“Have I had so much fun! It was such a crazy week to start, with our big fundraiser coming up tomorrow,” said Marybeth De Filippis, newly hired executive director at Historic Huguenot Street (HHS), last Friday. “It was a jump-in-and-swim kind of week.”
That big fundraiser was the organization’s Spring Celebration, at which HHS’ new wigwam replica was unveiled to the public and homage paid to the New Paltz area’s indigenous residents, commemorating the 340th anniversary of the signing of the 1677 land agreement between the Esopus Munsee and the Huguenot refugees. Besides pitching in to ensure that the big event went smoothly, De Filippis told the New Paltz Times that her first priorities had been “getting to know the team and board” and “to get to know the collections” at the historic site. She also started getting her feet wet in terms of learning about the larger community, attending municipal meetings and lunching with village mayor Tim Rogers and Reformed Church pastor Mark Mast to discuss potential collaborative projects of benefit to the wider New Paltz community.
De Filippis’ primary field of expertise is in American fine and decorative art, but she also has an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Growing up in Ridgefield, Connecticut, with some South Carolina Huguenot roots on her mother’s side, De Filippis was “very artsy as a kid,” encouraged to make as many of her own clothes as she wanted. Her undergraduate study was in Apparel Design at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. After getting her advanced degree in Finance, her eye for “fancy English furniture” led her back to further explorations in the history of decorative arts at the Bard Graduate Center (BGC) in New York City.
It was there, while seeking a topic for her Master’s thesis in American Material Culture, that an advisor pointed De Filippis in the direction of the New-York Historical Society’s (N-YHS) collection of 17th– and 18th–century probate inventories describing the worldly possessions of the early settlers of New Amsterdam and New York. One of these proved so intriguing that she ended up devoting the next couple of years researching the globetrotting life of Margrieta Van Varick, who had lived in Malaysia with an uncle who was a merchant with the Dutch East India Company, married a missionary and eventually landed in the New World. With major contributions from her co-organizers at the BGC, her colleagues at the N-YHS, her Dutch research partner, many Scientific Committee Members in both the Netherlands and the United States, and many other colleagues in the museum world, De Filippis managed to pull together a “triple award-winning exhibition” of household objects and textiles reflecting Van Varick’s own collection, and served as co-editor and lead author of the accompanying book, Dutch New York between East and West: The World of Margrieta Van Varick.
Among the scholars advising De Filippis and contributing to that massive project were three who also serve on HHS’ advisory committee: David Voorhees, Jaap Jacobs and Paul Otto. After advice from Voorhees, she made her first visits to New Paltz to do research into local historical records, during the eight years that she worked for the New-York Historical Society. “You can’t study the Dutch without studying the Huguenots, the Walloons, the Native Americans, the enslaved Africans and the English,” she said. “It’s all part of this street’s story.”
The experience of working with a “huge team” to create the 2009/10 Van Varick exhibit convinced De Filippis that “The best projects are done when you have many people contributing their expertise.” She’s already full of praise for the groundwork laid by past and present HHS staff, board and volunteers, and intends to continue the organization’s push to verify and document the stories told on its popular stone house tours. “It’s really important that we get the scholarship right,” she said. “We have a beautiful tour script for this year.”
Tourism on a broader scale is also very much on the new executive director’s mind. “My second priority is helping Kaitlin [Gallucci, HHS’ director of Marketing & Communications] get the word out,” she said. “Huguenot Street deserves to be an international destination. It’s unique in America.” She noted that connecting the historic site to the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail and the larger trail network that is developing in the region is part of the organization’s strategic plan, with an access point planned behind the DuBois Fort Visitors’ Center: “It will come up right where the wigwam is.”
Completing the Master Site Plan for Huguenot Street will be the new leader’s next major area of concern. “We have ten acres and 30 buildings,” she noted. “We have a lot of space that we’re not using. We have to look at how we can use that space, to return the Street to the village center that it once was. We need to reorganize the parking and the entrances, to integrate the rail trail.” If funding can be found, part of her vision is to “bury all the power lines, bring it back to the 17th century…take off the asphalt,” said De Filippis. “We hope that we bring a lot of tourists to the area.”
Historic Huguenot Street’s regular guided tours begin this Saturday, May 6 from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Ninety-minute tours of the site are offered hourly, with the last tour departing the DuBois Fort Visitor Center at 4 p.m.