by Bill Batson
The Nyack Sketch Log is now a walking tour. What started as a digital diary of village life is now an ambulatory adventure through the streets that inspired over 300 short essays and sketches. Meet visitors and neighbors who share your fascination with the racial, cultural, and socio economic history of Nyack. Learn more about local people and places of interest, viewed through the prism of my family’s 130 years of village residency. Twenty five percent of the proceeds from the inaugural tours on October 6, 2018 will go to the Historical Society of the Nyacks.
Here are some highlights of the first ever sketch log tour. I hope my mixture of personal history and facts unearthed during 8 years of researching, writing and illustrating a local history column will be edifying. You will encounter compelling narratives, hiding in plain sight.
The tours starts at the John Green house, the oldest standing structure in Nyack and ends at the Historical Society Museum, where you can purchase books by local authors and historic maps of the village, and listen to oral histories from the current exhibit, the Nyack Record Shop Project.
The premise behind the Nyack Sketch Log has always been that the unexamined place is not worth inhabiting. As we learn from each other’s lived experiences and avail ourselves to the local historic record, we become more aware of the needs of our communities.
This knowledge, collectively gathered, maintained and shared, will make us better and more zealous defenders of our democratic institutions and our built and natural environment.
Nyack Sketch Log Tour: A few Selected Stops
Since his death in 1842, John Green’s house has lived on, standing at the foot of Main Street, occupied by a litany of various owners and tenants. Neglect from an absentee landlord almost caused her collapse. But the John Green Preservation Coalition came to her rescue. Marshaling legal resources and skilled labor, they saved Nyack’s oldest building for future generations to contemplate and enjoy.
This house was saved from destruction in the early 1970s by an ad-hoc coalition that included neighbors, Rotarians, labor unions, students and artists. Not many causes can assemble such a vast cross section of humanity, fewer can inspire the kind of contributions that were necessary to restore a structure that was literally a few signatures away from condemnation. The family that once lived in this home at the intersection of North Broadway and Second Avenue provided the motivation. This is the childhood home of one of America’s greatest visual artists, Edward Hopper.
Couch Court originally published January 24, 2012
Corner of South Broadway and Depew
Not every beautiful old house in Nyack merits its own historic marker. For other properties, the traditional historic marker is not a loud enough shout out. Clearly, there are many addresses that could compete for the title of most interesting building in the village. In lieu of the debate over criteria, and before a jury can be impaneled, I suggest the former offices of feminist pioneer Natalie Couch for future consideration.
Bench by the Road originally published November 18, 2014
On May 18, 2015 several hundred citizens, students, historians and fans of Beloved author Toni Morrison came to Memorial Park to dedicate a Bench By The Road monument to the 19th century entrepreneur and Underground Railroad conductor Cynthia Hesdra.
Enjoy the beauty and history of Nyack in my first ever Nyack Sketch Log walking tour. This tour will take place on October 6th from 11am-1pm & 2pm-4pm. All tours start at the John Green House and end at the Historical Society of the Nyacks Museum. Tour price includes admission to the Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center and the Historical Society of the Nyacks Museum (a suggested donation is encouraged at both venues). Cost is $20 per person. Visit https://nyacksketchlogtour.brownpapertickets.com/ or stop by the my booth at the Nyack Farmer’s Market to purchase tickets.
Special thanks to Bonnie Timm for her skill and artistry and to Dave Zornow, who urged me to turn my text into a tour.
by Bill Batson
Once upon a time, a couple who wrote and illustrated children’s books built this fairy tale house. Berta and Elmer Hader used the materials they had in abundant supply: imagination, stone from the quarry on the property, marital bliss and a love for the environment.
For over 50 years, the Haders held creative court on Willow Hill. The couple met at an artists’ colony in San Francisco in 1912. When Elmer went to Europe to fight in World War I, Berta came to New York to work at McCalls and Good Housekeeping magazines.
A lifetime of Art
The art and literature of Berta and Elmer Hader
Berta and Elmer Hader illustrated over 100 books, including the Caldecott winning “The Big Snow.” John Steinbeck asked Elmer to illustrate the jacket covers for “The Grapes of Wrath”, East of Eden,” The Winter of our Discontent” and “The Long Valley.”
The couple married in 1919 upon Elmer’s return from the war. Berta wore a wedding gown embroidered by the daughter of writer Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Haders helped Wilder publish the first volume of her seminal series, “Little House on the Prairie.”
In a column for a local charity journal in 1962, the Haders described their love- at-first-sight reaction to Grand View-on-Hudson. “Every bend of the road disclosed green lawns, flower gardens and clapboard houses – Many of them like pictures in Godey’s Lady’s Book (the most widely circulated magazine in the period before the Civil War)…We sat down to rest on a low stone wall, where we could see the river. A few young people in canoes paddled along close to the shore..we decided this was just the place.”
The land was purchased for a pittance because it was believed that the grade of the hill was too steep for construction. According to Grand View historian Terry Talley, “part of the down payment was paid by Elmer by doing a portrait of the lady who owned the property.”
Between 1921 and 1925, the Haders welcomed a steady stream of friends to help build their story book home. When completed, the dining room/studio was, according to various estimates, 60’ by 40′ feet with a 25’ ceiling. A stage was installed at one end of the grand room for skits, readings and musical performances. Apparently, Elmer did not require much convincing to produce and pick his banjo, that like his bohemian bungalow, was built with his own hands.
During the week, the stage served the Haders as their illustration studio. The light from floor to ceiling windows illuminated their work space. Even though the dwelling was designed for the artist owners, the accommodations were also ideal for their myriad friends, of both the human and woodland variety.
Interior features included seven working fire places and a table that could seat 25, where Berta would ladle out her famous soup. Nineteen bird houses were built into the exterior walls of the house, encouraging their avian acquaintances to linger and perhaps pose. A hand-fed baby bird became the muse for “The Friendly Phoebe.” Field mice, squirrels and chipmunks also got their own titles.
The vistas, neighbors, flora and fauna that the Haders encountered each day became the motif for over 100 books. Nyack is the template for a generic village depicted in their book, “Little Town.” In “The Big Snow,” two pheasants, who may have walked through Willow Hill are in the foreground of one panel, with geese in flight above the iconic silhouette of Hook Mountain in the distance.
For the Haders, the house was like a painting that never left the easel. It was a work in progress that was always being revised and refined. In a 1950s letter the Haders wrote, “Life moves along in the same groove in Hader’s Hovel. A nicely balanced diet of work and play and work keeps us a step ahead of the sheriff and not too busy on book work to prevent patching and repairing the little cottage we started to build a quarter of a century ago. Just a little progress since you last saw the place..we now have door knobs and locks on most all of the doors. Our friends have to be taught how to use them.”
In the fantasy world that the Haders created and occupied, you can just imagine a possum reaching into its pouch to pull out a key that the couple provided their marsupial friend.
For fifty years, the Haders held their ground in their forested fortress of creativity. For forty years they produced a book a year for MacMillan Publishing. In 1948, they won the Caldecott award for “The Big Snow.”
Elmer applied the same zeal into the protection of the environment that he put into its depiction. Hader became a vocal environmentalist, serving as the Vice President of the Hudson River Conservation Society and Zoning Administrator for Grand View for over 40 years. On September 7, 1973 Elmer Hader passed away at the age of 85. His wife, Berta, died three years later at the same age.
Sitting above a well traveled road, the home that Berta and Elmer built tells a story to all who pass. Anyone who catches a glimpse of the little stone house is entranced and transported. The stones that form steps, wells, walls and the dwelling seem assembled by playful hands. In a seasonal game of hide and seek, the main structure is camouflaged by a forest of maples, ash, oaks, aspens, pines and tall sycamores. The ground concealed by a carpet of honeysuckle, elderberries and vines. For people who slow down and look closely, the fairy tale house reveals itself, affirming the virtues of a life dedicated to fable-making.
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: ” Authors of Children’s Books Built Fairy Tale Home” © 2018 Bill Batson. To see more, visit billbatsonarts.com
by Bill Batson
Over two dozen local African American oral histories collected by Nyack Record Shop Project volunteers in January 2018 form the basis of two upcoming events. On Saturday, September 8 at 1pm, an exhibit of images and audio will open at the museum of the Historical Society of the Nyacks. On Tuesday, September 11 at 7p, I am moderating a panel of Nyack Record Shop Project storytellers at the Nyack Library. Invest sometime at either Record Shop Project event and sample a collection of local history that represents 1,540 years of “living while black” in Nyack.
The Nyack Record Shop Project collected oral histories from the African American community for a week at Grace Episcopal Church, Main Street Beat and Meals on Wheels Nyack. The effort was launched on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Birthday – January 15, 2018 at the interfaith service commemorating Dr. King and his life’s work hosted by Dr. Frances E. Pratt, President of the Nyack branch of the NAACP.
The collaboration was inspired by the Beacon Project an exhibit of photographs by Carrie May Weems taken in a Hudson Valley village similar to Nyack. Oral histories that she collected in a record shop informed the series.
The project was the result of a collaboration of arts, civic, religious and local history organizations led by the Edward Hopper House Museum and Study Center and the Historical Society of the Nyack. I was invited to serve as Director.
The positive impact of the Nyack Record Shop project is underscored by the numbers: before this initiative, the Nyack Library had approximately 65 oral histories on file, and of those, only eight were of African Americans. Now there are 92 oral histories in total with 36 from the African American community. According to the 2010 census, Nyack is 23% African American. Thus, as a result of the Nyack Record Shop Project, 30% of the archived oral histories on record are from the African American community, a rare example of social equity skewing in favor of a marginalized group.
When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed 50 years ago in April of 2018, the assassin was not just trying to silence a man, but a people. A people who believe in freedom, and who will not rest until it’s achieved. A people who are proud of their ancestry, despite being called inferior and indolent by the dominant culture in America and Europe. A community that in Nyack has not allowed the infamous act of a murderer with a fire arm to silence the voice of the generation who endured and overthrew the tradition of Jim Crow racial discrimination in America. We will not be the complicit in our one eradication– if we fail to record the life story of our elders before they depart, we are finishing the job King’s assassins started.
Would you ever throw out your cell phone without downloading all the memory: phone numbers and photos, password and personal information? That’s what we do when we let our elders go to sleep without down loading their memories. Come plug into this stream of first-hand lived experience and learn about the value and vitality of local oral history.
The oral histories collected by the Nyack Record Shop Project can also be heard at the soundcloud.
Nyack Record Shop Project Exhibit
This exhibit will share images of the 28 men and women who gave interviews in January, 2018 excerpts from the transcripts, and other documents and artifacts during the Nyack Record Shop Project. There will be a listen station where visitors can enjoy the interviews.
There will be an opening reception on Saturday, September 8 at 1p at the Historical Society Museum located in the bottom of the Depew House at 50 Piermont Avenue, directly behind the Nyack Library. The museum is open from 1p – 4p on Saturdays. The Nyack Record Shop Project exhibit is on display until October 6.
Three New John Scott Armchair Tours Illustrated Slide Presentations
The first John Scott Armchair Tours Illustrated Slide Presentations on Sept. 11 & 14 will feature the Nyack Record Shop Project. Participants Jamal Bey, Eunice Turnbull and John P. Vasser, Sr. will join me for a panel discussion to answer questions about their oral histories and to discuss their experience with the process.
The Tuesday, September 11 program will be at 7:00 p.m. at Nyack Library, 59 S. Broadway, Nyack. Registration is required, call 358-3370 x 214 All Friday programs: 2:00 p.m. at Valley Cottage Library, 110 Route 303
All programs are free. Contributions to defray costs are requested. For more information and for weather-related updates, please visit: www.nyackhistory.org or call 845. 418.4430
Upcoming John Arms programs
Thursday, October 25 and Friday 26: Andrew Goodwlie, presents History Trail rough South Nyack
Thursday Dec. 6 and Friday, December 7 Win Perry presents: What’s Happening at the John Green House?
Special thanks to Kris Burns for taking the stills that animate this exhibit and that form an important part of the digital files of the Nyack Record Shop Project and Ray Wright for printing her photos. The Nyack Record Shop was also supported by the Village of Nyack, the Historical Society of Rockland County, the Nyack Center, Kiam Records, Rand Realty, Alex Cabraie of Planet Wings, Clare and Bill Sheridan and South Mountain Studio. The collection of oral histories was made possible by the generous contribution of the time and talent of dozens of individuals. This took a village
by Bill Batson
In a village that is arguably the live music capitol of the region, Jeff Rubin is one of the liveliest! Alternately referred to as a human juke box and an encyclopedia that knows a million songs, his talent, music history, generosity, ingenuity and razor sharp wit make him a hard act to follow. Just don’t request any thing from Jimmy Buffet, The Eagles, or Van Morrison!
How many songs do you know?
I don’t know how many songs I know. If I can recall an image in my mind of how the music went (and that goes back to childhood) I can usually bring it my hands.
Who started calling you a human juke box?
I worked on Carnival Cruise Lines for 4 years, and after seeing me perform, a woman hired me to play a Hot Air Balloon Fest. It was around ’93 and she billed me as “The Human Juke Box”. Before that was, “Encyclopedia”, “Knows a millions songs”.
What was the first song you learned?
Traveling Band by CCR. I started on Bass Guitar.
What was the first song that you wrote?
“Swimmin’ in Women”
What was you first axe?
A Teisco Del Ray bass
What was your first band?
I can’t remember! It was before electricity, I remember that.
What was your biggest band?
Don’t know how to quantify that. I got to play with Chuck Berry, Danny Elfman, Oingo Boingo, While acting as live recording engineer for Dhani Harrison (son of George) I got to sing lead on “Give Me Love” with the concert for Bangladesh Band, and sang “Here Comes The Sun” as well. Oh yeah, it was big for me to play with Davy Jones too!
Who was your first music teacher?
Martin Friedman Margetts Elementary School.
What is a first lesson like with you today?
As a teacher, I try to bond with the student, ask their expectations, give them basics to get them “over the hump” that guitar presents, that they may have facility to play some music they like.
How’s the hand?
2 Surgery’s on Sept 12. Severe Carpal, and Severe Trigger finger.
When did you start building amps?
I started building guitar effect pedals about a year after my mom died, 2005. It was the only therapy that helped me from the depression of losing her. There’s a site called B.Y.O.C. (Build Your Own Clone) that sells fantastic kits of vintage pedal circuits where I got my first kit. In a year I was a moderator on their forum, and in 2 years I had a booth at the NAMM show in Anaheim, CA.
Recently, I’ve launched “Jeff Rubin Electronics.” I’ve been building my own designs of vintage styled amps, circa 40’s and 50’s with Octal tubes. Having repaired old Fender and Gibson amps, I started experimenting and came up with the “Bastard of the Universe” line.
I’ve also developed a line of bass amplifiers with tube front end and Class D back end. Did a wonderful B15N that way, the “Aunt Peg”, and a 2 Tube Direct Box for recording bass, synthesizers, and other instruments that you can plug directly into.
What is your favorite song that people request?
Anything that challenges me and my memory. I have a tough time with the concept of favorite, there is so much wonderful stuff, in and of itself.
What is your least favorite request?
In no particular order; “Margarittaville”, “Hotel California”, “Brown Eyed Girl”
What was your favorite gig?
First time I played Madison Square Garden with “The Duprees”. I was 25 and felt like I owned NYC.
Did you really fix Toni Braxton computer?
Installed software (music) and did maintenance.
Do you play any of her music?
Not opposed to it. Unbreak My Heart is wonderful. Wrong chromosomes.
Is there anything you won’t play?
Can’t play it if I haven’t heard it, or if there’s no chart. Only 2 kinds of music. Good music, and Bad music. Genre isn’t a factor here, either.
Any thoughts about the times?
Music is the sound track of our youth. And their youth, as well. The kids eat what you feed ’em.
What’s next for Jeff Rubin?
I’d like to do another CD using some of the amps I’ve built, as well as the 2 tube direct box which is great for recording bass, digital keys, etc.
Favorite concert you played?
1987 Spring Break, Fort Lauderdale. Frankie Avalon, Connie Stevens, The Regents. 100,000 people, needed a police escort to get to the beach, met Jaco Pastorius!
Favorite concert you attended?
Hard time with favorites. Sade, Gypsy Kings, Beth Hart, Eric Gales (the newer one),
In what ways is the music biz different today than when you started?
Every way. Technologically, monetarily, stylistically…yet the bar does get raised on the shoulders of prior generations as should be. I am an old gladiator, still proud, with a war that is over. I guess now I’m a library.
To book Jeff Rubin for a gig, or a class or to buy a bad-ass amp, visit Jeff on Facebook.
by Bill Batson
When printmaker Sylvia Roth moved into her home in South Nyack in 1977, she had no idea it was the birthplace of a major figure in American art, Joseph Cornell. This house on Piermont Avenue seems to have its own designs, selecting artistic occupants for over a century.
b. Nyack, NY 1903
d. Flushing, NY 1972
This house on Piermont Avenue was the childhood home of Joseph Cornell. His father, Joseph, was a well to do designer and his mother, Helen TenBroeck Storms Cornell, was a kindergarten teacher. He had two sisters, Elizabeth and Helen and one brother, Robert.
When his father died in 1917, Cornell’s family moved to Queens, NY. He lived for most of his life in a small, wooden-frame house on Utopia Parkway with his mother and his brother Robert. Cornell devoted much of his life to the care of Robert, who had cerebral palsy. Cornell became a recluse and other than a few years at Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, he never left the metropolitan New York City area.
His art work, however, became internationally recognized, collected and exhibited.
According to the artist and writer Lee Mamunes, who is also a docent at the Edward Hopper House Art Center, “Cornell was a true eccentric and completely self-taught. He was not a sculptor or painter. He was a collector. In his late 20s, he began to assemble fragments of everyday life, including memories of his happy childhood in Nyack, placing them in glass-fronted shadow boxes resembling tiny stage sets.”
Here is how Pultizer Prize winning poet John Ashberry described Cornell: “The genius of Cornell is that he sees and enables us to see with the eyes of childhood, before our vision got clouded by experience, when objects like a rubber ball or a pocket mirror seem charged with meaning, and a marble rolling across a wooden floor could be as portentous as a passing comet.”
Emily Dickinson, Cornell’s enduring muse, wrote that “nature is a haunted house, but art is a house that tries to be haunted.” As Roth describes the creative output of subsequent generations of her family, one begins to suspect that this is a house haunted by art.
So you really didn’t know that Joseph Cornell lived here before you moved in?
No. I did not know. I was a Cornell fan. I had a poster here from a gallery that I had bought. It was a beautiful blue and white collage with a French title. I had it hanging on the door going into the kitchen. Then one day, there was a knock on the door. It was Alan Gussow.
Gussow was devoted to the arts community in Rockland County. Nervously, he told us that this was the childhood home of Joseph Cornell. He didn’t think that whoever lived inside would care to know.
He showed us a photo of Joseph and his sister from 1908.
Alan said that people wanted to place a plaque on the house, and we said we wanted to have a party.
My daughter, Susan Roth-Beerman was 17 when the party was held to honor Cornell. Mayor Cross came, and Cornell’s sister Elizabeth, who was in the photo.
Michael Minard and Frankie D, who were living here at the time, performed a song about Cornell. That is when the plaque was installed.
I understand that you are an artist as well. What kind of art do you make?
For many many years, I was a printmaker. I had my own studio, Hudson River Editions. I was making my own art, etchings and paintings, ever since I was ten.
My mother, Faye, painted. As an immigrant, she never had a chance to get an art education. But she loved to paint flowers and birds.
I would go to the Museum of Natural History and draw the dioramas. My librarian at PS87, Aaron Suskind, encouraged me. He always praised the holiday decorations I made in 7th grade. He said I should go to Music and Art. I passed the test and got in. That was it.
My printmaking started in Rockland County. I studied with Roberto Delamonica at the Rockland Center for the Arts. I then became his assistant. Wherever he taught, he took me. We worked together at ROCA and the Art Students’ League. When he left his position at the New School for a while, I substituted for him.
The art world became aware of my work through local artists here in Rockland like Steven Green and Annie Poor, daughter of Henry Varnum Poor. One day at an opening at the Museum of Modern Art, Knox Martin leaned over the table and said, “Sylvia, I have been thinking about you. You are working with great artists and you should be doing your own publishing and making money. You really are a master printer. You should start your own print studio.” I borrowed money from my brother, ordered a press, and started Hudson River Editions. It was 1981.
I am now a member of the Chelsea Art Group. After a heart attack in 2002, I stopped printmaking and started working as an art adviser. Don Christensen taught me all about the business of art and now I work with him. Don is the president of Chelsea Art Group. We educate our clients, help them build art collections and find great art to live with. We also conduct museum and gallery tours and take clients to art fairs.
Any other artists in the family?
My daughter Susie is a therapist and bereavement counselor at United Hospice of Rockland and she also has a private practice. And she still makes art. She studied with one of the founders of the New York School of Painting, Richard Pousette-Dart. She was studying at ROCA, the year the Cornell knock came at the door.
Susan’s twin, Anna Hays, is a writer and my son SJ, is a screenwriter.
My granddaughter Hannah Faye, is at Bard. She is going to make painting her life. She studied this summer at the Studio School in the Village, with her professor from Bard, Joe Santore.
Susie’s son, Joey, is a musician and plays bass at the conservatory at SUNY Purchase. His first teacher was Rob Stoner of West Nyack. He then started on the upright bass at the Lagond music school in Elmsford. Charlie Lagond performed with King Creole and the Coconuts.
Now tell me about the second knock at the door?
A woman was in town for her 37th Nyack High School reunion and wanted to visit the home where she grew up. She wanted to see the backyard where she had also been married. That is when we learned that Ralph Pearson had lived here and that was just the beginning of the coincidences.
Her father Ralph Pearson was a well known printmaker, who wrote the book “How to Look at Modern Pictures.” Pearson was so committed to making art accessible that he became a printmaker.
As we walked with her through the house, she pointed at one room as the place where he did his printmaking. I had just had the floor in that very room reinforced to install a 2000 pound etching press.
She then asked to go upstairs to see what she called the apricot room. My daughter and I were startled. I had just painted that room apricot. We had no idea that one room had been a print shop and the other painted apricot.
Is there anything else you would like to share about living in the childhood home of Joseph Cornell?
We’ve read a great deal about Cornell. He experienced a great deal of alienation and isolation in his life, but his memories of his childhood in Nyack were pleasant and peaceful.
There is a photo of him with his disabled brother in front of this house. He was devoted to his brother and would incorporate his brother’s drawings into some of his works.
But for me, my favorite pieces are the ones with movie stars from the 30s and the 40s.
Sylvia Roth is a Master Printer and has collaborated with world renown artists including John Chamberlain, April Gornick, Alfonso Ossorio, and Karen Finley. Works produced from her press, Hudson River Editions appear in numerous collections including those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum, The Smithsonian Institute, and The Brooklyn Museum. Roth’s own paintings and prints have been exhibited in galleries around her native New York and across the country including Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Boston.
For more information visit Chelsea Art Group
Thanks to Myra Starr, Susan Roth-Beerman, Evelyn Fitzgerald and Pam Moskowitz.
Special thanks to Lee Mamunes for presenting some of the facts that I have incorporated in my sketch log in her excellent article for the Historical Society of the Nyacks’ most recent newsletter, “Joseph Cornell and Emily Dickinson: Kindred Spirits.”
by Bill Batson
Since the 1850s, only four families have called 122 South Franklin Street home. The first two families built and expanded what is in many ways a monument to American architectural and scientific innovation. A third and fourth family, who sought to restore and preserve this significant piece of local and national history had shorter tenures. Back on the market, the Ross-Hand-Porter-Brodsky mansion seeks family number five.
Architect and builder Azariah Ross acquired the land where he built this enduring great home from Garrett Tallman for $5,000 in 1856. Ross had interests in projects that shaped an American landscape being transformed by the materials and wealth of the Industrial Revolution. He was instrumental in extending the Northern Railroad to Nyack, erecting the stone bridges that transect New York City’s Central Park and the stone retaining wall surrounding the United States Military Academy at West Point.
According to research by Nyack Realtor Donna Cox, “Ross also built several notable buildings in Nyack including Nyack’s first brick commercial building at 1 Piermont Avenue which housed Ross’ general store and the Nyack Express Company building at 38 High Avenue.”
The home that Ross built in Nyack is the product of the ideas and designs of the great landscape architect, Andrew Jackson Downing. Downing was hugely influential in American residential and public architecture in the early 19th century. Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead, who built and designed Central Park, met in Downing’s Newburgh home. The Gothic Revival style of the home that Ross built is animated by Downing’s belief that architecture and the fine arts could elevate the morals of a property’s owner.
Ultimately, Ross’s stonework in Central Park proved sturdier than his finances. From 1871 until 1882, the Franklin Street home was heavily mortgaged and became the subject of litigation between his heirs after his death. For a brief period during this interval, the property was operated as the Smithsonian Hotel, a name that may have been selected as homage to Downing and Vaux’s work on the Washington museum of the same name. In 1883, Mary H. Hand purchased the home at auction.
Mary’s husband, William H. Hand, was well suited to rebuild the property that had been turned into a near ruin by vandals. The son of a cabinet maker, William H. Hand established a firm that specialized in decorative woodwork that would eventually employ his sons William B., Roger and Walter. Together and separately they were engaged in construction projects including The Manhattan Beach Hotel in Coney Island, The Princeton Library, the Museum of the City of New York, The Fogg Museum at Harvard and numerous mansions in New York City and Newport, Rhode Island.
Mary H. Hand was a vigorous manager of the affairs of the house that included a working farm and a stable. She was known to carry payroll and supplies to her husband’s workers in Manhattan Beach by horse and buggy.
Upon her death in 1917, the home was left to her daughter Mary E. Hand, who lived there until 1955. Mary E. Hand left the house to her nieces and nephews, who shared the home. Raymond Hand was a photographer who documented the Dutch inspired architecture of Rockland County; Dorothy Hand Park Crawford earned a degree in Interior Design at the Parsons School of Design, and William H. Hand, was a noted scientist and inventor.
When William H. Hand died in 1978, he was described by the Historical Society of Rockland as the last surviving personal research assistant to Thomas Alva Edison.
From a laboratory in the barn where his great-aunt kept her horses, Hand improved on the standard battery design, creating a unique power source with a 15-year life. This significant technological development made his battery popular with the military and police and fire departments.
Before Hand’s innovation, batteries relied almost exclusively on the locomotion of the engine to generate and hold the charge. Hand’s research in electro-chemistry created a battery that held a charge allowing a vehicle to reliably go from a stationary position to high-speeds, a valuable asset in crime fighting and combat.
Sarah Porter and her husband Tom Watts purchased the house from Dorothy Hand Park Crawford’s daughter Adelma in 1999, continuing the legacy of female stewardship of the property. During the sale, Porter learned that there was another bidder that wanted to demolish the home and build over 30 condominiums. Subsequently, they initiated talks with the Village of South Nyack to preserve the historic house through new provisions in the local zoning ordinance.
As a result of Porter’s negotiations, the parcel cannot be broken into smaller lots and there are new economic uses permitted on site including the establishment of a bed and breakfast, art gallery, spa, conference or retreat center.
The length of Porter’s tenure might be significantly shorter than the previous two stewards, but it is of major consequence to the legacies of the Ross and Hand families and all of the ideas and inventions enshrined in the building and grounds. Unlike many who seek to leverage real estate investments for profits by selling to the highest bidder, Porter’s commitment is to preserve the Hand House for future generations.
Porter’s altruistic actions are consistent with Azariah Ross’s work on public projects and the philanthropic traditions of the Hand family. William Hand donated the land across from the Hand ancestral home where the Village of South Nyack built at public park and firehouse. This house provides evidence that Andrew Jackson Downing may have been right when he said, “If they can decorate and build their homes to symbolize the values they hope to embody, such as prosperity, education and patriotism, they will be happier people and better citizens.”
Porter eventually sold to Dennis and Noah Brodsky in 2014, who moved to the Hand House from an apartment in Manhattan, having previously lived in Upper Nyack. During a visit to South Nyack Village Hall when they moved in, the Brodsky’s mentioned to Village Clerk Sally Seiler that they were interested in getting more involved in the community. A few months later, Rivertown Film gained access to the entire estate to hold a Hitchcock-themed costume gala. My fiancé, Marisol Diaz and I attended as Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelley from Rear Window.
In the generational game of musical chairs that is real estate, this property that presides over South Franklin is for sale again. If you are in the market for a single family, five bedroom, five bath historic home, you can call Donna Cox at Better Homes & Gardens, Rand Realty at 845-641-8613. To learn more visit handmansion.com
Special thanks to Donna Cox, Adelma Park, Sarah Porter, Elizabeth Turk, Roger and Sally Seiler, Winston Perry and Village of South Nyack historian Myra Starr.
Hand portrait and battery image courtesy Hudson River Valley Heritage.
by Bill Batson
Before we had a skatepark, Nyack was home to one of the first skateboard teams in New York, The Wizards. “Virgin Blacktop, A New York Skate Odyssey” a documentary about the eclectic crew by acclaimed action-sports photographer Charlie Samuels has been rolling up awards on the global film festival circuit. Just last week, Virgin Black Top won best skate board film at the Portuguese Surf Film Festival.
“The Wizards’ skateboard crew began in Nyack’s Memorial Park in 1977. I was super psyched to screen our film, which is set in the Nyack area, to the surf town of Ericeira, Portugal and to bring home an award. Our film shows that the lifetime friendships depicted in the documentary resonate to audiences an ocean away,” said Director Charlie Samuels.
For those who remember the early origins of the hardtop pavement sport, the film captures the growth of the sidewalk surfer culture. But the real magic of story is the unconditional friendships that Samuels both captured and maintained. Virgin Blacktop “has such humanity to it,” according to Dale Bell, producer of the documentary Woodstock.
When they met in 1977, they had nothing in common except a passion for skateboarding. Despite their vastly different ages, races and economic backgrounds and with their parents hands off approach, they formed a competitive, traveling team of spirited outsiders called the “Wizards”. Charlie Samuels is not just the director of the documentary, but was one of the crew. Samuels was the barely-of-age-driver that chauffeured the team to competitions around the country. When the Wizards took the stage at the Nyack Center in November of 2017 for a special family and friends preview, it felt like a family reunion.
“It was the late 1970’s. I was 15 and in love for the first time with a magic device of artistic expression — my G&S Fibreflex skateboard,” Samuels wrote for nystakeboarding.com, where he is a contributor. ” Sometimes I’d lay my cheek on the blacktop and marvel at my translucent red “Road Rider 4” urethane wheels with sealed precision bearings. I skated alone in the Rockland Cemetery across the street from my house in Sparkill, NY, just twenty minutes from New York City. I was psyched when I found several diverse kids in the nearby Hudson River villages of Grand View and Nyack who shared my passion.”
“We loved skating on the basketball and tennis courts of Nyack’s Memorial Park. But when we saw pictures of skateboard parks in our Bible – Skateboarder Magazine – we dreamt of having our own right there. The setting is visually stunning: on the Hudson River with a view of the Tappan Zee Bridge. A few of us lobbied the powers-that-be and failed. Then, in 2010 Sarah Anderson created the ‘Nyack Needs A Skatepark’ Facebook page.” Samuels enthusiastically joined the effort to secure the park.
The Nyack Village trustees unanimously voted to support the addition of a state of the art public concrete skate plaza, of approximately 5,000 square feet, to Memorial Park in March 2013, after the community efforts of Nyack Needs a Skatepark to gather over 1,000 petition signatures and many Village Hall meetings packed with people of all ages and backgrounds.
On November 2015, the park was dedicated at an event that Samuels attended and described here by NyackNewsAndViews editor Max Cea: “As the sun set over the village, the skateboarders, old and young, black, brown and white, continued to ride. Maybe they were inspired by the words of one of the founding Wizards, Jamaal Bey. ‘Ride until the wheels fall off,’” he said.
Virgin Blacktop explores the lives of Samuels’ diverse skater crew that met in Rockland in 1977. “It’s been almost 40 years since we named ourselves the “Wizards” – we placed in State and National competitions and one of us went on to be the first pro skater in New York City. Now we are fathers and husbands and our lives have spun off in different directions, but we’ve stayed passionate about the sub-culture of skating.”
Virgin Blacktop represents the culmination of 21 years of work for Samuels. After seeing some footage, Penelope Spheres, the director of Wayne’s World and Suburbia said “If your film has half the emotion of your trailer, you’ll have a festival darling on your hands.”
According to Anderson, there are many benefits to the four wheeled recreational vehicle that brought the Wizards together. “It’s outdoor recreational exercise and it’s really fun. You don’t have to belong to a team to participate, but it notoriously brings people together. It’s the 3rd most popular sport among youth ages 8-18, after football and basketball (SGMA study), but it is also inter-generational. In a time when we are all becoming increasingly sedentary and infused with our electronics, it is crucial that youth have a variety of healthy, social, physical activities. Skateboarding is one of them.”
Through the loss of one member, and the incarceration of another, the bond between the 9 member crew doesn’t fray, but tightens. For all those communities around the country that are considering skate board parks, Virgin Black Top is a compelling testimonial to the power of a sport that combines individualism, artistry, and athleticism. If you ever go down to Memorial Park, check out the diversity of the skaters. If there is one overriding message from Virgin Blacktop, it’s that the wizardry unleashed by his Samuel’s crew and captured by his camera lives on among its surviving members and those still riding boards.
Click here to see the trailer.
Or visit: www.virginblacktop.com
And thanks to Joe Ondrek for letting me sketch his skate board for the illustration!