Will It Rise Again?
by Sasha Cohen
(Updated 7/22) — One of Nyack’s oldest houses, built by one of the village founders, has roots going back to the early 1800’s. Local businessman John Green revolutionized Rockland County’s economy and his former home is one of the last remaining houses in the Hudson Valley that represents original Dutch-style architecture. However, as the 21st century dawned, its rich history was only visible in the local history room of the Nyack Library, for the building itself had fallen into disrepair.
In 2015, the John Green Preservation Coalition (JGPC) was formed, the culmination of a five year effort started by Nyack resident John Gromada to save the house from demolition. The coalition convinced the bank that held the deed on the foreclosed property to turn it over to the newly formed non-profit group. Politicians rallied around the effort. A press conference was held. Private and public funds were raised to partially rehabilitate the house. The house, it seemed, would be saved. But for what purpose?
Amidst the excitement of getting a reprieve from the wrecking ball, the coalition neglected to address this important detail. Despite ambitious talk of turning the restoration into a museum, an artists’ collective or a community center, no one ever came up with a viable plan. At the time of the coalition’s inception, there was no clear vision of what the house would become.
Who was John Green?
John Green was a businessman and a founding member of the Nyack community. When Green moved to the village in the early 1800’s, Nyack was a small isolated town with about 200 residents, accessible only by the Hudson or narrow dirt roads. Green’s involvement in two major infrastructure projects helped to move Rockland County’s commercial focus from Tappan and Haverstraw to Nyack.
Green was a founding member of the Nyack Steamboat Association and he oversaw the construction of the Nyack Turnpike, the road which became Route 59. Stone, ice, iron, food, and lumber were transported across Rockland County and shipped downstream to New York City using the road he built and the boats he funded. “He’s really the father of commerce in Rockland County,” said Nyack Village Historian, J.P. Schutz.
Green also had ties to a part of Rockland County’s history that is often ignored. Nyack Sketch Log author Bill Batson points out that slavery was not exclusive to the South and that the wealth of leading local figures like Green was enhanced by access to uncompensated, coerced labor.
As the oldest sandstone house in Nyack, the structure itself is also historically significant. It is the last remaining house in the Hudson Valley that was built in the old Dutch style, equipped with a gambrel roof, an architectural tradition that is unique to this part of the country.
By 2010, the Green House was crumbling and verging on unsalvageable. Impassioned community members agreed that,“This House Matters,” which was also the title of a 2016 documentary about the house produced by former JGPC Board Member Tina Traster.
But as the effort proceeded to acquire the title and restore the decrepit building, the question of how the house would be used and what business model it would follow seemed to fall out of sight.
Rising From The Ruins
In 2015, the John Green Preservation Coalition was formed. Rick Tannenbaum, the former president of the coalition and an attorney who is married to Traster, convinced deed holder Ocwen Financial Corporation to transfer ownership of the foreclosed property to a 501(c)(3) not for profit company.
“This was a unique situation which had quite honestly never happened before,” explained Schutz. “They had a mortgage company give them the property but in order for [the coalition] to receive the gift, it needed to be a non-profit. That has apparently created a conflict where half the board would have been happy seeing it simply restored with a sign on the building, and half the board wants to see it become a community space.”
The coalition’s mission statement does little to bridge this philosophical divide. Before the website was taken down on July 6, the mission statement posted at JohnGreenCoalition.org said the the coalition was to “acquire, preserve, restore, rehabilitate and arrange for the operation, maintenance, management and disposition of the John Green House.” But the mission statement was vague about how the restored house would be used.
“Some people thought it would make a great museum, some people thought it would make a great art exhibit space, one person wanted to turn it into a cat cafe,” said the coalition’s treasurer, Ken Sharp. “Everyone has had their own vision.”
Getting a “C” For Communications
A meeting of board members in June 2017 may have marked a turning point in the effort to raise funds to rehabilitate the house. Frank Fish, a founder and principal at BFJ Planning, attended the meeting to share insights from his firm’s previous work with historic buildings in the Hudson Valley. To the astonishment of the meeting attendees, Traster rejected Fish’s input, and instead pitched her own vision of turning the property into a cat café, touting the success of similar businesses in Europe.
As volunteers and contractors worked together to install a new roof and shore up the building’s infrastructure during Spring 2018, Traster and Tannenbaum were negotiating an exit strategy for the coalition. On July 5, a board meeting was convened to vote on a proposal to transfer the property title to Drazen Cackovic, a principal at the architectural firm, DCAK-MSA. The Nyack company, which is also responsible for the design of Pavion Apartments on South Franklin and the Tidewater Condominiums across the street from the John Green House, had offered to assume financial responsibility for the project and complete restoration of the building. This deal provided a path to the house’s complete rehabilitation, but would sacrifice the goal of creating a history, art or community space which the donors believe they had been promised.
“This proposal accomplishes all of our goals as defined in our nonprofit corporate charter,” wrote Tannenbaum in an email before the meeting. “For more than three years, volunteers have worked tirelessly to raise money and restore the house, without major donations or the support of the Village of Nyack, the Town of Orangetown or Rockland County. The estimated cost of the complete restoration is about $1 million. Memberships and donations alone would not provide us with the necessary funds.”
Other board members rejected the idea of turning over the assets of the non-profit to a commercial concern.
“Public access is a very important part of it for me,” said Sharp. “I feel like a lot of people that have given to us, that have donated their time and money, feel the same way — that’s what we sold them. To then turn it into a private home or a private office space or a private anything seems disingenuous.”
The proposal was put to a board vote, but it failed to get the 2/3 majority required to transfer a non-profit asset to a private entity. Tannenbaum then quit as president. The next day, the project’s website, hosted on Tannenbaum’s web server, went dark. Traster made her disappointment abundantly clear with a blistering Facebook post blaming her fellow board members for scuttling the plan and causing the project’s current disarray. “Rick Tannenbaum, John Green’s steady, and visionary president, who acquired the building, and secured the only substantial grant we’ve received, resigned in disgust,” Traster wrote.
Tannenbaum echoed Traster’s sentiment in an email explaining his resignation. “Because I felt a fiduciary duty to stay true to the stated mission of the coalition, and because I believe the board acted against the best interests of the historic structure, I chose instead to resign.” Traster submitted her resignation to JGCP Win Perry on July 21.
Why Donors Feel Deceived
Many John Green Preservation Coalition supporters felt that the preservation of this property was about more than just restoring an old home. In their view it was just as important to support creating a space that encouraged Nyack to reflect on its history. Handing over the house to a private interest would deny the community a public space for which many donors and board members had given an enormous amount of time, energy and money.
Last month, an incident occurred which underscored both the project’s broad community support and how internal disagreements on the John Green board’s have stymied its progress. After it was reported that $300 of materials were alleged to having been stolen from the project site, supporters enthusiastically responded by contributing five times that amount to cover that loss. But the euphoric fundraising bubble didn’t last long — further investigation revealed that the supplies weren’t stolen, but were just reclaimed by the contractor to whom they belonged. Though every contributor was offered a refund when the JGPC board realized its error, donors refused the offer and asked that their contributions be used to restore the house.
The John Green restoration project has always enjoyed broad community support. Over the past three years the coalition raised $70,000 in private donations and another $130,000 in grant funding from the New NY Bridge Community Benefits Program. It’s been a favorite of elected leaders, too: in September 2015, a press conference announcing the creation of the coalition was attended by Nyack Mayor Jen Laird White, NYS Senator David Carlucci and Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart. The project also received a letter of support from US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
Such sincere community engagement begs the question: Would these donors, elected officials and community leaders have been as supportive if they had known that the contributions and sweat equity would be given to a for-profit business?
Long time project supporter Schutz is confused by this sudden turn of events. Though initially skeptical of the house’s structural integrity and ability to be repaired, Schutz was eventually convinced that the project was a worthy investment because it wouldn’t burden taxpayers.
“I was able to suggest to some organizations and businesses that it was worth investing in, that it was worth giving money to,” Schutz said. “So finding out that there was a possibility that it was going to be sold to a private business was…interesting. There was [always] some ambiguity regarding how it was going to be utilized. But it never appeared in anything that I saw that there would not be some kind of public access to it, that it would not become a resource for the area,” he said.
While sympathetic to the disappointment of Schutz and other donors, Traster says the coalition just doesn’t have the money to go on. “Our desire to turn it into a community center has always been noble and sincere, but secondary,” said Traster. “Unfortunately, funding is just not there for the $1 million rehabilitation needed for the house. We’ve exhausted our options. Now the John Green House has an offer on the table by an investor, who will rehabilitate the house. While I understand this would cause some disappointment, those who are charged with this house should understand that we have a responsibility to the house, first and foremost,” she said.
Schutz isn’t opposed to historic houses being privately owned, but he questions why the coalition asked for donations and fund raised if the property could ever simply be given to a commercial entity. “As a historian and a realtor, I can see the value of simply having the house restored and putting a plaque out front,” Schutz insisted. “But I’m not sure that that’s what anyone in the community thought this might become, especially those who may have given donations.”
Sharp agrees with Schutz, and feels that the house still has the potential to become an important community space in the village. He gets giddy as he talks about the future of the house as a community art and history center. The prospect of giving the property to a private interest tempers that excitement.
Will the John Green House Rise Again?
Though the board has a long way to go in creating a cohesive plan for the future of the house, it will likely not be an eyesore forever. Coalition board member and president of the Historical Society of the Nyacks Win Perry has taken Tannenbaum’s place as the new JGPC board president and plans to intensify and expand previous fundraising efforts. Sharp has faith that these efforts will succeed. “Now that we have solidified this idea of an art and history community space, we feel that our fundraising will be more fruitful, as this is something that people can envision.”
Sharp admits that the vision they hope to create will not be easy to achieve. But he has faith that the strength of the Nyack community will prove itself capable of rallying around this cause.
“Yes, fundraising is hard. Restoring the John Green House is even harder. But I will not side with the naysayers and say that either is impossible. It’s not impossible to raise the $1 million needed to rehabilitate the house and open it as an art and history community space,” Sharp asserted. “It’s not impossible, because this is Nyack, a village with an amazing spirit – full of fighters, and dreamers, and miraculous people that make things happen. And if all of them get behind this project, there is absolutely no stopping us from restoring this historic home and giving it right back to this wonderful community.” Sharp says he believes if the board can reboot the fundraising effort there are enough supporters in the community to complete the restoration.” I believe in the indomitable spirit and passion of our friends and neighbors to join us and save this piece of history. I believe in Nyack.”
- John Green: This Old House On The Hudson, 9/30/15
- The John Green House Year in Review, 10/9/2016
- Nyack Sketch Log:
- Nyack People & Places:
- John Green House, 6/15/2017
- Was Nyack Brook a Landmark on the Underground Railroad, 2/15/2018
- Save The John Green House! 6/11/2012
Sasha Cohen is a Nyack High School graduate and a rising junior at Wesleyan University. She is a College of Letters major and a Data Analysis minor.