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Opinion: Demolition of the Odette’s building will seriously degrade the entire image of historical New Hope

odettes opinion new hope free pressThe following letter was sent to New Hope Borough Council on May 16 by preservation expert Kathryn Ann Auerbach of Erwinna. A graduate of William & Mary, Auerbach is an instructor of historic preservation at Bucks County Community College, a former member of Solebury Township’s Historical Architectural Review Board, and served for more than eight years as Director of Historical Programs at the Heritage Conservancy in Doylestown.

RE: Gateway To New Hope Proposal aka
River House aka Chez Odette’s Property
South Main St. along Delaware Canal

Dear Members of the Council,

I am writing with all due respect and grave seriousness with regard to the proposal before the borough for changes to the River House/ Odette’s property identified above.  My concerns are multi-fold:

1.  The inaccurate historical classification of River House/ Odette’s and the failure to understand the significance of the property to both the borough and the Delaware Canal.

2.  A true and authentic commitment to the preservation of the stone Odette’s building and the context and relationship of the canal and current and former resources.

3.  An honest appraisal of the adverse impact of the proposed new construction and property development to the resource, to other property owners in the borough, to the borough itself and to the greater designations of National Register, Landmark, Wild & Scenic, Scenic Roads & By-Ways.

With the following comments I attempt to be as complete as possible, yet expedient in order to quickly communicate to the council the urgent and serious implications which decisions have with regard to this property.  I welcome any request for further clarification to members of the council or community.

To the point, it is my firm opinion that demolition of the Odette’s building, or encasement within another large building, and/or the construction of a very large, inauthentic “factory” looking building on this sensitive site surrounded by the National Landmark Delaware Canal will seriously degrade the entire image of historical New Hope Borough, as well as significantly and adversely alter the understanding of activity, transport, and accommodation that was significant to the Delaware Canal.  It will be a cause to question the validity of the national listings of the borough on the Historic Register and the canal as an Historic Landmark, both of great value to New Hope.

Such adverse exponential effects, while appearing a short-term gain, will cause hardships to other property owners, the borough and the greater Bucks County community.  It will significantly contribute to erasing the basis for our nationally renown heritage, beauty and human-scaled, pre-industrial revolution appeal which has a strong visual link back to a multi-layered cultural history.  Instead of being sought for vacation or residence as a community that cherishes its history and commits to innovative solutions and high preservation standards to offer an image of a living past into present, New Hope and Bucks County will become synonymous with the example of a people who “sold-out”, who placed short-term and uncertain financial gain over being true caretakers of a marvelous heritage important to the present as well as “generations yet to come” (PA Constitution, Article 1, Section 27).  I, for one, as a central Bucks County native, do not want to be ashamed to say I am from Bucks County, or that I lived near New Hope.  News travels fast, and people turn away, when a valued and unique area sells out on a treasured landmark to be replaced by a faux factory.

1. Proper historical assessment of River House & its relationship to other resources:

River House aka Odette’s is a significant contributing resource to the following listings:

-National Historic Landmark Delaware Canal, 1974

-National Register New Hope Borough Historic District, 1985

-Federal Wild & Scenic Lower Delaware River, 1988

-Pennsylvania Scenic Drive 1988

-Delaware & Lehigh Navigation Canal National Heritage Corridor and

State Heritage Park, 1988

-National Recreation Trail of the Delaware Canal, 1990

-America’s Scenic By-Ways: River Road, Top Ten, 1995

While many of these designations are not specific to River House/Odette’s, the River House is a signature property and identity icon that contributes and enhances the above resources.  The multiple designations were made due to the authentic appearance of the area, be it the historic district, canal or heritage corridor.  History and heritage imply a record of human activity, and when recognized at the state and federal levels, mean that the physical structures and settings remain from that history and visually, authentically convey the record of history.  The PA Bureau of Historic Preservation’s assessment of River House as a non-contributing resource to the historic district “due to additions” is at best uneducated and unfounded, and at worst, facilitates non-preservation goals.

The location, size and stone construction of River House serves to verify the established value of New Hope as a transportation hub by the early 19th century, with River House anchoring the lower portion of the village near the terminus of 2nd Street Pike at River Road and the Delaware River above Wells Falls.  Built in 1794 by the VanSant family the River House joins with those prominent “first generation” buildings that shaped the future of the town, including the 1743 VanSant House, the Parry Mansion, Salt Store, Barn & Mill, the Logan Inn, the Lepanto Mills, Cintra, houses lining Ferry Street including the deNormandie and Beaumont Houses, the Rhoads’ Mansion-Washington’s Headquarters, and further west to the Huffnagle Mansion and stone ruins of the ancient 1702 Heath Mill.  The location and substance of these buildings attest to the strength of the early community, whose capable leaders accomplished the 1814 construction of the New Hope- Lambertville Bridge: the original, celebrated and preserved (even after floods) stone piers which date twenty years after the River House was built.  River House continued to serve the active lumber raftering industry and river crossings at the falls.

River House was preserved during the construction of and thrived as a valued rest stop along the Delaware Division of the PA Canal during its long tenure from 1831-1931.  Widely accepted and scholarly works on the Delaware Canal, including those authored by Rivinus, Yoder and Zimmerman all single out the River House with comments and photos about the activity in and surrounding.  Several points regarding the significance of the River House and property to the canal must be noted.  First is its active and valuable service as a tavern and mule station.  Historical photos show the main stone block with frame additions that echo the form and profile of the current extensions, both on the principal south facade as well as the north facade.  This verifies the longevity of additions on the stone building and their historical service.

Second is its unique and critical location between the main trunk of the canal and the feeder to the outlet for boats crossing above Well’s Falls to the Raritan Canal in New Jersey.  This 1847 adjunct to the original canal design places River House on an island between the two channels, inexorably linked to the unique activity that took place along the canal at this location.  Valuable coal could be transported to factories in Lambertville and Trenton as well as canal points eastward to New York.  Even with the wing dam and cable ferry, the challenge of river crossing at this turbulent location was not always routine.  The River House, as a way station, saw goods transfer, boat captain exchange, proper hook up and ferry operation and holding facility during bad weather.  Additional buildings at this location, documented by maps and photos, also facilitated the economic link with New Jersey communities and the complexity of business transacted here.

New Hope is not only roughly mid-point in the travel length along the Delaware Division, but also contained multiple engineering features that provided efficient function of the canal, including four locks, the outlet lock to New Jersey and the lift water wheels at Union Mills to bring needed water into the canal and maintain functional levels.  The River House stands essentially as the hub around which these engineering and activity locations were present.  It provides visual identity through its physical presence and is one of the most unique locations and buildings to interpret the engineering of the canal as well as its role the suppliers of coal and goods to multiple regions.

The preservation and sensitive enhancement of this property, avoiding the “sanitization” proposed by the new development plans, is critical to the integrity of the canal as a whole and its continued listing as a landmark.  The heritage cleansing that occurs to the buildings, structures and landscape by a project of such scale as Gateway, will remove forever all information about former activity and provide a false impression of factory activity that never existed at this site.

Third, the bucolic, restive atmosphere presented by the canal passing through the “quaint village” of New Hope captured the hearts and imaginations of writers, artists, actors and celebrities who welcomed a chance to experience a quieter, simpler way of life, inspired by landscape filled with artistic images of heritage blended with scenic beauty.  Once the business operation of the canal ceased, it was embraced as a unique link to heritage and inspired lifestyle.  River House, under Madam Odette Myrtil saw a natural transition from canal tavern and way farer station to fashionable dining and entertainment venue for those living and visiting.  Today Odette’s maintains the salient elements of the original stone tavern house, the canal way station with additions and the art-era cabaret restaurant.  In particular the gable roof ridge, end chimneys, dormers, stone wall construction, second floor even fenestration with windows and shutters, stand above, as they have for over a century previous, the myriad of additions that transitioned with variety of function.

Thus perhaps more than any other building in New Hope, River House/ Odette’s represents three significant eras of heritage and historical development, elegantly maintains the salient components of its first construction and embracing extensions and additions that served through canal and easy-living art and artistry eras.   It serves a strong voice and anchor to the small scale, yet vital activities that have sustained New Hope over two centuries.  River House contributes significantly to the New Hope National Register Historic District and the Delaware Canal National Historic Landmark and extended Wild & Scenic and Corridor designations and has retained integrity from every significant era of development of the borough during that time.  Any action detrimental to River House/ Odette’s is detrimental to these broader designations as well.

2.  A true and authentic commitment to the preservation of the stone Odette’s building and the context and relationship of the canal and current and former resources.

New Hope Borough is to be commended for having supported historical designations, for having instituted a Historical and Architectural Review Board (HARB), for having an active private NH Historical Society and for sustaining a vital residential community and tourist economy.  These thrive on the complete image of historical landscape: small, human-scaled buildings primarily from before the mid-19th century- shops, houses and mills built on hand craft principals and technique and exhibiting individual imprint.  C. P. Yoder in his Delaware Canal Journal observes “New Hope retains its colonial quaintness due principally to its many old historic structures.” (p.70)

The success of preservation is an active realization of the resource being preserved and an active participation in doing everything possible to provide solutions.   In addition to ordinances requiring an accepted level of maintenance and avoidance of blight, penalties for demolition, even by neglect, and design controls that order compatible scale, design, materials and features, members of the borough and community need to actively seek proper craftsmen and preservation techniques, as well as funding and tax credit solutions to preserve the resources, whether individual or in an historic district.  The subject of restoration or rehabilitation of Odette’s cannot include consideration of demolition or being totally swallowed up into a resource alien to the site.

An example of successful commitment to preservation lies along the river north of New Hope.  The Tinicum Civic Association is the owner of the historic Stover Mill, listed in the National Register, and utilizes it for art gallery exhibits, meetings and informational tours.  Being located on the bank of the Delaware River, the mill has witnessed all of the dramatic river floods since its construction in the 1832.  Occasional high waters have soaked beams and flooring, but with diligence, the building and its structural components have been cleaned and maintained.  The series of floods in the past decade were of a height and frequency that hampered immediate and thorough cleaning each time.  As a result, deterioration began to set in and weaken the substructure.  The TCA engaged a talented and knowledgeable millwright Ben Hassett, to repair and replace beams and components were needed, even with heavy mill mechanisms overhead.  The final product is a mill preserved, minimal disruption to the authentic fabric, mill machinery and primary structure, and celebration in national mill magazines for proof of preservation accomplishment. (“Stover Mill- Restored and Ready for the Future” by Pat Lesko and Doug Sardo, Old Mill News, Vol. XLII, No. 1, Winter 2014, Society for the Preservation of Old Mills).  The TCA would never think of demolishing the mill and constructing something fake, and we as the greater community are the better for their firm and committed stance.

Another example of preservation occurred in Quakertown many years ago.  The Burges-Foulke House was threatened with the widening of Route 309, West End Boulevard on the edge of town.  A large 2 ½  story Federal era stone house contemporary with the River House, the B-F House was simply lifted off of its foundation and moved in totality, furnishings included, over one-quarter of a mile away to a new location, placed on a new foundation, and now, through the historical society, serves as an asset to the community.

If river flooding has been the primary culprit in the deterioration of Odette’s, why has not immediate cleaning and repairs carried out to assure best preservation result?  Why is it being allowed to stand and deteriorate further?  Why are not timber frame specialists and house movers engaged in the conversations for saving the building?   Timbers can be replaced, houses can be lifted in totality and placed on higher foundations.  If there is funding for repairs to historical buildings after Superstorm Sandy that is going begging for applicants, why is there not funding for repairs to buildings flooded from storm events?  If there are changes in the river conditions that cause more frequent flooding to resources which never were impacted before, why are those issues not being addressed and the victims properly compensated?   While borough members may feel a frustration with regard to conditions at the River House property, a preservation-must attitude is needed with a commitment to work with owners to source best solutions and preservation practices and thereby assure a beloved landmark continues to enhance our lives.

Sadly a lack of commitment by a town to closely work with developers, to reprimand immediately for damage or neglect to historical resources, has lead to the demolition of a significant tavern in Gardenville.   Rather than being fined for punching a hole in the front facade, the developer was rewarded with a demolition permit.  A lame excuse of inhabitability was a poor reason for a Revolutionary War and cultural heritage site to now be completely scoured of any historical pattern or evidence, with extended impact to jeopardizing the NR listing for the entire district.  Many in the town feel a great sadness, loss and frustration and sense of uselessness.  What was once cherished was devalued into rubble, selfish monetary concerns have denied a future the true story of how our country found its way to freedom.  Such disrespect hurts all.

New Hope Borough can avert such a disaster by committing to achieving a preservation solution, first by respecting the importance of National Register and National Landmark designations, second by seeking craftsmen most familiar with rehabilitation of Federal era masonry and timber frame buildings to provide educated methods for logical repairs (modern trained engineers are not expert in traditional craft) and third to work with the owner to seek funding loans and grants for sensitive revitalization of the property.

3. A truly honest appraisal of the adverse impact of the proposed development is needed.

Even if the existing stone River House is rehabilitated, the plans proposed for the Gateway development of the property are completely inappropriate to the location and to the history represented, and recognized there.  While small scale industry occurred throughout the borough’s history, the buildings were modest, well-disbursed and highly compatible in scale and materials to the surrounding domestic architecture.  Bucks County’s heritage and appeal draws primarily from a gentle agrarian development, with villages and towns principally domestic in character and providing service industries.

Even with extended reach of exported goods, the county maintained a strong rural feeling.  Of the very few “industrial” towns in the county New Hope’s charm and mystique is its productive heritage that so easily blended into the landscape and residences and does not have a heavy industrial image.  Why then should a fine residential designed stone manor house and inn be demolished or significantly altered to look like a large brick factory?  It is irresponsible in an historical area to present a false image that will be mistakenly interpreted in the future, especially when the real article stands eloquently to offer the best story of the location.

Perhaps most offensive, in addition to the falsehood, is the unnatural scale of the proposed structure, well beyond that of its surroundings.  The tendency to “steroid” a location with oversized buildings works as a disservice to all.  Firstly it creates an imbalance, changing the spatial relationships, the solids and voids, the height profiles echoed in a view-scape.  Second, the site is overcrowded with more building and less landscape, much more impervious surfaces that only cause storm water problems or ugly solutions to moderate.  The panorama of the New Hope waterfront viewed from New Jersey now has very large white condominiums overwhelming the quiet picture of the river town.  Clustered presently on the south end, they appear as a white leviathan ready to methodologically consume the krill of smaller buildings in its path.

New buildings can be designed as a complement to adjoining older buildings, they can work to enhance and celebrate their neighbors.  Or, as is becoming evident with the new court house in Doylestown, overscaled and poorly sited buildings can become oppressive and shadow out or squash neighboring buildings, what could have been synergy among new and old is merely weighty tension.  There is no respect to the site, to the previous collection of buildings and lifestyle, no respect for the National Register Historic District.

An historic district is a cohesive area of resources that presents a complete image of a time and place, through scale, material, spatial relationship, function, craftsmanship, look feel and association.  It allows the visitor to imagine the past events while standing in the present, to touch and admire the actual craft of stone or wood, to feel the scale of historical expressions.  To alter the function of the site and over crowd it with oppressive, large-scaled factory changes the entire character of this sensitive and historically rich site, one with multiple accolades.  With respect to a district, to change one component bears heavily on the others.  New Hope still suggests a small town rural feeling, but the proposal is embracing the negatives of city life, namely large bland factory buildings, heritage erased, over paving and excessive run-off, over taxing utilities with high volume usage, crowding and unnecessary dependency.  It also alienates the Delaware Canal and forces an unauthentic interpretation.

It is irresponsible to allow this heavy a use and alteration in a flood-prone zone, the function is not proven to be sustainable in the long term, it is disrespectful to deny and destroy the heritage assets which lead to historic register and landmark listings, it is irresponsible to encourage negative preservation which will deny historic listings in the future.  If the investors are uneasy and quick to walk from the proposed development, then it is not right, and will not be successful.

The River House/ Odette’s can be rehabilitated with the existing stone building, on the existing site.   Creative research to recreate the former buildings and revitalize the additions, enhancing the image and interpretation of the Delaware Canal as well, utilizing historic tax credits, grants for elimination of blight and rehabilitation of historic buildings can offer viable usage.   This includes cooperative town planning to coordinate and compliment the actions of New Hope with Lambertville, supporting the business and economic enterprises of both (not competing with duplicate inventory).

The River House has stood elegantly with its stone facades, broad roof ridgeline solidly anchored with gable peak chimneys, welcoming dormers and shuttered windows, frame extensions to tell the story of active 18th and 19th century transportation eras.  As Odette’s the building is rich with warm memories and national lineage of talent.  Bucks County and New Hope are known for stone buildings, art communities, theatrical talents, calm landscapes, human scaled buildings and quiet canals.  Gentle natural river front areas, that even while having witnessed vibrant activity in former years, did so with regal beauty and full associations to a traceable past.

Bucks County is Historic, New Hope is Historic.

Preservation is authentic, not cartoon-like Disney world,

Preservation allows a place to recall and be a traceable record of the past,

Preservation celebrates authentic craft,

Preservation has succeeded in creating vibrant communities.

The Gateway project fails in the following areas:

Genuine- It is not authentic

Respect- It erases history and leaves no record of the past

Real- It impersonalizes and removes authentic, crafted stone

Scale- It overburdens the site and neighborhood

Safety- It places a large number of people in jeopardy in storm events

Truth- It creates a false factory, and a false interpretation of history.

Image- It sends the wrong, anti-heritage, message to the public.

It is your duty to the citizens of New Hope and Bucks County to deny this project and demand that the stone River House be rehabilitated and preserved.  There is a reason for all of the historical, heritage, recreation and scenic designations.  Do not erase the reason.  Thank you.

Kathryn Ann Auerbach
Preservation Consultant

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Free Press)

About the author



  • Dear Kathy,What a marvelous treatise on preserving what little historical beauty still remains in this county. It is heartbreaking that the very reason for being in the area is being destroyed by those who wish to make a profit regardless of the consequences.Thank you Kathy I am Randy’s brother in case you forgot.

  • I would like to support the authors cause. Does she have an email address where I can reach her? Or please send her mine as well.
    Ken Odell

  • On top of all that you’ve said, the mere idea of creating what they’re talking about creating and only having 60 parking spots on-site makes me think that this hasn’t been well conceived!

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