Making bricks, making history at Historic Huguenot Street

Historic Huguenot Street preservation assistant Carsten Stoever coaches Leslie LeFevre on brick-making. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

In Historic Huguenot Street (HHS)’s ongoing efforts to restore the circa-1721 Abraham Hasbrouck House, the organization invited staff members and local leaders to get their feet dirty and stomp the locally drenched clay to create bricks that will ultimately become part of one of three hearths in the newly restored house.

This past Thursday, HHS board members and staff, along with New Paltz Town Supervisor Susan Zimet, Ulster County Clerk Nina Postupack, historian Susan Stessin-Cohn and HHS executive director Tracy McNally all stripped off their boots and socks at the HHS restoration workshop and worked the Wallkill River Valley clay and sand with their feet. Then they molded it and cut it and packed it into a mold, where it was then left out to dry and eventually fired in kilns by members and faculty of the SUNY-New Paltz ceramics department.


“Whenever we’re doing a project, I try to find ways of bringing the community in,” said McNally. “Eighteenth-century brickmaking is fascinating and requires human labor to get the job done, so we thought it would be great to invite a few local leaders in to learn about the process and help us make some bricks.” She noted that because of the tight space, “we couldn’t invite everyone in, but through the press we’re hoping to spread the word about just some of the work we do here.”

P.J. Prouss, an HHS restoration expert, explained to the group that in the 1990s, when they went to replace bricks from the chimney and hearth of the Bevier/Elting House, they searched “throughout the country to find bricks with the appropriate size and dimension in keeping with the historic integrity of the house, but we could not find any.” To that end, the restoration crew at HHS decided to do what their ancestors had done and people had been doing for thousands of years: make their own bricks, using traditional 18th-century methods and the same local clay that the Huguenots used from the banks of the Wallkill River.

“It was summer, so it was warmer and we were all outside and made thousands of bricks,” he said. “It was a great time. Not to say it wasn’t extremely labor-intensive; but hey, you will all get a good workout, you’ll exfoliate your feet and the clay will make them soft. So think of this as a spa treatment,” he said with a laugh.

There was a rough patch of clay that needed some serious foot-stomping, and then an already-worked batch that still needed to be worked with water and sand. After the clay became soft and pliable enough, it was moved to a workbench, where HHS restoration crewmembers assisted their visitors in learning how to slice the clay with a traditional leveler and then work it into an eight-by-eight-inch wooden mold.

As Zimet and Ulster County Historical Society president Suzanne Haupsburg and Stessin-Cohn, McNally and Postupack began their brickhouse dance on the cold clay, the mood of the workshop turned gay, with laughter and music playing and everyone marveling at how elegantly dressed Postupack was, with pedicured toes and a long velvet skirt that she just tucked up and then went to work like an 18th-century Huguenot! Not only did they get a workout, but the “green” bricks were set out to dry for a number of weeks and then are slated, along with hundreds of other bricks, to be fired at the SUNY-New Paltz kilns. McNally explained that the bricks made this past week will be installed, when finished, in the “earliest-built section of the Abraham Hasbrouck House.”

This is just one part of HHS’s major restoration of the Abraham Hasbrouck House, which is one of seven early-18th-century houses owned by the museum, a National Historic Landmark located on Huguenot Street in the Village of New Paltz. According to McNally, construction of the stone house was begun circa 1721 by Daniel Hasbrouck, the son of Abraham Hasbrouck, a French Huguenot and original settler of New Paltz, and was completed circa 1735. Typical of New Paltz’s stone houses, it was built in three sections, with the center room being the earliest and flanking rooms built as the family’s size and wealth increased. The house contains many elements of Dutch Colonial architecture, including large jambless fireplaces and an opkamer, or upper chamber, where it is believed that Maria Hasbrouck, Daniel’s widowed mother, resided.

This preservation project is based on the findings of ten years of intensive research conducted by a team of architectural and material culture historians, and is intended to represent a rare achievement of historically accurate restoration. Originally work began with restoration of the roof and frame. The current stage, slated for completion in July 2012, focuses on the restoration of the interior sections of the house to its circa-1760 appearance and the creation of furnished rooms for public interpretation. Floors, walls and fireplaces are being restored and historically appropriate stairs and woodwork added. Accurate restoration of the exterior features, such as windows, doors and masonry pointing, will be addressed in later stages.

HHS will celebrate the completion of the historic project with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and reception on Saturday, July 21. To learn more about the various structures, events, lectures, history, collections and mission of HHS, just log onto ++