Let’s have a show of hands: How many readers grew up in or near New York City, but have never been to the Statue of Liberty? Lots of us, I’ll wager. Classic sights that tourists make sure to see on their second or third day in town often seem like just too much of a cliché to the natives.
But you don’t have to be one of those people. If you’re a Paltzonian and really want to understand what makes this place special, you need to take a deep dive into the loamy underworld of this town’s historical roots. The standard stone house tour of Huguenot Street is a great place to start, and Locust Lawn down on Route 32 South a good second step. Maybe you’ve already checked out some of the mansions along the Hudson River built by Gilded Age robber barons — especially when they’re decked out in Christmas baubles. But you shouldn’t stop there.
This town and its environs are packed to the gills with old buildings with incredible stories to tell. Some of them are close enough to streetside to catch the eye and make the passerby wonder who built them, who used to live there, what businesses they housed, what secret hopes, dreams, dramas and scandals they witnessed. Others are hidden from view altogether. But because these structures are privately owned, not designated historic sites, the vast majority of us never get our questions about them answered.
That’s where the Wallkill Valley Land Trust (WVLT) comes in, with its admirable stable of advisors with expertise in local history, land use and architecture. Each year, the organization organizes a “Houses on the Land” Historic House Tour as a major fundraising event. There are plenty of similar not-for-profits around the region that conduct historic house tours, but most of them take you to the same places every year. Not WVLT: Its series started with an exploration of Gardiner, and moves on to a new town or neighborhood each year. Last year’s tour focused on Lloyd, Plutarch and the mysterious world of the Pang Yangers. In 2015, the orchard country of Marlborough was the theme. Each tour guides you to places not normally open to the public, armed with a handsomely produced, exhaustively researched 50-page booklet full of historical background information.
The seventh annual “Houses on the Land” tour, happening on Saturday, June 3, marks WVLT’s 30th anniversary; and for the first time ever, it takes visitors inside some of New Paltz’s own most intriguing buildings. “The First Highway: Huguenot Homesteads from New Paltz to Bontecoe” is the 2017 theme, covering the area inhabited by the town’s first European settlers and their descendants along Huguenot Street and Old Route 32 heading north. “There’s just so much history in New Paltz, it’s just overwhelming,” says WVLT board member Vals Osborne. “We’re going to need about three tours to cover the whole town.”
The tour will begin with registration under the portico at the Reformed Church at 92 Huguenot Street, where there will be plenty of docents on hand to take you on a tour of the church itself, several adjoining manses and the choirmaster’s house. After that, you can amble over to Historic Huguenot Street, where several “special experiences” are planned to unfold from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The DuBois Fort visitors’ center will be showing an exhibit about John Hasbrouck (1806-1879), a freedman who became one of the first African-American residents of New Paltz to qualify for the right to vote (by virtue of having acquired a certain threshold of taxable real property in the town). One of the stone houses that is very rarely open to the public, the Abraham Hasbrouck House, will be hosting tours of its basement kitchen and slave quarters. A thematically related “side trip” follows a trail in the Mulberry Street area of small late-19th-century homes constructed by black architect Jacob Wynkoop.
Houses on this year’s tour include one currently undergoing restoration, whose older section was recently determined by historians from the Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture group to be the “earliest extant wooden dwelling in New Paltz,” according to Osborne. Most of these stops are within walking distance of each other, but you’ll need to hop back into your car and head north to check out the three houses in the “gorgeous farmland properties” of the former Freer and Lefevre patents along the Wallkill River: the area known as Bontecoe to the Huguenots. They’re built of stone, wood and brick, and range in date from 1705 to a 1970s remodeled barn.
This year’s houses overall show “really good breadth,” Osborne enthuses. “There are at least three or four that have never been seen, unless you know that person. This is a very rare opportunity.” They will be open to visitors on Saturday only, from 11 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., with docents available at each designated tour stop. “This is not a ‘pretty house and garden’ tour,” she warns. “It’s more about the architecture.”
Registrants may park in the Reformed Church and Deyo Hall parking lots on Broadhead Avenue. Tickets cost $45 general admission, $40 for WVLT members if purchased by June 1, $50 and $45 on the day of the tour. Participants are invited to a 30th anniversary reception and wine-tasting from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at a private farm on the Land Trust’s first easement. Proceeds benefit WVLT’s land preservation efforts. To register, call (845) 255-2761 or visit www.wallkillvalleylt.org.