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Posts Tagged ‘Nyack People’

I woke today trying to fathom a Nyack without George Bryant.  George Bernard Bryant, Jr. passed away at home last evening at the age of 77. George was one of those parts of life that you consider a “constant”, he was so faithfully, quietly, graciously THERE for so long, it seemed to many that he always WOULD be there.  This musician extraordinaire touched so many lives all over our area both as musician and passionate advocate for peace, mutual understanding, fellowship and ecumenism.

For those who don’t know, “Mr. Bryant” as he was frequently known, was the Organist, Liturgical Music Director, and Choir Director of Saint Ann’s in Nyack from 1966 to his retirement in 2014, as well as Organist for Temple Beth Torah in Upper Nyack from 1978 to 2014.  His reputation as both instrumentalist and instructor was not only national, but international, and yet this quiet self-effacing man chose to never leave his beloved Nyack for more than a few weeks at a time despite numerous offers over the course of his long musical career.

He was born June 17th, 1939 to Margaret Beirne Bryant and George Bernard Bryant, Sr and grew up on First Avenue around the corner from St. Ann’s.  George was a musical prodigy and despite his shyness, his talent was apparent at Nyack High School and the church, and his facility with keyboards, both piano and pipe organ, brought him to study at the prestigious Julliard School of Music.  In 1962, at the age of ONLY 22 (just barely, his birthday was only weeks away) George Bernard Bryant, Jr. received his Masters of Science degree from Julliard. Please note, a Master’s Degree at 22, and also note, not a Masters of Arts, but of SCIENCE a more difficult degree in Music.  He was truly both a passionate artist AND a brilliant technician.  He would go on to play recitals here and abroad but his heart and soul and life were in his little village “up the river” from Julliard.  George became musical director at St. Ann’s church a few years later, and despite many offers, including invitations to become organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, George stayed put in the house he grew up in on First Avenue, only venturing out of Nyack for the occasional master class, recital performance, international choir tour, or music festival and convention. It seemed he was quite content, first living with his parents, then inheriting the house and living with his dog for many years – though I never could tell if the poor thing was a really big beagle or a less woebegone basset hound…

Along with the two choirs, Catholic and Jewish, George had many private students and many of them would go on to great success in the competitive music world.  He was Vice President of the New York State Association of Music Teachers from 1986 to 2014, on the Board of Directors of the Rockland County Music Teachers from 1962 to his passing, a member of the National Pastoral Musicians, and several time recipient of Rockland Executive Arts Award from the County of Rockland, and in 1997 the George Bryant Organ Scholarship was established in his honor.  He helped found and guide the Rockland County Catholic Choir, and worked with many other Rockland Music groups and schools.

George was passionate about helping youth discover the magic of music – and not just classical or sacred music – but music of all kinds, all periods, all ethnicities.  When I joined the St. Ann’s Youth Choir at the age of 16 in 1979, it would be to join a group that sang not only old church dirges, but vibrant jazz, rock, broadway, creole, american spirituals, gospel and more. It was a multiethnic group, and of the teenagers that were members when I joined, George’s “kids” would go on – as I did – to a number of prestigious music schools and programs and follow with professional musical careers.  Alumni of that group inspired by “Mr. Bryant” would record hit albums (imagine a trance-dance track with a house beat and an operatic soprano soaring over the top… yeah, the album “Aria” for any former club kids featured a lead singer who was in St. Ann’s Youth Choir), others, careers in Musical Theater or Cabaret or Jazz, along with Classical Singers and Instrumentalists, and even a Jazz Vocalist who sang at the White House. Others would become Music Teachers themselves, as well as several who are also now Musical Directors at both St. Ann’s and other churches, Musical Therapists and even the head of People to People here in Rockland.

And somehow, we would all always come BACK to this man… for guidance, for practice, for a task master when needed, and a sympathetic ear if that was required. And we’d all do anything for him.  He wasn’t just a superb musician… he was also a superb human being.

Justice, Fellowship, Peace, Understanding, Civil Rights – these all meant so much to George Bryant. He was instrumental in many music programs – whether here in Nyack, or Rockland as a whole, or even in New York City – music programs that fostered interaction and understanding between different religions, different denominations, different races or different ethnicities all in a search for commonalities while celebrating each groups unique gifts and culture. He was extremely involved with the B’Nai B’rith’s “Brotherhood Thru Music” concerts back in the ’80s and the ’90s, where groups from different churches, synagogues and mosques as well as cultural groups, got together and entertained each other in rousing concerts of wildly different musical styles all celebrating our common humanity and always culminating with several pieces where all the groups performed as one whole.  Any fight for Human Dignity and Human Rights attracted his attention, and George’s most fervent, if innocent-sounding, wish was that we would all somehow learn not only to get along, but to appreciate and rejoice in our minor differences.

Heck, I learned a good amount of Hebrew during the many occasions where St. Ann’s Choir and Temple Beth Torah’s choir would come together for mixed performance and worship services!  To George Bryant, the “music” only got better as the “orchestra of life” added more and more instruments of all kinds, and voices of all kinds.

George was such an understated and constant part of our community that I think in some ways – completely without malice – his absolute genius got overlooked.  There were many times when I was cantor on the altar at St. Ann’s (especially once I actually became a seasoned performer myself) when George would be playing something and I would look out at the congregation wondering “since they hear him all the time, do they realize just HOW good he is? And how NOT normal a musician of this quality is in a suburban Catholic Church?”  The man could play a Fantasy on any given church hymn at the drop of a hat (a Fantasy is taking the basic melody and enhancing and embellishing it, especially with extremely fast and precise keyboard fingering).  He could look at a piece of sheet music he’d never seen before from any given Broadway Show and play every note on the page his first time through flawlessly and I’d even watched in awe when during one of the aforementioned “Brotherhood Thru Music” concerts, a Baptist Choir scheduled to close the show was late and was still robing when all the other performers had finished, so George Bryant, without sheet music, from memory only, proceeded to play several Chopin Nocturnes for the audience… and play them with delicacy, gentleness and sensitivity that could only be described as astonishing.

George Bernard Bryant - Facebook Photo

George Bernard Bryant – Facebook Photo

For many of us, Nyack’s George Bernard Bryant, Jr. was teacher, mentor, coach, therapist, motivator, occasional drill sergeant, and very much FRIEND.

He will be missed.

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I decided to re-visit this post today when a few serendipitous events kept leading back to one of our most famous or infamous (depending on the source) late residents.  It was spurred by attending an open house of a gorgeous listing my colleague and friend Donna Cox was having in a home that was located on the grounds of the former Clarkstown Country Club, owned by the above mentioned fellow.  No matter whether you thought he was a saint or a swindler, NO ONE could deny that he was truly UNIQUE.  Thanks to some additional information from the very knowledgable Jim Leiner, I can flesh out the story here for a bit. 

Okay, so the rest of the county – in fact, the rest of the state – has always accused Nyack and Nyackers of being a little well… different.  We tend not to march to quite the same drummer as most of the rest of the area, which may be what has attracted the artists, writers, musicians and all the rest to Nyack for so many years.  It’s not that we in Nyack “draw outside the lines” – we draw within the lines, we just use brighter colors!  

Many may think that New Age philosophy first made its’ appearance in Nyack during the Nyack Renaissance of the late 1970s.  Au contraire, mon amis! Let’s turn back the clock a moment to one of the most successful and celebrated New Age entrepreneurs of all time – Pierre Arnold Bernard.  After having been a bit too extreme for San Francisco and Manhattan (let’s imagine “too extreme for San Francisco and Manhattan” for a moment, shall we…), Mr. Bernard moved to Nyack in 1918 and first established the “Braeburn Country Club” where the Nyack Field Club is now located.  The property also contained the area where the elementary school now sits, and emblazoned above the entrance gate was a sign reading: “Here Philosopher May Dance, and The Fool Wear a Thinking Cap”.

The property had been world-famous at the end of the 1800s and first two decades of the 1900s as the home of the Nyack Tennis Tournament, a World Cup level tournament held yearly just a few days after the annual Forrest Hills tournament so that international competitors would have another American Tourney after having to spend 5 days to get here by Ocean Liner. (I discuss the Club’s earlier incarnation in my post http://bit.ly/2arZWX4 about our own Nyack  International Tennis star and foundress of the National Tennis Association, Augusta Bradley Chapman).

 According to Mr. Leiner, it was not until the 1920s when the “upper campus” which would become the Clarkstown Country Club consisted of 78 acres where the Junior High School and much of Nyack College sit today was acquired. He started building immediately and many of the current college buildings were actually originally part of the resort – the facility was completed with the construction of a stadium in Central Nyack in 1934. Though known in the press of the time as “The Omnipotent Oom” it appears the man himself preferred to be called either “Doc” or by his initials “P.A.” just as I’m referred to as “J.P.”.  On a more serious note, he IS credited with the real beginning of the yoga movement in the United States.  

The Club was part yoga center, part Ashram, part spa, part entertainment venue… and by many accounts a haven of the “Free Love” movement (look it up if you must!) and high-end opium resort catering to the rich and famous.it abounded with oddities, not the least being that the vast majority of the “Clarkstown” Country Club was located in Orangetown.  There was also a yacht, airplanes on the grounds, minor league class A baseball games – including night games under the lights in 1934, a permanent circus, and elephants – a small herd of them.  In fact, when the matriarch elephant “Mom” died at age 93 her obituary ran in The New York Times. And no, I’m really not kidding.  The elephants became a beloved and welcome part of the Nyack community for decades. In fact the uncle of a very close friend was one of their caretakers, and by all reports, they were EXTREMELY happy here – well treated, well housed, well fed, free to walk the grounds, and never ever living alone or chained (perhaps Mr. Bernard should have taught some things to Ringling Brothers).

photo from Nyack Library Collection

On the whole, Mr. Bernard appears to have been (at a distance of many years and cultural changes) equal parts serious scholar and charletan; a man who did indeed help many desperate people find some peace, but managed to have a rollicking good time doing so.  His interest in the tantric studio – along with some prior “issues” with police in other city dealing with drugs, sex and kidnapping charges – led to his actually being used as the template for several Hollywood “Swami” type villains (one played by W.C. Fields) and having a newspaper comic strip done as a parody of him.  

And yet, his clients were the Vanderbilts and other members of “The 400”. Respected scholars lectured at the Club, authors and artists flocked to his retreat, and like it or not, he moved yoga into the American consciousness for good.  By the time he passed away in 1955 at age 79, he was a Bank President; officer of the Nyack Chamber of Commerce; was head of a very large real estate holding company; held membership in The Masons, of all things; and yeah, he had ELEPHANTS.  His wife, Blanche DiVries, would continue to faithfully teach yoga here in Nyack well into my life time – she taught until 1980 and died in 1984.  

Now, how do I convince the Village Board to bring Elephants back to live in Nyack!

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This one from July 2013 bears re-posting. To the residents of Colonial Nyack, the Revolutionary War wasn’t some far away conflict, but part of their everyday lives. The first naval battle of the War and the first international salute to the new Country both took place right here in the Tappan Zee. See the struggle for freedom through THEIR eyes, and perhaps cherish “the great experiment” we call the United States a bit more. No human endeavor is ever perfect, and our Nation itself was born of compromise, for without it we would never have existed. We must still strive as our Nyack ancestors did to always make it better, to improve, to grow, and to continue striving in our national quest for “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…”

I started this post having just returned home from watching the skies over Memorial Park light up with glorious fireworks celebrating America’s Independence Day; which as usual thrilled and excited the huge crowds who came to the village to watch.  That got me wondering how many people watching with me realized that in a way they were watching a re-enactment of similar events that occurred over two hundred years ago in the same location, events that with one special exception, brought dread and pain rather than joy and celebration…

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When people think of “The Revolution” and Rockland County’s place in it, if they are aware of any connection most would think of Stony Point and Tappan.  Stony Point was the location of the Battle of Stony Point, and Tappan of course hosted Washington’s Headquarters and the famous trial and execution of Major John Andre (the British Officer who was the other important figure in Benedict Arnold’s thwarted plan to give over the plans to West Point).  Both locations are proud of the roles they played in the American War for Independence – and rightly so – however the rest of the county did not just sit idly by and twiddle their thumbs or hum “Yankee Doodle” while history was made nearby.  The Nyacks for instance were attacked by the Redcoats several times – not by land, but from the British War Vessels in our own Tappan Zee – the bombs bursting in air would come from the guns of warships firing on the homes, farms and businesses of the Hudson Shoreline.  In fact, the very first Naval Battle of the Revolution would take place right off our shores in our own Tappan Zee.  Later, the first ever acknowledgement of the United States of America as a Sovereign Nation would come as a seventeen-gun salute to General Washington from the guns of the British Warship fired with honor in the very same location just off our shore.

How Nyack and the Riverfront became a wartime target…

A bit of background would probably help in understanding how Nyack and what would become the other River villages wound up on the receiving end of Musketshot and Cannonballs.  When Nieuw Netherland was handed over to the British by the Dutch without a shot fired in 1664, bloodshed was prevented by some shrewd bargaining on both sides.  The British very much wanted the finest deep water port on the North American continent, and control of Hudson’s River beyond which all acknowledged would be the key to opening the continent’s interior.  Nieuw Amsterdam and Pavonia (today’s lower Manhattan and Jersey City/Hoboken) were already a very busy FREE port with goods leaving the New World and heading to many European, Caribbean and African ports without the hinderance of the English King’s royal tariffs and restrictions of the New England ports to the north or the Virginia port to the south.  Nieuw Netherland’s polyglot population, not just Dutch, but Walloon, Prussian, French Huguenot, Free West Africans and Caribs, Jewish Refugees, Irish, Moorish, and yes, Englishmen and women fleeing New England’s puritan regime made the young city and the Valley of the Hudson to the north the finest mercantile trading post and port on the continent.  The Duke of York wanted our port and our river, but he also wanted to keep it profitable and running just the way it had been – only now paying taxes to the British Crown rather than as a state of the Dutch Republic.  A student of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” the Duke did not want to mess with a system – no matter how quirky – that worked and showed a profit.  Peter Stuyvesant, discovering his city and the other communities of Nieuw Netherland beyond under the guns of a number of English Warships while he had nothing but his trading fleet in port meant there could simply be a massacre or there could be a deal.

The deal between the Duke and the Dutchman was called the “Articles of Capitulation” and transferred the ownership of the colony to England – under the written and signed treaty that allowed the colony – now separated into New York and New Jersey – to keep their freedom of religion (unlike New England), their system of courts (innocent until proven guilty, not the opposite as in the other colonies – as well as the public defender which did exist in English jurisprudence), allowance of women to own property (two of the major colonies that were part of Nieuw Netherland had been founded by women), manumission of slaves (slaves – black, indian or white – could not be kept in that condition for life, and could work their way to freeman status in just a few years, earn money while doing so, and could own property afterwards) and their continued status as a free port dealing directly with both London and Amsterdam as well as the rest of the Atlantic world.  That meant that the two middle colonies wound up with a host of freedoms the other 11 did not have or would not have until significantly later.  Oddly, that left New York colonists a bit ambivalent when it came to independence from the Crown – the Crown, frankly had for almost 100 years left them to their own devices demanding only their taxes.  While New England chafed under more and more crippling taxes and infringement of civil rights, life was better and easier here. It was only when King George III and Parliament started chipping away at the Articles that the residents of Nyack and Tappan and the rest of Orangetown felt that perhaps something was amiss and they needed to take action.

Take action they did – as I’ve written elsewhere in this blog – the locals met at Jost Mabie’s Tavern (now the ’76 House Restaurant) and drafted the Orangetown Resolutions – ON JULY 4,1774. Two years to the day before the Declaration of Independence would be signed in Philadelphia! In it they addressed the King and Parliament stating: “We cannot see the late Acts of Parliament imposing duties upon us, and the Act for shutting up the port of Boston, without declaring our abhorrence of measures so unconstitutional and big with destruction… That we are in duty bound to use every just and lawful measure, to obtain a repeal of Acts, not only destructive to us, but which of course must distress thousands in the mother country… That it is our unanimous opinion, that the stopping all exportation and importation to and from Great Britain and the West Indies, would be the most effectual method to obtain a speedy repeal.” This was not a call for separation from England, but a reminder to her government that their recent behavior had been abusive and disruptive to the colonies.  Unfortunately, George and his Parliament did not care for criticism very much, and declared the document treasonous and the residents of Orangetown rebellious and inciting of sedition. THAT response would push most of the population of what would become Rockland County into the Patriots camp, though a few notable citizens such as ferry mistress Molly Sneden remained Tory throughout the coming conflict.

Once the hostilities began, the British realized that New York and the Hudson Valley were critical to their efforts to break the rebellion and re-exert their rule in the lower 13 colonies.  By holding the Hudson, the British commanders felt they would have effectively driven a wedge between New England and the Southern colonies, had they been completely successful with the strategy we might still be singing “God Save the Queen” instead of the “Star Spangled Banner”.  On August 3, 1776 the American Galleys Whiting, Lady Washington, Crown and Spitfire engaged the British ships Phoenix, Roebuck and Tartar in the Tappan Zee in the first naval skirmish of the Revolution. The Patriots succeeded in keeping the Redcoats from heading further up the Hudson, and they were assisted by the local Shore Patrol on land with shots fired from the gun emplacements in Piermont (then known as Tappan Slote), Nyack and Upper Nyack. Retaliation came in the form of cannon-shot targeting shore side residences – the Haring Estate (now called the Onderdonk House in Piermont), the Cornelison home (a large colonial home where Salisbury Point Co-ops now stand) and the Hazzard Home near Hook Mountain took damage, but the enemy ships could not proceed further north.

October 15, 1776, Captain A. Hawkes Hay commanding repulsed an attack by the British on Nyack.  By the fall of 1776, the British were not only in control of the City of New York, they had also gained control of Harlem, Bloomingdale and the other communities on Upper Manhattan and Fort Lee on the Jersey side.  The Patriots firmly controlled the Hudson above West Point, but there was a struggle to keep the lower Hudson from coming under British control. Hay reported that the ships attempting to land at Nyack were prevented by the men under his command, including the use of the Swivel Gun emplacement in Upper Nyack.  Severe damage was done to the house and barn of Philip Sarvent and though only a few men were injured in this encounter (no deaths) there were several other attacks on the area in 1777 and 1780.  Hay’s own home would be targeted by the British from the River and destroyed in one of these raids, Major John Smith’s house in Upper Nyack destroyed in another.  Land incursions came as well – and not only soldiers were injured or died.  Horrified Patriots discovered the body of Mrs. Garret Myers on her farm near Rockland Lake left to rot with her face smashed in from attempting to protect herself and her farm from British soldiers intent on food and perhaps something else, as a young and attractive woman named Mrs. Snyder was raped and left for dead on her nearby farm by the Hook.

Salisbury Manor, home of the Cornelisons (hence, Cornelison Avenue) because of its exposed location continue to attract enemy fire from the Hudson, and it seems holes from musket balls were still present in the door frames up until the Manor Home was raised in the 1950s to build the Salisbury Co-ops.  A Tory neighbor, reportedly jealous of the lovely home, would betray Michael Cornelison Sr and his wife to the British for their efforts to assist the Patriots, imprisoning them in New York City – Mrs Cornelison was allowed to return to Nyack 6 months later, her husband would remain in custody for 3 additional months. Oddly, the same quisling neighbor did not alert the Redcoats to the presence of Michael Cornelison Jr, even though he spotted the young man hiding in the house’s vast rafters during the raid. It appears young Michael was a Mason as was the tattler, and I suppose Masons just don’t DO that to each other… not that it did the young man much good, as he had to suffer through the local British Commander using his home as a headquarters for several months! All that’s left of that historic home now are some of the sandstone blocks of the walls used as stairs leading to Salisbury Point’s pool.

At the time Nyack, though small, was the headquarters of the Whaling Fleet – all rugged ships and men who favored the Patriots and vigorously defended the Nyacks from attempted landing after attempted landing by the British. Between the Whaling Fleet, the very successful and accurate shore patrol and swivel guns, and a certain resident sea-captain named Henry Palmer (of the Old Palmer Burial Ground Palmers) the British fleet went from annoyance to absolute loathing of Nyack and fired at will at any visible structure whenever possible.

photo by J.P.Schutz

photo by J.P.Schutz

Captain Palmer owned a large vessel carrying goods for one of the largest mercantile firms in New York City prior to the outbreak of hostilities.  He was offered great monetary compensation for serving the King’s forces, but he adamantly refused – in fact, on his next sailings he transported two cargos of ammunition, arms and supplies “acquired” by the  Sons of Liberty from British supply depots in the city which he brought to the camp of the Continental Army. His activities made his family unsafe in Manhattan and he moved them to Broadway in Upper Nyack, near Old Mountain Road. From there he continued to harry the British and was responsible for repulsing attempted landings numerous times – with consistent fatal results for the British and naught but wounds for the Nyackers. In early July 1777 he and the Shore Guard fended off two boats killing 3 men; in late July they returned, both to attempt a landing and to destroy a sloop moored between the Palmer home and the Sarvent home. Palmer, Sarvent and the Shore Guard prevented three attempts at landing with the toll for the British this time at 9 men.   Later that year, the Upper Nyack swivel gun emplacement, close by his property, enabled the Nyackers to later capture two landing boats and send their crews over to Tappan as prisoners of war.  A warship becalmed off Nyack’s shore unable to reach land and floating with the tide saw the loss of 36 men to Palmer’s crew of fatally expert gunners.  The result of his actions was a constant barrage of enemy fire anytime a ship reached this far up the river. By 1781, Nyack’s defenders had in addition to the Shore Patrol and gun emplacements, six whaleboats and forty-two men led by Captain Palmer, Nyack’s own Bane of the British.  Major John L. Smith, Captain Aury Smith, and Corporal Philip Sarvent, three of our Revolutionary War heroes may be found resting beneath their headstones in the Old Palmer Burial Ground on Old Mountain Road in Upper Nyack. 

The British finally surrendered at Yorktown in October of 1782, though due to distance, travel time and red tape the Peace Treaty would not be fully signed until the next year. In May of 1783, General Washington met with Sir Guy Carleton in Tappan to confer on the final evacuation of British Troops from New York – they would then ride back to the riverfront to Onderdonk House on May 7th.  At that time Onderdonk House was owned by John Haring, who was our own representative at the Continental Congress. Onderdonk House, too, had taken an extreme beating from British guns during the war (looking at it today, in the process of some kind of restoration – we hope – it might look like it did at its worst).  Carlton and Washington were feted and feasted at Onderdonk House, and then the H.M.S. Perseverance fired its seventeen gun salute to honor Washington and to acknowledge, for the first time, our new sovereign nation – these United States of America.  That’s right folks, it happened… right here.

photo by J.P.Schutz

photo by J.P.Schutz

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I’ve just come from a remarkable event. This evening at Nyack Library, a documentary film by Director Tina Traster made its debut before a packed room of enthusiastic history buffs, both professional and casual. The film is appropriately and succinctly titled “THIS HOUSE MATTERS”.

An important film for preservationists everywhere, it features Nyack’s own John Green House, and the John Green House Preservation Coalition extensively, while also highlighting other Rockland County historic structures recently lost to the wrecking ball, others in peril of destruction, and those fortunate enough – like the Green House – to have found a respite from oblivion.  

Traster’s engaging and instructive film was prompted among other things by the loss of a Historical Treasure. See, you might not know that  the historically significant “Lent House” in Orangeburg – built in 1752 -was completely demolished last year on the weekend of Easter with almost no fanfare. The home was built by a Revolutionary War veteran and one of the signers of the Orangetown Resolutions (discussed in its own post on this blog). Though some minor and ultimately ineffective attempts were made to save the structure, nothing materialized and the financially cash-strapped owner (with some mild regret) allowed the beautiful Dutch Sandstone Colonial to be bulldozed. 

As a Realtor, I understand better than most the rights of property ownership and the amount of an individuals financial wealth that is tied up in any property owned. I could not blame the owner though it pains me to say so. As a Historian, this was a Crime Against History, and truly, I cried when I came upon the ruins of the structure unexpectedly last Spring. Full disclosure, as Village Historian I do appear in the film both in interviews, and some candid discussions.  The loss of the Lent House spurred local preservationists to action to prevent this from happening to other important structures. One of them was Nyack’s own John Green House – contrary to popular belief not the oldest house in the village, but the second oldest – it is however the oldest stone structure currently standing in the Village of Nyack, but the home of a man extremely important to the history of Nyack, Rockland County and for that matter, the entire Hudson Valley.

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The John Green House, circa 1900. Photo: Nyack Library Local History Collection

SO WHO WAS THIS JOHN GREEN?

John Green was an merchant, entrepreneur, speculator and developer in Nyack in the early 1800s. He arrived in Nyack shortly after the turn of the 19th Century from New York City where a fire had cost him his business and all of his belongings. He began work here as a common laborer and eventually saved enough to open the area’s first lumber yard. By 1812 he had amassed enough to become one of the original founders of The First Methodist-Episcopal Church of Nyack. Built in 1812-1813 of the same Dutch Sandstone the John Green House would use in its construction, we now know it as the Old Stone Church, Upper Nyack’s oldest structure. 

Using similar materials – reddish brown sandstone from the quarries in Nyack and Grandview, Green built his own three story home on lower Main Street, completing it in 1819. This was one of the last, if not the last, Gambrel-roofed Dutch Sandstone homes built in Rockland County in a style that was very specific to one place in the world, the lower Hudson Valley Communities in what are now Rockland and Bergen Counties.  This particular style are large solid homes, with brown rough cut sandstone walls as much as 27 inches thick, and with a Gambrel for a roof (that’s a roof, much like a barns that is shallow peaked at the top and on each side takes an abrupt sharper downward slant halfway between the peak of the roof and the roof line. Further distinguishing OUR Dutch Sandstone Colonials was the “flare” at the edges of the roof where today you would find rain gutters. This brilliant innovation was significantly better than what we currently use in shunting water away from a house’s foundation.

As he continued to prosper, Green saw a bright future for Rockland County and Nyack. Already, wind-driven sloops were bringing our contributions to the growing metropolis of New York – stone from Nyack’s quarries, ice from Rockland Lake, iron from the Ramapo mountains and Suffern, and what produce grew in our rocky, hilly county.  Green foresaw a need to get the products to New York City faster, and became the major sponsor of the Nyack Turnpike in the 1820s, a turnpike road that would connect Nyack to Suffern directly and cut hours off the trip.  Green also began to build a seaport for Nyack, and he began the first steam ferry and cargo runs from Nyack to New York City. He and his partners began construction of ‘The Orange’ (originally ‘The Nyack’) in 1826, not even 20 years from when the world’s first successful steamboat – Fulton’s ‘Cleremont’ first docked in Nyack. By 1828 ‘The Orange’ – or as some nicknamed the ungainly looking craft ‘The Pot Cheese’ was dutifully steaming back and forth to New York City daily carrying both freight and passengers. This only spurred more commerce, more boat and ship building for Nyack, our burgeoning textile industry and more. Green is truly one of the architects of the prosperity and development of Rockland County. 

John Green House 1984

The John Green House, circa 1984. Photo: Nyack Library Local History Collection

BUT WHY SAVE A WRECK?

Trust me when I say that as a Historian I saw the significance of John Green in Nyack and the County’s history, but as a Realtor – and a realist – I was not convinced the structure could be saved or if so, the cost could be justified.  I actually rented an apartment in the house to a young lady getting government assistance in 2004, it being the only apartment in the Village her stipend could pay for. The house was in tough shape THEN. It was purchased shortly after with intentions of renovation on the new owner’s part, only to be met face on with the housing crash. The owner could not renovate and put the house on the market. I believe I may have been one of the last Realtors to show the home before it was foreclosed upon. By that time, deterioration had accelerated significantly and a portion of the north east wall was beginning to collapse into the structure, and we dared not climb the almost non-existent stairs to the third floor. Shortly thereafter, the home was condemned and labeled dangerous.   

This is the picture I had in my head when some local historians and preservationists approached me as Nyack Historian and asked me to support the project. I was very reluctant to do so, because I feared the structure was too damaged to repair, or at least that such repair would be so prohibitively expensive that Nyack would wind up with another unfortunate circumstance like the old Helen Hayes Theater, which was land-marked, but could never raise enough funds to be repaired and so symbolically if not literally collapsed around itself and was lost, along with all the monies dumped into owning it and allegedly restoring the theater. 

However, the folks who would become The John Green Preservation Coalition were not pie-in-the-sky dreamers, but a determined group set out to do things correctly. Structural and engineering reports, work estimates, funding needs, timetables, possible usage outlines – all were presented professionally and efficiently, and slowly but surely my mind changed, and now I became convinced that the strengthening and restoring of the property WAS possible and not at an astronomical cost. I was thrilled that this looked like a project that would save something historically significant and actually work.

Wonderful things began to happen. The Coalition was able to acquire the foreclosed property after Rick Tannenbaum, an attorney and one of the group’s leaders, completed a complicated negotiation with Ocwen Loan Servicing, an Atlanta-based mortgage company. The result was that the bank GIFTED the house to the organization. This is unprecedented. Though very rarely banks will gift a foreclosed property, those gifted properties are always to municipalities, and generally for the purposes of creating additional affordable housing. Gifting a historically significant structure to a group of preservationist just had never been done before. I will however, lay heavy bets other groups around the country will be watching us closely and will attempt similar negotiations on other significant properties that have defaulted.  Not a single Nyack tax dollar was used or will be used on this project. The home is owned by the Non-Profit Coalition, not by the Village of Nyack.

Other wonderful things included support from local politicians like State Senator David Carlucci, Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart, Mayor Jen White and many others who it seems also found the destruction of the 1752 Lent House a wake-up call for our historic communities. Local businesses have contributed time, labor, materials, or in the case of my own company’s ‘Rand Community Fund’ made needed financial donations to the restoration. And with some melancholy, the destruction of the Lent House in a way will help preserve the John Green House. The Coalition was permitted to glean the original reddish brown sandstone blocks from the Lent House to rebuild the collapsing area of the north east wall of the John Green House. It’s almost like as it died, the Lent House gave an organ donation to save the Green House.

All this has come to pass on nothing more than the dedication and determination of this extraordinary group of historians, history buffs and history nerds who said with one voice “enough is enough, let’s do this”.  Folks like Upper Nyack Village Historian Winn Perry and local contractor Ken Sharp can be seen at the house doing backbreaking labor, volunteering their time (and probably blood, sweat and tears) to keeping this House alive and present in the Nyack Community. The day the official ceremony of donation was held in front of the John Green House, I was present (as you can see in the picture below) and the mood was astonishing… such a feeling of triumph, of hope, of accomplishment glowed off these folks that it was absolutely contagious. 

John Green House gifted to Preservationists

Gifting Ceremony, Summer 2015. Photo: Ken Sharp collection.

The John Green House is a success (knock wood) in the world of local history and preservation, a success that appears to come too infrequently recently. Tina Traster’s excellent documentary beautifully documents the lost, the saved, and those still in peril.  Look for its next screening near you, and don’t hesitate – make sure you see this call to action that reminds us that Nyack and all of Rockland are really special places indeed.

If you want to get involved with the restoration, or if you want to contribute, contact: THE JOHN GREEN PRESERVATION COALITION:  http://www.johngreencoalition.org/contact/ or http://www.johngreencoalition.org/donatesupport/ 

To watch the trailer and find out more about the film “THIS HOUSE MATTERS” by Tina Traster, go to: http://www.thishousematters.com/

 

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Anyone living in the area of North Broadway, or having reason to be there, will have noticed the roadbed torn up as utility work goes on. In an ongoing project, Orange & Rockland Utilities has been laying new modern high-pressure gas main lines alongside the old cast-iron gas mains. That got me thinking about our Village’s infrastructure – gas, water, sewer and electric services – and their historic presence within the Village. Though I plan to tackle each of the various utilities and services, in keeping with the current underground project, I’ll start with Gas.

photo by J.P, Schutz

photo by J.P, Schutz

So, just how old are those cast-iron gas mains? OLD, and I don’t mean like fifty or sixty years, I mean old. Thank goodness those cast-iron pipes were built to last, because they sure have. If you can take a look down into the trench while the workers are there (ask permission – I did!) and take a trip back in history. Right now they are passing Fourth Avenue and Broadway, which is my own corner, and those cast iron pipes are among the oldest in the Village – AND among the oldest in the country. According to the internal records of what is now Orange & Rockland Utilities, gas service for forty-one homes and business and an astonishing three street lamps began in Nyack in 1852 under the auspices of O&R’s earliest ancestor company. This early gas company incorporated as “The Nyack and Warren Gas Company” in 1859 and the first Gas Works buildings and the first mains were constructed and laid in that year.

An article in the Rockland County Journal dated August 27, 1859 – during the construction process – stated that the lines would run up Main Street from near the Hudson to what is now Franklin in large six-inch mains, continuing up to what is now Midland Avenue in slightly smaller diameter mains; the large mains would run south on Piermont Avenue to the Nyack Female Institute (on what is now Mansfield Avenue in South Nyack); and up Broadway to the Baptist Church at Fifth Avenue. Additional auxiliary lines of two and three-inch diameter would extend onto the smaller cross streets like New Street, High Avenue and First through Fifth Avenues, with pipes being extended free of charge (to residents and merchants) from the street mains to the curb until the potential customer decided they wanted gas service and paid to install pipes in their home or business with their gas meter being provided to them as a courtesy.

My own corner of Fourth Avenue and Broadway was part of that original roll-out of cast-iron gas mains – which means those cast-iron pipes on my corner have been there for 155 years. That’s one hundred and fifty-five YEARS… before Lincoln was elected President. Now there are some more recent vintage lines running parallel to the original cast-iron mains, but according to the workers on the site it is those more recent vintage materials which are actually the ones being replaced leaving the new high-pressure high-tech lines in tandem with the still reliable old cast irons as their safety and back-up.

photo by J.P. Schutz

photo by J.P. Schutz

 

The laying of the original gas mains was completed by October of 1859, and by that time there were more business and residential customers, and the number of street lamps in Nyack was up to twenty-one. Interestingly, at the time most of the street lamps were owned privately by businesses or by groups of residents who wanted one for safety and convenience on the street outside their homes. Only THREE of those lamps in 1859 were owned by the Village, those being located at Broadway and First, and two between Broadway and New Street (and no, Village Hall wasn’t on that block yet, so that is NOT why!).

Another article in the Rockland County Journal, written on June 16, 1860 discussed at length the new Nyack Gas Works and a tour the reporter was given of the facility. At the time, the gas for local customers was derived from coal. Coal was heated in the “retort house” until gas was released, leaving behind coke and ash. The gas was released into a “hydraolic main” (their spelling, not mine!) which directed it into a condenser where tar and ammonia were removed from the gas by utilizing the suspension properties of the water in the cooling tanks. Finally the gas reached the “purifying house” where passing through lime purifiers the remaining impurities consisting of carbonic acid and hydrogen sulfide were scrubbed from the gas. It was then piped to the twelve by thirty-six foot cylinder that stored all the gas the six hundred and twenty-four gas burners and twenty-one street lamps Nyack of 1860 required for a 24 hour period. The reporter for the Rockland County Journal was actually even more specific on the process – if you’d like to know more about the process, I highly recommend the article which can be found in the HRVH Historical Newspaper Archives available on-line.

According to Frank Green’s “The History of Rockland County” (published in 1886) upon their construction in 1859, the Nyack Gas Works were managed by Isaac W. Canfield and O&R states the owners at the time were Messrs. Haughwout & Company. The construction of the Gas Works and laying of the mains were supervised by the Treadwell Company, considered the national leader in such gas infrastructure at this early time. By 1872 many more local customers had been added, but mismanagement of the company had it on the verge of bankruptcy when the Hon. William Voorhis came to the rescue and purchased the Nyack Gas Works, becoming its’ President. Interestingly, it was in 1872 that Nyack business leaders sought to incorporate what are now Nyack, Upper Nyack, South Nyack and Central Nyack as one large Village only to have Upper Nyack back out and incorporate on its own, mainly due to objections on paying taxes on gas service that Upper Nyack did not yet at that point receive. (You can read more about how the various Nyacks came to exist in my August 2011 article “126 Years Ago Today: Upper Nyack’s Post Office and the Nyack’s ‘Break-up’.” http://bit.ly/1lKFaSr)

It is very interesting to note that the self-same Mr. Voorhis would charter the “Nyack Water Works Company” in early 1873, and become president of THAT utility supplier as well. I’ll discuss when I follow-up this post with a discussion of the Nyack Water Company.

The Nyack Gas Works re-incorporated as the “Nyack Gas and Light Fuel Company”, still under the auspices of Mr. Voorhis. In 1899, the company found itself with a local rival. A gentleman from Upper Nyack, one S.R. Bradley, invented a product called “Orangeburg Pipe” named after the location of the factory in which he produced the product – an industry staple in the Electrical Field until well into the 20th Century. His holdings in Orangeburg and Blauvelt needed power – both gas and new-fangled electric – and so he formed the “Rockland Light and Power Company” in 1899 becoming its president. Mr. Bradley would go on to purchase the Nyack Gas and Light Fuel Company in 1905, and merge it into Rockland Light and Power. Bradley’s “Orangeburg Pipe” (a fully recycled product a century ahead of its time) would become legendary and he is remembered by the names of the Bradley Industrial Park and Bradley Parkway, the road that runs over Clausland Mountain from Blauvelt to Nyack. (Mr. Bradley’s daughter, Augusta Chapman Bradley was a lifelong Upper Nyack resident and International Tennis Star with a 30 year professional career winning 60 major tournaments who helped found the National Tennis Association – a natural for the Rockland County Sports Hall of Fame, her career is the earliest time-wise of all the honorees. Read about her in my September 2011 article “100 Years Ago This Month: Nyack’s National Tennis Tournament” http://bit.ly/1mcZP0a).

Nearby, the “Orange Utility Company” was founded in 1905, which was then acquired by Rockland Light and Power in 1924 creating the subsidiary “Orange and Rockland Electric Company”. Rockland Light and Power re-incorporated in 1926, and pioneered the delivery of clean natural gas in 1935. In 1958, Rockland Light and Power received permission from the Federal Public Service Commission to consolidate its subsidiary Orange and Rockland Electric. The fully merged company was renamed “Orange and Rockland Utilities, Inc.” It would be purchased in 1999 by Consolidated Edison of New York City for $790 million dollars. According to the deal records of Lehman Brothers in the Harvard Business Library, after the acquisition analysts claimed this was a substantial and possibly illegal undervaluation of Orange and Rockland.

So there’s a snapshot of the history of gas service in Nyack – one of the earliest in the country and despite some bumps, still steadily serving the community that nurtured its’ birth.

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Today the National September 11 Memorial Museum was opened in a moving and solemn ceremony attended by current and past Presidents, Governors, Mayors and many other notables. President Obama addressed those assembled for just nine minutes, and more than half of those nine minutes were devoted to speaking about and remembering a remarkable young man – “The Man in the Red Bandana” – a young man who saved so many others that day, but lost his own life returning for yet more people to save. 

That young man, was Welles Remy Crowther – a Nyack High School graduate and Nyack Volunteer Fireman who was beginning his career in Finance.  It was touching and bittersweet for the president to spend so much time on this astonishing young man from Nyack, but an even more affecting moment was to come. Allison Crowther, our fellow Nyacker, and a colleague of mine in local Real Estate spoke AFTER the President’s moving account of her son’s heroism.  She managed to remain calm, poised and focused on the words she came to say… and as I listened to Allison, I realized as perhaps never before, how close to the tree that apple fell. 

This woman, who with her husband established a charitable trust in her son’s name, did not turn to darkness in her grief.  Just as her son did, she epitomizes the words of the prayer of St. Francis – “where there is darkness, let me bring light – where there is injury, pardon – where there is hatred, love…”  A remarkable family all around, and a true case of “like mother, like son”.  I felt this was a good time to repost one of my blogs about Wells Remy Crowther which I had written back in 2011 on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.  My fear then had been that this courageous young man might be forgotten… how glad I am to have been proved wrong…

 

Repost:  10 Years Ago Today: 9/11/2001 Nyack’s 9-11 Hero – originally posted 9/11/11

I’ve been planning a post about a certain young man for almost a year – half out of the concern that perhaps he’d be forgotten in the crush of politicization of the event; conflict over the museum and memorial; bickering between New York and New Jersey over who should be “invited”; the inevitable conspiracy theories and an undercurrent of still simmering anger and unresolved grief. I was wrong.  Mercifully  he has NOT been forgotten in the chaos of this anniversary. People have remembered to celebrate and tell the story of this remarkable young man.  The mysterious and miraculous “Man in the Red Bandana”, a Nyacker who on 9/11/2001 lived – and died – according to what he believed and what he had been taught by his family, his church and his schools growing up among us. Welles Remy Crowther, NHS Class of 1995. He did us all proud.

The Honor Student from Nyack High and volunteer member of the Empire Hook and Ladder Co. in Upper Nyack graduated from Boston College in 1999. He was working at Sandler O’Neill & Partners as an Equities Trader. From his lofty office on the 104th Floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower it seemed that the world was literally and figuratively at the feet of this polite, dedicated, brilliant young man.  Then that dream exploded on the wings of hijacked planes and a religion hijacked by fanatical extremist devotees.  Wells Remy Crowther would counter those acts of crushing hate with acts of towering love. 

This athletic young man would have easily made it out, and could have. At 9:12 AM he would call his mother in Upper Nyack from his cellphone to say he was okay. His mother would never hear his voice again. For Wells Crowther (who had already somehow miraculously made it down to the 78th floor skylobby from the 104th) could not see the pain and fear and confusion in the Skylobby’s burning ruins and not ACT.  He led people to the only remaining usable stairwell to the lower floors and carried a facially burned woman down all the way to the 61st… and then he went back up for more people, and brought them down, then back up again… On March 19, 2002 Wells Remy Crowther was finally recovered in the company of several FDNY and EMS members – the group had been heading back UP with a ‘jaws of life’ device when the South Tower followed its’ sister in a slow cascade of doomed hopes and broken dreams. At least 18 people are known to owe their lives directly to the selfless acts committed by a man in a red bandanna. On December 15, 2006, through a Special Commendation by the NYC Fire Commissioner Welles Remy Crowther was made an honorary member of the FDNY.  This was the first time in history that the department had done that posthumously. The Crowther family was presented with a framed certificate of appointment which included a department badge and a red bandanna.

The word “hero” is sadly overused these days.  Pampered overpaid athletes simply doing their job are not heroes.  Politicians mouthing platitudes  and slogans of every variety are not heroes. Even those who survive an act of horrifying evil, or lose someone to it, are not heroes but victims of an assault on humanity. People who put their lives on the line everyday fighting fires, crimes and dire illnesses – or fighting in service of their country – are heroes. And people who go back upstairs over and over in a conflagration of staggering proportions, knowing full well that the edifice’s twin has already collapsed, and who are not even “official” rescue workers on the scene? Well to me, that’s the definition of a superhero, or perhaps, a saint. In the spirit of “No greater love than this…” , young Mr. Crowther laid down his life – not even for friends – but for perfect strangers. Strangers he believed were his brothers and sisters in the human condition. When I reach my last day on Earth, I hope that I can face it the way Wells Remy Crowther did – with courage, honor and love.

photo: Welles Remy Crowther Charitable Trust

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So, the Sochi Games are up and running and athletes all over the world are sliding, flying, spiraling, slaloming and sweeping their way into the history books… does Nyack have a connection?

One of my favorite things to research is any connection Nyack or the surrounding area has with famous events, people or things – particularly if the aforementioned famous items also happen to coincide with other interests of mine.  I was thrilled when I found that Nyack had a Titanic survivor; let alone the World War I spy ring that connected Nyack to some of the most famous (and infamous) ocean liners of all time; or Marilyn Monroe’s visit – and I think by now most of my readers know that I just love the fact that Nyack was home to a small herd of elephants for decades!

So, I hoped to find some connection between our home and my favorite quadrennial sporting event, the Winter Olympics…

I must admit, that I scored neither a Gold nor a Silver in my search, but I do think I grabbed a Bronze.  I have yet to find a link between Nyack and Sochi – and considering the human rights atmosphere over there, that is just fine with me. However, there ARE some cool facts I can send sliding down the ice…

Bear Mountain Inn photo courtesy of the Nyack Library Collection

Bear Mountain Inn photo courtesy of the Nyack Library Collection

1. THE 1932 WINTER OLYMPICS WERE ALMOST HELD HERE.  Not kidding. Just like today, the IOC seriously considered several possible locations for the ’32 Winter Games which eventually wound up in Lake Placid, New York. Those locations included famous world locations like Oslo, Montreal, Denver and Bear Mountain. Yep, Bear Mountain, Rockland County, New York just up 9W.  See, at the time, Bear Mountain was the premier Ski Jumping site in the entire United States and with the world-famous (at the time) Bear Mountain Lodge, our own state park was almost given the nod for the Games, but lost in the final round to our upstate neighbors.  That Ski Jump would continue to be used (especially by the cadets at West Point) up until 1990 when it was finally retired.  As a consolation prize, Bear Mountain would wind up being the Spring Training location for the Brooklyn Dodgers during the World War II years.  And for a closer tie to Nyack, the then ultra-hip Bear Mountain Inn was managed by the father of our former mayor, Terri Hekker.

Bear Mtn Inn from the Ski Slope. Photo courtesy of Palisades Park Commission.

Bear Mtn Inn from the Ski Slope. Photo courtesy of Palisades Park Commission.

2. THE NBC OLYMPIC BROADCAST SET WAS DESIGNED HERE.
Black Walnut, a design company from Valley Cottage is responsible for the spectacular NBC broadcast sets.  Though one of the largest jobs they’ve ever done, they are not new to this kind of work.  They describe themselves as “fabricators of scenic environments for television, exhibits, live events and theatre” – and they do a superb job, made evident by their Emmy Award winning status.  Along with NBC’s Sochi studios, they’ve also designed and fabricated other NBC News sets here in New York, along with sets for Major League Baseball, Fox Sports, The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, Rock Center, The Weather Channel, and even our local Channel 12 News Studios.  Check out their work at their website http://blackwalnut.tv.

3. A US WOMEN’S CHAMPION IN SKELETON IS FROM HERE.
Katie Koczynski of Upper Nyack competed in three World Cup Championships for the United States in 3 years, 2003, 2004, and 2005 – with a Fourth Place finish at the Calgary World Cup in 2003, a very high placement for an American Slider. Though she did not compete in Turino in 2006, she did bring worldwide attention to the American Team and to our women sliders particularly.  All while maintaining a 3.8 GPA at Columbia University, remaining on the Dean’s List and graduating Cum Laude in Sociology in 2006.  At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, her then boyfriend Bill Demong – a Gold Medal winner in the 10 km large hill Nordic Combined, and a Silver Medal in the 4×5 km team Nordic Combined in Vancouver proposed to her in front of his teammates and coaches.  Bill Demong is in Sochi trying to do a repeat, and his now wife Katie is rooting him on…

The Proposal. Photo from skitrax.com.

The Proposal. Photo from skitrax.com.

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