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At the Historic Bronson House, a Surprising Solar Success

by John Ferro

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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