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At the Historic Bronson House, a Surprising Solar Success

by John Ferro
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Tucked in a corner of a medium-security state prison site is a little-known, rarely seen 19th-century mansion that has fascinated Hollywood filmmakers, a legendary investment banker and architectural historians.

The Oliver Bronson House in Hudson, N.Y., features elements from renowned architect Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892). The home serves as the earliest extant example of the Hudson River “Bracketed” architectural mode (for which Edith Wharton titled her 1929 novel). And it sits in the middle of a viewshed that gave birth to the Hudson River School of American landscape painters.

The Oliver Bronson House near Hudson, N.Y. (Photo by John Ferro)

So it comes as no surprise that plans to build a 5-megawatt solar panel installation just a few hundred yards from the home raised concerns at Historic Hudson, the nonprofit that is restoring the Bronson House and working to establish a park around it.

How that solar farm came to be is a tale of collaborative negotiations between Historic Hudson, Scenic Hudson and East Light Partners, the firm behind the solar farm.

Historic Hudson President Alan Neumann calls it “just a lovely success story of how a smart developer can work with not-for-profit organizations that oversee the cultural landscape and natural landscape at a sensitive site.”

But that success was not a given.

The tale begins in 1838, when Dr. Oliver Bronson, a physician and educator whose father was a successful banker and real estate speculator, acquired the three-story Federal style house that had once been home to Samuel Plumb, a ropemaker from Nantucket.

Bronson wanted to enhance the house and turned to someone he no doubt knew — Davis, the architect, whose primary patron happened to be Bronson’s brother-in-law. Davis is perhaps best known as the designer of the Custom House in New York City; Lyndhurst, the former Jay Gould estate, in Tarrytown, N.Y.; and Blithewood in Annandale-On-Hudson.

Davis oversaw alterations and additions in 1838 and again in 1849 that connected the house and associated outbuildings directly to the surrounding landscape, a hallmark of the Picturesque style. The term “bracketed” refers to the ornamental wooden brackets that were added to extended overhangs and balconies.

The ELP Greenport Solar project, as seen from above. (Photo by Robert Rodriguez, Jr.)

A century later, all of that was virtually forgotten. The site became part of a state-run reformatory facility for girls, which in turn became what is now the Hudson Correctional Facility for men. The house served as a home for the institutions’ administrators. When the state no longer had a use for it, it was scheduled for demolition.

The house was saved, Neumann says, when Richard Jenrette, a founder of the investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, personally intervened to have the home listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2003. Fans of the Jason Bourne film franchise might remember the house from the rescue scene at the end of the 2012 installment, “The Bourne Legacy.”

In more recent years, Historic Hudson obtained a lease from the state for the house and 1.2 acres surrounding the structure. Though the house is not open to the public, the nonprofit has overseen $1.5 million in stabilization repairs and has been negotiating with the state to turn the larger surrounding grounds into a park, according to Neumann.

Not far from the house, just over the Hudson city line in the Town of Greenport, was a hayfield that East Light Partners saw as a perfect site for a community solar project.

“It was commercially zoned and had been sitting idle,” says East Light Partners Cofounder Wendy De Wolf.

The company entered an agreement to purchase the site in 2018 and began planning the solar farm. Scenic Hudson later acquired the portion of the property that ELP was not purchasing, mostly woodlands and a stream corridor. Scenic Hudson hopes to work with the community to eventually build a walking trail to connect Hudson to this forested land

Neumann said he became aware of the project after East Light Partners presented its plan to local government officials. The plan initially called for solar panels to be placed within direct view of Bronson House, clashing with Davis’s picturesque legacy. 

Another view of ELP Greenport Solar, near Hudson, N.Y. (Photo by Robert Rodriguez, Jr.)

Neumann wasn’t a fan of the initial plan.

Instead, the solar developers worked with Historic Hudson and Scenic Hudson to revise their site plan. East Light Partners embraced Scenic Hudson’s Clean Energy, Green Communities guide to siting renewable energy projects. Renderings were created to determine the visual impact of different layouts. With input from Scenic Hudson and Historic Hudson, East Light Partners reconfigured its plan so that there were no panels on the portion of the site nearest to and most easily visible from Bronson House. Additional plans call for interpretive signage — highlighting solar energy, conservation and the compatibility of the two — to be placed along the future Scenic Hudson trail.

Now supported by the two nonprofits, the revised plan received the necessary approvals and went live in the fall of 2019.

“We are all about trying to site good projects and doing it in a way that responds to the community,” De Wolf says.

Hayley Carlock, Scenic Hudson’s environmental advocacy director, said the collaborative effort brought together the full spectrum of Scenic Hudson’s skillsets and services, from land conservation and legal work to advocacy and scientific expertise. She says, “That is part of what makes Scenic Hudson so effective in what we do.”

Says Neumann: “We couldn’t be happier.”

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Hudson Valley Viewfinder is a collaborative, community digital magazine sharing what inspires us about the beautiful Hudson Valley. We publish original stories and multimedia content about all things sustainable in the region along the Hudson River — including agriculture, science, wildlife, outdoor recreation, green transportation, environmental justice, and more.

Our mission is to immerse you in the storied history, fresh happenings, and coming solutions for making the Hudson Valley greener and more livable long-term.

Viewfinder is published by Scenic Hudson, the celebrated nonprofit credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement in 1963. With over 25,000 passionate supporters, Scenic Hudson’s mission is to sustain and enhance the Hudson Valley’s inspirational beauty and health for generations to come. Viewfinder supports that mission, because the better people understand what makes this place special, the more they will invest in protecting it. 

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Our mission is to immerse you in the storied history, fresh happenings, and coming solutions for making the Hudson Valley greener and more livable long-term.

Viewfinder is published by Scenic Hudson, the celebrated nonprofit credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement in 1963. With over 25,000 passionate supporters, Scenic Hudson’s mission is to sustain and enhance the Hudson Valley’s inspirational beauty and health for generations to come. Viewfinder supports that mission, because the better people understand what makes this place special, the more they will invest in protecting it. 

Keep up with the latest stories by subscribing to Scenic Hudson’s monthly digital newsletter, and connect with us on social via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Threads.

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

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We’re always looking for ideas around our main topic areas of Climate Solutions, Land + Air + Water, Plants + Animals, History + Culture, Outdoors, and Community.
  • Journalists and writers who have deep familiarity with New York and the Hudson Valley, we’d love to have you contribute! Please do introduce yourself by email, sharing writing samples and any relevant pitches you may have.
  • Photographers and videographers, we’d love to hear from you and see what you do. Please send along a portfolio with images or footage that showcases your best and/or most relevant work, with an emphasis on anything captured outdoors. 
  • Illustrators, we commission artwork on the regular. Drop us a note with some of the beauty you’ve created.
  • Media Partners & Social Media Influencers, we welcome opportunities to team up on series and campaigns. Reach out with any background about yourselves and your ideas.
  • We love to collaborate with media outlets, especially on episodic series (like these) of interest to our shared audiences. Past collaborations have included radio interviews, panel discussions and other events, original artwork, and e-blasts, all furthering the campaign’s excitement and reach. 
  • We also love to partner with other organizations whose missions align with Scenic Hudson’s. Feel free to reach out with some background on your group and its work.
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  • We love to collaborate with media outlets, especially on episodic series (like these) of interest to our shared audiences. Past collaborations have included radio interviews, panel discussions and other events, original artwork, and e-blasts, all furthering the campaign’s excitement and reach. 
  • We also love to partner with other organizations whose missions align with Scenic Hudson’s. Feel free to reach out with some background on your group and its work.
  • Writers, photographers, and creatives, if you have an idea for a series or content campaign that might be a good fit, drop us a line!

Businesses, please note that as a nonprofit, Scenic Hudson is restricted from advertising or promoting for-profit companies, through Viewfinder or other outlets. While we understand content managers may wish to alert us to your company’s role in a relevant topic, we are unable to add links to businesses to our stories.

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