A 199-year-old former school administration building and longtime home to one of Yorktown’s oldest families was demolished Friday as part of an ongoing capital improvement plan.
While in the works for more than five years and coming only after efforts by the Yorktown Central School District to find an outside entity to make use of the building, the demolition of the former Melbourne Farmhouse still stunned local preservationists who tried literally until the last minute to save the structure.
“The demolition of this historic farmhouse should never have happened,” said local resident Alan Strauber, who championed the farmhouse’s preservation in recent months. “For whatever their true reasons are, the Yorktown school district, including the school board and the superintendent’s office, has always seemed bent on destroying this historic house.”
Built in 1812 by John Hazzard Strang on land his father purchased in 1728, the farmhouse was expanded in 1895 by dairy farmers John and Laura Strang Barnes, who added an elaborate, two-story front cupola that was later destroyed by fire.
The Kunz family bought the surrounding 50-acre property around 1950 and sold it to the school district a decade later for $150,000 for a new high school campus. Strang Middle School was later built on the campus. District offices were housed in the farmhouse until 2004 when it was found to be structurally unsound.
Assistant Superintendent Tom Cole declined comment about the impending demolition. In a letter to Town Supervisor Susan Siegel released to the media Friday morning, school board President Jackie Carbone reiterated the dilemma the dilapidated building posed to the district as well as efforts that might have preserved it.
“We understand that there is emotional attachment to this building, but it has sentimental not historical significance,” Carbone wrote. “We respect that and have tried to honor the sentimental significance and ensure that the building will be remembered.”
“It was the best we could do in the circumstances that we had,” Carbone said today.
Several potentially significant historic pieces were recovered from the building prior to demolition. They include a handrail, two fireplace fronts and entry and attic doors and door frames that have been crated for donation to the town museum.
Carbone said it’s not known what if any historical value the pieces that were removed had. It’s not believed they were original to the house. That was not a last-minute decision but rather part of the design plan. Once the debris is removed, the site will be seeded with grass and its future use will be determined at a later date. The priority, Carbone said, was to create a safe environment for students in time for the start of school.
“It’s too bad,” said Jean-François de Lapérouse, who hoped to convince officials to at least preserve portions of the original home for reconstruction. “I kind of hoped there’d be an 11th hour agreement of some kind, but it seems the school board was intent on taking it down.”
The state Historic Preservation Office has found that the building qualified for national and state historic landmark status. The town had no jurisdiction to prevent the demolition but could have designated it a local landmark without school district permission.
When The Journal News toured the farmhouse earlier this year, its dilapidated interior contained little more than old file cabinets and revealed little obvious evidence of its long history.
Officials have put the cost of rehabilitating it at anywhere from $300,00 to upwards of $1 million. Demolition and hazardous materials abatement alone cost $247,900.
The teardown was approved by voters in 2006 under a $37.65 million bond issue. Quality Environmental Solutions & Technologies Inc. in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., designed the abatement plan. NAC Industries of Wappingers Falls was awarded the demolition bid last month.
Critics say voters likely didn’t understand that demolition of the historic structure was part of the wide-ranging capital bond. They say the money spent on demolition would have gone a long way toward the preservation and adaptive reuse of the building.
Photo by Yaron Steinbuch/The Journal News