It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.…
The fireworks resume this week over the controversial plan to develop Carolyn Blackwood’s property at the top of Grinnell Street in Rhinecliff. On Wednesday, the Zoning Board of Appeals will continue the public hearing on the application for an area variance, which is necessary since the house would be expanded to nearly 4,100 square feet, well in excess of the 2,300 square feet limit set by the zoning code for the hamlet.
Proponents of architectural designer Steve Mensch's plan for the property have taken to describing the hamlet with terms like “eclectic,” “diversity,” "quirky" and “maverick individualism.” The idea is to make it seem that Rhinecliff isn’t really very “historic,” so it can easily accommodate a very large and very modern-looking new house. It’s an interesting strategy but very ominous for the future of the hamlet.
Preserve and protect
There is some truth, of course, to seeing Rhinecliff as a mix of old and new. Homeowners are always modifying their houses with additions and improvements, and there’s not much chance that the place is going to be frozen in time. Rhinecliff is never going to be a “living history museum” like Old Sturbridge, Mass., and it’s not an authentic eighteenth-century New England village like Deerfield, Mass.
But Rhinecliff is definitely a historic place. In fact, as Cynthia Owen Philip puts it in Rhinecliff: A Hudson River History, the hamlet, "by Hudson River standards, is ancient. Not only is it the oldest hamlet, but it preceded by many years the Town of Rhinebeck of which it is a part.” Its origins go all the way back to 1686.
The architecture and unique topography of Rhinecliff make it one of the great examples of nineteenth-century Hudson River vernacular, and the hamlet’s houses, modest though they may be, are important historic structures. As Philip notes, Rhinecliff’s dwellings may not be comparable in grandeur to the estate mansions or some of the houses in Rhinebeck Village, but they are just as historic — and in some cases even more historic. “Moreover,” writes Philip, “each is an authentic expression of the generations who have lived in them.”
Of the 160 or so houses in the Rhinecliff Overlay District
— the hamlet and the gateway along Rhinecliff Road — nearly one hundred were built before 1900. One of the criteria for being listed on the National Register of Historic Places is that a property be at least fifty years old. All but a dozen houses in Rhinecliff satisfy this criterion. (A list and map of the houses in the district are here
Rhinecliff is also one of the contributing hamlets to the Hudson River Historic District, which is listed on the National Register as a National Historic Landmark District. Most of the houses in the hamlet are thus contributing structures to the National Register.
In the section on the Rhinecliff Overlay District in the Rhinebeck Zoning Code, the term “historic” appears a couple of dozen times in the space of just a few pages. Many people worked for nearly a decade writing the Comprehensive Plan and the Zoning Code, and when it comes to Rhinecliff, their message is clear: preserve and protect the hamlet’s historic character and make sure that everything that gets built here, whether it’s a new house or a simple addition, is “in harmony,” “sympathetic,” “consistent,” and respectful of “the architectural character and fabric.”
Welcome to Eclectic Rhinecliff
Steve Mensch has proposed a radical redevelopment of the Blackwood property at the top of Grinnell Street. He calls his scheme “A Modern Pavilion in a Hidden Garden.” The pavilion is a 1,100 square-foot glass box house with a flat roof, some stucco walls, and lots of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the river. The pavilion is clearly intended to look and feel modern, one of the things Mrs. Blackwood was looking for in her new home.
Around the pavilion are a lot of landscaping — the hidden garden — and a large terrace. The addition also includes a lower level of about 2,500 square feet, which serves as a platform for the pavilion, the terrace, and a restoration of the original 1860 house, as well as the passageway connecting the old house and new pavilion.
In order to provide Mrs. Blackwood with some privacy — and people who live in glass houses do need their privacy — Mr. Mensch's plans call for some “stacked landscaping” and a hedgerow that's 75 feet long and 9 or 10 feet high. The hedge won’t just provide privacy, however. It will also block a beautiful view of the river for everyone else. (There's more on the proposal here.)
When Mr. Mensch gave his presentation about the Blackwood proposal to the Rhinebeck Planning Board back on April 7, he had to convince the Board that his modern glass box would not be an unwelcome intrusion in the hamlet. That wasn’t easy. When someone asked him if he couldn’t leave out the hedgerow in order to preserve the view, Mr. Mensch said this: “Without the hedge, the scheme would become: a modern pavilion on Grinnell Street…. It would make no sense.... From the street, the pavilion would look isolated, jarringly out of place, and arbitrary.”
In his presentation to the Planning Board, Mr. Mensch skipped over the section of the zoning code on the Rhinecliff Overlay District — the part that’s about the importance of preserving and protecting the historic character of the hamlet. Instead, he took another approach. He chose to make a case that Rhinecliff isn’t so historic after all. (You can watch this part of the meeting on You-Tube here
, starting at 1:45:30.)
“Rhinecliff is just one of the greatest places I know,” Mr. Mensch told the Planning Board. Had he been able to find the right place twenty years ago when he came to the area, he would have moved into the hamlet himself. Mr. Mensch then went on to say, “I love Rhinecliff, but not because it’s intact. It’s not intact. It is a mix of wonderful stuff. It’s full of energy, it’s full of vitality. It is not a nineteenth-century village by any stretch of the imagination.”
What makes Rhinecliff unique, said Mr. Mensch, is its “variety” and “maverick individualism.” “To try to constrain it and make it into a village from another time would be a big mistake,” he added. “That’s not what it is or what it wants to be.”
Mr. Mensch’s use of the phrase “not intact” is worth noting. In the context of landmark designations and historic preservation, the term “intact” appears frequently as a criterion. When evaluating a structure or area for inclusion on the National Register, for example, one needs to consider the extent to which the character-defining features of the place are still there and not altered beyond recognition. To say that Rhinecliff is “not intact,” then, is a way of suggesting that so much of the place has changed that there’s no historic fabric left to worry about.
In order to further develop his theme that the hamlet is not really such a historic place, Mr. Mensch went on to tell the Planning Board a story about a failed effort to get Rhinecliff designated as a historic place.
“Rhinecliff was at one time proposed, nominated to be a national historic place,” said Mr. Mensch, “and the nomination was declined and this is what they say:
”The present character of Rhinecliff recalls its heyday during the late nineteenth century, although few properties retain sufficient integrity of design and materials to meet the National Register criteria. Extensive twentieth-century alterations to the older buildings and the large number of modern intrusions throughout the hamlet preclude the creation of an historic district.”
To which Mr. Mensch then added, “And I say, good news to you guys," as if Rhinecliffers should be happy the nomination was declined.
Mr. Mensch thus made it seem as if Rhinecliff had been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places but had been rejected because so many of the older buildings had been altered. He also made it seem as if the quotation he read was the judgment of the “they” who reviewed and declined the nomination.
But that’s not exactly what happened.
Misreading the National Register
The passage Mr. Mensch quoted came from the 1987 National Register Nomination Form for the Rhinebeck Multiple Resource Area. The nomination was written by Neil Larson, a historic preservation expert who lives in Woodstock. I spoke with Mr. Larson the other day, and he explained what did happen.
Back in the late 1970s, when organizations like Hudson River Heritage identified and surveyed the Sixteen Mile Historic District that stretches from Hyde Park to Germantown, the focus was on the big riverfront estates, their historic structures, and their formally designed landscapes. The hamlets were left out because there just wasn’t much appreciation for their vernacular qualities.
In 1979, the Sixteen Mile Historic District was nominated to the National Register. In her history of Rhinecliff, Cynthia Philip notes that Rhinecliff “was deliberately carved out of the Sixteen Mile Historic District, even though the hamlet might have qualified under all of the [National Register] criteria…. To preservationists' eyes, the hamlet was merely the shabby part of town.”
Even into the 1980s, as Philip writes in an article in About Town, Rhinecliffers were known as “Dock Rats,” the kids tended to wear hand-me-downs, housing prices were the lowest in the area (except for maybe Tivoli), and the hamlet was eligible for federal grants to poor neighborhoods. Rhinecliff was seen as kind of low rent.
In 1987, when Mr. Larson wrote the National Register nomination form for the Rhinebeck Multiple Resource Area — the nomination that Mr. Mensch quoted from — the focus was on noteworthy historic structures in Rhinebeck. A half dozen of them are in Rhinecliff — including the library, the hotel, and the general store building at the corner of Shatzell and Kelly — but the nomination did not include the hamlet as a whole. The reason, explains Mr. Larson, is that the National Register program did not recognize the significance of vernacular architecture, and there was undo focus on the issue of building alterations.
Three years later, Mr. Larson, working with Hudson River Heritage, wrote the National Register nomination for the Hudson River Historic District. This time around, one of the goals was to rectify the omissions of both the 1979 and 1987 nominations. The riverside hamlets of Tivoli, Annandale, Barrytown, Staatsburg, and Rhinecliff were therefore singled out for special attention. They’re listed right at the top of the form, and they’re discussed in detail throughout the narrative; an inventory of their contributing structures is also included.
The fact that many of the houses had been modified with new additions was no longer considered reason to exclude the hamlets from the National Register. Instead, the modifications to historic buildings were seen as part of their history and a significant aspect of their vernacular character.
All of which is to say simply this: Contrary to what Mensch told the Planning Board, Rhinecliff was never nominated and then declined as a historic district. The passage he quoted wasn’t the verdict of the New York State Board for Historic Preservation or any other agency involved with judging nominations for the National Register. The passage he quoted was simply the explanation for why Rhinecliff wasn’t being included in the 1987 nomination to begin with.
The key fact that Mr. Mensch didn’t bother to mention is that in 1990 Rhinecliff was nominated to the National Register as a contributing hamlet within the Hudson River Historic District. Rhinecliff is now part of a National Historic Landmark District, the highest rating on the National Register of Historic Places.
This effort to rewrite history has another interesting twist to it. On June 4, a couple of days after the Planning Board meeting where the Blackwood proposal was the subject of heated public debate, someone created a Wikipedia account with the username “Jaywoodruff” and proceeded to “correct” a couple of “errors” in the Wikipedia entry on “Rhinecliff.”
The first change was to delete the link to Rhinecliff.org in the list of External Links at the end of the article. Jaywoodruff gave this explanation (viewable in the history log of the Wikipedia article): “Despite the name, Rhinecliff.org is a private website whose opinions do not reflect those who live in the Hamlet of Rhinecliff. It is not the official Hamlet Website.”
The second revision involved the way Rhinecliff’s landmark status was described in the Wikipedia article. The original version read like this:
Rhinecliff is one of the oldest intact hamlets along the Hudson River and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a contributor to the Hudson River National Historic Landmark District.
Jaywoodruff rewrote the sentence like this:
Rhinecliff is one of the oldest intact hamlets along the Hudson River and is a contributor to the Hudson River National Historic Landmark District.
The revision thus deleted the reference to Rhinecliff being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Jaywoodruff provided this explanation for making the change:
The designation in the National Register of Historic Places has not been given to the Hamlet of Rhinecliff — It has been given other designations and there are individual designations or houses in Rhinecliff but the Hamlet itself has not been given this.
It’s important to note that the original Wikipedia entry did not say that Rhinecliff had its own unique listing on the National Register. It said quite clearly that Rhinecliff was on the National Register “as a contributor to the Hudson River National Historic Landmark District.”
As these two revisions to Wikipedia suggest, someone out there doesn’t want people knowing that Rhinecliff is on the National Register of Historic Places, and he would apparently prefer that people not know about Rhinecliff.org either.
If this attempt to rewrite the Wikipedia article had happened some time ago — it’s appeared this way on Wikipedia since 2007 — one might not think much of it. But considering that these changes took place in the heat of the Blackwood controversy, one has to wonder what’s going on here.
By the way, the link to Rhinecliff.org and the original version of the National Register reference have been restored to the Wikipedia entry on “Rhinecliff.”
A modest pretention or exclusive enclave?
For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the elite of the Hudson Valley resided in their country estates, while the hamlets were populated by the middle and working classes. In today’s parlance, Rhinecliff was a place for “affordable housing.”
As Mr. Larson writes in his description of Hamlet Architecture for the 1990 National Register nomination, the class orientation of the Hudson River hamlets is largely responsible for their visual character. “Overall,” he writes, “the hamlets have a quaint Victorian look and a modest pretention. The buildings are small, mostly frame in construction and plain in ornamentation…. They are situated on very small lots in a compact linear plan organized along a principal street…. The unity and regularity of these houses contribute to a strong sense of one's being in a historic district.”
Rhinecliffers have always made modifications to their homes, but the look and feel of the place have remained much the same (as suggested by a comparison of these photographs of Rhinecliff in 1948 with this gallery of Rhinecliff today). The unique topography of the hamlet, the density and scale of the buildings, the vintage of the housing stock, all these things have ensured that the character of the place has persisted in spite of the many changes.
But the fabric of a historic place is a delicate thing, and if it’s going to remain intact, some kinds of change must be resisted. Mr. Mensch’s plans for the Blackwood property — the modern-style glass pavilion, out-of-scale size, and privacy hedge — do not preserve and protect the historic character of the hamlet.
Hudson River Heritage, which serves as the federally designated steward for the Hudson River Historic District, recently submitted a letter on the Blackwood proposal to the Rhinebeck Planning and Zoning Boards. HRH expresses concern about "the aloof relationship of the house to its neighbors and the hamlet," the "stark contrast" of the forms and materials to the hamlet vernacular, and the precedent of combining lots to create a larger house. "Approval of this application," writes HRH, "could quickly lead to a transformation of the Rhinecliff bluffs into an exclusive enclave of large homes, something that has already occurred south of the hamlet proper."
If the Blackwood property is developed as Mr. Mensch has proposed, others will follow, and eventually the qualities that make Rhinecliff so special will become, well, history.
(Photo credits: Rhinecliff Rooftops by Frank; model of Blackwood proposal, from video of presentation)