Hudson, New York
Business/Growth | Environment | Local living
11 August 2014 10:56PM
John Isaacs

Yesterday, in her invaluable—always informative and frequently entertaining—blog “The Gossips of Rivertown”, Carole Osterink’s critique of Cathryn Dwyre’s plan for the redevelopment of the Seventh Street Park in Hudson sparked a lively, though largely one-sided response.

In general, Carole and those who commented on her post support the idea of restoring the park as an attractive and useful civic amenity, but argue that whatever resources are available would be better devoted to replicating its original nineteenth century design, complete with its centerpiece, an ornate fountain of dubious aesthetic merit currently in storage and apparently in very poor condition.

I in no way oppose the historic preservation of urban environments. Indeed, I ardently concur with the principles enshrined in Jane Jacob’s great book “The Life and Death of Great American Cities”, in which she tirelessly advocates for the preservation of neighborhood character.

That whatever design integrity the Seventh Street Park once had has been moreorless entirely violated by a crude hodgepodge of modifications over the decades, that in its current state it’s a veritable eyesore serving few useful functions, and that anything would be better than what’s there now, no one seems to dispute, a consensus that is certainly a healthy starting point.

However, the Seventh Street Park is no architectural masterpiece (in fact it’s a pretty typical, run-of-the-mill town square with awkward proportions, given that a railroad track pierces it), The argument that the original design deserves restoring by virtue of any intrinsic aesthetic merit is slender at best.

Neither are the surrounding buildings of particular architectural import, so compatibility is hardly an issue (indeed, the centerpiece of the surrounding streets may well turn out to be the adaptive reuse of a neoclassical monolith by none other than the ultra modernist architect Rem Koolhaas).

Hudson itself comprises a rich patchwork of architectural styles imposed over a span of close to 250 years, a fact that surely alone invalidates any argument against introducing something new.

At the other end of the line, so to speak, nothing could be more distressing and depressing, in hindsight, than the demolition of the original Pennsylvania Station in New York City. It’s now universally acknowledged that it was a crime on a massive scale to tear down what was arguably the city’s most architecturally and socially innovative structure of the twentieth century. However, while plans are afoot to finally replace the monstrosity that took its place, no one is suggesting replicating McKim, Mead and White’s masterpiece in the twenty-first century. It would be beyond logic to do so now that the requirements for a transportation hub are so completely different.

Likewise, in a small but burgeoning city like Hudson, the purpose of a public square is no longer to be simply emblematic of civic pride reflected in faux-beaux-arts decorative elements and a mini-Versailles floor plan. Indeed, Hudson has such a heterogeneous population that no particular historical or regional style could be deemed appropriate to our diversity as a community.

Better then to pursue a design specifically prioritizing the needs of people for their sake, rather than preservation for its own sake.

Consider the remarkable case of a public space constructed out of a few semi-abandoned blocks in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Designed from the ground up, Maya Lin’s Rosa Parks Circle—not dissimilar in scale and concept from Cathryn’s Dwyre’s proposed design for the Seventh Street Park—is widely regarded as one of the most successful small urban park projects executed, attracting thousands of downtown workers and visitors daily with its ingenious, asymmetrical mix of skating rink, swing dance floor, concert bowl, open spaces, shaded lawns and walkways, and lively perimeter, overlooked by a thriving museum of contemporary art.

This entirely original design has paid huge dividends for once deeply depressed Grand Rapids. In 1991, former Mayor John Logie walked what was then a section of Monroe Street, counting 76 vacant storefronts before the city decided to yank the bricks, ending what Logie called the ill-fated malling, or “mauling”, of downtown. Today, occupancy along Monroe is peaking as once vacant industrial-era buildings are filled with tenants and the street level features a diverse mix of restaurants, boutique hotels, and bustling retail shops, anchored by a civic center as well as the museum.

Still doubtful? Then consider as well the case of the same Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, now widely considered the most effective modern monument in America. According to Wikipedia: “When it was first proposed, negative reactions to Lin’s radical design created a controversy; a compromise was reached by commissioning Frederick Hart (who had placed third in the original design competition) to produce a bronze figurative sculpture in the heroic tradition. Opponents of Lin’s design had hoped to place this sculpture of three soldiers at the apex of the wall’s two sides. Lin objected strenuously to this, arguing that this would make the soldiers the focal point of the memorial, and her wall a mere backdrop. A compromise was reached, and the sculpture was placed off to one side.” While Lin’s memorial draws 4.5 million visitors a year, hardly anyone as much as notices Hart’s statue.

Perhaps the Hudson city fathers could find somewhere nearby for the famous fountain. The little triangle at the intersection of State, Greene, and Columbia would be dandy, and nobody could miss it.

Rosa Parks Circle, Grand Rapids MI
Rosa Parks Circle (left) Seventh Street Park, Hudson (right) [Google Maps: same scale]

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Peter Frank
Peter Frank 14 August 2014 01:05AM

John, a conversation about the pros and cons of strictly adhering to historical precedent is worth having in this context, and I would agree with you that the original design is less than perfect and should not be treated as sacrosanct. I also agree with your desire to prioritize the needs of the people of Hudson. That is precisely why I find fault with the recent proposal by Cathryn Dwyre. Her plan has some interesting ideas, but I actually believe that the rather maligned “default” design gives the people of Hudson a much more functional public space than they could ever get from Dwyre’s design. Her entire scheme seems over programmed and several aspects of it are downright gimmicky.

I don’t believe anyone who has ever enjoyed the 7th Street Park at recent Farmer’s Markets, at the Music Festival, in the hours preceding the Pride Parade or at many other times could honestly say the Park serves few useful functions. Ms. Dwyre’s presentation, like your commentary, seems far more aware of the Park’s obvious failures than of its modest successes. Of course it could be much improved, but I can’t help but think that a design for our Public Square based more on appreciation and less on disdain would be better for the people of Hudson.

You make a claim that you say no one disputes – that “anything would be better than what’s there now”. I absolutely dispute this. All the worst catastrophes of urban “re-imagining” have been bolstered by the notion that “anything would be better than what’s there now”. Many “improvement” projects have actually left cities with something worse than what was improved upon and there is every reason to approach a trendy redesign with caution. The consensus you speak of does not exist and I don’t think a false assumption is a “healthy starting point”.

At the recent presentation of Dwyre’s design, she gave me the impression that she elicited input that supported her vision, rather than made use of public input to inform her design.  I hope that the survey that is now being initiated will begin to correct this situation. Another “healthy starting point” might be for all sides of the issue to help develop a realistic program with a well articulated set of priorities for our Public Square against which any future designs and restoration efforts could be measured.

    John Isaacs
    John Isaacs 14 August 2014 08:39AM

    Thanks, Peter. I appreciate your balanced point of view. In fairness to Cathryn Dwyre, I don’t think it hurt that she was allowed—for all I know encouraged—to let her imagination roam free, and whatever her design lacks in terms of deference to the original, it is certainly not bland. I do know, notwithstanding your impression at the meeting, that she is quite open-minded about it all.

vincent Mulford
vincent Mulford 13 August 2014 10:53PM

I find John Issacs reasoning a confused menagerie of pretty words.

Basically a attempt to baffle this issue with BS.

Its the historic nature of Hudson that attracts. Hudson offers little else. Accept and respect that reality. Urban Renewal did enough irreparable damage. We don’t need a remake of that disaster now.

Ian Nitschke
Ian Nitschke 13 August 2014 10:19AM

John’s dismissal of the 19th century origins of Seventh Street Park and the surrounding buildings is disturbing and at odds with the city’s extraordinary architectural legacy. His example of ultra modernist architect Rem Koolhaas renovation of a “neoclassic monolith” contradicts his argument for starting anew since Koolhaas provides considerable respect for the former movie theater in breathing life into the unremarkable structure to create what will be the remarkable Marina Abramovic Institute.

While I agree with John’s statement: “nothing could be more distressing and depressing, in hindsight, than the demolition of the original [1910] Pennsylvania Station in New York City, ” he contradicts facts with the next statement: “while plans are afoot to finally replace the monstrosity that took its place, no one is suggesting replicating McKim, Mead and White’s masterpiece in the twenty-first century.” In fact, there have been serious design proposals (initiated by Senator Moynihan and outlined by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) to use the adjacent McKim, Mead and White’s masterpiece (the 1913 Farley Post Office to be named Moynihan Train Station) as part of the new Penn Station. John goes on to state: “It would be beyond logic to do so now that the requirements for a transportation hub are so completely different,” ignoring the 1913 Grand Central Terminal, one of the world’s most magnificent interior spaces, that more than meets modern transportation hub requirements.

How is it putting people before preservation when there is so much sentiment in Hudson, by residents and visitors alike, for preserving the irreplaceable “dictionary of American architecture,” that survived the ravages of destruction that other cities have suffered over the last 200 years?

    John Isaacs
    John Isaacs 13 August 2014 05:05PM

    I feel my position is misread. I would never not support the preservation and renovation of a building or urban environment, regardless of its present condition, as long as it has or had intrinsic merit in its original design. Equally, I wholeheartedly favor retaining primary features in radical renovations (as in OMA’s MAI program, Moynihan Station, and the countless brilliant schemes, particularly by a whole generation of Italian architects of great taste and sense of craft, that reimagine historic structures by integrating original and entirely new elements). Equally, I appreciate the authentic, precise replication of urban areas destroyed by, say, war or acts of nature, as a means of restoring and perpetuating cultural heritage—the rebuilding of historic central Warsaw or even London’s Globe Theatre come to mind. And in no way do I oppose vernacular architecture in principle, fraught as it is with post-modern pitfalls.

    What I see no reason to support is the pious and gratuitous wholesale replication of original designs of questionable aesthetic value and functionality, when more refined and appropriate solutions, more compatible with the needs of the times and of the population at large, are proposed.

    The debate, of course, is ancient. Huge hazards exist on both sides. On the one hand, disastrous errors have been made on the part of progressive architects (the existing Penn Station in NYC and Paternoster Square in London being famous and egregious examples). On the other, you have a sentimental dilettante like Prince Charles sounding off (and from his privileged position blocking the ideas of highly trained and visionary architects) on any urban development that violates what he views as sacrosanct principles of bourgeois classicism.

    A city such as Hudson has throughout its history and can today and in the future happily absorb a wide stylistic range. The desire to impose an architectural code that favors tradition is understandable, and in many ways commendable, but is not necessarily the optimum approach for creating the nuanced variety and shadings of difference that produce a vibrant and still coherent urban environment and a distinctive sense of place, as well as reflecting the diversity of that community (there are more modernists than you might imagine in Hudson hiding behind all that antique woodwork). The old can coexist with the new, and both may profit from the symbiosis, but only when both are respected.


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