As one of the oldest settled regions in America — Dutch traders arrived a few years after Henry Hudson’s journey up the river that bears his name in 1609 to obtain beaver pelts from the Native Americans — the Hudson Valley has an exceptionally rich history, whose longevity is responsible for a preserved rural landscape. The region’s villages, towns and to some degree cities also serve to encourage time travel back to earlier centuries.
The plentitude of historic sites and the flux of material culture, in terms of what is expendable and what gets saved, also provide opportunities for contemplating many strange twists and turns in the historical narrative. The history of preserved history is a process that’s often laced with irony.
In this history-conscious region, it seems to me, age is routinely accorded higher respect than it always deserves. One very recent example: While citizens are attempting to save a dilapidated 19th-century rubble stone building in Kingston’s Rondout, the destruction of the steepled building of the former Howard Johnson’s on Route 28, an icon of my own childhood, occurred with nary a whimper.
The nation’s initial stabs at commemorating its history began with the landmarks of the Revolutionary Warm and had its genesis right here in the Hudson Valley. The nation’s first publicly operated historic site was a stone house in Newburgh where George Washington lived for over a year in 1782 and 1783. It’s where Washington defused the threat of mutiny among his officers over pay and pensions, rejected the suggestion to institute an American monarchy, and eventually issued the proclamation of peace that ended the war. The 7000 troops of the Continental Army, encamped a few miles to the southwest, were sustained on grain grown and milled by Hudson Valley farmers.
Acquired by the state in 1850, Washington’s Headquarters preserves that pivotal moment of leadership and incipient nationhood even as outside the iron fence along its perimeter the City of Newburgh was buffeted by the storms of time. After becoming a prominent industrial center and one of the birthplaces of the Romantic movement, Newburgh fell into precipitous decline.
That’s one of the ironies. The city spawned the notion of the suburb, a concept that proved very successful, particularly after the advent of the car. Ensuing sprawl a century later sounded the death knell for this pioneering city, displacing substantial chunks of old Newburgh as it suffered precipitous economic decline.
From their base in Newburgh, landscape architect and author Andrew Downing and his colleague, architect Andrew Jackson Davis, looked back to the medieval past in fostering the idea that homes should resemble fanciful Gothic cottages nestled in a setting of naturalistic plantings and fronted by a bit of green lawn. Before dying in a steamboat crash on the Hudson River in 1852, Downing had recruited Englishman Calvert Vaux as his protégé. Vaux became a distinguished architect, a few of whose dark-colored, gabled, and elaborately detailed houses in the region survive. He was also the designer of rambling, country-like urban parks, of which the most famous was Central Park (After winning the commission, Vaux hired Frederick Law Olmsted to help him with the design).
Vaux is buried in Kingston’s Montrepose Cemetery, which was designed by his son Downing and is located a few blocks from my house. The more you learn about the history of this area, the more you find yourself stumbling over its constant digressions.
Newburgh remains afflicted by some of the nation’s highest rates of poverty, following the closing of its industries and an urban renewal plan that wiped out its commercial district. But a further irony may yet await. The city’s rundown streets, which remain an embarrassment of riches of 19th-century Victorian architecture, may be on the cusp of massive gentrification by priced-out New Yorkers.
Like in other small cities such as Poughkeepsie and Hudson, concerned citizens have reacted by creating historic districts to save what was left. The splendid mansions with fabulous views of the Hudson on Newburgh’s Montgomery Street are part of such a district. The hope is that a century from now these fabulous artifacts of New York State’s heyday of commerce will be preserved.
It is fairly new, this idea that not just colonial Dutch-influenced stone houses are worthy of preservation. But even today, books about the historic architecture of the Hudson Valley tend to focus on the colonial period. It is true that Ulster County has more Dutch-influenced stone houses than anywhere in the world except the Netherlands. A short street of old Hurley is lined with them, and on the second Saturday in July you can go inside a few of them on Stone House Day. Though the granary lofts on the second floor have been converted into bedrooms and modern kitchen appliances surround the massive hearths, you can still get an inkling of what domestic life was like for the prosperous farmers of an earlier era, who grew much of the wheat that was milled and shipped on sloops to New York City.
Similar houses and a striking square-plan church built by pioneer Huguenots along the Wallkill River are preserved in New Paltz’s Historic Huguenot Street district. While many of the stone houses became Anglicized over the decades, the Jean Hasbrouck house in New Paltz contains a reconstructed 17th-ccentury Dutch-style jambless fireplace, whose lack of sides and massive overhanging hood conjure up the Middle Ages. Many of the old stone houses housed African-American slaves in their cellars before slavery was finally eliminated in the state in the 1840s.
The sense of history as a pragmatic progression, in which styles of architecture, art, fashion and types of commerce shifted as needs, budgets, ideals and population changed, is excellently conveyed at the Ulster County-restored stone Persen House in Uptown Kingston, which is open free to the public on warm-weather weekends. In a section of dirt floor is preserved one of the holes for the stockade that New Netherlands governor Peter Stuyvesant had built here in the late 1600s as protection against the restive native Esopus people.
Artifacts dug up on the property, including pre-settlement ancient projectile points and a stylish early 19th-century shoe, are displayed in glass cases. The house demonstrates how a building constructed by a 17th-century Dutch surgeon from New Amsterdam was expanded and adapted to new uses through the centuries. It’s located at the only intersection in the nation that has pre-Revolutionary War stone houses on each of its four corners.
The Persen House’s conceptual restoration, which doesn’t seek to re-create a period interior but rather features open walls enabling you to partake of the building’s metamorphosis through time, is a relatively new type of interpretation. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, when the colonial-revival style was all the range, architects were not only inspired by colonial houses but sought to improve upon them. Kingston-based architect Myron Teller added charming dormers, build-ins and even pancake iron hinges forged by contemporary artisans to a few of the houses (ironwork no less splendidly crafted than the Dutch originals). One example of a “Tellerized” room is the kitchen at the Bevier House, headquarters of the Ulster Historical Society in Marbletown, which clearly explains in its interpretative signage that some of the colonial features are fake).
One theory as to why the Hudson Valley hasn’t experienced the population explosion of northern New Jersey or Long Island is that the feudal-like land settlement pattern along the Hudson River left vast swatches of land relatively uninhabited. Under this system, individuals, first under the Dutch and later by the English, were granted enormous patents. Even today, much of the east bank of the Hudson consists of baronial estates, a few of which have been preserved as house museums. The most visited is the home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Hyde Park.
The grandest of those estates was Clermont, which started out as 160,000 acres granted by the English crown to Robert Livingston Sr. in 1686. His son constructed a great house overlooking the river in the mid-18th century. It was rebuilt after being burned by the British in the Revolution. His grandson was Thomas Jefferson’s minister to France, helping negotiate the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
The grandson, known as “The Chancellor,” also bankrolled Robert Fulton’s new invention, launching a new, revolutionary form of transport on the river that for years, thanks to the scheming of the two friends, enjoyed a monopoly. Today the dignified white house with the spacious dormers and tall chimneys is a particularly fine, well-proportioned example of a Hudson River estate house, lacking the oppressive, institutional formalism of the Mills Mansion or the ostentation of the Vanderbilt estate farther downriver.
Boscobel, another relatively modest-scaled manor house located in Garrison, looks as if it’s spent the last three centuries on its patrician bluff. It was actually re-assembled there in 1961, after being dismantled from its original site 15 miles to the south. The allee of gnarled maples, apple orchards and formal rose garden are among the delights surrounding the temple-like façade, which is odd for another reason. It’s the only preserved Hudson River estate commissioned by a British loyalist, States Morris Dyckman (granted an amnesty by the American government in 1789). The house’s columned façade is typical of the mansions that once graced the river’s bluffs, wowing the passing traffic of sloops and steamboats.
Just as the smoke and noise of industry was beginning to sully the shores of the Hudson and denude the surrounding forest, artists were celebrating the vanishing wilderness as a sublime, divinely inspired vision. Paralleling the Romantic movement in architecture heralded by Downing, Davis and Vaux was America’s first school of landscape painting. Two of the Hudson River School artists’ homes survive and are must-visits: the Thomas Cole House, in Catskill, and Olana, the elaborately painted castle of Cole’s pupil Frederic Church, who designed his eclectic hilltop mansion based on architectural styles he encountered in his travels in the Mideast. Cole’s Federal-style house preserves the views he painted out its large windows. Olana is unique in that much of the original furnishings remain intact, including Church’s art collection and the petite desk, still bearing water stains from a potted plant, of his wife. (The $12 tour is a terrific value, taking in the magnificent entry hall, Church’s large studio, and the dim, cavern-like dining room and touching on the lives of the servants who resided in the attic.)
The biggest irony of all may be that the Hudson, integral to the building of the nation’s wealth, the wellspring of its painterly inspiration as well as the key focus of the 20th-century conservation movement, is today mostly silent, except for the wind and splash of waves, the squealing of the gulls, and the roar of an occasional tugboat. A reminder of its seminal role in the region’s and nation’s history can be found at the Hudson River Maritime Museum, located in Kingston. The collection consists of thousands of photographs, paintings, boat models and maritime artifacts of a vanished world, such as the decorative lunette that once covered the paddlewheel of the famous Kingston-based steamboat Mary Powell.
Resting on a dry dock adjacent to the museum’s bulkhead on Rondout Creek is perhaps the most palpable connection to the story of the river: the Clearwater, a replica of a Hudson River sloop commissioned to a Maine boatbuilder by Pete Seeger in the late 1960s, intended to serve as a powerful symbol of the river’s role in American history and its inherent value as a resource that needed protecting. The boat is currently undergoing repairs, but by June it should be back out on the river, acquainting passengers with the exhilarating experience of being out on the water under sail.
Pete Seeger understood how a piece of forgotten history could stir the imagination and forge a link to something fundamental that had been lost — our relationship to the physical river, whose tides, currents and wildlife signify a broader, more sweeping span of time and a richer tapestry of narratives than we could otherwise conceive of. He understood that a connection to the past is perhaps the most effective way of understanding where we are now, and what that means for the future.