Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ramapo Buys Itself a Present!

(from December 2006)

The Holidays were nearly a year away, but the Town of Ramapo bought itself a lovely present this year—an historic one. Plenty of municipal governments talk about the importance of historic preservation, but few do anything about it. Some (like Vernon) at least have historic preservation commissions and ordinances. But only a rare few put their money where their mouth is and preserve their history by buying it.

Ramapo, our neighbor up and over the mountains in New York, is one such town. It is home to some of the most wild and scenic sections of Harriman State Park, yet Ramapo also has rapidly growing areas (most of us will know the town best as home to the massive I-287/Route 17/New York State Thruway Interchange). And so, looking to preserve some of Ramapo's heritage before it was lost, the town's eyes turned toward Sloatsburg, nestled in the Torne Valley.

Sloatsburg is a rather quaint, slightly grungy village on Route 17, just south of Tuxedo Park, that regional Valhalla of the rich and famous (well, at least rich.) It was named for the Sloat family, and for good reason. Stephen Sloat settled in the 18th century, married into the well-to-do local Dutch gentry, and prospered as a manufacturer and local muckety-muck. The Sloats operated a stone tavern, or public house, on Route 17, which for decades was a place of importance. Now an historic landmark, it still stands in Sloatsburg.

The ensuing generations of Sloats likewise prospered in various careers, many of them industrial. The family rock star, however, was probably Stephen Sloat's grandson, John Drake Sloat (1781-1867), who rose to the rank of Commodore in the U.S. Navy. In 1846, during the Mexican War, Commodore Sloat defeated the enemy at the Battle of Monterey, and then strode ashore, raised the stars and stripes, and claimed California as U.S. territory—the birth of a State.

Commodore Sloat's cousin, Jacob Sloat, stayed in the ancestral village and continued the family's industrial pursuits. He apparently had no taste for fame or public life, but he was, by several accounts, a mechanical genius. The Sloats had built their first cotton mill on the Ramapo River in 1815, and they did well milling and weaving the fiber, expanding the mill regularly.

By 1840, however, Jacob Sloat had developed a process for winding cotton into a dressed twine that was much in demand. Soon, the Sloat cotton mill focused exclusively on manufacturing cotton twine. At its peak, just before the Civil War, Sloat's twine factory employed 150 people and produced four tons of twine each week. It's no joke: Jacob Sloat made a fortune from string.

The mansion he built in 1848 reflected Sloat's rising fortunes, a huge three-story Greek Revival edifice surrounded by broad lawns, atop a sloping hill overlooking Sloatsburg. With flanking symmetrical wings and a front colonnade, the mansion exuded wealth and classical dignity—and as the dominant landmark in the village, it cemented Sloat's social status. Sloat gave the mansion a name that conveyed the dignified, peaceful atmosphere within: Harmony Hall.

No one seems to know who designed the mansion. Sloat himself, as an inventor, probably had a hand in it. Jasper Cropsey, the famed Hudson River school artist, who was also a trained architect, was a Sloat family friend and did sketches of the mansion; he, too may have aided in its design. Whoever designed it, it was the showplace of Sloatsburg, with fifteen-foot high ceilings, ornate plasterwork, marble fireplaces, and many other handsome details.

Jacob Sloat didn't get to enjoy the mansion for long. He died in 1858, a decade after it was built. His descendants also went on to prominent and interesting careers, including his grandson, Jacob Sloat Fassett, an important New York State politician and Republican candidate for Governor (he lost.) But by the turn of the century, Harmony Hall had ceased to be the family home, and was on to a new career as a restaurant and inn.

By the early 1900s, Route 17 was becoming increasingly important as a highway. This was decades before the New York State Thruway was built, and Route 17 was the main artery north toward the Catskills, the Shawangunks, Albany, and the Adirondacks. In summertime, it was a virtual parking lot (the joke was that local residents on either side of Route 17 shook hands just before Memorial Day, because they wouldn't be able to cross the highway again until after Labor Day.)

The commercial importance of this highway traffic helped tourist-oriented businesses like restaurants, and Harmony Hall went through several incarnations as a roadhouse and lodging. At the same time, Sloatsburg's old industries along the Ramapo River slowly died off, with Jacob Sloat's factory making its last twine in 1955.

After the New York State Thruway was opened in 1956, commercial businesses that depended on traffic on Route 17 took a hit. Harmony Hall changed roles again, this time being converted into a retirement home. At the same time, the vast spreading lawns that had once sloped away from it down toward the river were being sold off. The section along Route 17 became small businesses and a strip mall, while the side sections were sold off for housing. Still, sitting on a remaining two acres, the old mansion retained a considerable aura of dignity and charm.

That surviving historic charm would have been greatly reduced or eliminated by a recent plan to construct condominium townhouses around the surviving land around the mansion/retirement home. Seeing the preservation of the once-proud mansion and its grounds as an opportunity slipping away, the Town of Ramapo under the guidance of Supervisor Christopher P. St. Lawrence pursued the acquisition of Harmony Hall. Using some creative funding, including considerable grant moneys, they finally managed to acquire the mansion and surrounding two acres for $750,000 earlier this year. For lovers of history in Ramapo, Santa came early.

The plan is now to restore Harmony Hall, presently aluminum-sided, weather-beaten, and decayed, and transform it into a cultural and historic center for all sorts of community activities. The mansion was listed on the State Register of Historic Places on October 17 of this year, and listing on the National Register of Historic Places was expected before year's end. An aggressive plan of stabilization and restoration of the building has been advanced, and a live-in curator secured (Geoff Welch, the prominent regional environmental and historical activist).

A volunteer group, the Friends of Harmony Hall, has been formed to assist in the plans. In the short time the building has been in public ownership, the Friends have already hosted tours and put on a Victorian Holiday Celebration. I was lucky enough to go on one of the tours, and explored the old mansion from cellar to attic. It's a fascinating and handsome building that will, to be sure, require years of work to return to its former glory. But it does seem likely that within a few years, Jacob Sloat's mansion, Harmony Hall, will once again be the jewel of the Ramapo it once was.

For more information, you can contact the Friends of Harmony Hall, 15 Liberty Rock Road, Sloatsburg, NY, 10974, or call (845) 753-2727.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Baxter Homestead--a Glenwood (and Vernon) Landmark

Ron Dupont

The Vernon Township Historic Preservation Commission, relatively inactive for some three years, has sprung back to action over the last year under the leadership of chairperson Donna Wilson. Moving to Vernon several years ago from West Milford, Wilson brought with her a wealth of experience in historic preservation. She was long active with the Friends of Long Pond Ironworks State Park, and in moving to Vernon quickly became involved in historic preservation here.

Under her guidance, the Historic Preservation Commission has successfully advanced the first new nomination for a Town Historic Landmark in three years. The property in question is the home of Mike and Lisa Taplinger of Glenwood, historically known as the Baxter Homestead. Located on Route 517 in Glenwood, just south of Pochuck Valley Farms, the house has been a Vernon landmark for a century and a half.

Vernon’s Historic Preservation ordinance requires that the Commission review actions that could negatively affect the historic character of an officially registered site—such as alteration, additions, or demolition—at the same time they would normally be reviewed by other Town boards. The intent is to promote and encourage the preservation of historically significant structures while allowing owners to make improvements, repairs, and even convert the use of the structure.

Listing on Vernon Township’s Historic Landmark Registry can only occur with the consent of the owner. Mike Taplinger didn’t have to be convinced to let his house be listed. In fact, it was his idea. He purchased the historic home in 1989, and was immediately intrigued with the history of the property. Over the last decade and a half, he has undertaken the restoration of the exterior of the home, repairing and replacing intricate Victorian gingerbread, scraping and repairing original siding and trim, and returning the home to a traditional color scheme.

Vernon’s landmark registration process is based on that used for the State and National Register of Historic Places, and requires that a property be deemed significant for either archaeology, architecture, history, or its association with significant persons of our past. The Baxter Homestead was deemed significant for its architecture, and for the significance of the Baxters themselves, many of whom went on to notable careers.

The oldest part of the homestead was built c.1816 by Charles Baxter (they sometimes spelled their name Backster, too). The original dwelling was about half the size of the present one, which was the result of an addition, built in 1864 by Charles Baxter’s son John C. Baxter. The large wood frame house has decorative elements from both the Italianate and Gothic Revival styles, and would generally be described as “Folk Victorian.” It represents a well-preserved example of a fairly typical large, upscale farmhouse of a well-to-do Sussex County farmer from the Civil War era, and is architecturally significant for that reason.

It’s also significant for the Baxters themselves. Charles Baxter and his son John C. seemed to have been ordinary, prosperous farmers who led relatively unremarkable lives, but the third generation of Baxters made their mark. This was a time when farming could bring in real wealth, and it afforded the Baxters the ability to advance beyond farming into other endeavors.

Of the third generation of Baxters to live here in the mid-1800s, Charles J. Baxter (1841-1915) started out a schoolteacher and went on to become New Jersey State Superintendent of Schools. His brother John E. Baxter attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, and rose to the rank of Army Colonel. Another brother, George T. Baxter, graduated from Columbia University Law School and worked for the U.S. Treasury Department. All in all, not bad for the sons and grandsons of Sussex County dairy farmers!

After nearly a year of winding its way through the Township bureaucracy, the Historic Landmark Registration for the Baxter Homestead was finally approved by the Town Council in October. Though it was the first Landmark Registration to be advanced for a few years, it won’t be the last. Nominations for at least two more sites are in progress, and the Commission is putting the finishing touches on a master index of some 160 historic sites in Vernon Township. This will serve as a guide for future preservation efforts.

With every recent year seeing the destruction of one or more historic structures in Vernon Township, Commission members are hopeful that the Historic Landmarks Registry, along with their master index of historic sites, can reverse this trend. That is certainly Mike Taplinger’s hope for his home. Some folks might wince at the idea of needing more Township approvals to make changes to their property. But Taplinger was instead looking to the day when he might no longer be around to look out for his house, of which is he is so obviously proud and protective. He states it plainly: “I hope these efforts will result in the preservation of this house for years to come.”