Around Town

Opinion: We want the real stone Odette’s building to stay

(Photo: courtesy of Ted Nichols)

(Photo: courtesy of Ted Nichols)

By Kathryn Ann Auerbach,
Preservation is Real

The voice of the New Hope Borough Council is loud and clear. HISTORY HAS NO PLACE IN THE FUTURE OF NEW HOPE. The recent decision to amend New Hope’s zoning laws to allow for the demolition of the historic River House aka Odette’s and the construction of a large, new, factory-type, 52’ high, four-story building that exceeds current borough height restrictions flies in the face of
-all in-place zoning,
-Historical & Architectural Review Board recommendations,
-Lower Delaware Wild & Scenic River management plan directives and
-the tremendous research and work of many stellar individuals over decades to
preserve an internationally famous component of Bucks County’s history.

“Oh, but it’s been flooded” Odette’s is among the oldest and most resilient of all buildings along the Delaware, having experienced and survived numerous floods since its construction in 1794. The STONE CORE is STRUCTURALLY SOUND. The proposed new hotel is no less immune to flooding, nor closure due to adverse weather or access restrictions.

“Oh, but it is damaged and deteriorated” At the request of New Hope’s Historical & Architectural Review Board (HARB) the building was inspected this past summer and found to be remarkably in sound condition. The ORIGINAL STONE PORTION IS SOLID, unaffected by the recent floods and quite capable of preservation. The fact that the owners have chosen NOT TO CLEAN OR MAKE ANY REPAIRS only points to irresponsibility. They blame current site conditions on DCNR.

“Oh, but it has lost its integrity” The inspection revealed that the rectangular stone 2 ½ story 1794 building RETAINS A GREAT DEAL OF ITS ORIGINAL INTEGRITY, in particular the stone walls, fenestration, window sash, roof profile, placement of chimneys & dormers and significant amounts of interior finish materials.

“Oh the additions detract from its historical significance” The CURRENT low profile ADDITIONS WERE IN PLACE when RiverHouse was DEEMED “SIGNIFICANT” in the National Register historic district nomination. They were added after 1960 by Odette Myrtil, famous restaurateur, are technically outside the significant time period of the district and can be easily removed to reveal the intact and sound 1794 portion.

There is no other building in the New Hope Historic District that relates so significantly to the town’s three centuries of importance. RiverHouse was critical to travelers from Philadelphia & more importantly rafters & Durham boat captains on the Delaware River.
Early photos from the canal era (1831-1931) show a variety of additions that augmented the building’s function, including as “lower store house” in addition to serving as a tavern, over the years. The canal was built around RiverHouse and this segment is the most resource dense of any along the 60-mile length. 20th century RiverHouse was host to artists and celebrities. Additions to the RiverHouse came & went as needed, but the original stone core dominated and defined the building’s recognizable appearance. Note: The PHMC’s change in historical classification likely was intended to enable MORE PRESERVATION OPTIONS FOR Odette’s, not demolition.

“Oh FEMA regulations won’t allow us to restore and use the entire building” THEN DON’T USE THE ENTIRE BUILDING. Federal regulations restrict ground level activities in the proposed new building as well, therefore similar plans can be formulated for the upper levels of the current stone building. Properly scaled & designed additions (such as those in the canal era) can extend off to augment function. The first floor can be an entrance way of flood-proof materials (such as a masonry staircase) to guide to the upper levels, with easily removable items in this ground level, to comply with flood regulations. THE BUILDING DOES NOT HAVE TO BE RAISED (OR RAZED), THE FUNCTION SIMPLY NEEDS TO BE RAISED TO THE UPPER LEVELS.

Looking for Federal hand-outs? Recall that Doylestown turned down Federal money to demolish significant buildings in its town core for parking & initiated its own revitalization efforts (‘Operation 64”) which proved more successful and preserved the historic buildings, and the town’s identity for the present and future to celebrate.

“Lest we forget…” The entire MAIN STREET OF NEW HOPE was THOROUGHLY FLOODED in 1955. If the property owners then sat round waiting for Federal hand-outs, we would not have a New Hope to celebrate and enjoy today. No, local citizens, volunteers from neighboring communities and from far away, stepped in to clean up after the flood. They realized that New Hope & other Delaware River communities were too cherished to loose. Oh yes, the flood was ugly—river rats sitting atop fence posts or on the railroad tracks, but the people’s understanding of Bucks County’s unique identity and importance to preserve was beautiful. “Odette’s RiverHouse” restaurant and famous dinner clientele all happened after the 1955 flood. History was preserved and added to. We all have enjoyed the unique, varied, authentic and attractive Main Street streetscape of New Hope that was ably preserved by SIMPLE, HANDS-ON CLEAN-UP.

“This is our vision for Odette’s” The “vision” presented by Gateway is ONLY ONE VISION, it is NOT THE ONLY VISION. Gateway’s vision is too large, too fiscally risky and places too many people in harm’s way in bad weather conditions. It is dependent upon many other public services and facilities, such as the publically funded shuttle bus and parking in a public nature preserve. Will the variances under “Historic Hospatility” create an unsustainable hotel that will transform into condominiums? Will the constrained plot of land require filling in of the adjacent canal locks for more room? IT IS NOT THE RIGHT VISION FOR A TINY ½ ACRE PLOT OF LAND IN AN HISTORIC DISTRICT, DIRECTLY ADJACENT THE NATIONAL HISTORIC LANDMARK CANAL AND THE FEDERAL WILD & SCENIC RIVER.

In fact, this vision violates all design guidelines and management plan directives set forth for historic sites and the Wild and Scenic River. “Lest we forget…”
NEW HOPE BOROUGH in 2001 SIGNED the MEMORANDUM OF AGREEMENT to abide by the Lower Delaware Wild & Scenic Management Plan. This management plan stresses the necessity to
-preserve historic sites,
-maintain river views,
-restrict modern development along the river front,
-submit plans to all municipalities in the W&S corridor for comments,
-AND sustain existing protective zoning and historic districts that are in place to assure
the future can experience our beloved historic sites and scenic Delaware River.

New Hope Borough Council VIOLATED THE LOWER DELAWARE WILD & SCENIC guidelines by facilitating Gateway’s plan which:
-destroys historic resources of the Odette’s RiverHouse & Delaware Canal
-destroys views of the river from the canal, river road and adjoining historical properties, and from New Jersey perspectives.
-required significant and adverse changes in zoning in order to be considered…. or built, setting precedent for future adverse development.
-required overruling the HARB decision not to approve.

New Hope Borough Council APPROVED proposed ACTIONS DESTRUCTIVE to the National Landmark Delaware CANAL. Gateway’s plans:
-require entire destruction of all historic resources between the main trunk of the canal and the outlet lock, resources, even archaeological, closely tied to the canal’s operation.
-require drilling, pounding and digging into the hard diabase rock, significantly damaging adjoining stone walls, both lining the canal and forming basements of nearby houses. Similar action was noted to have destroyed canal walls elsewhere in the borough. Concrete and cartoon-like “lick ‘m & stick ‘m” false stonework is not historic.
-include changes to the location of the towpath, further altering proper historical record and public perception and understanding of canal appearance and function. Canal bridge crossing locations will be moved. Ground levels will be altered, confusing the understanding of the multiple locks in this location & causing potential changes in water drainage, further endangering canal resources.
The historic context of the canal will be unrecognizable.

New Hope Borough Council ACTED under FALSE PREMISE in granting zoning variances to Gateway. The council was operating under its borough zoning. Council stated Odette’s stone building “lost its historical classification”. Under New Hope’s approved and zoned historic district Odette’s retains its historical classification. New Hope’s HARB is the arbiter of the historic district and recognizes Odette’s historical significance. Odette’s furthermore holds County Register historical designation.

“This will be TRANSFORMATIONAL for New Hope” But will anyone recognize New Hope after it is “transformed”? Elitist comments regarding the appearance of South Main Street and the economic condition of New Hope raises eyebrows regarding the extent of the “vision”. With precedent setting break of building height restrictions, total disregard for the disapproval by the HARB, and total eradication of historical resources, the transformation of New Hope will be nothing short of HERITAGE CLEANSING. The building proposed leaves no record of history and could easily be in Kansas City.

CONSTRUCTION DAMAGE has a DOMINO EFFECT. Once nearby building foundations are damaged by construction, will the owners of the quaint canal Collectors’ House and other historic buildings near South Main Street request demolition permits in order to build large condos or homes, or sell out? Loss of real buildings, real stone walls, real settings will cause a loss of National Register and Wild & Scenic designations. And then LOSS OF TOURISM.

New Hope’s heritage is nothing of which to be ashamed. It represents a unique vision of a successful, hand-made society, pre-industrial revolution industrial, small-scale and human, yet well-proportioned and at times elegant. It represents a variety of cultures, talents, economic classes and opportunities coming together to build and sustain a vibrant community. International visitors do not come to see modern generic. They do not come to see Kansas City. They come to see the result of the most amazing event in the world: Peoples from all walks of life coming together in harmony to build a nation. They want to see real evidence, real buildings, real places where real events happened.

An artistic community needs real resources, variety of images, imperfection to respond and create a sincere effort and offering to the world. Sanitize New Hope with steroid condos, harsh-edged factory buildings rising where an 18th century stone tavern stood, false and cartoon-like images of the hand-made canal, and elitist, overly-expensive housing or businesses and the artist will leave. Then the tourists will leave, then the community will only build bigger and loose more. What was New Hope? Funky, quirky, historic, hand-made, full of surprises, beautiful, human AND REAL. GATEWAY’S PROJECT IS NOT REAL to New Hope’s heritage. NEW HOPE BOROUGH COUNCIL’S ACTIONS ARE SURREAL, ALIEN and damaging to the Delaware Canal, to the Delaware Wild & Scenic and to the entire heritage of Bucks County.

No one wants continued neglect. BUT NO ONE WANTS TO REWARD THOSE WHO HAVE NEGLECTED WITH APPROVALS FOR FURTHER DESTRUCTION. Discussions should focus on the removal of the recent additions to Odette’s, the cleaning and repair of the 1794 stone building and to the restoration of the nearby canal features and then to entertain only those proposals which will enhance the existing historic features. Multiple national designations should be honored and respected, not reviled and manipulated.

Contact all public officials from Congressmen, Senators, Representatives, DCNR, PHMC, County Commissioners, heritage based organizations as well as the New Hope Borough Council and demand that this project, and the demolition of Odette’s be stopped. ONCE GONE IT IS GONE FOREVER.

Give dignity to our laws, our National Register, our Wild & Scenic River, our history and the hard work of so many to preserve and hand to us the beautiful county we have.
WE WANT THE REAL STONE ODETTE’S BUILDING TO STAY. We want to hand OUR heritage to the next generation.


Preservation expert Kathryn Ann Auerbach of Erwinna is a graduate of William & Mary, and an instructor of historic preservation at Bucks County Community College. A former member of Solebury Township’s Historical Architectural Review Board, Auerbach served for more than eight years as Director of Historical Programs at the Heritage Conservancy in Doylestown.

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

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  • Agree with everything Ms. Auerbach says, but where’s the money? I think all of her ideas and motives are well founded and wish her luck, but unfortunately unless she has the cash to do it it’s a pipe dream.

    I’m increasingly siding with the preservation movement because of how this all went down – Claire Shaw changing rules on a whim, disenfranchising everyone around her, all to push a project that she stands to personally profit from in the future as her property gains value. It all stinks… Had this gone down in another way it would be much more palatable, but as it stands it feels like small town political corruption plain and simple.

  • as always when discussing odettes, much talk about what not to do, not a word of what we should do. how about some practical talk about what would be done instead with some financial reality.

    of course, we could just wait till Wawa shows up with deep in enough pockets to fight it out. nothing like a nice historical convenience store downtown.

    • Look at Duncan Donuts and Starbucks, Marsha Browns – lambertville house and the Station the list go’s on.and most are the high value lease and tax revenue for both sides of the river. This development will destroy what has been their for 200 years and replace it with another wood frame structure overbuilt and empty after they make their buck.

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