Twenty-one years ago, its once grand porches were piled with garbage, plywood closed up the gracefully proportioned windows and the once welcoming veranda was stripped of its ornament. But for those passionate about preservation, architecture and local history it was clear that underneath the dismal dressing was a 19th century Hudson Valley architectural legacy worth saving.
The Dr. Oliver Bronson House was left abandoned for decades in the midst of acres of state-owned land, just a short distance from the central core of Hudson, N.Y. A significant structure in the architectural evolution of Alexander Jackson Davis, one of the most influential architects of the 19th century, the restoration of the house became a passion project for the then newly formed Historic Hudson group in 1997.
The house began life as a fine Federal style country home built about 1811 for Samuel Plumb, a local merchant. A two-story frame building, it was built by an unidentified builder whose skill is evident in the fanlights, sidelights, keystones and decorative scrolls that still survive.
In 1838, Dr. Oliver Bronson and Johanna Donaldson Bronson purchased the property and hired Alexander Jackson Davis to transform the estate. The couple both came from wealth and connections and Johanna’s brother, Robert Donaldson, in particular, was a key influence in their hiring of Davis. Donaldson had previously hired Davis in 1836 to remodel his own Federal-era house, Blithewood, an important commission in the evolution of Davis’ picturesque, bracketed style of architecture.
Blithewood no longer survives. But fortunately, Davis was an avid record keeper and many of his notebooks, letters and receipts document his relationship with Donaldson and his ultimate commission from Dr. Oliver Bronson.
Davis completed his initial work at the Bronson house in 1839, transforming the Federal house with brackets, bays, a veranda and other picturesque touches. Davis, who labeled himself as an “architectural composer” on his business cards, also re-designed the setting of the house, likely altering carriage drives, planting trees and giving the landscape a romantic air.
Thanks to Davis’ documentation, it’s known that Newburgh-based horticulturalist and designer Andrew Jackson Downing provided plants for the project and historians suspect that Downing might have consulted further on the project. If this proves to be true, it would be the first collaboration between the two 19th century greats.
The Bronsons hired Davis again in 1849 for an even more substantial renovation of the house. Davis designed an addition to the west facade of the house that included octagonal bays, a prominent central tower and an ornamental veranda.
On the interior, Davis retained some of the early 19th century details in the original portion of the house, including the graceful circular stair. On the first floor, his 1849 rooms extend off the center hall of the original house with an octagonally shaped hall, segueing from the formal, symmetrical Federal design to rooms with picturesque touches.
An enormous amount of original material survives, inside and out, including delicate moldings, colonettes, mantels and acorn-ornamented brackets. Alas, the intricate ironwork of the Davis verandas exists only in photographs and sketches.
Despite enlisting Davis to further expand the house, the Bronson family stayed in their country villa for just a few more years. Around 1854, the house was sold to Frederick Fitch Folger, who christened it ‘Glenwood.’ It passed to at least two more families before being acquired in 1915 by the New York State Training School for Girls, a reformatory which was already established on the neighboring property.
The house was used as a residence for the Superintendent of the school from 1926 until it was abandoned in 1972. Fortunately, initial plans to burn it down were halted when the house and outbuildings were listed on the National Register in 1973.
Once the future of the abandoned house was taken up by Historic Hudson in 1997, they worked to analyze structural issues and further document the history of the site. In 2003 the Dr. Oliver Bronson House and 55 acres of surrounding land were declared a National Historic Landmark based on its significance as the earliest known surviving example of Davis’s bracketed style of architecture and the high degree of integrity of the architectural features and the surrounding landscape.
While research and analysis were ongoing, access to the site by volunteers was limited. After years of negotiation, Historic Hudson was able to enter into a 30-year lease agreement with the State of New York in 2008 that allows the group to take over maintenance and restoration of the house alone.
It’s easy to forget when standing in the stillness of the landscape surrounding the house that the main commercial center of downtown Hudson is mere blocks away. Which is key in the future Historic Hudson has planned for the house — making it an accessible destination for those living in or coming to Hudson while retaining the country house landscape that is such an important part of the Davis legacy.
The house currently sits on 162 acres of state-owned land. Just about 40 of those acres are in use by the Hudson Correctional Facility, which operates from the original buildings of the New York Training School for Girls. The rest of the acreage is largely unused and not accessible to the public.
Historic Hudson would like to change that by establishing a roughly 90-acre park, expanding its lease from the mere 1.2 acres it currently holds. The additional acreage would allow for the restoration of the historic landscape, the creation of public access points into the park and enable the house and landscape to be open and accessible on a regular basis.
The long-term vision for the house itself does not include the creation of a furnished historic house museum. Instead, the focus will be on the architecture itself with the details that would have been extant from 1838 to 1853 fully restored to allow for an exploration of the house as envisioned by Davis. The basement, once the kitchen and service spaces for the house, would be converted for 21st century use with meeting rooms, accessible bathrooms and a kitchen.
“We are looking to bring back utilities to the house for the first time in 48 years,” Historic Hudson president Alan Neumann told Brownstoner “The goal is to make the basement area completely “off the grid”, using solar, geothermal and alternative sanitation for septic and gray water. The 20th century was not a great chapter in the life of this property. The 21st Century is the story of renewal and public engagement.”
The plans are ambitious, but when looking at images of the ramshackle state of the house over 20 years ago and what has been accomplished since through an all-volunteer effort perhaps it doesn’t seem so unattainable.
In 2010, Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architects developed a conservation and stabilization plan for the house which recommended breaking the project into three phases. Work on the third phase is already underway.
While the house isn’t accessible on a regular basis, Historic Hudson has been working to make sure it’s open for concerts, art installations, photo shoots, tours and fundraising events. An installation in 2014 featured the works of Kiki Smith, Seton Smith and Valerie Hammond. More recently the house was open for the inaugural Design Hudson event with rooms staged by area designers.
For those who can’t make a trip to see the house in person, there’s always its appearance in “Bourne Legacy” to check out. For the 2012 film it served as an inspiration for the home of Dr. Marta Shearing, played by Rachel Weisz. While some filming occurred on the exterior, including actor Jeremy Renner leaping through an upstairs window, the production crew recreated the interior of the house as a set for a shoot-out scene that actually shows quite a few of the house features, including that stunning staircase. Thankfully, they used the magic of CGI to burn the place down, leaving the original Bronson house intact for the next generation.
[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]
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