From 17th-century stone houses to Gilded Age mansions to Arts and Crafts artists’ studios to a drive-in movie theater and one-of-a-kind “Junk Castle,” Ulster County’s architecture doesn’t lack for variety, rustic charm or historic interest. Leafing through Ulster County, New York: The Architectural History & Guide – hot off the press and written by William Rhoads, a retired professor of Art History at SUNY-New Paltz – one travels not just through time but through cross-sections of social history. Rhoads is as captivated by simple country churches as he is of lavishly ornamented commercial buildings in town, and describes John Burroughs’ famous rustic cabin Slabsides with the same relish as he does the rambling estate of landscape painter George Inness, Jr. (son of the even-more-famous landscape painter George Inness, Sr.). More than just a description of his stone, clapboard or brick subjects, his entries are enlivened by the rich cast of characters who strode through the county’s three centuries of history and made a lasting imprint on its building styles.
While former architectural guides to the region tend to have a narrow focus (stone houses, Hudson River estates), Rhoads delights in the eclectic. He is a wonderful tour guide, pointing out what’s unique or distinctive about a site and quoting from historical sources, often with an emphasis on the ironic or humorous. Despite his professorial background, Rhoads eschews an academic approach, basing many of his selections on personal discoveries that he made on serendipitous road trips taken with his wife Sally. That sense of adventure, combined with his astute attention to the contextual and graceful, easygoing prose, makes for a fun read, even if you aren’t an architecture buff.
Rhoads – who has written several other books on local architecture, including a guide to Kingston – has organized his material geographically, with listings for each of the county’s 21 towns and the City of Kingston. Each entry includes a photograph, and the map and index further contribute to a user-friendly volume. His selections include many “lost” or inaccessible sites, which to this reader, at least, are among the most fascinating in the book: They include the 1930s tourist resort off Route 9W in the Town of Esopus whose cabins consisted of abandoned trolley cars; an early-19th-century storefront from Kingston’s Rondout District that was removed and transferred to Winterthur, where it has become a particularly handsome display window; and an early-20th-century art colony founded by two Danish-American silversmiths, later a Father Divine mission.
Rhoads said that his research for the book dates back to 1970, when he arrived in Ulster County for his teaching gig and began exploring the area: a habit that derived from his family’s expeditions to historic sites when he was growing up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He began seriously focusing on the book in 2003, driving on the back roads and visiting libraries to read old newspapers and otherwise follow the paper trail. Along the way, he made some unexpected discoveries. For example, while reading an architectural journal, he discovered that Frank Lloyd Wright had visited the area and made a drawing for a Woodstock theater; the sketch is reproduced in the book, even though the theater was never built.
What are his favorites? His own bias leans toward 19th-century picturesque styles. Rhoads said that he particularly regrets the loss of a rustic-style boys’ school in the Town of Lloyd that was greatly influenced by Gustav Stickley and Elbert Hubbard, and he noted that “Some people might accuse me of putting in too many rail stations.”
Is there such thing as an Ulster County style? Not really. “The regional element appears strongest in the Colonial period with the stone houses, which have one-and-a-half stories and rooms arranged in a line…without a hall or passage” – although these types of buildings also were built in surrounding counties, Rhoads noted. The Colonial style made a comeback in the 1920s, exemplified locally by the buildings and renovations of local architect Myron Teller. Teller was the subject of an earlier book, and Rhoads said that his next project is a book on Teller’s contemporary Charles Keefe. One reason is the significant archives that exist for the Kingston-based Keefe, as well as the fascinations of tracing the connection between the architect’s traditionalist Colonial-Revival style and conservative politics, Rhoads noted.
You can catch Rhoads and purchase a copy of his book, which was published by Black Dome Press and retails for $24.95, at any one of his numerous upcoming book-signings, scheduled as follows: Friday, December 2 at 6 p.m. at the Marbletown Community Center, sponsored by the Stone Ridge Library and Ulster County Historical Society (Rhoads will also present a slideshow); Saturday, December 3 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Friends of Historic Kingston at the corner of Wall and Main Streets; from 2 to 4 p.m. the same day at Half Moon Books in Kingston; Sunday, December 4 at 4 pm, at the Elting Memorial Library in New Paltz (includes the slideshow); Saturday, December 10 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Friends of Historic Kingston; and Saturday, December 17 at 7 p.m. at Inquiring Minds bookstore in New Paltz.