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Going Batty for The Belfry

March 29, 2012

I have been TRYING to research an interesting saga unfolding here in Bedford. TRYING, the operative word but getting nowhere fast with our local newspaper, The Record-Review. More on that aspect in a bit, first a little something about the story, the fate of a 1913 home.

The Belfry is a 1913 Tudor-style home on 16.6 acres in the Bedford hamlet of Katonah. A spectacular reservoir view, sold in February 2011 to a couple who expressly stated they were going to tear down the home. Their choice, or so they thought.

A description of the home and accompanying photos are from the actual listing at Ginnel Real Estate in Bedford:

Untouched and unspoiled! First time offered since the 1930’s. Long drive through high meadows to magnificent hilltop site. Over 16 estate acres with panoramic distant views over the Cross River and Croton Reservoirs. Impressive hilltop Manor House perfectly sited to take advantage of the glorious view. Classic Tudor Revival with decorative timbering, stucco and stone exterior, steeply pitched roof with overlapping gables, massive chimneys and stone quoins. Entrance Hall with Cloak Room. Grand Living Room with Fireplace set in Oak inglenook. Formal Dining Room with china and crystal Storage. Butler’s Pantry. Country Kitchen. Den with Fireplace. Master Suite with Fireplace, His and Her Dressing Rooms and Baths. Four Family Bedrooms. Extensive Staff’s Quarters for potential renovation. Caretaker’s Cottage. An incredible opportunity.

The buyers closed on the deal, paying $3.6 million on a $4.8 million asking price. Sounds like a bargain to me, considering the street on which the house sits is pretty toney and the high-on-a-hill view, killer, is a rarity in Bedford.

Below is Bing Map Bird’s Eye View of house as it sits, looking down over Route 35 and reservoir.

Now that you’ve seen the house, the REAL story is what trouble the buyers have run into from the apparatchik at the Bedford’s Historic Building Preservation Commission. This is different from Bedford’s Historical Society, although some of the same people sit on both boards. Never a good thing, in my opinion. If both groups come to the table with similar points of view, then how could anyone with a varying point of view be perceived as viable?

ANYWAY, seems the Historic Building Preservation Commission has a list of historic homes that they feel should not be torn down, but oddly this list is not available to the public, and as it turns out, The Belfry is on the secret list, not known to the buyers and not known to the selling agent. The Commission is challenging the buyers decision to demolish this home and I suspect it will come down to lawyers and who can hold out the longest.

Personally, I am sad to see the house torn down. Although it isn’t an architectural style I would choose to live in, the house has enough merit that I can understand why the Commission felt it should be preserved. On the other hand, having restored many an old house, I know how expensive it is to bring to modern-day code something likely untouched for decades. The dollar signs for that kind of work are double and triple what starting from scratch would cost.

The buyers made no bones about their intent to tear The Belfry down. It was not as if they were buying to deceive. Never. After all, The Belfry does not sit in the historic district, nor is it of an age that might warrant a landmark status. So their logic seemed reasonable, even if it is sad to see it go.

A March 16th Editorial in the Bedford Record-Review said the following:

For historic districts and homes built before 1900 the rules are pretty clear. For those who reside in the Bedford Village Historic District or the Katonah Historic District, or with a home on the National Register of Historic Places, a process is set in place…….Other homes are not so clear as to their historical importance, and as a result, the decision to tear them down may not be so clear either. Such is the case with the Belfry.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. It is my express opinion that Bedford is RULED by historical preservationists, primarily that their parochial views hamper economic growth. For one group to compose a list of homes they feel should not be torn down is one thing. But to keep the list from the public, and more importantly, keep the list from real estate agents, stinks. The chairman of the commission, John Stockbridge, is also the Town Historian, and a regular encyclopedia of knowledge. I don’t discount his understanding of the historic home, but I do object to his attitude. A quote, from the March 16 Record Review Editorial, says alot.

Commission chairman John Stockbridge said that the list is not shared with the public because it is a work in progress. Members of the commission have said that it is better that “everyone” consider their property a historical home.

Yes, historic homes are important. Yes, saving houses is important. Yes, creating a list of homes that should be deemed important enough to save is important. BUT, to assume that your point of view is the only view and beyond, that it has any legal standing, that’s another ball of wax.

NOW, onto the other half of the story, trying to get some information out of our local newspaper, The Record Review.

Round One: drive to Record-Review office on Adams Road, Bedford Hills. Teeny parking lot. No space to park. Circle twice. Raining. I figure I’ll go home and call.

Round Two: I call but get a message with no option to speak with operator or office manager to ask a simple question. I was required to listen to the entire spiel, from hearing the office directory to their mailing address and for heaven’s sake, their fax number even. But nothing to stay on the line to speak with a live person. Did not bode well.

Round Three: I email RJ Marx, The Editor in Chief. RJ, I am a Bedford Resident and local blogger doing a story on The Belfry. I know you have done an Editorial on the Secret List but my memory says there was at least one previous article. Since you have no online presence that allows for searching archives, can you kindly tell me if you have indeed written other articles and how I might have access to an e-version of them.

Round Four: from RJ: The Bedford Free Library has past issues of the newspaper.

Round Five: response from me: Huh? That’s all fine and well, but how can I sift through old Record-Reviews if (a) I don’t know if you have written any previous articles or (b) when it might have been published! I am happy to come to your office and do a search on your office database if you do not have the time to share with me what information I need.

Round Six: from RJ: This is a publishers decision. Please contact her at dwhite@scarsdalenews.com.

Round Seven: EOS emails Deborah White, Publisher. I say basically the same thing I said to RJ in Round One, asking for information on previous articles they have written on the subject.

Round Eight: back from the publisher: The material published in The Record-Review is copyrighted. We do sell pdfs of article reprints ($50 per article) but I don’t think this is what you’re looking to do. Under “fair use” guidelines, you may certainly quote from an article or editorial, but you must abide by those restrictions — and our protection under copyright law. If you have further questions, please let me know.

Round Nine: me back to publisher: I am happy to abide by your guidelines, and would do so anyway by way of respecting the published word, but it still doesn’t answer my question of when/if you have written articles about the secret list other than RJ’s editorial. If the answer is no, you have not written anything other than the editorial, then I will move on and write the article from other information I have gathered. If yes, and you can provide me with the dates, I can go to the Bedford Library and look in their archives of old R-Rs but my first preference is to be given an e-version of the article so I can cut and paste. .

Round Ten: No response.

So I seem to live in the land where only old homes are considered worthy and newspapers are printed by Luddites who refuse to create a proper e-version of the news with the capability to search archival information. Silly silly silly.

Last night the Historic Building Preservation Commission met on the fate of the house. More as I know.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012
7:00 P.M.
Demolition of 2½-Story Residence, 2-Story Residence and Detached Garage

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32 Comments
  1. Luke Gardner permalink
    March 29, 2012 4:01 pm

    Public quasi-governmental agencies with secret lists??? Hmmm… Be careful EOS. I don’t want to read about you being involved in a nasty car “accident” on FWIW.

  2. March 29, 2012 4:16 pm

    Yikes.

  3. Catherine permalink
    March 29, 2012 4:36 pm

    I’ve been in this house, just before it sold. It’s pretty beat inside although there are some incredible moldings and architectural details that would be a crime if lost or thrown in a dumpster. The view is great but a downside, on certain days, the sounds of the traffic on Route 35 are loud and clear.

    I don’t think the house merits saving. I’d make it a stipulation, if the town can even get that much say, that the demolition be handled with something other than a wrecking ball and that a demolition salvage house be able to take away whole rooms of paneling or the staircases, etc. Then at minimum, pieces of the house can have a second life, if not the whole.

    Welcome back!!

  4. March 29, 2012 4:41 pm

    Hi,
    This is beyond the ridiculous, how on earth are buyers suppose to know exactly what they are buying when the list is secret, why should they have to turn around and pay all that money to lawyers on top of buying the house, red tape makes me so angry sometimes, it should be illegal to have secret lists, the whole thing is just ridiculous.

    A lot of old houses can be beyond repair and some are not even safe to renovate.

  5. March 29, 2012 4:50 pm

    Agree 1000% Mags. I wish I had known the meeting was last night. It was written in the paper to be on March 21, after I began doing research on the article. I figured I’d missed the meeting. It was only today, when looking for any commission minutes on the Town of Bedford website that might have published the results, did I see that the meeting was postponed to last night. I was doing NOTHING last night and would have loved to have been there!! Drat.

  6. Jack permalink
    March 29, 2012 5:29 pm

    Did the publisher say $50 per pdf article?????? Talk about highway robbery. What kind of newspaper is this?

  7. Urbane Forester permalink
    March 29, 2012 9:20 pm

    You have out-done yourself again. Welcome back. Bedford and the old media – look out!

  8. Regular Little Rock Reader permalink
    March 29, 2012 10:46 pm

    Hell, I live 1400 miles away, but even so, this is so offensive I have to squawk. Six things deserve thought:

    One, if this particular historic preservation cabal actually did have any legal standing to meddle here, they’ve missed their window of opportunity, and they know it,, which is why they’re being so pissy.

    Two, the property owners are destined to lose any PR battle this cabal chooses to mount against them, so they will gain nothing by making nice, so they shouldn’t bother.

    Three, “cabal” is a really cool word that should be used more often.

    Four, I won’t name his name, but there’s a certain real estate a-hole whose “bulldoze now, chat later,” modus operandi is, sometimes, actually, the way to go. Owners, this would be one of those times.

    Five, the Record Review is giving you the haughty cold shoulder because they are deeply scared of your line of enquiry. Their technological ineptitude probably is for real, but it’s also a very handy shield. Hmmm, think there may be a chance their reporting isn’t exactly objective?

    Six, $50 for a PDF of an article? That in and of itself is a scandal worth pursuing. Whether the RR is an actual newspaper or the “communications arm” of a not-for-profit entity, $50 per PDF is not an acceptable price.

    Keep up the good work.

  9. Anonymous permalink
    March 30, 2012 12:12 am

    Call or email the Bedford Free Library and ask them how/if they have the R-R indexed/catalogued. I’ve had luck contacting libraries with obscure information and having them do the look up for me. Shame, I’m surprised your sister hasn’t already suggested this. :)

    I checked the BFL site and didn’t see a contact for a reference librarian.

  10. March 30, 2012 6:45 am

    Anonymous: Bad me, I didn’t even THINK to ask my sister!!! Doink! I have a long to-do list today but I’m adding “Go to Bedford Library and ask them how/if they have the RR’s indexed”. Thanks.

  11. March 30, 2012 6:31 am

    RLRR: Cabal IS a great word!! I am having lunch with a friend today and am already trying to figure out how to put it in a sentence!!

    I wish I knew the buyers of this house to call them for their perspective. Not that they would care to speak with me, but I’m dying to know what they are thinking. I am sure I can get a transcript of the Commission meeting that took place on Wednesday, or mercy, today is Friday and the Record-Record is published and they may even have “news” about it. I’ll update as I hear.

    I do know the real estate people well and debated about calling the owner of Ginnel for his point-of-view, but I worried that I might put him in a bind, if there’s any litigation there that I don’t know about – buyers angry with agent for not being informed? I don’t know anything has happened but it could.

    The Record Review is actually the official paper of the Town of Bedford. Their editorials are always left-leaning but they do have some decent reporters. They have alot of e-competition nowadays, The Bedford Patch and the Daily Bedford, as well as the wider-based Journal News we call LoHud (for Lower Hudson). I stopped my mail subscription to the Record Review last year when I got 99% of what I needed to know about Bedford online, before Friday! I still buy an occasional copy when I am looking for a specific story (and my hairdresser subscribes to it so I can read it there if I haven’t bought one). Objective? I think some of their reporters most definitely are. The tone of any newspaper comes down from the Publisher and although I have not personally met Ms. White, I have had other dealings with her where I thought, huh?

    As for the $50, my original headline for this article was “I’ll have one free E-Copy to Go. Hold the $50 pdf fee please.” I agree with you that $50 is outrageous but I don’t know how to combat that without first doing some research to see what other papers charge for pdfs.

  12. Your lunch date permalink
    March 30, 2012 7:37 am

    I don’t even look at my own vacation photos, but I love a good cabal smackdown! Can’t wait to hear the sentence you constructed today. In the meantime, Bedford establishment: look out.

  13. Urbane Forester permalink
    March 30, 2012 7:38 am

    Re: Cabal from wiki:

    “The term took on its present meaning from a group of ministers of King Charles II of England (Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale), whose initial letters coincidentally spelled CABAL, and who were the signatories of the public Treaty of Dover that allied England to France in a prospective war against the Netherlands.

    “However, the Cabal Ministry they formed can hardly be seen as such; the Scot Lauderdale was not much involved in English governance at all, while the Catholic ministers of the Cabal (Clifford and Arlington) were never much in sympathy with the Protestants (Buckingham and Ashley). Nor did Buckingham and Ashley get on very well with each other. Thus the “Cabal Ministry” never really unified in its members’ aims and sympathies, and fell apart by 1672…”

    Try working that into luncheon conversation, speaking of the Treaty of Dover.

  14. Mrs. CT Tennis Player permalink
    March 30, 2012 9:45 am

    I have been remiss in reading your blog, busy with work, being a newlywed, buying and fixing up our first home, and now, learning I am going to have a baby. BUT, I totally agree with “your lunch date.” Nothing better than a cabal smackdown and it looks like you are ready for a rumble.

    I further Mags comment that many houses are just not worthy of keeping up, despite what might outwardly look like a treasure. Catherine may have the perfect solution, calling one of those pricey salvage houses to take apart and resell whole rooms or big pieces.

    Keep us in the loop. I loved your South American posts – what a fun journey.

  15. chezmiguel permalink
    March 30, 2012 9:54 am

    Welcome back! I was glad to see a new post this morning and that you’re all fired up.

    As a way to get information from the Historic Building Preservation Commission, could you do a Freedom of Information Act request? My local paper reports that many residents/groups in my small town do this in order to obtain undisclosed information from town committees.

    While I’m sad to see an old house destroyed, I do hope that these new owners build something grand that suits this beautiful site.

  16. March 30, 2012 9:59 am

    Good question miguel. I suspect I am not alone in wondering what other houses are on that list. I’m not sure where to start, or whether I have the chutzpah to file a FOI request. Why don’t you and let me know how it turns out!! :-)

    I have learned that the commission has reached a decision, that the decision has been submitted to the Town Clerk. I called the Town this morning and am waiting for a call back to see if they are allowed to let me know before the decision is physically handed to the owners and their lawyers (they KNOW the decision, but the technicality of it being filed and delivered is why I am being told I need to wait). I further heard that the meeting was very brief, which leads me to believe the decision was “Take that list and shove it.”

  17. Catherine permalink
    March 30, 2012 10:32 am

    Congrats to Mrs. CT Tennis Player. Wonderful news about expecting. Miss your voice here. Glad to know all is well.

  18. mksavino permalink
    March 30, 2012 1:16 pm

    Haha! I was hoping that the FOI request process would inspire a few new posts for you :)

  19. seebsea permalink
    March 30, 2012 1:28 pm

    Should the house indeed be demolished, perhaps you can sneak Mr. EOS in for a quick dumpster dive for some of those architectural treasures?!

  20. March 30, 2012 3:11 pm

    MK: More in a bit. I did file the FOI request and got the decision in my fat little hand. Just back from lunch and being out.

  21. March 30, 2012 3:12 pm

    See: Don’t You Know it! Mr. EOS is salivating just thinking about diving in that dumpster!!!

  22. swanton permalink
    March 31, 2012 6:41 pm

    Let me start by saying I appreciate old houses and architecture more than most people do. In fact, I wrote the standards for my neighborhood’s historic district. Paint your house magenta if you like but don’t you dare change those six over six windows. Paint can be easily changed.
    But, who the heck are these people who think they can dictate what can and cannot be done to a house that has no legal restrictions on it? T’aint right and t’aint fair. I’d prefer the existing house be restored because it looks like a neat place. However, I doubt it could be renovated to adequately meet today’s needs and expectations regardless of the expense. And, any real estate ad that says ‘unspoiled’ tells me it needs everything done to it and more. It’s the current owner’s call and not that of some group with a hidden list.
    Some preservationists have the silly idea that everything old should be preserved. I’m not one of them.
    To my way of thinking, every house, every building, every structure has its fans and its detractors. I hope the readers of this blog like whatever replaces the Belfry but if we don’t so be it.
    One more thing- small town politics are the same all over.

  23. March 31, 2012 6:54 pm

    Swanton: I’m right with you appreciating old houses. Houses of any kinds really, but old ones usually attract me first. And in a world where town code doesn’t require so much to rebuild an old structure, I also agree it would be neat to see this house brought back alive. Reader Catherine said she’s been inside so we’ll have to ask her to expand that thought and let us know what she saw.

    Impressive that you wrote standards for your neighborhood historic district. Are you an architect or is it a passion that drove you to be so involved? Way to go. In Bedford’s historic district, your house can be painted any color, as long as it is white. :-)

    Thanks for your keen observations.

  24. swanton permalink
    March 31, 2012 8:58 pm

    No, I’m not an architect. I became involved because I didn’t want to see wholly inappropriate additions to the old houses in my neighborhood. At the same time, I wanted to be sure the standards were not so restrictive as to cause burdens for those folks who wanted to maintain their properties. It has worked quite well, too. After many, many years we moved out of town to another with an active historical society and plenty of old houses.

    I question whether the houses in Bedford’s historic district were originally painted white.
    The federals and the Georgians were probably painted in what we think of as Williamsburg colors. White paint was pretty expensive and imported. Greek revivals were often white, though.

    One can carry this preservation thing to extremes. KISS usually works best.

  25. Anonymous permalink
    April 1, 2012 6:11 am

    Perhaps Mr. Stockbridge suffers from aspirational envy? it would be interesting to find out when The Belfry was added to the “secret list”. http://www.townvibe.com/Bedford/September-October-2010/High-Style/

    See paragraph “The Historian”. Photographed at The Belfry sometime prior to Sept. 2010.

    I looked at the RE listing several times and while the description goes into detail about the home, the photos tell me that the seller and agent knew that this was going to be a land sale. It’s too bad, I quite like the house but couldn’t possibly afford it. It seems like the owners, old and new, were content with their transaction and that the town, via Mr. Stockbridge, decided to meddle after the transaction. Terrible situation for two long term residents of town.

    Just my two cents.

  26. April 1, 2012 7:04 am

    Anonymous: AND, if you note, the Ginnel listing had the link to that very article (the link doesn’t go anywhere anymore). Hmmmmmm. Now that the decision has been handed down, I am even more uncomfortable asking my pals at Ginnel for a comment here.

    Meddling is a good choice of words but I am sure Stockbridge would take umbrage and say he and the Commission were “merely” standing up for the preservationist point of view. Had this house been in Bronxville or Tuxedo Park where Tudor style homes reign, I might understand more the outrage to tear this down. But, it’s in Bedford folks, Bedford, NOT the land of the Tudors.

    I too, like I said to Swanton, would think seeing this house come back to life would be awesome, but I am sure it’s not only a matter of bringing it to code, it would be reconfiguring all the small rooms, not to mention relocating a kitchen that is likely on a floor for the staff to prepare meals. No easy task.

  27. April 1, 2012 7:09 am

    Swanton: You need to move to Bedford, today! And have I got a Tudor home for you! So, just out of curiosity, how do you think the historical society in the towns where you have lived and served, is perceived by the residents? Buttinskis? Thoughtful? Logical?

    I haven’t been to Bedford’s Historical Museum for ages. I do remember though that those houses on the Green were white in the day. I will make a point of going there this week and asking your very question.

  28. Swanton permalink
    April 1, 2012 9:24 am

    When the restrictions are attached to the deed, it’s all out in the open. People choose to live in a registered historic district because they find it attractive and believe the designation helps to preserve property values. Where I lived, the Commission had a practical approach to most routine maintenance requests. Other areas required appearance before a committee before you could repaint your front door. Not a big deal because you know the score first.
    I don’t live in the historic district of my new town but like a lot of old towns it has old houses everywhere. For a small town it has an excellent historical society which is different from the commission which rules on what can be done in the historic district – where all the buildings are white.
    For the most part, there aren’t many controversial issues but when there are, fur can fly.

  29. April 1, 2012 9:46 am

    Swanton: If I had my druthers, I’d live in a historic home on the Green, knowing, and accepting, as you said, my restrictions and requirements to keep the core historic district of my town as our forefathers had. I believe strongly that those who inherit the privilege of living on the Green do so happily.

    I appreciate all your thoughtful commentary on this subject.

  30. April 18, 2012 1:05 pm

    Hey Earth Ocean Sky, came across your blog when looking at the Belfry. Writing a story for Patch on the board’s decision and the Benaim’s appeal. Love the blog – would you be interested in sharing the blog on Patch? http://www.bedford.patch.com. Check the Local Voices section, where blogs live. Could be photos, observations. Email lisab@patch.com or call 319-9044.

  31. Jen permalink
    May 18, 2012 9:17 am

    Anonymous (above), the feature article you reference (http://www.townvibe.com/Bedford/September-October-2010/High-Style/) was photographed in July 2010 and appeared in the September 2010 issue of Bedford Magazine. I produced it and invited John Stockbridge to participate. He is a true historian and champion for Bedford’s architectural gems. And, he has his own gorgeous home and property–no need to aspire to the Belfry; only to preserve it. That being said, I completely agree that the Benaims (and any other prospective buyers) should have been told about the home’s historic status.

  32. May 18, 2012 9:28 am

    Jen: It is always important to have the facts right when telling this kind of story so I appreciate that you took the time to comment and let us know that you produced the article.

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