With photography by Anthony D’Argenzio for Zio & Sons
Hidden on the grounds of the New York State correctional facility in Hudson, New York, is an elegant villa that dates to 1812. Abandoned in 1970 when the prison took possession of the house and the land around it from the New York State Training School for Girls, the house had been the residence of the superintendent of the reformatory established in 1904. The villa was scheduled for demolition as a fire department training exercise in the early 1970s when Richard Hampton Jenrette learned of it. The famed historic preservationist had purchased Edgewater, an 1825 estate in nearby Barrytown, in 1969, and personally intervened to secure the Bronson House’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places in February 1973. He also ensured proper plywood covers and venting of the windows to mothball the architectural gem.
Historic Hudson, Inc., a local volunteer preservation group founded in 1996, gained access to it and advocated for preserving the building. They obtained the listing in 2003 as a National Historic Landmark, along with fifty-five acres of the historic landscape surrounding it. In 2008 Historic Hudson was finally able to secure a long-term renewable lease with New York State on the house and the surrounding 1.2 acres, beginning work to “save the patient” after thirty-eight years of abandonment. Since then, with grants from individuals, foundations, and the State of New York, more than $1.2 million has gone toward exterior conservation and stabilization. It is still inaccessible to the public except when opened for special events held by Historic Hudson.
Businessman Samuel Plumb, a rope maker from Nantucket, built the villa in Hudson, a city founded in 1785 by whalers and merchants from New England who sought a secure port after suffering harassment by the British navy during the American Revolution. Plumb was among the second wave of New Englanders to settle there. He earned his fortune with an innovative use of Robert Fulton’s steamboat: operating towboats secured with his rope. A witty, decorative, carved-wood rope motif appears throughout the house, both indoors and out.
The original three-story villa was built on an open landscape in a restrained and elegant Federal style that would change when Dr. Oliver Bronson, a wealthy New Yorker, bought the property in 1838. His wife, Joanna, was the younger sister of the New York financier and arts patron Robert Donaldson, who introduced the Bronsons to architect Alexander Jackson Davis. (Donaldson would later purchase Edgewater, and enlist Davis to design its attached octagonal extension.) He also acquainted them with the young arbiter of landscape and domestic design, Andrew Jackson Downing. Archives hold a canceled check for $100 from Bronson to the Downing nurseries in Newburgh, New York, confirming an order of plant materials substantial for that era.
Along with the landscape, the house was fashioned to be “picturesque.” It is the earliest known example of the style that became known as Hudson River Bracketed. The architect extended the roof and inserted decorative drop-acorn brackets beneath the eaves. On the eastern side of the house he added the veranda with ornate carved-wood details, as well as tall terra-cotta chimney pots. Davis created a subtle play of light and irregular shadows connecting the building to the newly landscaped grounds as one integrated composition.
The Bronsons hired Davis again in 1849 to expand the villa and further landscape it. He added a grand triple parlor suite to the western side, bedrooms on two floors, and a third-floor tower, orienting the house to the west with a large open veranda with additional drop-acorn ornament.
The Bronsons sold the property in 1853. It remained a private country seat for a succession of three owners until New York State purchased it for institutional use in 1917.
A hundred years later, the treasure once again has a future. Conservation and stabilization of the villa’s exterior is expected to be completed this summer. The 1812 basement kitchen area will be restored for use as meeting space, with modern carbon-free utilities—heat, hot water, and electricity will return for the first time in fifty years. Historic Hudson is working to make a public park of the surrounding intact nineteenth-century landscape. The city of Hudson desperately needs open green space accessible to those without cars. This includes local residents as well as visitors who travel by train to Hudson, Amtrak’s third busiest station in New York State. This local community is hard at work to preserve an asset of great beauty and national importance.
ALAN GRAY NEUMANN is the president of Historic Hudson.