By Chris Herzeca
But I think there must be another category: I would call it “historic shamanism.” Some historic buildings require so much more devoted work, bordering on divination and healing, that the terms preservation or restoration do not do justice to the work being done.
We have two such buildings in New Lebanon, the antiques store and its companion house at the corner of Route 20 and West St (see slide 1 from the recent New York Times article on New Lebanon). In a daunting project, these buildings are being “shamanized,” not just preserved or restored, by the Phoenix Project of Eastern NY Inc.
This is a perfect example of the type of community engagement in New Lebanon that this blog wishes to celebrate. So, let’s have a chat with our New Lebanon neighbor, Deb Gordon, old building shaman and founder of the Phoenix Project.
Deb Gordon’s parents were both architects, so Deb grew up with a frame of mind that one could observe and enjoy architecture when looking at buildings. Deb went to graduate school at Columbia University in New York City, and worked 30 years as a Restoration Coordinator for the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites.
There are some 35 historic sites in New York State supervised by the State Bureau of Historic Sites, including most notably Olana. Deb would perform historic research, attend meetings and administer state regulations. Deb participated in the preparation of the “historic structures report” for various sites, in which the history of a historic structure, including among other things information about the owner, details of the building structure and the social history at the time the building was constructed, is researched and collected into a single document.
Deb confesses that “I was not a good bureaucrat. Because a lot of what bureaucrats do is enforce the rules, and I just wasn’t very interested in the rules. Rules exist to deal with certain problems, but they also create other problems, and I just find that looking at historic buildings through the prism of the rules is just not a very interesting way to look at historic buildings.”
For Olana, Deb was responsible for that portion of the historic structure report relating to Olana’s interior and exterior painting. Deb did paint research at Olana to determine the original color scheme, and guided the restoration of the stencilling of the cornices. Others would focus on other individual aspects of Olana, such as a detailed study of the bricks used in its construction. There were lots of individuals with specialized assignments preparing the historic structure report, but as Deb puts it, no one was charged with trying to make sense of the whole of it…”but I did that because I couldn’t help it.”
Because Deb didn’t not limit her curiosity to her assigned role (inasmuch as Deb was a “bad bureaucrat,”), Deb was able to develop a multidimensional understanding of the historic sites and, in particular, Olana, and with understanding grows kinship. What Deb came to understand about Olana was that it was a uniquely pure reflection of the personality and aesthetic of Frederic Church.
As Deb recounts, Church commissioned Richard Morris Hunt, a famous New York City architect, to prepare plans for a substantial building on land Church bought bordering the Hudson River, and then Church and his wife proceeded to travel abroad for 18 months, spending a substantial amount of time in the Middle East, and in Beirut in particular. Church fell so much in love with Moorish architecture while in (Old) Lebanon that when he returned from his trip and reviewed plans prepared by Hunt for a sumptuous but conventional mansion, Church dismissed Hunt and began the design of Olana himself, in conjunction with Calvert Vaux, another New York City architect best known for being the co-designer of New York’s Central Park (who would take direction better than Hunt).
Deb continues her Olana story: Church designed Olana as it was being built. As Church progressed with his design, starting at the ground and rising to the roof, the building process followed, so materials were never purchased for the building as a whole because there never were buildable design plans for the building as a whole. Church, being a thrifty guy, would only buy as much material at any one time as was needed for the next increment of his design to be built. The Olana historic structures report documented that there were nine different kinds of brick used, each purchased when and as necessary.
An inconsequential building detail can be just that, buried in a historic structures report, or it could be the launching point to understand Church’s entire approach to building his dream house, proceeding by stages as if it were on canvas.
Church incorporated into Olana Moorish window shapes and other decorative motifs were all integrated into the design. Church designed every Olana decorative detail, leaving it to Vaux to make sure that it would all stand.
Deb learned the story of Olana because she took her small part in its historic documentation and transformed it into a story that gives her pleasure…and she relishes telling it in a way that far surpasses what one would expect from a “bureaucrat” assigned to conduct paint research.
Which brings us to the two formerly decrepit buildings on the corner of Route 20 and West St., and Deb Gordon’s transformation from historic preservationist bureaucrat to old building shaman.
What this blog tries to understand is what brings a person to go above and beyond in an effort to improve and be a part of the New Lebanon community. After working for decades in historic preservation from a bureaucrat’s perspective, and after developing a holistic understanding of historic buildings as wonderful narratives to be understood and told, rather than just documented in historic structures reports, Deb felt the itch to do it herself. This is no easy transformation.
Moreover, Deb didn’t decide to renovate buildings for her own profit, but formed the Pheonix Project of Eastern NY, a not-for-profit, so that others could contribute to her effort, and by doing so, also become involved in improving the New Lebanon community. But Deb is doing this smartly, thinking that she needed for the Phoenix Project to demonstrate its competence by completing a project successfully before approaching donors with contribution requests. The New Lebanon Route 20 antiques store is Deb’s demonstration project, and we should all bring our best karma to it to encourage it to completion. After all, for this poor building, Deb is more shaman than preservationist. After this building is done, we should all move from karmic to financial support of Deb Gordon and her Phoenix Project.
Chris Herzeca is an attorney, private investor, and ungentlemanly farmer residing in New York City and New Lebanon.