Photos by Dion Ogust
With summer underway, Kingston’s downtown waterfront Rondout District is blossoming. Boaters from as far away as New York City, Chesapeake Bay and West Palm Beach tie up their yachts and sailboats at the city docks, and in the evenings, the sidewalk tables in front of the restaurants are full. Every third Friday evening of the month, sidewalk vendors selling an array of artisan crafts and foods, live music and wine-tastings and other events in the row of historic storefronts lure crowds up Broadway Hill. For a long time, visitors tended to congregate on West Strand and the lower block of Broadway, but the Third Friday Night Market and the ever-expanding array of enticing retail shops and businesses are proof that the commercial area is larger than two blocks (besides, the hill isn’t that steep – and people can also park farther up the street and walk down).
Popular events and festivals centered along the waterfront bring thousands of people downtown. The Rip Van Winkle conducts tours of the Hudson River most every evening, and on occasion, the Clearwater, a recreation of an authentic Hudson River sloop, has evening sails leaving from the Kingston docks. For native Kingstonians, the Rondout feels like our own in-town resort, with shades of Provincetown, Saratoga and Cape May.
Once a booming canal town and the busiest Hudson River port between New York and Albany, the Rondout almost died following the destruction of much of the area in a 1960s-era urban renewal project. Its long and fitful revival began when artists, bold entrepreneurs and investors willing to take a risk bought up the remaining buildings for a song and restored them. Key to its development as a tourist center was the opening of the Hudson River Maritime Museum (HRMM) in 1980. Founded by a group of people who had worked on the river before the steamboat and barge traffic died, the museum is the only institution in the world dedicated to the maritime history of the Hudson River.
Its location on the Rondout Creek a block from lower Broadway is immediately identifiable by the tugboat Mathilda, which is perched dramatically on the grounds. Acting executive director Russell Lange and curator Allynne Lange, who has worked at the museum for 32 years, oversee a collection of approximately 25,000 items.
Artifacts from the Mary Powell, the handsome late-19th century dayliner that was based in Kingston, and other historic craft are on display in the main exhibition space, evoking a vanished world of glamorous steamboat travel on the Hudson, a river crowded with tugs powering long lines of barges and river shores dusty from the manufacture of cement and brick. Brass boat lanterns, an enormous ship’s wheel, a lifeboat, a gorgeous carved and painted lunette (part of the Powell’s paddlewheel cover), chairs from the night boats, sextants and signal bells, flagpoles topped with gold balls and wooden models of tugs and steamboats, in some cases made by retired workers, are among the objects of fascination. Some of the treasures in the voluminous archives are rare photographs of the schooners and sloops that tied up at the dock.
Particularly popular are the two iceboats, one of which measures an astounding 50 feet long and is set up as if it were about to zoom across the ice. (There’s also a video of iceboats in action.) School kids have fun in the recreated tugboat pilothouse and the mockup of a section of the cabin of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon. There’s also an exhibit featuring a selection of a recently acquired collection of 1930s black-and-white photographs of New York Harbor and the working life of the Hudson River waterfront by Alfred Sandler, who worked for Life Magazine and other national news magazines.
This year’s exhibit, which is up through the fall (the museum is open from May to October), focuses on lighthouses of the Hudson. It chronicles the duties and lives of the keepers and their families, the passing panorama of the river with which they interacted and the history of the 12 original structures. It includes a waist-high model of the second lighthouse at Kingston (replaced by the current yellow-brick structure). Built in 1867, the bluestone lighthouse was very similar to the preserved brick lighthouse at Saugerties. Two other lighthouse survivors are located at Esopus Meadows — the only wooden lighthouse on the river — and Hudson/Athens.
The second-northernmost lighthouse was the 1830 brick-and-stone Coxsackie Lighthouse, which was known as “Old Maids’ Light” (it was maintained by two women) before being torn down in the 1940s. Women played a prominent role in maintaining the lighthouses. For example, Catherine Murdock maintained the Kingston Lighthouse for 50 years, raising two children who commuted to school by rowboat. The exhibit also features a Fresnel lens, a technological improvement that used a series of prisms to intensify and focus the radiating light. A couple of years ago, Kingston became the winter berth for the sloop Clearwater after volunteers raised the funds and subsequently built a handsome barn on the grounds of the Maritime Museum as a maintenance center. The barn is also used by the Maritime Museum for festivals and events. The HRMM also plans to open a boatbuilding school for local youth in the former Rosita’s restaurant, which it acquired earlier this year. The design has been completed and structural changes, such as raising the ceiling, are being accomplished with the help of volunteers. Large windows will enable the public to observe the assembly of the boats, and part of the construction process will take place on the grounds.
The school, which will be launched next year, will initially construct 27-foot-long rowboats called pilot gigs, modeled after the traditional rowboats once used in New York Harbor, according to Jim Kricker, an accomplished boatbuilder and woodworker (he serves as master carpenter of the Clearwater), who will serve as head boatbuilder. (A model rowboat has already been donated.) The building of such boats can accommodate various levels of skill, and when completed, the young builders could also race them in regattas (the boats seat eight). Lange said that the intent was to work with inner-city kids – teens from BOCES and Kingston High School are likely candidates, and a scholarship program is in the works – and the hope is that the school would eventually be expanded to include small sailboats.
Other cultural anchors in the Rondout are the Trolley Museum, located on the other side of East Strand, which sponsors rides on a historic trolley out to Kingston Point on weekends; the Reher Bakery Center of Immigrant Culture, a preserved storefront dating from the early 20th century that the Jewish Federation of Ulster County is restoring; and the Arts Society of Kingston (ASK), which just finished its renovation of a stunning theater on the second floor.ASK’s two galleries are bustling on the city’s First Saturday gallery openings, held every month. A few doors down is the Storefront Gallery, which is also buzzing with visitors on First Saturday. The Kingston Museum of Contemporary Art (KMoCA), located on Abeel Street, a five-minute walk from lower Broadway, and the One Mile Gallery, a five-minute drive away (it’s located on Abeel just past the rail trestle), both exhibit some of the area’s edgiest art, often imported from Brooklyn.
Despite the presence of several empty storefronts and a midweek pace that lags behind the weekend activity, there’s a definite sense of momentum in the Rondout. A new generation of entrepreneurs is injecting fresh energy and a welcome sophistication into the retail mix.
Just walk up the west side of lower Broadway. Milne’s At-Home Antiques & Design, which carries museum-quality antiques in its capacious space, as well as fun, more affordable items such as vintage light fixtures, garden accessories and crockery, caters to an ever-growing clientele of second-homeowners. Milne’s also does its own custom-designed furniture, and it was contracted to redesign the US stores for Fred Perry, a clothing brand based in England. The Kingston Wine Company, which features a large map of Europe and notations for the main wine regions drawn on a chalkboard, has developed a following, thanks to its boutique selection and friendly and knowledgeable proprietor, Michael Drapkin.
Oliviero’s Arts, Crafts & Coffee features a large selection of quality art supplies — proprietor Felix Oliviero also prints out novelty items on his Makerbot 3-D desktop printer for customers — as well as a children’s department; it also offers printing services at wholesale prices. Karmabee owner Karen Berelowitz sells her whimsical hand-printed designs on cards, tee-shirts, trivets and other items, as well as jewelry, clothing and crafts by other local artisans.These newcomers are building on the achievements of established business owners, such as Nancy Donskoj, who runs a bed-and-breakfast above her Storefront Gallery, and neighbors Larry Zalinsky and B. C. Gee, owners of the Rondout Inn and founders of the Night Market. Gee reports that the area’s B & Bs now collectively total 15 rooms; often all are booked. Church des Artistes, a charming 1860s church owned by composer and musician Peter Wetzler and artist/poet Julie Hedrick, which is located on nearby Wurts Street, has introduced a number of residents to the area (including Drapkin and his wife, Theresa, who left the City and bought a house in the area after a stay at the church). Both the longtime and newer Rondout businesses support and work with such community organizations as the Kingston Land Trust and the O Positive Festival, helping raise all boats.
Let’s not leave out some of the more established businesses: With the closing of many quality clothing chains in the area, the hip quality clothes of Next Boutique, on West Strand, are more appealing than ever. Over on Abeel, Flowers by Maria, located in renovated mid-19th-century firehouse, does a booming business. There are also two hair salons, a motorcycle-seat upholsterer and leathercrafter, a city visitors’ center and a holistic health provider. Coming soon is a wine bar, with renovations of one of Broadway’s fabulous historic storefronts nearing completion.
Farther up Broadway Hill is another relatively new business: Grounded, a chic bakery, café and bistro with a farm-to-table, European-inspired menu. Owner Linda Laestadius, a native of Sweden who has a successful catering business, also sells her homemade concoctions to go, and the restaurant has become such a popular place for brunch that it’s considering taking reservations.
While Grounded’s almond croissants are to die for, so are the crêpes served at Dolce, another breakfast, brunch and lunch place on lower Broadway. An added attraction are the dozens of Fauve-styled paintings of local artist Todd Samara, which are inspired by the Rondout’s cluster of 19th-century houses and river setting, lining the brick walls.
The Rondout has long been known for its restaurants, and in the evenings especially (though lunch is also growing in popularity), it’s the cluster of excellent eateries that draws the crowds. With its excellent Italian food (the mussels in marinara sauce are a personal favorite), Savona’s Trattoria does a booming business; and besides its sidewalk tables, it offers outdoor dining on a large patio in the summer. Other excellent choices include Mint (featuring the excellent Northern Italian cooking of Graziano Tecchio, brother to Alessandra, who owns Dolce), Ship to Shore, Mariner’s Harbor, Mole Mole and, a few blocks away on Abeel Street, Armadillo, which was the first restaurant to open in the area decades ago and continues to attract crowds for its Mexican specialties.
Frank Guido, owner of Mariner’s Harbor, recently opened another restaurant after taking over the defunct Steel House restaurant. Located in a former foundry with exposed industrial wood beams, it has the best waterfront setting in the city. Ole Savannah specializes in barbecue, and sitting on its spacious deck on a warm evening, cooled by river breezes and glimpsing the Hudson beyond the glittering expanse of the creek, is surely one of the most pleasurable ways to while away the summer. How nice to know that it only gets better when you venture up Broadway Hill and suddenly feel like you don’t have to go to the City anymore for culture; the city has come here.