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A Story Told From the Ruins

Published: October 7, 2007

Colwe600 TO most people, this swath of waterfront property along the Hudson River looks derelict and, especially to developers’ eyes, ripe for the wrecking ball. The old Anaconda Wire and Cable plant, closed since 1975, is a hulk of aging red brick and metal buildings.

Exhaust pipes protrude from the walls, and vines scale the bricks. Boarded and broken windows dot the buildings, and rusted fencing circles much of the plant. The factory, which was built in 1898 and expanded in 1912, later became notorious for polluting the Hudson with chemicals.

But to Robert Yasinsac, the defunct industrial property is a place of haunting beauty as well as historical significance. On a recent fall afternoon, with the sun dipping low on the Hudson, Mr. Yasinsac photographed the distinctive water tower on the site, and an old power station. A bit farther down the shoreline, he pointed out a hulk of metal, partly jutting out of the river and beached on the sandy shore. To the untrained eye, it looked like a piece of junk, with crabs crawling through its rusty pockets. But to Mr. Yasinsac, it was another hidden treasure.

“This is the wreck of a steamboat, the Lancaster,” he said. “It’s a relic of the Hudson’s history, with all those steamboats plying the river.”

He continued to poke along the shoreline, pointing out part of the boat’s hull in some overgrown brush, and examining loose bricks scattered nearby.

Mr. Yasinsac is an archaeologist, of sort. He’s into ruins. He and his friend Thomas Rinaldi roam the Hudson Valley, photographing structures of distinctive architecture that are threatened by neglect and development. Beautifully restored properties like Kykuit or Lyndhurst don’t compel them. They are drawn to far less glamorous sites like the Yonkers Power Station, built in 1906, and the Brandreth Pill Factory, built in Ossining in 1836.

Last year, the two came out with a book, “Hudson Valley Ruins: Forgotten Landmarks of an American Landscape” (University Press of New England). This fall they are lecturing around the Hudson Valley, hoping to draw attention to structures that are wasting away. In doing so, they hope to save some of them.

Mr. Yasinsac and Mr. Rinaldi say that historic buildings — the places that gave the Hudson Valley its identity — are disappearing at an alarming rate. They mourn the loss of places like the Briarcliff Lodge, in Briarcliff Manor, a once grand hotel that opened in 1902 and was later razed by a developer who eventually abandoned the project.

The sites the authors document include not only old factories, but also churches, firehouses, mills and dilapidated mansions that have fallen on hard times — places that haven’t been lucky enough to be considered tourist attractions.

“Most of the historic places in the Hudson Valley at one point were in ruins and have been restored to such an extent that you’d never know it,” Mr. Rinaldi said. “Boscobel was in an almost complete state of disrepair.”

Sometimes, they will try to get properties designated as landmarks to protect them. In 2005, Mr. Yasinsac argued that the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, in Yonkers, should be preserved because of its historical and architectural significance. The city’s Landmarks Preservation Board rejected the designation, and the property is scheduled to be converted into medical offices and a health club.

He and Mr. Rinaldi are realistic. They don’t have the money to buy and restore properties themselves. If they can’t save the buildings, they reason, they can at least photograph them, creating a visual historical record of what once stood on the land.

“Every building has got a different story, and that’s what we’re trying to tell,” Mr. Yasinsac said. “We are trying to encourage the reuse of these sites, but the easiest thing for us to do at the moment is simply to document them.”

Mr. Rinaldi sees the artistic beauty in ruins. He noted that Thomas Cole, one of the best-known painters of the Hudson River School, complained about the lack of local ruins in the Hudson Valley. “There’s an aesthetic in decay that artists have found fascinating for a long time,” he said. “Something that’s been neglected long enough can become picturesque.”

Mr. Yasinsac and Mr. Rinaldi maintain a Web site ( that features a “Hudson Valley Demolition Alert,” a list of structures that they consider vulnerable.

Neither man has quit his day job. Mr. Rinaldi, 28, works in the capital projects office of the Central Park Conservancy in Manhattan. Mr. Yasinsac, 30, is a museum associate at Philipsburg Manor, the restored milling, farming and trading complex from the 17th to early 18th century in Sleepy Hollow. Some days he’s in period dress, in a frock coat or a milling apron. Working for an established historical site by day while combing the region for historic ruins in his time off makes perfect sense to him.

“We’re both out there telling stories and preserving aspects of history that people are not going to hear or see anywhere else,’’ he said.



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