Development problems at Chapel Hill, a 110-acre residential project in Peekskill, N.Y., have been so persistent over the last 17 years that the saga has become part of local lore, written up sometimes weekly in the local paper. "Oh, yeah," says the night manager at the Peekskill Inn. "It's been a mess up there. But I think Ginsburg's finally gotten it right." Her view is echoed downtown at the funky Bruised Apple Books and seconded at the laid-back Peekskill Coffee House.
The Ginsburg she mentions is Ginsburg Development Corp. (GDC), a construction and property management company that's been doing work in upscale Westchester County, just north of New York City, for close to 40 years. GDC is the fourth developer to be involved with Chapel Hill, but so far, it looks like it will be this condominium community's last--and most successful. As the trees on this spectacular Hudson River hillside turn from deep green to russet red, Ginsburg's construction crews are putting the finishing touches on a 28-unit loft building and putting up 166 attached townhomes. They join 245 condominiums that were built by three previous developers. Call it infill, of the decidedly bucolic variety.
Martin Ginsburg, president, CEO, and an architect by training, is even allowing himself to boast a little about the recently completed community center, a 16,000-square-foot building erected in 1920 that his company spent $3.5 million to transform into a state-of-the-art recreation center. It features Nautilus and Cybex exercise machines, a half basketball court, full bar, party rooms, co-ed sauna, and a marble altar with a 25-foot-high sacristy canopy.
That's right, an altar. In a way, it's appropriate that at least one church edifice has been left intact at Chapel Hill. Religious symbols have had a place here for many, many years.
Chapel Hill got its current name from the first of that long line of troubled developers, but its religious roots go much deeper than the mid-1980s. It's the former estate of Daniel H. Craig, founder of the Associated Press, who in 1865 built a 3,000-square-foot Italianate-style mansion on the 110-acre parcel for his daughter, Florence, who suffered from tuberculosis. He named the site Mount Florence, and while her health improved, his finances did not; foreclosure, the first of many financial ups and downs at this star-crossed property, forced him to sell. In 1874 the site was acquired by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who christened the site Mount St. Florence and started building.
Eventually the nuns would erect eight different buildings that made up the St. Germaine School for girls, where, as a 1907 board report explains, "orphan, destitute, and indigent girls of sound mind" were sent by the New York City Welfare Department for "a literary and industrial education." The boarding school's main building, a massive, five-story brick structure that sits on the highest point of this hilltop property, is what GDC is turning into 28 luxurious lofts that sell for between $128,000 and $329,000. The chapel is now the community center. The property's original mansion was beyond repair and had to be torn down.
"We've actually been involved with a number of projects that had a little bit of a checkered history, where we came in and 'rescued' things," says Ginsburg, sitting in one of the lounge areas at the development's spiffy community center. It's the culmination of years of wrangling over various amenities packages that had been promised by a series of developers. "A good part of the history here is that none of the previous developers wanted to restore the chapel as a recreation center because it was very costly. The kind of money you have to spend to do this is probably not justified. In fact, it's much more than we would normally spend. We could do a very nice recreational center for $1 million. To do this was not practical, but it was the right thing to do."
Peekskill Mayor John G. Testa, a man with his own nostalgic connections to Chapel Hill, couldn't agree more. "[Ginsburg] saved the project because he is a quality builder, and quality is what counts for him," says Testa, whose father was a night watchman and general "everything person for the sisters" for more than 20 years. The mayor himself worked at the school as a dishwasher and groundskeeper during high school and college. "Chapel Hill without a chapel would be a strange occurrence," says Testa. "None of us expected the school building to be saved, but it's turned out to be a wonderful project."
In fact, a previous developer had been given the go-ahead to demolish both the chapel and the school, but Ginsburg felt the two structures were worth restoring. "There was definitely a substantial amount of public sentiment about the chapel, but there really wasn't about the school," says Ginsburg. "But we felt they went together. There was an architectural integrity about the chapel that wouldn't have worked if we took down the school."
The five-story, 50,000-square-foot former school is now home to 28 two-bedroom lofts, including upper-level duplexes that offer views of the Hudson River. Ginsburg's demolition crews had to take the walls back to the masonry, but they tried to keep as many of the industrial touches as they could.
"Our model was the lofts that you see in the city, in Chelsea and SoHo," says Long Island architect John K. Karhu. "So we left the exposed brick walls, and kept as many of the cast-iron columns exposed as possible. The ceilings are up to 14 feet high, depending on the floor. We didn't want to drop the ceilings to hide the mechanical equipment, so the ductwork is exposed." Even the loft building's hallways, which feature dropped ceilings, have been designed to enhance that industrial feel. Square ceiling tiles, placed on the diagonal, will be used only in the center of each hallway, leaving the remaining grid open to the working guts above.
Every one of the dozens of windows had to be replaced, asbestos removed, exterior brick repointed, and new leaders, gutters, and siding for the dormers added. Garages with a parking space for each loft were added alongside the building, just out of sight of the circular approach to the building.
"The school was built at a time when there were really craftsmen, with masonry walls that were 2 feet thick, and floors built out of timber that were designed to support more than double the loads of a residence," says Karhu. "We really wanted to maintain the character of the building."
That was the case with the chapel, too, but its restoration was far more daunting. "The chapel was a nightmare," says Glen Moran, operations manager for GDC. "The standing-seam copper roof was full of water, the floors were a wreck, and many things had been stolen." Window frames had to be replaced, but the original arched window openings, some of which are 14 feet tall and 6 feet wide, have been retained.
What had to come out were the 55 original German-made stained-glass windows, which were crated up and given to the city. ("We didn't think religious stained glass was appropriate here," Ginsburg explains.) Now the chapel, which has three major spaces with 20-foot ceilings, has been done up in a palette of soothing jewel tones. "We tried to use color to highlight some of the existing moldings and details without, obviously, making it feel churchlike," says Lauren Brady-Russell, president of LBR Design Collaborative, which executed the interiors here and in the lofts' model. Where there were once pews there is now an exercise facility; where priests once heard confessions are now conversation areas filled with comfortable chairs and side tables.
In fact, as homeowners traipse through the community center, on their way to Pilates classes or 15-minute "Ab Workouts," it's clear that this old church has definitely been resurrected. "The demolition process was a little spooky," admits GDC construction manager Jeff DuBois, as he points to where the organ once played and where the sacramental items were once stored. "We definitely had to tread lightly in the chapel."
Now that the chapel has been restored, derelict buildings torn down, landscaping installed, and a pool, tot lot, and tennis court added, the residents who suffered through 17 years of ups and downs are finally--cautiously--optimistic. "It's very gratifying to see the development coming to a conclusion," says David E. Kenny, vice president of the Master Homeowner's Association and a Chapel Hill resident since 1989. "It brings a little closure."
"Every bad developer scenario that could happen had happened here," says Moran, "but once everything got cleaned up and restored, it definitely changed people's perceptions."
Project: Chapel Hill, Peekskill, N.Y.; Site size: 110 acres; Total units: lofts, 28; new townhomes, 166 (previous development, 247 units); Developer/Builder: Ginsburg Development Corp., Hawthorne, N.Y.; Architect: Karhu Associates, Oceanside, N.Y.; Land planner: P.W. Scott Engineering & Architecture, Brewster, N.Y.; Landscape architect: David Ferris Miller, Croton on Hudson, N.Y.; Interior designer: LBR Design Collaborative, Deer Park, N.Y.
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