This week, the fate of the 158-year-old “Booth house,” a rare residential relic of the bluestone industry that once flourished in Wilbur, remained uncertain. The plan by the Kingston Fire Department’s Building & Safety Division to tear down the dilapidated stone building at 116 Wilbur on Feb. 20 got an 11th-hour reprieve after preservations protested.
On President’s Day, after an impassioned Facebook appeal by Ward 3 Alderman Brad Will to save the historic building generated numerous “likes,” Mayor Steve Noble announced a 30-day moratorium on the demolition. Last Thursday, Noble said he was working with “a private individual” and the owner of the property, who he said was “cooperative,” to save the building. Noble expressed optimism that a preservation plan for the house was evolving.
However, after several large stones had tumbled from one of the walls, the situation took on new urgency on Friday. The city closed one lane of Wilbur Avenue, out of fears the building, which is located only a few feet from the road, might collapse. Noble issued a notice to the public that a private contractor would be commissioned to examine the building on Monday, Feb. 29. “This turn of events is creating a very short timeline for if and how we can stabilize the building and make sure the greater public is not at risk,” wrote Noble.
On Monday morning, Will and a private contractor visited the structure. Will’s subsequent post on Facebook, and his comments to this reporter, were optimistic. Noting that the bluestone façade consists of a “veneer” at least two feet thick which is underlaid by more stone, Will said the heavy timber frame and roof rafters were intact. The building was dry inside, thanks to the sturdy roof.
“You could see where the gable ends of the walls are bulging out,” said Will. “You need to pull those in with tie rods to secure them. Once that’s accomplished and the exterior is shored up,” the structure would be stabilized. Will said both he and the contractor planned to talk to the mayor later on Monday and contact a private engineer. “The contractor plans to meet with an engineer later this week and make recommendations as to what kind of emergency shoring up can be accomplished within a week or two,” Will said.
Will, who was instrumental in preventing two other abandoned 19th-century buildings, located on Abeel Street, from being torn down by the city — the buildings were instead sold to private owners and are undergoing renovation — said he first learned of possible threats to the building last summer, when he was contacted by Dan Gartenstein, the city’s assistant corporation counsel. “I reached out to [Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission Board chairman] George Donskoj to see what could be done,” Will said. After attending the October meeting of the Common Council Laws & Rules Committee, which Will chairs, Donskoj said “he was going to look into options to stabilize it and find sources of funds for that,” Will said.
Nothing was done — “the election was hot and heavy and then we had the holidays,” said Will. In January, Will learned that the Building & Safety Division planned to demolish the building. Gartenstein said after he was alerted that the building was in imminent risk of collapse “based upon a significant widening gap in the front of the stone structure,” the city had two engineers examine the building, who agreed with the departments’ assessment.
Back in July, “George Donskoj said this was an example of the type of property he would be interested in coming up with a plan to save. We told him we would listen to whatever plan he had,” Gartenstein said. Five months later, “as the building continued to deteriorate and with winter coming, the concerns of the fire department were heightened to the point where the building has to come down,” Gartenstein said. Donskoj did not return this reporter’s phone call.
Gartenstein noted that the city had served the owner of the property, who lives in the Town of Ulster, notice to attend a hearing after it was determined the building posed a risk to public safety. At the hearing, the owner agreed to the demolition. Gartenstein said the demolition would cost $35,000, with the funds taken out of the city’s Unsafe Building Fund; the city would attempt to recoup that cost by adding it to the property’s owner’s delinquent tax bill. (The owner has not paid her property taxes since 2012. In another strange twist, the 104 by 80-square-foot property, which includes no other structure, is assessed at $207,000. Assessor Daniel Baker said when it was assessed for $260,000 in the 2008 reval “it was not in the same condition as it today.”)
Edwin Ford, city of Kingston historian, said he and another preservationist visited the house 20 years ago, shortly after it had been abandoned. “It was very rough,” he said. “I remember wallpaper in the kitchen was pasted on the bluestone.” For years the house was smothered in vegetation. When the owner recently cleared away the brush, the large crack was revealed, as was the uniqueness of the house. Built in Greek Revival style, the structure is unusual for being constructed out of the leftover slabs from the bluestone yards. “It’s called rubble stone,” said Ford. “It’s worker’s stone and there’s nothing like it.” Ford said he would like the house to be preserved as a memorial to the bluestone workers who once guided wagons loaded with tons of stones from the quarries down Wilbur Avenue to the creek, where it was cut, stacked and loaded onto barges for transport down the Hudson River.
Nathaniel Booth, one of three brothers who had immigrated from England as a boy and was in Kingston in the 1850s, owned a dry goods store next to the Twaalfskill firehouse just down the road. Ford said an 1870 map indicated that he owned the adjoining property, and since he was a dealer in stone, it would make sense that he would have constructed the property at 116 Wilbur.