Hudson, NY and America Before Zoning

G and I spent the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend in the beautiful little town of Hudson, NY, about 45 minutes driving south of Albany. Hudson is dense, compact town of a little under 7,000, and the county seat of mostly rural (and beautiful) Columbia County. It is also home to a treasure trove of historical architecture, much of it dating to the decades immediately after the town’s founding during the waning years of the Revolutionary War. As the agriculture economy in the Hudson Valley declined, Hudson entered a long period of economic decline, but has been revived (albeit in an apparently unequal manner) in recent years by a second-home crowd escaping New York City, lured by the town’s diverse, beautiful housing stock and accessibility (Hudson has a stop on Amtrak’s Empire Service). The newcomers have established a thriving art/antiquing/high-end food economy; walking down Warren Street, Hudson’s main drag, feels like nothing more than navigating a slice of Park Slope relocated to Upstate.

Warren Street is certainly the epicenter of economic and social life in Hudson, but some of the most interesting individual homes are found on Union Street, parallel and just to the south. Sadly, Union Street is not on Streetview, so we’ll have to settle for a low-res view from a perpendicular street (get on this, Google! Students of planning and architecture will thank you.):


Walking down Union is like a trip through history; the street is especially known for its 19th century houses, but the oldest I know of on the street is the Worth House, which has been there since at least 1794, when Major General William J. Worth, conqueror (appropriator?) of Texas during the Mexican-American War, was born in it. What one notices on Union is the sheer variety of age and style amongst the houses on the street. Just in the blog post linked to above, architectural styles mentioned include Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, Eastlake, Victorian, Italianate, Second Empire, French Second Empire, and Federal. Almost as remarkable as the variety of styles is the variety of sizes. Some homes are quite elaborate, worthy of Hudson’s wealthiest families; others are small and plain. Some are townhouses that would look appropriate in my own Albany neighborhood of Center Square; others could be farmhouses. There are even a few large-city-style apartment buildings sprinkled in. There’s not a shred of coherence of style or size.

The houses of Union Street are a truly remarkable collection that evolved over 120 years or so. And, to channel noted (and regional resident) crank James Howard Kunstler,  it’s a streetscape that would be virtually impossible to build in most places in the United States today. Zoning would, on the principle of seeking to “preserve neighborhood character,” prohibit the presence of houses of such different styles and sizes. Neighborhood and homeowners’ groups have repeatedly shown themselves to be opposed to any new home that disrupts the architectural status quo; had that attitude prevailed in Hudson, the Union Street that exists could never have been built. The last of the historical homes on Union Street were built around 1910, just before zoning began its unstoppable sweep across the American landscape. Union Street offers a useful reminder of the creativity in land use and architecture we’ve lost, and are only now learning to bring back.