Hudson: Revising History on Warren Street
Hudson resident Belinda Breese relates the saga of her house, one of the town’s earliest and among its proudest. Built in the late 18th century by a whaler from Providence, R.I., it later became a brothel; still later, welfare apartments. Now it has come full circle and resumed its rightful place as one of the jewels of Warren Street.
In 1784 two Quakers from Revolutionary War-torn Nantucket and Providence, sailed up the Hudson River looking for a safe place to resurrect the decimated whaling industry. They moored at Claverack Landing, a small Dutch settlement, where they negotiated with the locals to buy land on which to build a town and whaling port. One of the men, Thomas Jenkins, built the clapboard house that is now 103 Warren Street. His sons, who would become fabulously successful by the standards of their day, built the two grand brick houses next door, one of which is now the headquarters for the local branch of the DAR.
One hundred years later, the whaling trade had brought wealth to Hudson and sin to the lower part of Warren and adjacent Diamond (now Columbia) Streets. The streets near the port were lined with brothels, bars, and gambling parlors. Yet another century after that, in 2003, my real estate agent, Tom Swope, brought me to see what he described as “one of the best houses in Hudson.” By then, lower Warren Street had become a neighborhood of rundown houses, many of them subdivided into “Section 8 Housing”—welfare apartments. The shabby aluminum-sided place Tom showed me that day was in shambles. Inhabited by four families, it was dark and rank. I told Tom I wasn’t in the business of putting people out of their homes and fled.
After the tenants moved out, Tom begged me to return and give the house a second chance. Its historic assets, which he extolled as though they were museum-quality artifacts, were two closet doors in an upstairs bedroom and some wainscoting and a bit of molding in the front hall that he claimed dated from 1784. To my eye, the molding looked exactly like picture molding from Williams Lumber that had been painted over and over. Yet something drew me to the place, and, eventually, I took the plunge. Picking through the debris on closing day, I found a dusty lamp in the basement. The base was a saucy Spanish senorita, arms raised as if to hold a long-gone shade, the sole remnant of the house’s flamboyant past.
Fortunately, a sympathetic friend quickly introduced me to Reggie Young, of Project Management Studio, a miracle worker with an artist’s eye and an intimate knowledge of old houses. He became my guide, my best friend, my collaborator. He also proved to be a first-rate finder of old moldings, fixtures, mantles, door frames, and window glass. He and his team of talented artisans turned a crack house into a gem.
Under the aluminum siding, we discovered pine clapboard. It was in decent condition, though it looked as if it hadn’t been painted in more than two hundred years. The color resembled dried oak leaves, and it was so beautiful, I couldn’t think of another color I would prefer. To preserve the wood yet replicate the look, Jules Anderson and Reggie painted the clapboard pale mustard then rubbed in a purplish/raw umber glaze that was created for us by Michael Black of Liberty Paints. In the end (above), it exactly matched an oak leaf I had picked up in a parking lot.
We turned two small rooms into one large living room, patching the floor where a center fireplace had originally been. Much to the horror of the local Preservation Police, we rubbed white and a touch of raw umber stain into the pumpkin pine floors. At Keystone in Hudson, we found the neo-classical mantle and three of the window frames, which came from a house in Western New York State. Then David Wright, a brillliant, self-educated restoration carpenter replicated four more. The room is decorated with family heirlooms, including a Venetian child’s desk, one of a pair of screens my father brought back from Japan, and a Dutch painting of a little girl, mixed with furniture from local junk shops.
When we tore the house apart, we found ghost marks indicating that the original staircase had been in the center of the house, typical of Nantucket and Providence houses. Sometime in the 1920’s, the old staircase had been removed, and a new one was put in a different place. We put the stairs back in their original position but made them less narrow and steep (left). Again, eyebrows shot up among strict preservationists, but an architect friend, Robert Godwin, reasoned that the original owners would have preferred larger rooms and more gracious staircases had the technology existed then to heat them properly. To make the walls in the library (right) look like aged plaster, we mixed coffee grounds into wet plaster before troweling it on. The moldings and doors were salvaged from an old house on Union Street, and we found the mantle at Mark and Larry Antiques in Hudson. The bookcases are painted custom-blended bitter chocolate brown.
The original kitchen, with its cooking fireplace, complete with oven, is now the dining room. The original fire surround had been ripped out and the hole covered with sheetrock. Reggie found an old fire surround in Millbrook that was exactly the right size and even had the cutout for a beehive oven. All it needed was a mantle.
The new kitchen fills the footprint of one that was added in 1830. Opening to the garden are three pairs of 10’ mahogany doors that came, complete with their original fittings, from Buenos Aires via E-bay. The concrete floor has radiant heat, the cabinets are painted black, and the counters are recycled white marble from a demolished building in Albany.
This bedroom (left) had the only significant historic details remaining in the house—a pair of 18th-century closets flanking the fireplace. The replacement mantle came from Mark and Larry Antiques in Hudson. A guest bedroom (right) was rendered semi-private when we eliminated the ceiling and part of one wall so we’d be able to stand at the base of the new staircase and look up the stairwell to the old brick chimneys in the attic and to the peak of the roof.
A friend picked up the mirror that’s now in the master bath on the street in Manhattan. It was in pieces and had been sitting in her basement for years gathering dust, so we had to reassemble it. The old cupboard was only partially painted, so after Reggie added the shelves on the side, I swished blue milk paint over everything to blend the new wood with the old, and the unpainted with the painted. The counter is an old pine table.