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The Torn-Down House Tour

Within the past week or so, three houses within a two block range of our Pleasantville, NY house have been torn down. I took the kids on a tour of them this evening. Driving by, I remarked, "Look: there's nothing left but the shrubbery!" Elizabeth asked what shrubbery was and I explained that shrubbery was bushes.

I presume they were bought by the same builder who previously bought three houses in this area as tear-downs and replaced them with two-million dollar McMansions.

Magnificent Stone & Clapboard Center Hall Colonial in construction NOW in the prestigious Byram Hills School District. Offering "State of the Art" granite Kitchen and Baths, High-Tech wiring for computers and cable. stereo and TV., central vacuum, alarm, landscaping, fireplaces, etc. 1-acre of park-like property. All the amenities an upscale home should offer.

Interestingly, the real estate advertisement for the house on Cecilia Lane claims that it is "near schools" when in fact the Byram Hills schools are in Armonk and the school where they house the Kindergarten is seven miles away. (Our property is on the district line between Byram Hills and Chappaqua and that very issue is why our kids attend the Chappaqua schools which are much closer.)

Two of the houses just torn down were, like ours, built in the 1950s as part of the Old Farm Hill development. This real estate listing appears to be what will become of one of the new holes in the ground.

This Magnificent 4,500 sf brand new home is in one of Westchester's most sought after neighborhoods boasting Armonk schools. Beautiful, One-of-a-Kind luxury colonial on a level 1 acre of lush property. This exquisite home is currently under construction, so you can customize your selections to your personal taste. The home will feature 4 bedrooms, 3 ½ baths, 3-car garage, custom detailed woodwork, and much more including the top-rated Byram Hills school system. This home will feature all the amenities imaginable. Gourment Kitchen, luxurious baths, custom woodwork, granite tops, professional appliances, professionally landscaped grounds, automatic sprinkler system, central vacuum system, 3-car garage, Walk-Out Basement, Alarm System, Grand 2-story Entry, 10' Ceililngs, and so much more...This is an absolute TREASURE of a home!!!!

Asking price: $2,150,000. There seems to be an issue with verb tenses, since as I write there is no house on that lot at all. Presumably "lush" refers to the shrubbery. Or perhaps the listing refers to the yellow house they built, but I'd heard that had been sold. It doesn't have a lawn yet, as I recall, so how would that be "lush"? [5/30/08 UPDATE: The yellow house is the one in the ad and is next door to the new hole in the ground at the beginning of Old Farm S. where they just tore down a house. The yellow house does indeed have a lawn, but the sod was recently rolled out since I remember very recently the front yard had no grass. there are some small shrubs recently planted along the front of t he yellow house.]

One of the houses torn down was a proto-McMansion built in the 1980s as part of the Heritage Court development. Though I've never been in the houses in question, I doubt they were torn down because of defects but rather because of the commercial potential for a big new house on that spot. I wonder how this makes the immediate neighbors feel. None of the vanished houses were in any way eyesores, and the new ones -- probably 5,000 square feet replacing a house that was 3,000 square feet -- will probably be much closer to the property lines and occupy a much larger footprint on the one acre lots.

As I have remarked previously, the area where I live is one of the places the suburbs were invented. The Old Farm Hill development is a decade older than nearby Usonia, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and friends. When I give a neighborhood tour, I point out the elements in our neighborhood imitated from Usonia: what the builders of Old Farm Hill emulated; and also what they didn't. Usonia is a community of individually designed houses carefully set into large lots. In Old Farm Hill, there are about 6 house plans, endlessly repeated, but the houses are carefully placed on the lot, as with Usonia. When I give my tour for visiting friends I present Usonia as "what the suburbs were supposed to be like" and I end with a nearby area of excessively large houses built in the 80s smacked down in the middle of lots which have been leveled with all the big old oaks felled, presenting that as "what the suburbs are actually like."

But now a 1980s McMansion has been razed for a 21st century McMansion. I do wonder what this place will look like when most of the houses are like that, offering "all the amenities an upscale home should offer," but I doubt we'll stick around long enough to find out.

Test your level of Alienation online

Frances on Peter's deskI happened across an on-line questionnaire apparently by C. George Boeree, a professor in the Psychology Department at Shippensburg University, which claims to test your degree alienation. I score as only moderately alienated in most of the categories of alienation, but score very highly for "cultural alienation." Interestingly the term "cultural alienation" seems to be primarily used to study the effects of colonialism upon the indigenous population, like so:

The experience of colonial domination shows that, in the effort to perpetuate exploitation, the colonizers not only creates a system to repress the cultural life of the colonized people; he also provokes and develops the cultural alienation of a part of the population, either by so-called assimilation of indigenous people, or by creating a social gap between the indigenous elites and the popular masses.

(Amilcar Cabral, "National Liberation and Culture." Originally delivered on February 20, 1970 as part of the Eduardo Mondlane Memorial Lecture Series at Syracuse University.)

It is interesting to me that the incursion of million-dollar-house people into our corner of suburbia would provoke in me an alienation similar to that of the colonized. I tried the test on my son, and while he had no scores in the "high" range, most of his scores indicated moderate alienation, and one of his highest scores was cultural alientation.

Boeree's page on Conformity and Obediance is also interesting.

FEMA Needs to Tell People What It Intends for Their Homes

6039providencepsmlI had a fairly thorough look through the FEMA website, and no where could I find any mention of any plans to tell people FEMA's intentions for their homes. There are instructions for registering a claim with FEMA, but it is not clear to me what FEMA does for you once your claim is registered. Is this simply a mechanism for receiving aid money? Or does their attention to your claim involve keeping you updated on whether they plan to tear down your neighborhood? Anyone know?

Over the weekend, a reader made what seemed to me a really good suggestion, though I didn't yet understand at the time how good a suggestion it was:

Please consider contacting the USGS to have updated satellite photos made available for New Orleans citizens, their families and friends - so that the conditions of their neighborhood can be evaluated from their distant locations while awaiting permission to return home. This may take weeks. It would put many minds at ease (or make the worst known, not better, but less harsh than the wait to see it firsthand).

Make it so, Kathryn. Use what contacts and influence you have to make this idea understood as an important technical tool and its use as a social service.

This will also help FEMA recovery efforts.

There aren't enough satellite and aerial images publicly available to accomplish what he suggests. But the general idea, that the US government needs to provide people information about their homes, is a good one.

Clearly, some of the houses are a total loss and need to be torn down. On some portions of satellite images houses formerly aligned in neat rows now look like they were casually dropped and haven't been lined up yet. Those homes are gone. There is no question that they need to be replaced. But many others, some in quite deep water, may well be reparable. The question is this: How much of New Orleans does FEMA plan to restore, and how much does it plan to simply replace. And if the houses are replaced with something else, are they to be replaced for their original owners? Or will the land be taken by eminent domain and redistributed?

One thing I did find on the FEMA site was a news release detailing the FEMA time-line for federal funding of "debris removal":

State and local governments will be reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency for 100 percent of Hurricane Katrina eligible debris removal costs incurred during the sixty days following President Bush’s federal disaster declaration, from August 29 through October 30th, 2005.

Examples of eligible clean-up include removal of debris from public rights-of-way to ensure safe passage and debris removal from public property to eliminate health and safety hazards.

Removing the massive debris left by Hurricane Katrina is a cooperative effort between local communities, state governments, federal governments, and state and federal agencies.

It's not clear to me whether this time-line applies (or even could be applied) to the cleanup of New Orleans. But now that Michael Brown is out of the way, presumably some plan for the future of New Orleans is coming together.

Whole neighborhoods will need to be torn down entirely. We know this. It's obvious from up there in orbit where Digital Globes satellites live. But how many neighborhoods? And who will decide? Will FEMA tell you in advance if your house is to be razed, or only after the fact? FEMA needs to make its plans public as soon as possible.

The data tying specific New Orleans addresses to GPS coordinates and aerial and satellite images exists. I've been using it all week. FEMA needs to provide us with their overlay for the map of New Orleans before they start the bulldozers. My personal recommendation to whomever is now in charge of the restoration of New Orleans is that as soon as they have a map showing what areas of the city the plan to tear down, that they release it to the public and to the media so that it can be integrated into the same tools the public has been using to check on the storm damage to their homes. Specifically, I would like to see a publicly published map that could then be integrated into the Google Maps and Google Earth interfaces. Also, FEMA should license this same technology, for use on its own website, to create an Internet site where people can type in their addresses and receive a detailed report on what FEMA plans for the area.

If FEMA goes in with the bulldozers and starts razing areas without either informing the property owners and residents, nor allowing them back in to get their possessions, there will be mass panic. I hope that whoever takes over for Michael Brown has the sense to do better than that.


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Not for the "wimpy" buyer

Garondah_420,000 square feet for your books in a romantic mountain setting in Elizabethtown, New York, for under $200,000:


This main building is a turn of the century, 20,000 square foot mansion boasting 16 bedrooms, 16 full baths, and 14 fireplaces. Situated on 54.7 acres, on a mountainside above Elizabethtown, Garondah entertains a breathtaking view of rolling hills, mountains, and sunset views. Keep it a family estate, as originally created, or consider the commercial possibilities such as the location for a hotel, a bed and breakfast, a school, a clubhouse or a corporate retreat. Minutes from interstate 87, this property offers privacy as well as easy access to Lake Champlain (10 minutes to the east), the hiking trails of the Adirondack high peaks region (10 minutes to the west) and local amenities. The main building is partially gutted and in need of extensive rehabilitation.

An English sunken garden is waiting to be reclaimed.

Outbuildings include a large garage/shop (falling down), a gaming cottage (charming and in need of repair), and a caretaker's cottage, ready for occupancy.

Not for the "wimpy" buyer, this purchase requires a person with vision, financial resources, skill, and preservation expertise, to restore this estate to it's original rustic splendor . . .

Just think . . . then think again.

Kathryn Cramer at October 14, 2003 09:55 AM | Link Cosmos | Purple Numbers | Edit
Oh, my -- I can just hear my husband now: "But we're both good at DIY! And look at all the room for workshops! And it's in the mountains, Mellie!"

Oh, dear.

Posted by: Melanie Fletcher at October 14, 2003 03:59 PM
Maybe those folks from will finish their bungalow and need a new project...

Posted by: brian w at October 14, 2003 10:16 PM
It's an insurmountable opportunity.

Posted by: Kathryn Cramer at October 15, 2003 07:50 AM
Oh man. I just looked at this property and I think Kathryn put it exactly right an insurmountable opportunity. There is so much going on for this place and SO much more going wrong with it. There is not even a solid roof in the whole batch of buildings and mushrooms growing on the floor joists. :( very sad.

Posted by: Chris at November 19, 2003 10:56 PM
postscript - january 2004 - property going to closing - sold!

Posted by: eve at January 20, 2004 11:13 AM
I came across the discussion regarding the old mansion Garondah. I live near the old house and have just written the history of the property with old and new photos that will appear in the next issue (September Special Collectors Issue) of Adirondack Life Magazine.

Just thought you might want to see it up close.


Posted by: Margaret Bartley at August 16, 2004 12:04 AM
My husband has been there, once about twenty years ago. He is the former business partner of L. W. Currey who still operates his bookselling business from Elizabethtown. We get up there a few times a year.