If real-estate investor Tom Pfeffer had been born in England a century ago instead of in Illinois in the late 1950s, he might have been termed “a celebrated gentleman naturalist and collector of historical artifacts.” Adhering tightly to the buy-low-and-hold mantra that characterizes his property acquisitions, Pfeffer aggressively combs yard sales, flea markets, thrift stores and low-rent antique shops for period treasures, animal skulls, and cultural curiosities such as prison shanks.
Pfeffer owns the Jacob Ten Broeck House at 169 Albany Avenue in Kingston. Built in 1803 and perhaps Kingston’s finest surviving Federal residence, the house is a two-story limestone structure with a metal-clad gabled roof.
Its owner dresses more like a handyman than an aristocratic character on Downton Abbey. An active member of Friends of Historic Kingston and the Kingston Arts Council, Pfeffer, a divorced father of three adult children, is the long-time partner of a well-known Hudson Valley environmental educator. He keeps bees and likes to hike. He used to raise sheep and chickens in the home’s vast backyard, which features a scenic pond.
Pfeffer also owns an apartment building in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section and a former Kingston firehouse his son is renovating. He bought 169 Albany 20 years ago directly from the bank in a foreclosure sale. He got the six-bedroom, five-bath home listed on the National Register of Historic Places and began a long process of stabilizing, improving and decorating it.
“My creative ideas are restricted to the things I put in the house, since I have a responsibility to maintain it, not change it,” said Pfeffer, whose college major was art. “I enjoy collecting and displaying things that would have been found in every old American homestead, such as hetchels or flax combs, yellow-ware bowls; wood-handled knives and rustic choppers.”
Because he enjoys noting small differences in manufacture. Pfeffer collects multiple variations of single-purpose objects. Given the size of his collections, grouping these like items together creates a sense of aesthetic unity. Neatly massed, they look more like three-dimensional patterns than isolated, independent objects.
Pfeffer said that he wants people who visit his Albany Avenue home to have a visual experience. “A close friend once remarked that this is ‘a house of awe and wonder,’” noted Pfeffer. Artists and people who enjoy natural history always find things to admire in his collections. “Throughout the house there are turtle shells, which I find incredibly beautiful,” he said.