Photos by Will Dendis
Like so many other former industrial cities that fell on hard times, Kingston has lost much of its architectural heritage, including hundreds of 19th-century commercial buildings in the waterfront Rondout District, which were torn down during a 1960s urban renewal project; and most notoriously, a magnificent Beaux Arts post office, a curved, columned monument in stone torn down in 1971 to make way for a fast-food restaurant (the site is now occupied by Planet Wings).
Kingston’s City Hall, a sumptuous, high-Victorian-style Gothic Revival building, seemed destined to vanish as well. After being abandoned in 1972, generations of high school students contemplated the forlorn brick hulk looming on the other side of Broadway from the windows of their classrooms. But thanks to lobbying by Friends of Historic Kingston, a new generation of artists who had settled in the city and other concerned citizens, Kingston’s old City Hall became a preservation success story. In 2000, the building, which is a National Historic Landmark, was magnificently restored under the administration of the late mayor T. R. Gallo and returned to service.
The $6.5 million restoration, which included $2.3 million in federal and state grants, involved not only the installation of new mechanical systems but also the meticulous restoration of plaster ornamentation over windows and doors, ornate wall sconces and Renaissance-style iron lanterns, coffered ceilings, marble inset floors and stairways and lunettes along the upper wall of the third-floor Common Council Chambers, whose sculpted scenes record highlights from the city’s 3 ½ centuries of history. The loving care lavished on the long-neglected building signaled a sea change in the city’s attitude toward historic preservation and the arts, as well as a newfound faith in itself: not only to survive but to prosper, despite the devastating impact of the closing of the nearby IBM plant in 1995. The restoration reinstated a legacy of civic pride upon which the city and its citizens could build.
The polychromatic three-story brick-and-sandstone building, topped with a mansard roof and culminating in a central tower adorned with stone-accented Gothic arched windows, still dominates the skyline of Midtown, the pyramidal slate roof of the tower a grace note soaring over the jumble of commercial, industrial and residential buildings. Ambitious in size and style when it was completed in 1875, architect Arthur Crooks modeled the building after the Palazzo Vecchio, or city hall, in Florence, a resemblance compromised today by the removal of the original corbel table on the tower. City Hall was built following the unification of the villages of Kingston and Rondout in 1872. (The consolidation also included the nearby hamlet of Wilbur, in the southwest corner of today’s Kingston, where bluestone was cut and loaded onto barges on the Rondout Creek.) Its stylistic borrowings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance lent a solemnity and dignity to the commercial and industrial enterprise that had built the city; and the ground that it occupied – a hilltop site overlooking Union Avenue (now Broadway) midway between the two municipalities – signified a union destined for greatness.
According to Kingston, New York: The Architectural Guide by William Rhoads, Crooks worked as a draftsman in the office of Richard Upjohn, the nation’s leading architect of Gothic Revival churches; the polychromatic brick-and-stone design reflected the influence of English critic and tastemaker John Ruskin. Crooks was born and studied architecture in England – as did Calvert Vaux, a contemporary who designed the fanciful bridges and other structures in Central Park, as well as several mansions in Kingston.
A fire in 1927 caused devastating damage to the tower and interior and resulted in an ambitious rebuilding under the supervision of Kingston architects Myron Teller, Gerard Betz and George Lowe. It’s their design that has been preserved today. They streamlined the tower, rebuilding it minus the corbel tower and large clock; installed a central heating plant in an adjacent building (it resembles a carriagehouse and is now occupied by the Kingston Water Department); fireproofed the building; and built the Common Council Chamber on the third floor, creating, arguably, the most beautiful civic space in the Hudson Valley. They designed the room’s wrought-iron chandelier and smaller hanging lanterns, the 23 plaster-relief lunettes and the elaborate coffered ceiling. The building’s wooden floors and stairs were replaced with terrazzo and Italian marble complemented by wrought-iron balustrades, and the plaster walls were textured to resemble travertine marble.
When most of the Rondout was torn down in the late 1960s, the city decided to build a new City Hall in the leveled neighborhood as a symbol of its faith in the area’s revival. So, in 1972, the once magnificent old City Hall was boarded up and abandoned for the next 30 years.
“It was demolition by neglect,” said Alan Adin, the city’s engineering technician, who recently gave a small group of us a tour of the wonderfully restored old City Hall. (To see pictures of old City Hall in its deteriorated state, go to https://www.hudsonvalleyruins.org.) Adin explained how the restoration contractors and craftspeople reconstructed the plaster ornamentation over the interior doors and hanging chandeliers from the building’s surviving fragments. As he pointed out some of the splendid details – the solid oak handrails along the twin staircases, the black-and-pink marble floor, the hexagonal iron lanterns in the second-floor hall, the golden crown-shaped wall sconces, the row of tall Gothic windows in the tower – Adin said that it is nice to work in the restored building, in comparison to the bland environs of the 1972 Rondout District City Hall, whose main concession to architectural style was a cookie-cutter Colonial-style entrance.
But old City Hall isn’t merely grand; it’s also imbued with mystery. On the ground floor, near the planning and engineering offices, he showed us a door opening to the stairway to nowhere (it dead-ends into the ground, one floor down; no one knows why it was built). He explained how two jail cells were located in what’s now an office and took us up to the attic, tucked under the mansard roof and packed with boxes. Still visible was a blackened brick wall, evidence of the 1927 fire.
Along a darkened passageway leading to the tower, we could see the curved plaster top of the suspended coffer ceiling of the Common Council Chamber below. In the tower, light poured in through three enormous Gothic windows, and Adin showed us the fan shape in the brick wall that had once housed a window over the mayor’s desk in the Common Council Chamber, letting in the natural light. We climbed up a metal spiral staircase out onto the observation platform on top of the tower, taking in fabulous 360-degree views of the city and surrounding countryside in a freezing-cold wind.
To the northwest were the majestic, snow-covered Catskills; to the west, beyond the high school, the brick hulk of Benedictine Hospital; to the south, the wooded rise of West Chestnut Street, and beyond, the low hills of Dutchess County; to the east, the water tower near Clifton Avenue and the low-slung buildings clustered along the train tracks. We could take in the entire topography of Kingston, connect what roads, highways and train tracks on the ground divide and get a sense of how the city developed over time. It was Kingston’s version of a million-dollar view. It was hard to imagine City Hall as a blasted ruin with broken windows, leaking ceilings and abandoned desks coated in fallen plaster.
Asked what the restoration of the building would mean for future generations, T. R. Gallo told a reporter, “By taking this step, we preserve Kingston’s heritage and give it renewed pride… Our city, its government, its citizens, all have a right to be very proud.” Indeed.
Kingston’s Old City Hall is located at 420 Broadway, across from Kingston High School. Now the headquarters of the City offices, the building is open to the public during normal business hours. Call (845) 331-0080, or go to https://kingston-ny.gov for more information.