by Bill Batson
Since the 1850s, only four families have called this address on South Franklin Street home. The first two families built and expanded what is in many ways a monument to American architectural and scientific innovation. The third family sought to restore and preserve this significant piece of local and national history. The fourth family is inviting the public to see the interior of this imposing facade, transformed by Rivertown Film into a Hitchcock-themed fundraising gala on May 2.
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.
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.
RIVERTOWN FILM’S HITCHCOCKIAN GALA
On Saturday, May 2nd, Rivertown Film reincarnates the spirit of cinematic maestro Alfred Hitchcock at its “Hitchcock at Hand” spring gala.
This evening immerses guests into re-enacted scenes from such classic films as “Psycho” and “North by Northwest.” in many of the rooms of South Nyack’s historic Hand House, located at 122 South Franklin Ave., South Nyack. As guests wander the grand rooms, they’ll encounter pieces of classic vignettes and characters created by Hitchcock.
Complementing the evening’s chills will be thrilling palate of gourmet food donated by 8 North Broadway, Marcello’s Ristorante, Murasake Japanese Cuisine, Bonefish Grill, Alain’s French Bistro, Prohibition River, King and I, Velo, Brickhouse, Turiello’s, Sakana Modern Japanese Cuisine, Mimi’s Plate, Pour House Nyack and La Terrazza. Rafele Ristorante is donating accompanying desserts, and wines are being furnished by Grape D’Vine. The event sponsor is M & T Bank, and the house sponsor is Better Homes Real Estate/Rand Realty.
The mystery commences at 7pm. Tickets are $100/person, and are available via Brown Paper Tickets . More information can be found at rivertownfilms.org or on Rivertown’s “Hitchcock at Hand” Facebook page.
Rivertown Film is a non-profit organization, which was founded in 2001, and is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and Creative Financial Planning, Starbucks, Orange and Rockland and Painter Smith Advertising.
Their mission is dedicated to celebrating, exploring, and promoting the art of the motion picture. Their Creative Advisory Board includes such industry professionals and Rockland residents as the aforementioned Jonathan Demme, Ellen Burstyn and Bill Irwin.
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 County 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 lifespan. 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.
Porter’s actions were 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.”
The current owners are continuing this altruistic tradition. Dennis and Noah Brodsky moved to the Hand House from an apartment in Manhattan, having previously lived in Upper Nyack years ago. During a visit to South Nyack Village Hall, they mentioned to Village Clerk Sally Seiler that they were interested in getting more involved in the community. Coincidentally, Rivertown Film was in the midst of trying to identify a venue for their next gala. From the moment Rivertown approached the couple about the possibility of hosting Hitchcock at Hand in their historic home, they have demonstrated a remarkable generosity, flexibility and accessibility.
Space for Rivertown Film’s “Hitchcock at Hand” Spring Gala on Saturday, May 2 is extremely limited. Visit rivertownfilm.org to purchase tickets.
Special thanks to Adelma Park, Sarah Porter, Elizabeth Turk, Kris Burns, Roger and Sally Seiler, Winston Perry and Village of South Nyack historian Myra Starr.
Hand portrait and battery image courtesy Hudson River Valley Heritage.
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: Hand House Hosts Hitchcock Homage” © 2015 Bill Batson. In Dec. 2014, Batson published “Nyack Sketch Log, An Artist and Writer Explores The History of A Hudson River Village.” Copies of the book can be purchased at billbatsonarts.com.