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By its very nature, does the rare breed become an endangered species?

January 2, 2010

Not long ago I read about an amazing property for sale in New Paltz —  147 acres, a farmhouse and two stone horsebarns, all formerly part of a utopian boys’ school and most recently home to a furniture manufacturing enterprise that relocated to Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood.

All over the country there are extraordinary real estate parcels of this rarified breed.  Breathtaking landscape, buildings — pedigreed and otherwise — that need special care, have spaces within that are a challenge to adapt because of size or layout.  How to help them survive?

Barns vanish from the lansdcape with alarming regularity because of the upkeep they require and the inability of their owners to devise a practical non-agricultural use.

Shelburne Farms, click the image to learn about the history

For every National Historic Landmark Shelburne Farms, which has reinvented itself as a nonprofit environmental education center with its spend-the-night, buy-the-cheese, gather-at-the-barn-campfire survival plan, there are wonderful, special places struggling or losing the battle to remain intact.  Land gets sold off for suburban housing, buildings are demolished and end their slow decline to oblivion.

This struggle is a portion of the tale told by Leila Philip in the memoir she wrote about her family and the farm she grew up on, an apple orchard outside Claverack, New York, just up the Hudson from the New Paltz place seen above. (Her book is A Family Place:  A Hudson Valley Farm, Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family)

Of course, to call it simply “a farm” is a vast understatement.  The lands, the views, the rural roads and the Federal-style yellow house called Talavera (built circa 1812) are all part of a narrative that stretches back in history, and, the family hopes, will reach forward as well.  But Philip describes the struggle to survive with a rawness and even a bit of anger that are  lacking in the other house memoirs I’ve read.  She writes as though there is no room for nostalgia on the brink of failure.

While George Howe Colt’s description of the shabby make-do connected with his family’s summer place in Cape Cod (The Big House ) underscores the charm and eccentricity of the house and the family that built it, Philip seems to resent the fact that her generation has been born to shoulder the burden of a family legacy yet hasn’t the funds to maintain the house or even to pay bills if bad weather kills the apple crop that is their livelihood.

Her journey through the boxes and files stored throughout the house is, in some sense, a treasure hunt that desperately seeks to understand how her ancestors managed it all.

I told myself that I was sick of being bullied by a past I didn’t even know.  But really I was scared, scared that like my father, I would get sucked into a way of living that revolved so much around Talavera that it lost touch with the larger world.  If I looked, I could see signs of this in my own generation, in me.  We all were a little too comfortable with Talavera’s state of disrepair, that slippery state of mild neglect and denial.  Success in the outer world involved a strange sense of betrayal.

While Philip’s research uncovers startling discoveries about her ancestors and helps her come to terms with her inheritance, there is no map pointing her to a secret treasure.   The pick-your-own orchard is a tenuous funding source and the house needs work (some of it detailed in a 2001 article in the New York Times).  A reissue (click cover thumbnail or link above) updates the story and provides much-needed photographic accompaniment to the story of the place.

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