The tale of Kingston’s leading civic symbol

City Hall, as it looked in the years before the devastating 1927 fire.

City Hall, as it looked in the years before the devastating 1927 fire.

The story of Kingston’s city hall at 420 Broadway, termed “Kingston’s symbol” by Alderman Tom Hoffay Friday, Aug. 16 at the 13th installment of the Kingston’s Hidden Treasures lecture series, closely parallels the city’s modern history. Born of compromise and necessity, the building is located near the boundary of the former villages of Kingston and Rondout. In its almost 140-year history, City Hall has endured devastating fire, long abandonment and urban flight. It has been twice saved and restored to former glory.

The building’s story, according to Hoffay, a Midtown Democratic alderman who represents the historic Uptown Stockade District, begins in the years immediately following the Civil War, when Kingston boated three population centers. The village of Kingston on the Esopus Creek was the county government center, Republican and as an agricultural and banking center, relatively wealthy. Rondout village on the Rondout Creek “was a sort of a Wild West,” Hoffay said, and a portal for immigrants where half the population spoke a native language. One of the busier ports on the Hudson River, Rondout, shipped coal (via the Delaware & Hudson canal), and bluestone and cement on the Hudson River. Its politics were predominantly Democratic. The hamlet of Wilbur on the Rondout was a busy locus for bluestone traffic. The census of 1870 showed Rondout with about 11,000 in population, Kingston at about 8,000. The area’s first daily newspaper, the Rondout Daily Freeman, was founded in 1871.

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The area between the village lines in Midtown Kingston was rocky, hilly and only sparsely populated, Hoffay said. Broadway, called Union Avenue in those days, connected the two villages.

While distinctly different in terms of population and commerce and fierce rivals, the two villages had transportation, banking and newspapers in common. Both were growing rapidly after the Civil War. Their leaders became convinced, however, that village government was unable to keep pace with development.

According to Hoffay, Rondout leaders first came up with the notion of creating a city around 1870 — named Rondout, naturally.

The state Assembly took some two years to debate the issue. Politically powerful Kingston, with Fair Street Assemblyman Dr. Robert Loughran, a veteran of the Civil War, sponsoring the legislation, won the name game, much, according to Hoffay, to the chagrin of Rondout. The Rondout Daily Freeman, which later changed its name to the Daily Freeman in apparent recognition of the merger, declared that “the hatchet is buried.”

For a long time, the hatchet wasn’t really buried. But the two villages found something in common, a city hall located at a neutral site to reflect concrete compromise and a new era.

Our Mayor Lindsley

One of the first acts of the city government elected in April 1872 was to name a committee to purchase land for a new city hall. There were at the time nine wards with two aldermen each. The first mayor, James Girard Lindsley, manager of a cement works in Ponckhockie, was a Republican from Rondout.

The property, about two wooded, rocky acres located on a 600-foot hill (above sea level) was purchased from John O’Reilly, an Irish immigrant who had prospered in real-estate speculation. O’Reilly owned most of the land that is now considered Kingston’s civic center. His mansion was located on the hill across Broadway where Kingston High School was built in 1915. The school’s front wall on Broadway and entrance gates fronted the O’Reilly estate; O’Reilly Street is named for the family.

The original building, designed by architect Arthur Crooks, was in the high Victorian Gothic style popular at the time. Its tower is a replica of that on the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy. The Common Council authorized up to $60,000 in bonding for the building, with the state chipping in another $20,000. Built during 1873 and 1874, it opened in May 1875. During construction, the government met at the nearby Schwalbach’s Hotel, later the Grand Central Hotel.

James Girard Lindsley, the new city's first mayor.

James Girard Lindsley, the new city’s first mayor.

The new building contained about 16,000 square feet on four floors, including the attic. The mayor’s and clerk’s offices were on the first floor with the police department and city court. The Common Council occupied the second floor, and other government offices were on the third floor. A carpenter’s shop in the attic was mostly used for storage. The building contained a two-cell jail with a separate entrance for defendants.

The building had wooden floors and staircases and extensive wooden paneling. Heat was supplied by fireplaces at the end of each floor. Built on solid rock, the brick-faced building had no basement.

The big blaze

A fire, which probably started in the carpenter’s shop, broke out at twilight on June 4, 1927 and quickly consumed the tower. Witnesses, observing from the lawn of Kingston High School, told of the bell in the bell tower crashing through the wooden floors, “clanging all the way down.” Firefighters summoned from a firehouse a block away were unable to quell the blaze. The building was a total loss.

There was, however, no rush to reconstruction. A three-man committee of prominent city architects appointed by the council, recommended a new building “more in the colonial style,” Hoffay said. No dice. “This was the symbol of Kingston and it had to be restored,” Hoffay said.

Instead, the council opted to rebuild a “fireproof” building on-site, effectively encasing “the bones” of the original. “Just about every piece of wood was replaced with concrete, steel or marble,” Hoffay reported. “They never wanted that building to burn again, and ultimately that’s what saved it.”

The Vecchio tower was modernized, the front entrance lowered and redesigned, and the roof line and chimneys capped off. Operating systems were updated. The building re-opened in 1929, at an estimated reconstruction cost of $200,000, with the common council moving into its ornate chambers on the third floor.

And yet, in only about 35 years, through depression, war and urban flight, the building fell into such a state of disrepair that some elements in Kingston were calling for a new city hall. This was a plank in Raymond Garraghan’s successful 1965 mayoral platform.

While City Hall was declining — some said through deliberate neglect — Rondout urban renewal was wiping out some 50 acres of century-old buildings in Broadway East between St. Mary’s Church on Broadway and the Rondout Creek. Garraghan was re-elected by a historic (Democratic) majority in 1967 on a vow to build a new city hall in Rondout. He reasoned, and most of the members of the council agreed, that a new city hall would promote redevelopment in Broadway East. Garraghan also argued it that would be foolhardy to invest money in a dysfunctional, deteriorating hall with no elevator and extremely limited parking.

The downtown era

Construction of the Rondout city hall began under the Garraghan administration and was completed by his successor, Frank Koenig, elected in 1969. What then became known as “old City Hall” was abandoned by government in early 1972. “The city simply locked the doors and walked away,” Hoffay said. The windows were not boarded up; leaks in the roof were left to worsen. Pigeons nested where aldermen once wrestled, and abandoned records rotted in the attic.

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“The only thing that saved the building from more than 20 years of neglect was its fire-proof reconstruction,” Hoffay said. “It was a disgrace to the city, but it was structurally sound.”

Unsuccessful efforts by the Friends of Historic Kingston to prevent the abandonment of the building and then to stabilize it for future use were led by City Historian Ed Ford. “Ed Ford carried the torch for a lot of years,” Hoffay said, to applause from an audience of about 60 people, including Ford. At one point, the adjacent Kingston Hospital expressed interest in converting the building into medical facilities, but nothing came of it.

Restoring a building, and pride

Freshman Assemblyman Maurice Hinchey secured a $500,000 state matching grant to restore City Hall in 1975; the total pricetag for restoring the building and installing an elevator having been estimated at $1 million. With more than $1 million already spent on the new city hall and government leaders in opposition, Kingstonians voted against the proposal at a referendum that year. The grant went back to Albany unsepent.

In 1998, two-term mayor T.R. Gallo, having freed up some bond money after paying off sewer construction debt, convinced the Common Council (unanimously) to borrow $6.5 million for the restoration of city hall. It was Gallo’s late father, alderman-at-large T. Robert Gallo (1968-77), who with Garraghan and Koenig had led the charge to build a new city hall. “It was the right decision then and it’s the right decision now,” said Koenig, contacted shortly before the re-opening of the building in 2000.

Over a 30-year span, those decisions, with some federal and state aid, cost city taxpayers about $10 million (in addition to interest on bonds), The sum included construction and conversion of the Rondout city hall (over $2 million) into KPD and city court headquarters and an estimated $7.3 million and counting at the old city hall.