Lowell Thing’s The Street that Built a City: McEntee’s Chestnut Street, Kingston and the Rise of New York, just published by Black Dome Press, was more than 30 years in the making. Its roots go back to 1972, when Thing – a technical writer for IBM who had previously worked in broadcasting in New York City – and his wife, Suzanne, bought a capacious 1898 Colonial Revival house on Kingston’s West Chestnut Street. In 1985, Thing was instrumental in creating the West Chestnut Street Historic District, but his interest went beyond simply preserving the streetscape of fine homes: While sitting on his front porch one day, he wondered who had lived in the bluestone mansion, nestled under 100-foot-tall spruce trees, across the street and what life had been like on the street 100 years before. When he conducted his first interview in the 1980s, Thing could not have imagined the rich material that he would eventually unearth from far-flung descendants and archives in distant cities, but he nonetheless, from the beginning, “intended to write a comprehensive history of this street.”
Indeed, West Chestnut was an excellent choice for such a venture, given that it was once home to the Rondout’s captains of industry. In the second half of the 19th century, if you had made it in the Rondout – the terminus of the D & H Canal and a bustling port from which millions of tons of coal, bluestone, cement, bricks and other raw materials were shipped down the Hudson River – you likely built a spacious Italianate-style house of brick on West Chestnut Street. The street’s residents included the most powerful man in Kingston, if not Ulster County: Samuel Coykendall, son-in-law of Thomas Cornell, who had controlled the towing operations of coal on the D & H Canal and Hudson River and owned banks, a newspaper, railroads and ice, cement and bluestone businesses.
Coykendall inherited Cornell’s empire and very capably managed it. In 1894 he built a fortresslike mansion of stone and red brick, designed by Calvert Vaux, on the highest spot on the fledgling street, residing there until his death in 1913. Other 19th-century and early-20th-century residents included a leather tanner, stage operator, patent medicine manufacturer, ironworks owner, steamboat captain, coal company president, newspaper publisher, railroad and trolley superintendent, cigar manufacturer, boatbuilder and icehouse owner, mayor and numerous lawyers and doctors. Brick manufacture was huge in the area, so no surprise that West Chestnut Street was home to seven brickyard owners.
Thing takes us on a time-travel expedition of the street through many eras, including the first houses that were built on lots laid out by the McEntee family in the post-Civil War years; the laying out of more lots and construction of more houses through 1913; the post-World War II arrival of several large, prosperous Irish Catholic families, which livened up a street mostly inhabited by elderly widows; and the construction of ranch houses in the 1950s on the site of the Coykendall mansion, by which time the tradition of live-in servants was a distant memory.
He leaves no stone unturned, describing the architectural styles that came and went over the decades, the types of transport, the development of gas and electric, sanitation systems, the fabulous gardens that once graced the southern, river-facing slope of the hill and recreational activities, including golf, tennis and Coykendall’s toboggan slide. But The Street that Built a City is more than just about a street: Thing has also written a fascinating history of the McEntee family, with separate chapters on James McEntee, the street founder, who bought 52 acres of woodlot on the hill above the Rondout in 1848, built his homestead and laid out 58 lots; and his son, Jervis, a member of the Hudson River School whose paintings are featured in this year’s exhibition at the Friends of Historic Kingston gallery (curated by Thing), as well as a larger solo show at the Samuel Dorsky Museum at SUNY-New Paltz.
James McEntee worked on the D & H Canal and in the process discovered the local limestone that became the basis of a flourishing cement industry. He bought a coal mine in Pennsylvania, helped build a turnpike of planks and a steamboat wharf at West Point, surveyed for a railroad and owned the Mansion House Hotel on the Rondout waterfront before building his homestead, where he planted vegetable gardens and an orchard and kept a few cows. One of his daughters, Sarah, was a practicing doctor and was the last person to live in the homestead before Coykendall – who had bought the property and erected his mansion on it – tore it down.
If James’s story is about how an enterprising, self-made engineer could prosper in a country that was establishing transport routes from scratch, that of Jervis McEntee tells how an artist belonging to the nation’s first school of landscape painting established himself. (The book includes numerous reproductions of Jervis McEntee’s paintings.) Jervis and his wife, Gertrude, who resided in an apartment attached to Jervis’ New York City studio in the winter, were at the center of the literary and artistic scene that brought a new sophistication to Gotham in the late 1850s and 1860s. Their many friends included Calvert Vaux, who was to co-design Central Park (and was Jervis’ brother-in-law, having married his sister), fellow painters Frederic Church, Eastman Johnson and Sanford Gifford and the celebrated actor Edwin Booth (brother of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth).
Vaux had designed a charming Gothic-style studio for Jervis, including kitchen and sleeping facilities, adjacent to the homestead house, which the couple occupied in the warm-weather months. That Thing was able to write about the studio and Jervis’ life in such rich detail is a tribute to his discovery of McEntee’s journal in the archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution during the course of his research. Its last entry, made in 1890, helped solve the mystery of the studio, which had seemingly vanished. The journal noted the purchase of the studio by Girard McEntee, Jervis’ younger brother, from Samuel Coykendall. Girard planned to move the building and attach it to his house, located across the street.
The current owners of Girard’s house are doing an ambitious, inspiring renovation, and after being led through some rooms and up some steps, one enters Jervis’ second-floor studio, its large windows and beautiful green ceramic tiles surrounding the fireplace intact. Thanks to his research on Geneology.com, which enabled him to track down various McEntee descendants, Thing made other discoveries: He located a painting by Jervis of the homestead house and found rare photographs of its interior that a descendant from Mississippi had preserved. He also discovered a 1903 inventory of the house’s contents in the Ulster County Courthouse archives.
After so much in-depth research, “You begin to feel like you’re living in several different times,” Thing said one recent morning as we left his house and walked up the street. Much has survived, including the former Henry Samson bluestone mansion, built in the late 1850s, at 32 West Chestnut; Cloverly, the soaring, majestic Colonial Revival pile that signaled a new architectural era when it replaced an earlier house in the 1890s; and the formal, Classical-style mansion of Edward Coykendall, Samuel’s son, now the centerpiece of an apartment complex.
In the front yard of a Modernist 1950s home, Thing points to a low bluestone curb, punctuated by two oblong stones, and a section of dressed bluestone pavement interrupting the sidewalk: the remains of the carriage drive and entrance to Samuel Coykendall’s mansion. We wandered over to the grounds of the former Black Lion Inn, destroyed by fire in 2003, and walked down some bluestone steps in the overgrown yard to what was once the former “secret garden” of Alberta Schoonmaker. “I know with even more changes this will gradually become something else,” Thing said. Fortunately, before traces of the street’s storied past are further obliterated, “We managed to capture some of what it was.”
The Street that Built a City book-signing/talk with Lowell Thing, Saturday, October 31, 1 p.m., Friends of Historic Kingston, Main/Wall Streets, Kingston.