I was in Ithaca last April, on spring break with my family, when a friend and fellow preservationist called and said, “They’re knocking it down.” Her words blew me backwards, like a stomach-punch. “No, that can’t happen,” I keened, steadying myself against the desk in my hotel room. “Make sure you get footage.”
“Hurry up and pack,” I barked, stunned that the homeowner, pressured by an agreement with a developer who wanted his land for a strip mall, choked rather than continue negotiating with preservationists who were trying to relocate the 1752 Dutch sandstone Abram Lent House in Orangeburg in Rockland County.
By the time we arrived four hours later, we found a couple of interlopers picking through the ruins. We commiserated, as though we were mourning someone we both knew. My husband, Rick, pinched a handful of long, rusted square nails, the kind Abram Lent — who was a Revolutionary War hero and a signer of the 1774 Orangetown Resolutions, a precursor to the Declaration of Independence — used when he built the house.
“I guess there’s one silver lining,” my husband said, as we drove away from the smoldering site. “You’ve got a more dramatic hook for your documentary.”
He was right. I began photographing the Lent House a couple of months earlier while doing preliminary work for This House Matters, my documentary film about imperiled Dutch sandstone houses in Rockland County. I was lucky enough to have walked through its interior. Even though it was completely trashed, I could feel its ghosts, sweeping my hand along the staircase banister, walking from room to room. Peering through the upstairs window, I imagined Abram Lent chopping firewood outside, or cleaning his boots. I could see his fields and maybe his horse tied to a post. Now what one saw was an ocean of concrete punctuated by a Stop & Shop, a Residence Inn Marriott, and parking lots.
Part of the problem with the Lent House was that so few people knew it existed. It wasn’t on a main street. It wasn’t a house people had passed by for years or decades, and had come to love. In fact, the property was bought 15 years ago by local landscapers who housed workers there in squalid conditions.
I’ve lived for a decade in a 150-year-old farmhouse in Rockland that needed significant rescuing. When we city folk first arrived and bought the place, three contractors suggested we’d be better off tearing it down. I never considered the possibility. Not even for a New York minute. I knew it was a wreck but I loved it for its bones and its uniqueness and for its invitation to respect the Garrabrants who built a house that was still standing.
I was smitten with the Abram Lent House too. Each time I went back at different times of the day to photograph it, I was transported to the 18th century. I dragged along my 13-year-old daughter, Julia, on several occasions because she was studying the American Revolution, and here she could linger on a porch that was hammered together by a man who had fought in that war. Talk about living history!
Museums and archives and photographs are wonderful ways to learn about history, but houses are living, breathing institutions. They are time machines. Every time we bulldoze one, even if it’s a structure that does not have a notable historical ancestor as part of its story, we pull another thread from the fabric of our history. We lose another piece of our cohesive past — and of ourselves.
My upcoming film explores the challenges activists, preservationists, and governments face when it comes to preserving and rehabilitating precious historic houses. Not every old house can be rescued. But the Lent House, along with the Jacob Vanderbilt House in West Nyack, and the deteriorated but still-intact John Green House in Nyack, are the kinds of unique structures that deserve to remain part of our physical heritage. There are houses all over the Hudson Valley that matter. But we have to care enough about them if we want them to last.