantic fantasy. Outside, windows are boarded up and chimney pots sit askew. Inside, ceiling plaster litters the floors, several of Davis’s marble mantels have been broken, and paint and wallpaper hang in strips from the walls. Miraculously, though — almost through sheer force of will — the home’s chief architectural features remain intact.

 

How did the house get to this sorry state? The Bronsons sold the dwelling in 1853; it passed through several other families before the grounds were acquired by the state in 1904. For the next 68 years, it served as the superintendent’s residence for an adjacent girls reform school and juvenile-detention facility. In the early 1970s, the house was vacated and has sat empty ever since. (Today, the former school is a medium- and minimum-security prison.)

 

Through the years, the structure has had its avid supporters. Thanks to the intervention of the Columbia County Historical Society and the state Historic Preservation Office, its demolition was averted in 1973. Twenty-four years later, Historic Hudson became an advocate for its stabilization, raising money for emergency repairs. The group also was instrumental in securing the house’s 2003 designation as a National Historic Landmark.

Historic Hudson is now in the process of taking a giant step that may assure the house’s future. It is in the final stages of securing a 40-year lease on the building from the state. Once that is completed, the organization intends to begin an ambitious five-year campaign to fund some kind of restoration. Future plans for the building include tours and community events. “It would be such an asset for the city of Hudson,” says Dunleavy.

 

And for the entire Hudson Valley if — no, when — Historic Hudson can return the Plumb-Bronson House to some semblance of its former glory. For despite occasional doubts, Dunleavy is confident the organization will get the job done. As he says with a smile, “This house is poised for its eminent return to the world.”

 

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