Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) celebrated its 2016 season Opening Day with a bang last Saturday, hosting a celebrity visit from the Cooking Channel’s Fabulous Beekman Boys while giving visitors their first taste of the new curatorial and programmatic directions in which the historic site is heading. Two days earlier, local journalists got a sneak peek at what’s to come with an exclusive press preview tour, guided and interpreted by HHS director of public programming Kara Gaffken, registrar Ashley Trainor and the organization’s curatorial consultant, Bill Weldon.
Since retiring from his post as director of historic area programming at Colonial Williamsburg, Weldon has been traveling to historic sites all over the country, lending his interpretive expertise to organizations like HHS that want to emulate the success of the Virginia site that sets such a high bar for authentic historical restorations. He said that over the past two years, he has been commuting from his home in that state to New Paltz to study HHS’s collections in consultation with archivist Carrie Allmendinger and discuss programming priorities with the HHS staff and board.
The groundwork laid, Weldon went home and got down to business, busily writing new scripts for future stone house tours while Allmendinger, Trainor and other staff reorganized the objects on display to reflect new research and show off unfamiliar treasures from the HHS collections. “Around the end of February, I drafted a narrative for the new interpretation,” he related. In March he came back to New Paltz to tweak it with staff and give it a trial run. Now, most of the changes are in place, and you too can experience Huguenot history in fresh new ways.
Among the surprises, to folks who have taken the tours in the past, will be what’s missing. Weldon and Gaffken credit Allmendinger’s diligence in reexamining HHS’s archival records for debunking a number of suspect stories about the settlers that have been told so many times that everyone came to believe that they were true. “Every little detail, she went after it,” Gaffken said admiringly. One notable example of a nostalgic icon of the tours that’s no longer on display is a conch shell, long said to have been used to summon the community to Sunday worship services at the Old French Church. “It was a local legend,” Weldon said, “but there was absolutely no documentation for it.”
To compensate for the loss of the conch’s trumpeting call, visitors taking the four-building tour will be treated at the Church to a recording of a choral performance of Psalm 42, performed in a style that would have been familiar to New Paltz’s founding families. The arrangement was done by Claude Goudimel, a French composer who converted to Calvinism and was one of tens of thousands of Huguenots killed in Lyon in August 1572 during several weeks of butchery collectively known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
An attempt to play the psalm during the press preview was thwarted by technical difficulties, but the bugs should be worked out by the time you sign up for your tour. “Another cool thing we’re introducing is technology,” Gaffken announced as the group first set out for the Bevier/Elting House. “We’ll be bringing an iPad along.” On the device she displayed a digital copy of the original 1677 Indian Deed by which the Huguenot settlers and the native Esopus people agreed to share about 40,000 acres of land around New Paltz. “We’re not going to bring along a 300-year-old document and pass it around,” she explained; but the portable screen clearly displayed such details as the list of items traded to the indigenous people by the Huguenots. “You can see the signatures of all 12 patentees!” she pointed out; the Esopus leaders left their personal marks on the document as well.
Greater focus on what we know of the lives and culture of New Paltz’s native inhabitants, as well as the long-ignored history of slavery in the town, is one of the major changes in focus of the stone house tours for 2016. The houses have been redecorated to evoke different periods in the history of the settlement; the Bevier/Elting House, being “the least changed from its original construction,” according to Weldon, is where the time-travel journey begins. Newly created translucent screens in two of the windows depict a typical Esopus dwelling and an example of the earliest wooden buildings erected by the European settlers. “We wanted to give a sense of how the land looked when the Huguenots arrived,” Weldon explained. “This was not virgin wilderness; it had been occupied for at least 8,000 years.”
Weldon’s narrative strongly emphasizes the fact that the town’s settlers were refugees; in fact, he said, “The word ‘refugee’ came into the English language in reference to the Huguenots,” circa 1671. The layout of the tour is intended to trace that history from the frontier to a modern American town, moving from the Bevier/Elting House to the French Church to the early-18th-century Jean Hasbrouck House to the Deyo House, a small stone structure expanded in the late 19th century into the ornate Queen Anne Revival home that stands today.
New to the stopover in the Jean Hasbrouck House is an increased emphasis on the role of the Hasbrouck family in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Jacob Hasbrouck Jr. was among 220 Paltzonians who signed the Articles of Association drawn up by the first Continental Congress, and by 1778 had reached the rank of major in the local militia. His brother Josiah also served, and went on to become a state legislator and then a congressman.
The cellar kitchen of the Hasbrouck House is now furnished as it would have been when occupied by slaves who prepared the family’s meals, and the front room as the general store that was operated there by the family in the 18th century.
The interiors of the final stop, the Deyo House, have been extensively redesigned as a place to display hitherto-unseen furnishings from the HHS collections. Each room illustrates a different period of upscale interior design, from the Federal style to Empire, Victorian and Colonial Revival, ending in a “modern” 1940s kitchen that many older visitors will remember from their grandparents’ homes.
It’s quite the time trip. Check out times and ticket prices for the new-and-improved Historic Huguenot Street tour schedule at www.huguenotstreet.org, or call (845) 255-1660.