Sometimes we take for granted the things we become accustomed to. Bluestone sidewalks, for example, literally underfoot in most of Kingston, are so much a part of the streetscape they go unnoticed in the hubbub of daily life. Bluestone curbs, walkways, walls and other structures dating a century or more back are everywhere in the four historic districts and throughout the city. Bluestone is a defining visual characteristic of the region and a reminder of Kingston’s early industry. Yet slowly, it’s disappearing. And gradual change is hardly noticed.
The Friends of Historic Kingston would like people to notice. The nonprofit preservation group founded in 1965 has actually been advocating for years to preserve the bluestone in Kingston. Allowing the material to disappear from city streets would forever change the character of the city, making it “just like every other place,” they say. “Bluestone is part of what you picture when you close your eyes and think about Kingston; what makes it not Peoria or someplace else.”
Bluestone ages well. It was frequently used to construct sidewalks because the sedimentary stone is relatively easy to cut into layered slabs, and it’s not slippery when wet. Its durability is attested to in the estimated 60-80 percent of Kingston’s original bluestone sidewalks that still exist. But it’s not invulnerable. Heavy use over the years takes its toll on the toughest of materials and even spreading tree roots can cause bluestone to crack. And when it needs replacement, too often broken bluestone is replaced with less costly materials: asphalt, blacktop or cement. In some instances, bluestone in Kingston has been lost to thievery, slabs of it stolen from the sidewalks, most likely for resale.
In late March, Johnston Avenue resident Andi Turco-Levin was out of town when she received a call that a large bluestone slab from the sidewalk in front of her property had been literally lifted, leaving a deep hole behind. A smaller slab of bluestone on Main Street was stolen a few days prior. Police were alerted and stories came forth about sightings of two men dressed like city workers driving around with slabs of bluestone in the back of their truck. The stone stolen from Turco-Levin’s property was 100-125 years old, hand-cut at a thickness of nearly three inches, irreplaceable in today’s market where bluestone is milled thinner, and by machine.
Saving Kingston’s bluestone is a matter of making the public aware of its vulnerability, according to Friends of Historic Kingston (FHK). As part of their efforts to raise consciousness about bluestone as a valuable resource that enhances the city’s beauty and character, the Friends have put together a self-guided Ulster County bluestone tour and a bluestone sidewalk maintenance chart.
The nine-page Ulster County Bluestone Tour is a self-guided journey divided into four parts: Downtown Kingston, West Chestnut Street, Uptown Kingston and Ulster County outside of Kingston. The sites may be visited in any order, but a sequence that works well is laid out starting the trip from the Heritage Area Visitor’s Center at 20 Broadway. The driving tour takes approximately three hours to complete, or there is a one-hour version.
FHK member and former president, Lowell Thing, first put the tour together back in 2003. It was last officially updated in 2011, but when asked last week whether the information needs further updating, Thing said it still holds up. He mentioned the bluestone in front of Schneider’s Jewelers at 290 Wall Street as a good example of the kind of heavy, thickly-cut bluestone once laid on all or most of the uptown streets. Thing also recommended visiting the abandoned bluestone quarry known as the “Bluestone Wild Forest” at Onteora Lake State Forest Preserve as a way to visualize just how large some of the bluestone quarries were. The DEC website for directions and details is found at dec.ny.gov/lands/75323.html.
As for buildings made with bluestone, the best examples, Thing said, are the Old Dutch Church at 272 Wall St. in Kingston (1850-52), and the circa 1858 Henry Samson house at 32 West Chestnut. “There are also excellent examples of bluestone sidewalk, urns and other details along Fair St. where it becomes residential.”
The tour was put together in the hope that once people start actively looking for bluestone, they’ll begin to notice it all around them, and develop the same kind of appreciation for it that the members of FHK have.
The FHK’s “How To Maintain Your Bluestone Sidewalk” offers a quick guide to bluestone upkeep. Recommendations for bluestone care include removing grass from the sides or between stones — fill in the gaps with gravel — and discouraging any plant roots nearby from spreading. Try not to drop anything heavy on bluestone, and if cracked, either fill in the cracks with cement that match the stone in color or replace the piece with new bluestone. Delaware County bluestone tends to be less costly than old stone from Ulster County stockpiles, but it’s lighter in color (less likely to match) and is milled thinner.
Bluestone was used by Native Americans and early European settlers to make tools, tombstones, walls and other structures long before the first commercial quarrying of it in Ulster County began in 1831. By the 1850s, bluestone was big business locally, not only the go-to material for construction of buildings and streets but hauled by horse-drawn wagons down to the Rondout to be shipped up and down the Hudson River to every major city from east coast to west. Locally quarried bluestone was used for the cornerstone of Brooklyn Bridge and in the Washington Monument.
By 1920, bluestone had taken a back seat to the increasing use of Rosendale natural cement in construction (which in turn was overthrown by the Portland cement industry). Bluestone quarries near West Hurley, Olive Bridge and other hamlets are now buried, flooded during the building of the Ashokan Reservoir in 1915. Harvey Fite bought an abandoned 13-acre bluestone quarry in Saugerties in 1938, where he spent 37 years creating his six-and-a-half-acre sprawling bluestone sculpture, Opus 40.
Friends of Historic Kingston urge the public to spread the word about the value of bluestone to the region, and encourage enlisting local legislators to enact laws to protect and preserve it. In 2013, the City of Kingston made a detailed stone-by-stone survey of the bluestone sidewalks in historic districts, which resulted in current consideration of a code change requiring that all new construction in the historic district utilize bluestone to construct sidewalks and that existing bluestone sidewalks be retained. Concrete would be the required material in all other districts, although bluestone could also be used.
Friends of Historic Kingston, 63 Main Street; (845) 339-0720, www.fohk.org. The Ulster County Bluestone Tour is available as a PDF at www.fohk.org/welcome/preservation/bluestone/bluestone-tour/. “How to Maintain Your Bluestone Sidewalk” is at www.fohk.org/welcome/preservation/bluestone/how-to-maintain-your-bluestone-sidewalk/.