The richest man in the county once lived high on Kingston’s “rich man’s” West Chestnut Street. His wealthy neighbors from time to time included at least half a dozen brick barons. And those bricks, along with millions of others produced in the mid-Hudson Valley, built a rapidly growing New York City.
Lowell Thing’s history of historic West Chestnut, The Street that Built a City, published last summer by Black Dome Press of Delmar, covers virtually every aspect of the almost mile-long street that stretches from Broadway across Montrepose Avenue to a cul-de-sac overlooking the Rondout Creek. Thing, 82, and his wife Suzanne purchased their home at 55 West Chestnut in 1972. An amateur historian and a former president of Friends of Historic Kingston, Thing, then an IBM tech writer, said he immediately became interested in the 19th century mansions that line both sides of the street from Broadway to Montrepose.
“The large houses were to me standing mysteries that sort of begged to be delved into,” he said. “I wondered who had lived in those houses and how they got there.”
One of his new friends in the Kingston historical society, Patricia O’Reilly Murphy, had grown up on the street, and in fact had lived in the colonial revival house the Things had purchased for $30,000. The down-sizing Things have it on the market.
Chestnut Street runs along a ridge with panoramic views to the west and north of the Berkshires, Rondout and the Hudson River, to the east of Kingston and the Catskills.
In a chestnut shell, it’s history of modern development begins about 1848 when James McEntee, briefly resident engineer on the D&H Canal (operating from 1828 to 1898), purchased 52 acres of land along the ridge which he divided into city lots. McEntee built his own home on a 10-acre portion of the property where he also farmed and planted an apple grove. His son, the artist son Jervis McEntee, a leading figure in the 19th century Hudson River School, later built a house and studio on the family property. Lots on the creek side were generally 60 by 240 feet (the typical Kingston lot is 50 by 120 feet), allowing for deep setbacks, expansive lawns on the street side and lavish gardens in the rear of some homes. And of course, large, multi-story single-family homes, complete with servants quarters, chauffeurs and out buildings.
Thing’s lavishly illustrated 332-page book is a comprehensive history of the street, from its ancient geography and Native American inhabitants, to its development, including a door by door chronicle of the people who lived there. Period photos of the exteriors and interiors of buildings and maps enhance the easily readable text. The book contains some 20 color reproductions of Jervis McEntee’s paintings.
The “rich man’s” section of the street, sometimes called “Snob Hill,” from Montrepose to Broadway, developed over a 60-year period, the “middle class” sector closer to the turn of the 20th century. Thing extended his history to East Chestnut (not part of McEntee’s original tract) in part because of the famous personages who once lived there, Dr. George Chandler, the first superintendent of the state police, Dr. David Kennedy, city mayor and purveyor of nationally known Dr. Kennedy’s Favorite Remedy, and longtime Daily Freeman owner and publisher Jay Klock.
“I wanted to make it the best street history that was ever written, which wasn’t that hard because there had only been two brief histories of Wall Street and Broadway written before,” he said.
Through the impetus of Friends of Historic Kingston and Thing’s research, the street was added to the federal historic registry in 1985 and given local historic designation in 2005.
Thing said he worked on his book on and off for more than 40 years, researching historical accounts, talking to neighbors like Murphy, old-timers in their 90s who had worked for families in the early 20th century. Pace picked up after he retired from IBM in 1996, but it wasn’t until he made his deal with Black Dome that stricter discipline was demanded. “They gave me deadlines, and some good ideas,” he said. Black Dome publisher Steve Hoar thought the book could appeal on two levels, both as history (however limited) and as art, given the McEntee connection. The title was Suzanne’s Thing’s idea.
In many ways critical to Thing’s mission, the McEntees made the book. James created the street and sold most of its lots, but his son Jervis was the artist who painted scenes of the street and more importantly to Thing’s research, kept a diary for some 20 years until his death in 1891. “It gave me unique insight on how people on that street lived in that period,” he said.
As many Kingstonians are no doubt aware, the richest man in town at the turn of the 20th century was Samuel Coykendall, owner of railroads, shipping lines, water companies, city trolleys and much more. Coykendall, a Port Jervis native, married the boss’ daughter, Mary Cornell. Thomas Cornell, the founder of the Cornell Steamship Company, made his millions in shipping coal from the canal, local bluestone, farm produce and bricks to New York City. His home was located on the corner of Wurts Street and Spring, what is now Cornell Park. He died in 1890.
Coykendall, after purchasing what was left of the McEentee “farm,” and demolishing the street’s first residence, began building his massive mansion on the highest point on the ridge, what is now Dietz Court, the year after Cornell’s death. Thing said existing records and postcard-sized photos (from Murphy’s extensive collection) only hint at the Gothic Victorian structure’s size. Three brick stories tall (with a fourth-story tower), the building sat on a 5,000-square-foot foundation. Thing’s research indicated the building had 38 fireplaces — and a resident “fireman” to tend them — five separate apartments for Coykendall’s sons and a fulltime staff of 10. Coykendall also built stables for his horses and cars on nearby Augusta Street.
Coykendall died in 1913 at age 77. Relatives lived in the mansion until about 1936. It lay vacant, a favorite, if off-limits, playground for neighborhood kids, until demolished by the developer of Dietz Court and Melvin Drive in 1950.
Thing is bullish about the street he lived on for almost 50 years and has now epically chronicled. “I think the prospects for the street are very good just as I think the prospects for Kingston, what with city folk and weekenders moving in, are good in that respect,” he said. “Kingston is very promising.”
Black Dome Press printed 1,000 copies of “The Street” of which 700 have been sold. The book is available at Catskill Art on Wall Street, Half Moon Books on North Front, Herzog’s in Kingston Plaza, Monkey Joe’s on Broadway, the Hurley County Store and Barnes and Noble in the town of Ulster.
The Saugerties Historical Society will sponsor a book signing at the Kiersted House on Main Street (across from Cahill School) in the village on Sunday, Feb. 28 at 3 p.m.
Brother of the assassin
History is replete with “what-ifs? — curious confluences, speculation over things that might have happen but (apparently) didn’t.