House Gleaning

The author of a new, photo-filled book on the Valley's historic houses hopes it changes the way people think about building their own homes.



House Gleaning

 

It may be filled with gorgeous photos, but Gregory Long¡¯s new book on Hudson Valley houses is meant to be much more than eye candy

 

by Reed Sparling

 

Although the lavishly illustrated new book Historic Houses of the Hudson River Valley is sure to adorn many coffee tables, author Gregory Long hopes it will be used more as a textbook.

 

¡°It¡¯s not for the cognoscenti. It¡¯s really for people visiting New York State or the Hudson Valley, or who already live in the Valley, who would like to know more,¡± says Long, who spent four years¡¯ worth of weekends visiting the 39 houses featured in the book. (In his ¡°day job,¡± he¡¯s president and CEO of the New York Botanical Garden.)

 

Calling it his ¡°contribution to architectural literacy,¡± Long says there¡¯s a real need for such a work, both to educate people ¡ª ¡°It¡¯s amazing how many of my friends don¡¯t know the difference between Federal-style houses and Greek Revival houses¡± ¡ª and to make them more aware of their heritage: ¡°The Hudson Valley has such a rich and fascinating history. People here forget and aren¡¯t as proud of it as they should be.¡±

 

Although there have been numerous books on Valley architecture, most have relied on previously shot ¡ª and oft-reproduced ¡ª images for illustrations. For Historic Houses of the Hudson River Valley, photographer Bret Morgan spent a year and a half at the homes, often shooting them at unexpected angles and capturing easy-to-overlook details. As a result, even familiar houses like Clermont and Montgomery Place have a fresh, never-before-seen look. ¡°It¡¯s an amazing photographic record,¡± says Long. ¡°It shows the beauty not only of the houses, but of the landscape, the setting, and the gardens.¡± It¡¯s a work that¡¯s long overdue: the last book to tackle the topic on such an ambitious scale was published in 1942.

 

The book traces the history of houses in the Valley, from the simple stone dwelling of Pieter Bronck, built in Claverack in 1663, up through the Gilded Age riverfront mansions of the Vanderbilts and Millses. Arranged according to style, it highlights the usual cast ¡ª places like Lyndhurst, Sunnyside, Boscobel, and the Schuyler Mansion ¡ª as well as house museums of lesser renown (in­cluding Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers and the Ten Broeck Mansion in Al­bany) and 14 private homes. Long¡¯s rich text offers much insight into each architectural style, the residences¡¯ builders and original owners, and subsequent restoration efforts. A listing of houses open to the public throughout the Valley, an accompanying map, and a timeline putting the construction of the dwellings in context with events in U.S. history make the book a great resource. So, too, does the bibliography, one of the most detailed on the subject ever compiled.

 

In the book, Long displays a special fondness for Anglo-Dutch houses ¡ª the result of an 18th-century merging of Dutch building techniques with English design ideas ¡ª that are unique to the Valley. (Van Cort­landt Manor, in Westchester, is a prime example.) ¡°It surprised me how really rich and interesting the collection of Anglo-Dutch houses is,¡± he says. Perhaps in part because he lives in a Columbia County farmhouse built in two stages ¡ª first in 1795, then renovated in the Greek Revival style in 1840 ¡ª Long also ex­presses a ¡°bias¡± for small vernacular houses, those locally designed, often quirky dwellings ¡°you can feel yourself living in.¡± ¡°Everything about this house is idiosyncratic,¡± he writes about one of these, the Silvernail homestead in An­cram, Columbia County. ¡°All of the interior woodwork shows the hand of the maker, perhaps too clearly. Every room has a different design in the door and window trim, and many measurements are off from one side of a door to the other.¡±

 

So how does a CEO wind up writing a book about architecture? For Long, who studied art history at New York University (Italian painting was his specialty), it¡¯s a labor of love that is as much about the people who maintain these buildings as the structures themselves. As a young man, he worked for the New York State Council on the Arts, traveling around the state advising local historical societies on how to operate more efficiently. ¡°I really grew up in the museum business,¡± he says. ¡°I learned all about the organizational problems of small historical societies and house museums. I have always found them very touching.¡± Long adds that he couldn¡¯t have written this book without the knowledge and research support of people at the Valley¡¯s historical societies and local libraries. His love for old buildings is also evidenced by his being a board member and former vice chairman of the Preservation League of New York State, which strives to protect the state¡¯s architectural heritage. The book was published in association with the league.

 

In some ways, Historic Houses of the Hudson River Valley also serves as a cautionary tale. In his introduction, Long writes that ¡°historic preservation is no longer simply about old houses. Today it is about public policy concerning historic roadways, farm and landscape conservation, affordable housing in aging cities, and adaptive reuse in many situations, including main streets in communities that are not affluent.¡± On the phone, he talks a bit more about his fears over the Valley¡¯s ongoing development. ¡°I think it needs to be carefully managed. There are many wonderful communities where there¡¯s still no zoning ¡ª and some communities that have been ruined by having no zoning.

 

¡°There¡¯s almost never anything built that makes sense anymore,¡± Long continues. ¡°Most people build very inappropriate houses, inappropriately sited. I hope to make a contribution [with his book] by making people think about what they build.¡±

 

Or as he puts it at another point in the conversation: ¡°There¡¯s a lot of bad architecture these days. These are all great houses.¡± ¡ö

Historic Houses of the Hudson River Valley ($55) will be published this month by Rizzoli.

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