Hudson’s Oliver Bronson House: History in Brackets
By Shawn Hartley Hancock
Among the Hudson Valley’s many historic homes is one that’s still a well-kept secret, mostly because of its location on the grounds of the Hudson Correctional Facility, an impediment that adds an obstacle for visitors sensitive to strip searches. (We’re kidding about the strip search, but prisons and historic mansions make unlikely bedfellows.)
The Plumb-Bronson House (also known as The Oliver Bronson House) is a rare example of Alexander Jackson Davis’s Picturesque Bracketed style of architecture, which became the national standard in the 1840s and 1850s. Sitting high above the river on the outskirts of Hudson, and now at an optimistic stage in its long restoration, the Oliver Bronson House will be open to the public for guided tours this weekend and next.
Initially built as an elegant Federal-style residence by Hudson merchant Samuel Plumb more than 200 years ago, the Bronson house is even more special because of changes to its structure and the surrounding 250-acre landscape in two renovations, one in 1839 and another in 1849, by Davis for new owner Dr. Oliver Bronson. Davis transformed the house into one of the best and earliest surviving examples of the “Hudson River Bracketed” style. Davis and A.J. Downing are regarded up and down the Hudson Valley as leaders in the Picturesque style of American architecture. (Image at right courtesy of Michael Fredericks.)
The home’s charming details include egg and dart verge board, elaborate trellis work, and, of course, those romantic ornamental brackets. Inside, the distinctive three-story elliptical staircase is an obvious scene-stealer, but the house is full of interesting detail. The 1849 addition doubled its size and included an octagonal gallery with “an enfilade of rooms that bring in lots of light,” according to Peter Watson, Jr., a historic preservationist and keeper of the blog Dr. Oliver Bronson House Day Book, which chronicles the restoration. “It’s a monster of a house,” he says. “Everyone relates to it in different ways — some respond to the sense of decay — you know, works of man undone by nature. Others are interested in the architectural detail.” Scenes for the motion picture “The Bourne Legacy” were filmed at the house and it has been the backdrop for catalog and other photo shoots. (The photo below is from one of those shoots, for the home furnishings and women’s clothing company Anthropologie.)
After life as a gracious country residence, the property was bought by the state for use as a prison, with the house serving as a residence for the prison’s superintendent. The New York State Training School for Girls, a euphemism for a girls’ reformatory, operated there from 1904 until it closed in 1976, and can boast one famous “guest,” the 16-year-old Ella Fitzgerald, who was incarcerated in the 1930s before her singing career took off. After the reformatory closed, the house sat empty and derelict until the preservation group Historic Hudson took it over in 1997, got it named a National Historic Landmark in 2003, and jumped in whole-hog to faithfully advocate for its stewardship, stabilization, and restoration, after a long battle to win a long-term lease for the property from the state in 2008.
Historic Hudson’s Chair, Tim Dunleavy, says the current push to raise $100,000 is especially important as it will match a recent $300,000 grant from the Capital Region Economic Development Council and bring the restoration within range of completion.
Both this weekend, June 1 and 2, and next, June 8 and 9, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the house will be open through The New York State Path Through History initiative, which connects the public with historical attractions throughout the state. The final weekend includes “If these walls could talk…” an exhibit presented in conjunction with the Prison Public Memory Project that will explore life inside the former reformatory. Guided tours will be held at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.