Warm welcome in the land of cement

The “Houses on the Land” historic house tours offered every year at this time by the Wallkill Valley Land Trust (WVLT) have become a much-anticipated springtime activity for enthusiasts of local history and architecture. While the tours are based on some serious scholarship and research, it’s also just plain fun to go into private homes otherwise not open to the public and learn about the origins of the structures and the people who once lived there. Visits to historic sites on the tour round out the experience, and it all concludes with a wine-tasting reception from 4:30 to 6 p.m. on the grounds of one of the homes.

This year’s tour of the Rosendale area on Saturday, June 1 from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. will be the ninth such tour and perhaps the most extensive one yet, according to Vals Osborne, WVLT board member and co-chair of the event. “Rosendale and Beyond: Reshaping the Land – Farmsteads, Cement Works and Canal Towns” will take participants on a self-guided journey through the Town of Rosendale and the surrounding hamlets of High Falls, Cottekill, Binnewater, Lawrenceville, Eddyville and Bloomington (formerly Wagendale). Past tours generally featured seven houses and one or two historic sites, but this year’s event will bring access to four historic sites and nine private homes. And several of the locations, according to Osborne, require a lot of discussion to get the most out of a visit, so getting an early start is advised. “If you want to do all of it,” she notes, “don’t just plan a leisurely afternoon or you’ll have to pick and choose!”

The featured houses are among the area’s most important and interesting vernacular treasures dating from the early 18th through 20th centuries, she says. Tourgoers will visit stone farmhouses as well as structures with a Greek Revival aesthetic and see Italianate and Colonial Revival expressions of prestige and wealth. The tour will reveal how Rosendale evolved from its early agrarian Dutch settlements into an industrial boomtown in the 19th century after natural “Rosendale” cement was discovered in 1825 and the D & H Canal and Wallkill Valley Railroad were established in 1828 and 1866, respectively.

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One of the public sites on the tour is St. Peter’s Catholic Church, built in 1875. Designed by Arthur Crooks, a highly regarded architect of the time who also designed Kingston City Hall, the church is distinguished by having been built by local miners and canalworkers for themselves, says Osborne. Irish and German immigrants who came to work in the area built the church because they grew tired of having to travel to Kingston by horseback to worship.

Registration on the day of the tour is held at the church between the hours of 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Tour tickets are picked up there, along with a detailed guidebook and map. A navigation route is suggested, but tourgoers are free to chart their own course. Volunteer docents will be available in each home to offer information and answer questions. Tickets cost $50 with advance purchase by May 30 ($45 for WVLT members) or $55 ($45 for members) thereafter. All proceeds benefit WVLT’s land preservation efforts.

Additional historic sites on the tour include the Widow Jane Mine, the DePuy Canal House (future home of the D & H Canal Historical Society’s museum) and the Women’s Studio Workshop, located in the former Binnewater General Store and post office. Visitors will also have rare access to the Century House’s Colonial Revival interiors, which will be open to the public for the first time in many years. The house still has all the furniture, artwork, decorative objects and memorabilia of cement tycoon A. J. Snyder, and tourgoers will be able to go look at his slip for the D & H Canal, located behind the house, and view the exteriors of the houses next door that used to belong to the estate, seeing them from the property perspective rather than just from the street.

 “The tour may change a lot of people’s perspectives on the place,” says Osborne. “They see it as it is today, but don’t really realize that right alongside them are all these vestiges of the cement industry. And the more you realize about it, the more interesting it becomes.”

Bloomington was one of the first settlements in Rosendale. It was originally called Wagendale after the Van Wagenen family, who built their homes there. The tour will go to several homes relating to the Van Wagenens, as well as a Marbletown house that once belonged to the grandson of the Jean Hasbrouck whose house is opposite the WVLT offices on Huguenot Street in New Paltz. “We’re seeing a lot of interconnection between families that we’ve heard of in this area,” Osborne says. “There’s also a big grouping of Hasbrouck houses north of High Falls.” Most of the people who lived in the Rosendale area prior to the construction of the D & H Canal came as farming families, she adds.

A recurring characteristic of the houses on the Rosendale tour is that almost all of them underwent some form of adaptive reuse, according to Osborne. “It’s an extraordinary mix of houses, from very early stone houses that were changed for a different style of living or larger households to a stone house that later got a mansard roof that enlarged it enormously, and brought beautiful light in through the Italianate windows they installed.” Another home was always thought to be a Victorian, she notes, but turned out to have been built in 1827 as a Federal house. There is also a “surprise” house, about which Osborne is enthusiastic but won’t reveal details. “It’s a wonderful, amazing place,” she promises.

The “Houses on the Land” historic house tours raise awareness and funds in support of the Wallkill Valley Land Trust’s mission to enhance the quality of life in southern Ulster County by conserving lands of scenic, agricultural, ecological, recreational and cultural significance. The project began as a long-term effort to identify the most historically and culturally significant houses, farm properties and historic sites in the eight southern Ulster County towns that the organization represents: Esopus, Gardiner, Lloyd, Marlborough, New Paltz, Plattekill, Rosendale and Shawangunk. But along the way, the tours have not only opened up historical properties to the public for their enjoyment, but also, with the research and documentation done in the process, contributed to the historical knowledge of our area – in some cases correcting history.

At least eight months of extensive research and planning go into the tours every year, in consultation with noted architectural historians and experienced researchers and writers. Osborne extends a great deal of energy into organizing the project each year, but she’s quick to point out the many others involved who also make it happen. Her co-chair on the tour this year is Carol Johnson, director of the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection at New Paltz’s Elting Memorial Library; and more than 100 volunteer docents support the program every year – with more still needed for this year, in fact, particularly to help with parking at the tour stops. (Get in touch with WVLT to help; it’s not too late.)

And, while one would think that by the ninth tour the WVLT must be running out of places to feature, that’s not the case. Osborne says that she knows of at least three more tours in the works. Next year they will likely feature the south side of New Paltz, not yet explored on a tour, and after that, Highland.

Houses on the Land historic house tour: “Rosendale and Beyond,” Saturday, June 1, 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m., reception 4:30-6 p.m., $50/$55, www.wallkillvalleylt.org.

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