Old stone house may come down

Journal News (NY)/March 22, 2004
By Robert Marchant

Ossining -- A Tarrytown development company is proposing to build 84 condominium units on a historic site in Ossining, a riverfront property connected with prison labor in the village's early years, a former textile plant, a community center and, more recently, businesses associated with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

The Ossining Planning Board is expected to review the proposal by Elysian Fields Realty to demolish the roughly 170-year-old stone house on the site and office and manufacturing buildings to make way for luxury housing. Preservationists already are opposed to the idea.

"There's a great deal of history in all of this, the issue of prison labor versus organized labor, the wealthy finding a place to spend the summer, the growth of Ossining as a village," said Deborah Van Steen, president of the Ossining Historical Society Museum.

"How do we want the village to develop and continue, high-rise buildings on every site?" she asked. "Or should we preserve the history that really identifies the community? I don't think we've given enough thought to the history and the architecture of the village in the past. Ossining has taken down more than most communities ever had."

Dan Beaton of Elysian Fields said he expected new construction at the 3-acre site, at 34 State St. and Broad Avenue, would contribute toward Ossining "being rediscovered as the hidden gem of the Hudson."

The 84 units, arranged in a U shape six stories tall, would be priced around the $500,000-range and below. Beaton's company is in contract to buy the property for an undisclosed sum from Hudson River Inlay, a subsidiary of the United Vision Group, which has manufactured inlaid wood and specialty gifts at the site since the 1980s.

Beaton said the current plan calls for the demolition of the stone building, known as the Smith-Robinson house for its first two owners. "While it is true that the architectural integrity of the structure has been irreversibly compromised, we are, nonetheless, exploring creative ways to preserve the memory of the former estate," he said.

The house was built around 1840 by a wealthy Manhattan attorney, James Smith. "Sing Sing marble," a type of limestone, was used to build the home overlooking the Hudson; inmates at the nearby prison quarried and dressed the stones. Only two other structures in the village are built with the stone, and the house on State Street is the only one crafted in the Greek Revival architectural style.

Besides the stone house, the complex has been the home of Printex Corp., which made brightly colored textiles there from 1967 until the early 1980s. A community center run by the Knights of Columbus was built there in the 1920s. The buildings are now used by Hudson River Inlay.

Van Steen acknowledged the stone house had taken on a "hodgepodge" appearance because of annexes built alongside it, but she insisted the home was structurally sound inside and out, with the features that make it unique still intact.

"It has the potential to shine, if handled properly," she said. Another reason for saving the house is the likelihood that Alexis DeTocqueville, the famed French commentator who wrote "Democracy in America," stayed at the home during his visit to Ossining to observe the state prison in the 1830s.

About 20 to 30 artisans working for Hudson River Inlay create plaques, frames and decorative displays at the complex. The company is buying itself out of the United Vision Group, said UVG general counsel David Gray, and moving farther north in the Hudson Valley.

"It's a little too big for them, and it's expensive here - taxes and operating costs," he said. "They'd like to relocate. There's a good chance they'll move to Rockland, Ulster or Dutchess County." He said the sale of the property could be completed in the middle of 2005.

Gray said the companies working in the complex were private ventures with no official ties to the Unification Church, though there are clearly links with the church and its founder, who maintains a residence in Irvington. A photographic portrait of Moon and his wife, Hak Ja Han, is displayed in the company's administrative office and copies of The World and I, a magazine affiliated with the Unification Church's media holdings, are available to peruse in the visitors area. The national headquarters of the World Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles, an organization for young people founded by Moon, operates from the building.

The development plan will need approvals from the Planning Board and village Board of Trustees because it falls in a special waterfront zone where permission for new construction is required. The Zoning Board of Appeals may also be required to grant an approval because the number of units exceeds the allowable maximum.

Planning Board Chairman Joe Clarke said the proposal would be given a thorough review to determine "if it is an attractive development and what it brings to the area." He said the board would likely hire a consultant to help evaluate it.

Mayor John Perillo said the proposal made a positive impression on him at first glance and said it could "breathe new life in that part of town." An affordable-housing component, such as the creation of a special fund for low-cost housing, would be part of the approval process.

Perillo said he did not believe saving the stone house was a top priority. "It's a gray area. It's been hacked up and added onto," he said.

Clarke said preservation of the old home was worth exploring. "It's an interesting idea. We have to look at it," he said.

Affordable housing is a major concern in the neighborhood, said longtime resident Eleazer Holbrook, and many people are finding it impossible to find a place to rent.

"The rent is sky-high right now," said Holbrook, a municipal employee. "Luxury housing? We don't need that in the area."

Beaton said he was prepared to come to the Planning Board in April to continue his presentation, but a formal application has not been filed and the matter has not yet been placed on the Planning Board agenda.

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