The historic Webster Wagner House in Palatine Bridge has seen better days.
Wagner built his mansion with discerning taste and a railroad fortune in 1876. At the time it was quite a spectacle — and it still is, but not in a good way. Time and years of neglect by longtime village recluse Barry Woods have taken their toll. Now the elegant structure, once the scene of parties and conspicuous wealth, is a rotting hulk with a lean visible from Route 5.
Last week, village code enforcement officer Cliff Dorrough issued a demolition permit to the new owner of the old Wagner home.
“The whole roof has to come down,” Dorrough said, “and most of the second story. It’s a matter of safety at this point.”
He described massive holes in the roof, bowing walls and hazardous levels of decay. The village recently put up an orange mesh fence around the place in an effort to keep falling chunks of house from landing on pedestrians. Demolition is necessary, according to Dorrough. The question now is how much needs to come down.
When county historian Kelly Yacobucci Farquhar heard of the Wagner home’s plight, she stepped in, hoping to save what she could of its history.
“So many historic places have come down,” she said. “It’s hard to think of losing another one.”
Ideally, she’d like to save the whole house. Worst-case scenario, she’d like to hire a daring photographer and architect to enter the creaking place on a documentary mission before the wrecking ball swings.
Farquhar said the Wagner home is more to the village than just an old building. More than a century back, Palatine Bridge looked a lot different.
There wasn’t a Rite-Aid but there were a few more rich people. Most notable of them was rail magnate Webster Wagner, known by history buffs as the brilliant mind who thought up the sleeper car.
He was a senator, local celebrity and general honcho. He threw parties at his big house. Then in 1882, he burned to death in a sleeper car of his own design, a fact Farquhar sees as tragic rather than ironic.
As a historian, she deals with a lot of old papers and records kept through generations. She has the blueprints of other grand homes, long absent from village neighborhoods. She can visualize, but never touch. An actual house built of bricks and boards is a more compelling form of history — a better tie to the days of wealth.
That’s why she wants to save the structure owned until recently by Woods.
Dorrough and Farqhuar aren’t sure exactly how long Woods lived in the old Wagner house, just that it was a long time and that Woods didn’t have a lot of company.
“He didn’t take registered mail,” said Palatine Bridge village Mayor Jim Post.
More than a decade ago, Post and a handful of locals attempted to buy the house from Woods and save it. That was before it started to sag and crumble.
“If we could have gotten to it back then,” Post said, “it would have been doable.”
Some descendants of Wagner even tried to buy Woods out, but he was steadfast in refusing to sell. Years later, Post isn’t sure a renovation is even possible.
Dorrough recounted the events that eventually led him to evict Woods on health and safety grounds a few years ago.
“He put a pool liner under one of the big holes in his roof,” Dorrough said. “When it rained he’d empty the pool liner out a second story window with a sump pump.”
At that point, Dorrough told Woods to find safer living arrangements. Woods left, quit paying property taxes and couldn’t be reached.
“He just fell off the face of the earth,” Dorrough said.
The Wagner home was auctioned by the county last year and bought by Arizona resident Herbie Ambrose for $1,000, then handed over to Andre Anasta of Catskill.
Anasta couldn’t be reached for comment Monday, but Dorrough said he wants to fix the place up and live there.
At this point, the roof and most of the second floor will have to be demolished. If the first floor is sound, the upper floors could be rebuilt. Such a project would require the sort of cash Wagner leveraged 138 years ago.
Dorrough isn’t sure where the money would come from, but said he’s willing to work with Anasta. In fact, village officials plan to meet with Anasta today and plot out some preservation plans.
Since the home is on the National Register of Historic Places, Farquhar said there could be restoration grants available. However, she is willing to settle for relics rather than the whole house.