by John Patrick Schutz
This House Matters, a documentary by Valley Cottage resident Tina Traster, made its debut to a room of enthusiastic history buffs at Nyack Library this past Friday. The film is important for preservationists everywhere, but especially in Rockland. (Full disclosure, as village historian I do appear in the film both in interviews and in some candid discussions.) It features Nyack’s own John Green House, and it highlights Rockland County historic structures recently lost to the wrecking ball, others in peril of destruction, and those fortunate enough – like the Green House – to have found a respite from oblivion.
Traster’s engaging and instructive film was prompted, among other things, by the loss of a historical treasure. Did you know that the historically significant Lent House in Orangeburg (built in 1752) was completely demolished last year on Easter weekend? Probably not. There was almost no fanfare The home was built by a Revolutionary War veteran and one of the signers of the Orangetown Resolutions. Though some minor and ultimately ineffective attempts were made to save the structure, nothing materialized and the financially cash-strapped owner, with some mild regret, allowed the beautiful Dutch Sandstone Colonial to be bulldozed.
As a realtor, I understand a property owner’s rights, not to mention how much of an individual’s financial wealth is tied up in any owned property. So, I couldn’t blame the owner for the demolition. Still, it pains me to say so. As a Historian, this was a crime against history — truly, I cried when I unexpectedly came upon the ruins of the structure last spring. The loss of the Lent House spurred local preservationists to action in an effort to prevent this from happening to other important structures. One such structure was the John Green House, the second oldest house in the village, and the oldest stone structure currently standing.
SO WHO WAS THIS JOHN GREEN?
A bit about John Green. Green was an merchant, entrepreneur, speculator and developer in Nyack in the early 1800s. He arrived in Nyack from New York City, where a fire had cost him his business and all of his belongings. He began work here as a common laborer and eventually saved enough to open the area’s first lumber yard. By 1812, he had amassed enough to become one of the original founders of The First Methodist-Episcopal Church of Nyack. In 1812-1813, he built the John Green House (using Dutch Sandstone). And a few years later, Green would build his own three story home on lower Main Street, completing it in 1819. This was one of the last — if not the last — Gambrel-roofed Dutch Sandstone home built in Rockland County. Its style, big and solid with brown rough cut sandstone walls, was very much of the area and the time.
As he continued to prosper, Green saw a bright future for Rockland County and Nyack specifically. Already, wind-driven sloops were bringing our contributions to the growing metropolis of New York – stone from Nyack’s quarries, ice from Rockland Lake, iron from the Ramapo mountains and Suffern, and what produce grew in our rocky, hilly county. Green foresaw a need to get the products to New York City faster. In the 1820s he became the major sponsor of the Nyack Turnpike, which would connect Nyack to Suffern directly, cutting hours off the trip. Green also worked on building a seaport for Nyack, and he began the first steam ferry and cargo runs from Nyack to New York City. He and his partners began construction of a steamboat called “The Orange” (originally, “The Nyack”) in 1826 — less than 20 years after the world’s first successful steamboat, Fulton’s Cleremont, first docked in Nyack. By 1828, The Orange — or as some nicknamed the ungainly looking craft, “The Pot Cheese” — was dutifully steaming back and forth to New York City daily, carrying both freight and passengers. This spurred more commerce for Nyack. Green is truly one of the lead architects of the prosperity and development of Rockland County.
BUT WHY SAVE A WRECK?
As a historian, I saw the significance of John Green in Nyack and the County’s history. As a realtor – and a realist – though, I was not convinced the structure could be saved, or that the cost could be justified. Around 2004, shortly after I rented the house to a young lady receiving government assistance, a portion of the northeast wall began to collapse into the structure. We dared not climb the almost non-existent stairs to the third floor. It wasn’t long before the home was condemned and labeled dangerous.
This is the picture I had in my head when some local historians and preservationists approached me as Nyack Historian and asked me to support the renovation project. I feared that Nyack would wind up with a circumstance similar to the old Helen Hayes Theater, which was land-marked, but could never raise the funds to be repaired; it eventually collapsed around itself and was lost, as was all the money devoted to it.
However, the folks who would become The John Green Preservation Coalition were not pie-in-the-sky dreamers. They were a determined group that set out to do things correctly. Structural and engineering reports, work estimates, funding needs, timetables, and possible usage outlines were presented professionally and efficiently. Slowly but surely my mind changed. I wound up confident –and thrilled! — that this project would save something historically significant.
Wonderful things began to happen. The Coalition was able to acquire the foreclosed property after Rick Tannenbaum, an attorney and one of the group’s leaders, completed a complicated negotiation with an Atlanta-based mortgage company. The result: The bank GIFTED the house to the organization. This is unprecedented. To gift a historically significant structure to a group of preservationists simply had never been done before. Not a single Nyack tax dollar was used, or will be used, on this project! (The home is owned by the Non-Profit Coalition, not by the Village of Nyack.) It didn’t hurt that the project gained support from local politicians like State Senator David Carlucci, Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart, Mayor Jen White, and many others.
The John Green House is a success (knock wood) in the world of local history and preservation.Tina Traster’s excellent documentary beautifully documents the lost, the saved, and those still in peril. Look for its next screening near you!
If you want to get involved with the restoration, or if you want to contribute, contact: THE JOHN GREEN PRESERVATION COALITION
To watch the trailer and find out more about the film This House Matters, go to: http://www.thishousematters.com/
This article was originally published on At Home in Nyack, a blog by John Patrick Schutz