Monday, December 15, 2008
New York Times - Great Homes & Destinations
By LISA A. PHILLIPS
Published: December 11, 2008
ASHTON HAWKINS and Johnnie Moore had been living part-time in the second-home hot spot of Hudson, N.Y., for five years before the right house lured them across the Hudson River to the smaller and less-known village of Athens.
It was the Haight-Van Loan House, a 7,000-square-foot Federal mansion that has panoramic views of the Hudson River and looms over eight acres on a hill at the south end of the village. And they were able to buy it for just $925,000.
“I feel like we made the bargain of the century,” said Mr. Moore, a theater actor and producer who lives in Manhattan.
More than two years later, the couple are still enthusiastic about their find, which would have cost more than $3 million across the river in Columbia County, local real estate agents say. They are now in the middle of an extensive restoration being overseen by Howard Hall Farm, a local firm that uses environmentally sensitive preservation techniques. The red shag carpeting has been ripped out, and a brace holds up the ceiling of the grand ballroom while an original beam of the house is being repaired.
“The house has been peeled back to its essence,” said Mr. Hawkins, a consultant to Christie’s and a former general counsel for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The restoration of the Haight-Van Loan House is perhaps the perfect emblem for Athens. Its trove of historic homes in various states of restoration and repair has become a draw for second-home owners who have an eye for vintage architecture. Newly spruced-up houses stand beside neglected properties of weed-infested yards, peeling paint and crumbling brick. Scaffolding is a common sight, and town gossip often revolves around who’s fixing up what and how.
The Village of Athens, a separate municipality within the town of Athens, sits on the west bank of the Hudson River, four miles north of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge in Greene County. First settled in the late 17th century, the village, a port on the Hudson-Athens Ferry, became a thriving hub for shipbuilding, brick making and ice harvesting. Athens fell on hard times after the bridge went up in 1935, eliminating the need for the ferry, which closed in 1947. Athens’s layout and architecture have remained essentially the same since its heyday in the late 19th century. It has more than 300 buildings on national and state historic registers and has the feel of a living museum of American architecture, with examples of many of the predominant styles of the 18th and 19th centuries, including Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Stick, Second Empire, Folk Victorian and Queen Anne.
Geoff Howell, who owns a Manhattan design and production studio, bought a five-bedroom Italianate house four years ago for $225,000. He has since bought two houses to restore and sell. “I’ve been interested in historic preservation my whole life but never felt I could make a difference in the city,” he said. “But Athens is small enough that every house you restore makes a big difference in the community.”
Ursula’s Diner is a friendly gathering place across from a waterfront park and boat launching area. And kayaks, powerboats, tugs and barges are a common sight on the river.
Boating, fishing and other water sports are also popular at Sleepy Hollow Lake, a 750-home private community that surrounds a two-and-a-half-mile man-made lake outside the village. Sleepy Hollow includes tennis courts, a marina, a driving range, two swimming pools, a lodge and a campground.
Night life revolves mainly around the bar and restaurant at the Stewart House, a recently restored 1833 inn. The Athens Cultural Center hosts art openings and other events.
Otherwise, the social scene in Athens tends toward impromptu Saturday night gatherings. Sarah Gray Miller, editor in chief of Country Living magazine, and her husband, Tony Stamolis, a photographer, who live in Manhattan, bought a four-bedroom Italianate house two years ago for less than $300,000, she said. They then persuaded friends in their New York social circle to buy four other houses in Athens.
The couple entertain often, filling their bedrooms with visitors and inviting friends to dinner parties that can expand from 6 guests to 16 in the span of an evening. “We can all walk to each other’s houses, and there’s something very casual about it,” Ms. Miller said. “It’s like the joy of living in a commune, but you don’t actually have to share a house.”
Athens sits on a gradual slope up from the river, with houses and restaurants literally a stone’s throw from the water. On the east side of the Hudson, railroad tracks limit river access in many communities, while in most towns on the west side, steep riverbanks pose a similar challenge.
Chris Baswell, a professor of medieval literature at Barnard and Columbia who lives in Manhattan, is renovating a Federal brick house, built around 1800, eight blocks up from the river. “I use a wheelchair, so the gentle grade is good,” he said. “I can go anywhere in the village — the park, the diner, the river’s right there.”
Athens is smaller and less expensive than Hudson, a city across the river also noted for its stock of vintage homes. Though prices in recent years have begun to catch up, the median price in Athens is still about $50,000 less than in Hudson, according to the Greene County Multiple Listing Service.
Besides a basic gas station-convenience store, there is no retail shopping in Athens. The closest supermarket is in Catskill, 10 minutes away.
The Real Estate Market
Historic fixer-uppers can be found for $100,000 to $150,000 in the village, local agents say, but expect to pay at least $200,000 for a three-bedroom house in move-in condition. Lot sizes in the village average a third of an acre.
Most lakefront homes at Sleepy Hollow cost $350,000 to $450,000, with off-lake properties available in the $200,000 range, said Vicki Wolpert, who owns Lake and Mountain Realty in Athens. Listings of more than $500,000 are rare.
Athens has managed to hold its own in the down housing market. The median price of homes sold in the town of Athens, which includes the village proper, from January through mid-September 2008 was $181,000, according to the Greene County Multiple Listing Service. In the last five years, the average price of a home rose more than $100,000.
“Lower-priced deals on homes that need work can still be found, but it’s not like it was,” said Andrea Smallwood, the village mayor and a sales associate at Heart Land Realty in Coxsackie, N.Y.
The average listing stays on the market for about six months, about a month longer than in 2007. Local real estate agents estimate that 10 to 15 percent of the houses in the village of Athens and about 50 percent of the houses at Sleepy Hollow Lake are used as second homes.
The homes at Sleepy Hollow Lake are mainly A-frames and contemporaries built in the last 40 years. The property owners association regulates paint color and other features.
“We don’t have the grand old houses,” Ms. Wolpert said. “When people contact us, they are looking for lakefront. That’s what attracts them first. Then we move on to what kind of home.”
LAY OF THE LAND
POPULATION 1,743, according to a 2006 Census Bureau estimate.
SIZE 4.6 square miles.
WHERE Athens is 132 miles north of New York City, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive.
WHO’S BUYING Lawyers, journalists and other professionals from New York City and North Jersey.
WHILE YOU’RE LOOKING Rooms start at $147.50 a night at Stewart House (2 North Water Street, 518-945-1357; www.stewarthouse.com). The inn also includes a well-regarded restaurant.