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.”