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Former teacher and student share passion for Hudson Valley’s ruins

By Julian Caldwell

Rob Yasinsac and Thom Johnson


Since meeting in an Irvington High School classroom more than two decades ago, Rob Yasinsac and his then photography teacher, Thom Johnson, have maintained a mentoring relationship forged from a mutual love of the forgotten, decaying architecture throughout the Hudson Valley. It’s a bond that has grown stronger even as the abandoned sites they marvel over and work to protect often shrink, crumble and even disappear.

Last Friday, March 18, the pair packed the Martucci Gallery at the Irvington Public Library for an Irvington Historical Society-sponsored presentation called “Teaching From the Ruins.” The event was open to the public to learn more about Johnson’s and Yasinsac’s explorations and preservation efforts, and was dedicated to the late Irvington School District teacher and track coach Peter Oley, who was also Irvington’s village historian.

Yasinsac, 38, first developed a taste for exploration from outdoor trips through the woods or along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail that he took in Oley’s class in fourth grade. Yasinac, who graduated from the high school in 1995 and earned a bachelor’s degree in history from SUNY Oswego, went on to write the book “Briarcliff Lodge” in 2004, about a property that disappeared in a 2003 fire, and to co-author the book “Hudson Valley Ruins” with Thomas Rinaldi in 2006. In addition to being an operations manager for Historic Hudson Valley, the nonprofit that oversees and promotes local landmarks including Sunnyside and Philipsburg Manor, Yasinsac, along with Rinaldi, maintains the website

“It was those kinds of things that really stuck in my memory more than anything else,” Yasinsac said of his fourth-grade outings. “I can’t remember any of the tests we took that year, but I can remember all the trips we took, and those impressions have hung around all these years.”

Johnson, 62, retired in 2009 after 31 years as an art and photography teacher at Irvington High School, where he was Yasinsac’s 10th-grade photography teacher. Johnson is a founding member of the Bannerman Castle Trust formed to preserve and promote tourism at the historic building on Pollepel Island (also known as Bannerman’s Island) near the Beacon Metro-North train station. The castle, built more than a century ago to house Francis Bannerman’s private arsenal, was abandoned in the 1960s and damaged in a fire in 1969.

Johnson and Oley bonded during chance encounters after school while Oley was coaching and Johnson was working on school theater productions.

“He and I shared a strong interest in local history,” said Johnson, who lives in Peekskill. “And when Rob became my student I started talking to Pete and suddenly we realized that we were the thread, in a sense, for him to connect a lot of the dots that were important to him as a student.”

Yasinsac, who now lives in Katonah, began photographing local ruins for himself during his senior year, an activity he credits in large part to Johnson cultivating his curiosity by lending him books on old buildings.

“I don’t know how much of an interest I would have really developed on my own or how far I would have taken it,” Yasinsac reflected. “So it was really great to have him [Johnson] provide that spark and to continue to have that relationship with Peter Oley, who continued to help me out with research and questions and kept calling me up to go see some place.” Oley died in April of 2009.

Yasinsac paid it forward when he published his first book. Standing at a dock on Bannerman’s Island, he handed Johnson a copy of the book, which included a dedication to Johnson and Oley.

“You can be given all types of gifts in life,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the greatest I’ve ever received because it’s a connection between the work I had done, the work Pete had done, and the success of this young man.”

Bannerman’s Castle was introduced to Yasinsac by Johnson, as was the nearby Cornish estate ruins, also known as Northgate. Johnson had known about the abandoned estate for years before connecting with Yasinsac, but preserving and researching the property, which includes more than a dozen stone structures, became a passion project they’ve worked on together.

“The thing that was frustrating about this site — there was no known history available,” Johnson recalled of the Cornish estate. The extent of what he knew was that it was owned by a family with the surname “Cornish” in the 1930s, wasn’t used for nearly 20 years before it burned in 1958, and became parkland in 1967. There were no photographs or documents he knew of detailing its history.

Yasinsac and Rinaldi featured the ruins in their 2006 book, and four years later descendants of both the Cornishes and the property’s builder, Sigmund Stern reached out to them via e-mail. They met on two separate occasions and the relatives shared information about and photographs of the property, from when the estate was under construction and when the family lived there.

“It was a big mystery,” said Yasinsac, who started photographing the estate in 1997. “For so many years nobody knew what it looked like, so it was an intriguing place. There was always a story out there that had not been told. So it was exciting for us to be part of that unearthing of those old photographs so we could now share that story.”

Today, according to Johnson, the property attracts many visitors who enjoy the structures and the view of the river. He strives to inspire an appreciation for local ruins.

“I see them as sculptures,” Johnson said. “The way that the land around these ruins was landscaped makes it even more like this is a giant piece of sculpture.”

“It’s kind of foolish that we’ve let these places fall into ruin but they’ve kind of become beautiful in their own way,” Yasinsac added. “For me, the places I’ve photographed have since been demolished, so it creates an urgency to go out and photograph these places before they disappear.”

For Yasinsac, well-attended presentations like the most recent one at the Irvington Public Library show that there are a significant number of people in the area who don’t see the ruins as eyesores.

“I just hope that the general mindset is one that sees them as assets that should be preserved, whether it’s as a ruin or something that gets rebuilt and turned into a new type of building that can serve the community,” he said. “Whether they get torn down or not, I’m just happy to have gone out there and taken the photographs and documented these places and got the images to share with folks down the line. And I’m really grateful I had some teachers that put that thought into my head.”

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


March 25, 2016

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