The Preservation League of New York State has released its biennial “Seven to Save” list highlighting the most at-risk historic sites statewide. As WAMC’s Jesse King reports, this year’s designations include a Hudson Valley lighthouse, the Barge Canal System, and more.
If you spent time in Athens, New York at any point this past holiday season, you may have seen it: a tiny brick house sticking out from the waves and ice of the Hudson River, dazzling in white string lights. About halfway between Albany and Kingston, the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse was built in 1874 to warn boats of a sandy ridge smack dab in the river’s center – and while the light at its point is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard, the physical structure has relied on the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society since 1982.
President Carol Gans says while its number of volunteers is rising, the group is still in the midst of a massive underwater restoration project.
“With any house, it requires daily maintenance. But if you put that house in the middle of the river, and you’re dealing with currents and tides and weather – you know, you have a whole bunch of other issues," Gans explains. "About 11 years ago we replaced some the pilings, shored up the foundation. The next step in that is replacing some of the rip-rap, which is the protective rock boundary around the lighthouse.”
Gans says that, plus smaller projects like new plaster, security systems, and spider control, is expected to cost over $1 million. The Preservation League doesn’t have that kind of money, but Vice President for Policy and Preservation Erin Tobin says its support can be helpful when applying for grants.
"We listed the Schoharie Aqueduct in 2018-2019. That site, working with Montgomery County, just got $550,000 from the state for rehabilitation work of the aqueduct, which is a National Historic Landmark," notes Tobin. "And that's because we put together a coalition and a working group that was able to come up with a project and apply for funding, and the state really saw the strength of that."
"It has made all the difference," says Craig Williams, president of the Canal Society of New York State. "It confirmed my belief in miracles."
Williams was part of the group that applied for “Seven to Save” on behalf of the Schoharie Aqueduct in 2018. Now, he hopes the Preservation League can shed light on the Barge Canal System overall, which stretches 524 miles along the Erie, Champlain, Oswego, and Cayuga-Seneca canals.
Earlier this year, the New York Power Authority authorized a $300 million plan to “Reimagine the Canals,” including studies to help mitigate flooding, a whitewater destination near Seneca Falls, and a “pocket neighborhood” along an old branch of the Erie Canal in Canastota. Tobin likens it a bit to “Disney-fying” the canals, celebrating them as the tourism destination they could be rather than the still-operating historic landmarks they already are.
Williams agrees, wishing more funds were allocated to its overall physical structure and extending hours of operation at locks. He says some aspects of the new initiative, such as the Canastota pocket neighborhood, depend on it.
“I would suspect in a few years that section would be more or less just a ditch, that there’s no plan for maintenance. It is part of the Erie Canal / Old Erie Canal State Park, but there’s very little going into its preservation," notes Williams. "So you’re committing resources for what’s a great idea – the pocket neighborhood, all in favor of that – but not recognizing the actual asset, which is the canal.”
Williams and Tobin clarify they’re happy to see money going to the canals in general, but the “Seven to Save” designation aims to promote increased communication between all stakeholders going forward. Williams says the Canal Society – which has been around since the 1950s – has struggled to work with the Power Authority since it took over in 2017.
“Several of us, I included, have gone to board meetings there. They don’t seem to be structured in an institutional sense to take advantage of the great structural memory in canals today," he explains. "They seem to be reinventing the wheel, and I’m not sure whether that’s just because they don’t know how to listen, or they think they have a better idea..I’d be pleased to be proved wrong.”
For its part, the Power Authority says it plans to meet with both the Preservation League and the Canal Society next week. In a statement, Director Brian Stratton of the Power Authority’s Canal Corporation said the new initiative will protect the system and its heritage for “generations to come,” adding:
“From increasing outdoor recreation to supporting responsible environmental stewardship, these investments are the key to safeguarding the Canal’s role as a driver of economic growth for New York State, and we look forward to collaborating with our neighboring communities and stakeholders as the initiative moves forward.”
Other sites on this year’s list include Parrott Hall in Ontario County, and Syracuse’s vacant Central Technical High School, which local officials hope to transform into a base future STEAM programs. Others are focused on preventing development: Tobin says an African burial ground in Queens' Elmhurst neighborhood has the attention of condo developers, and the Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest, and Ninevah subdivisions in Long Island – once popular black vacation communities in the 1900s, with residents like Langston Hughes and Lena Horne – are threatened by modern McMansions and buyers thirsty for waterfront property. Sticking out from the pack is a site Tobin hopes the Preservation League can bring back: Richard Lippold’s Orpheus and Apollo sculpture at Lincoln Center in New York City.
All of these places, whether hidden or hidden in plain sight, collectively tell the story of New York state, according to Preservation League President Jay DiLorenzo.
“So many times, communities don’t notice the wonderful resources that they do have, and people that have lived next to some of these sites may not understand their history," says DiLorenzo. "And so this program really gives people the opportunity to stop, take a moment, and to better understand what’s around them, and what a rich history New York state has.”
The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society gives tours in the summer, and the New York state Canal System celebrates its 196th navigation season this May. The Preservation League of New York State founded its “Seven to Save” program in 1999.