Iris Oseas and her husband, Jonathan, live in one of Ulster County’s most historic buildings: the Van Deusen House, an early 18th-century stone house in Hurley where, a month after the burning of Kingston by the invading British troops in October 1777, the nascent state government met, hiding its papers in a secret room on the second floor. The trap door that provided access still exists, in a closet off the kitchen.
“The papers were held in the attic for a month, and then Van Deusen [a blacksmith, farmer and member of the Ulster County militia, who inherited the house from his father] was hired to bring the papers to General Clinton,” said Iris, noting that the house’s wide-board floors, beams, windows and back door with its ironwork pancake hinges are original. Not surprisingly, considering that for half a century the couple has owned Van Deusen Antiques, the house is filled with antiques, including two Van Deusen samplers, a magnificent Dutch kas, and several Jacobean chairs. Iris has also collected bottles and stoneware jugs and crocks that once stocked the Van Deusens’ pharmaceutical and paint shop, located in Kingston’s Rondout.
Iris’ own lineage in Kingston dates back to the 1880s, when her grandfather, a Polish immigrant, moved to Kingston from New York City and built an Italianate brick building on Wall Street where he ran his retail fur business (located opposite the Ulster County Courthouse, the building still proudly displays his name, Levanthal). Now 88, a year younger than Jonathan, Iris has vivid memories of her life growing up in Kingston. She met her husband while both were attending Bard College and after marrying, Jonathan had a career in electronic engineering. Jonathan’s career took the couple and their four children around the country, from Seneca Falls to California to New Jersey, where he worked for RCA and was involved with the computer that monitored the presence of Russian missiles on Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Iris also started an antique business, with Jonathan helping out in his spare time. Following a position at IBM in Yorktown Heights, in 1969 he was transferred to the Kingston plant and the family, coming full circle, bought the stone house in Hurley.
Here are excerpts from an interview at Iris’ home last Friday, which included a fascinating time-travel trip to the Kingston of decades ago.
Lynn Woods: Your grandfather Hyman Levanthal emigrated from Poland. Tell us his story.
Iris Oseas: My grandfather was in fear that the Cossacks would make him join the army. Because they were Jewish, his family was not allowed to own property or run a business so they tended an orchard in the summer and he learned to make fur coats from pelts for the Cossacks in the winter. When he was 15, his mother gave him a small bottle of brandy and a little money and he walked across Europe to get to England so that he could get a passage to America. In England somebody stole his passage ticket and he met another gentleman with whom he worked to get passage. He left in 1880, and while on the boat, in steerage, he met an old lady who was ill and he gave her his liquor for the voyage to New York. In New York he worked to earn money to help his family leave Europe. He didn’t eat on Friday, putting money aside to pay their passage, and one by one he brought his parents and many of his siblings to the U.S. He met his wife, who was also Jewish, in New York. My mom told me that if you went to an immigrant family’s house, you’d see an extra bed in the dining or living room because every family was helping another family.
The man he met in England, who also immigrated to New York, had opened a business in downtown Kingston, so that’s how my grandfather heard of this place. After he had a family, he wanted them to live in the country and so he moved up to Kingston.
Were you born in Kingston?
No, I was born in New York. My mother was born in Kingston in 1901, on Crown Street, and she married a gentleman from New York, a dentist, Abraham Lipskar. We moved to Kingston when I was seven. My father’s family was from Russia, and they were wealthy; my grandmother talked about servants and carriages. When she was a girl, her father was friendly with the chief of police, and when the Cossacks came to their town to attack the Jews, he locked the family in the jail to protect them. My grandmother was an educated woman who spoke English and German, and she also did embroidery. After her family immigrated to New York, she got a position at the Jewish theater and was in the chorus and performed some of the greats of Yiddish theater. Abraham got friendly with my mother’s two brothers who had gone to the city to get work, and when they brought him home to visit, he met my mother. I was born in 1931, and we moved to Kingston because of the hard times of the Depression, staying at my grandfather’s house on Washington Avenue.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Number 7 School on Crown Street. I was an only child, and my mother had taught me to read before I went to school, so I was bored and a bad kid. At Number 7 School there was a teacher, Mrs. Connelly, who kept me busy decorating the school for holidays, so I got an art background. After graduating from Kingston High School in 1948 I went to Bard College, which was much more artsy than it is now. It was an experimental school for boys, but when the war came many boys went to war, so they allowed women to attend.
That’s where you met Jonathan.
We had a transfer student from another college, and suddenly there was a new man on campus, a very attractive man wearing very tight blue jeans and a tight T shirt, field engineer boots and a beard. He was from the next generation, and in two weeks we were married. We eloped, because you had to apply for a blood test, and when they do that, they put your name in the Daily Freeman and we were not sure that our parents wouldn’t object and want us to wait.
Wow! Two weeks! And it worked out! When your parents found out, did they approve?
This year will be our 69th year. When we came to our parents and told them it was a done deal, my grandfather decided there should be a religious union and it would be that night.
So you had a formal wedding with less than a day’s notice? How did that happen?
My grandfather said, call the rabbi and have him bring the chuppah. We needed four witnesses, so he called the president of the synagogue, Herman Rafalowsky, who had a men’s store in Midtown Kingston. My grandfather asked him, “Did your wife bake today?” “Yes, she made rugelach.” “Bring it. We’re having a wedding,” my grandfather said. Then he called his cousin, Abraham Lipgar, who owned a photo store on Fair Street and asked him the same question. “Bring it.” Then he called another cousin, Ruth Brenner, who lived on Clinton Avenue. They had an egg business, and so they brought the golden sponge cake she’d baked. Reuben, my grandfather’s son, had married Sylvia and my grandfather called them. They were going to a Halloween party that evening and came in costume: she was the maid of honor and dressed as Carmen Miranda and he was the best man was dressed as a Chinese house boy. Unfortunately, my cousin forgot his camera, so we don’t have pictures. The guests all brought the food, and they were having so much fun we hid out in the foyer of my grandfather’s house. The next morning my husband’s father and my grandfather were sitting in the little kitchen nook singing Yiddish songs.
Did you graduate from Bard?
No. I was there three years and decided I would be a starving artist with or without a degree so why get a degree. My husband was a physicist. For his senior project, he built a computer from spare parts and went down to IBM in Poughkeepsie to ask some questions; they thought he was going for his doctorate, not his bachelors’. But after he graduated, they would not hire him, we think because he was Jewish. Instead he got a job at Sylvian Electronics and we moved to Seneca Falls.
Many years later, you moved back to Kingston and bought the stone house. In the 1960s, people were not interested in the furnishings and architectural styles of the past, so this was a little unusual. Had you always wanted to live in a stone house?
Yes. As a child I wanted a stone house, because my teacher Mrs. Connelly lived around the corner from us in a stone house on Pearl Street.
How did you get into antiques?
I bought my first antique at age 13 from the Junior League, on North Front Street. Unbeknownst to Jonathan and I when we got married, both of our mothers used to buy antiques. We had started in antiques when we lived in New Jersey. We did shows and after moving to Kingston, I became a partner with another dealer and we ran shows at the Kingston Armory for 17 years. Last year, we did the Rhinebeck Antiques Show for the last time.
I started the business in the house but it became too invasive because everybody wanted to buy what I was keeping to decorate the house, so it’s been in the garage for 50 years. If we’re home, we’re open.
Have you found that eBay, other online services and the taste for mid-century modern have changed the market for antiques?
There are always people who own these historic houses who want to be authentic and will buy antiques. Things go in and out of fashion. I tell people to buy what they love and what touches their senses. When people go into your house you’re telling them something about you. They might have a table with a plastic top and metal chairs because it was in their mother’s house.
For years you went to shows. Since you stopped doing this, how do you get new stuff?
We get a lot from house calls, from people who are getting older and moving into smaller quarters or to Florida. They know we tend to be fair.
Do your kids live nearby?
One daughter is a psychiatrist in Rhode Island and the other daughter lives in Kingston and works in marketing for Puroclean. Our son was working for Adirondack Trailways and is retiring. Sadly, our other son passed away.
What do you remember about growing up in Kingston?
My mother would get up early and tidy the house and then we would dress and walk to Kingston from my grandfather’s house on Washington Avenue, which was between Pearl and Len’s Court. My grandfather walked to his store from his house, which stayed open after he died; his son Reuben ran it, then Reuben’s wife, Sylvia, who ran the store until she died.
When cars first came in, my grandmother Levanthal would call up the local Ford dealer and say “I want a demonstration. Could you send a man with a car?” She’d make a picnic and with the four kids drive to the reservoir, where’d she’d feed the guy. The next time, she’d call another company.
That’s hilarious! I’ve seen photos showing Wall Street packed with stores and people up through the 1960s.
The stores were open late on Friday nights, and they’d come from Phoenicia, Ellenville, from everywhere to shop in Kingston. The stores were mobbed. My grandfather had stuffed animals on the shelf, and they’d bring children in to see the “zoo.” When my cousin and I were kids and our parents were working, they’d give us 50 cents. For a quarter we’d go to one of two Chinese restaurants in Uptown or to Italian restaurant on North Front and have spaghetti and meatballs for a quarter. The other quarter went to the movies. The theater was on Wall between John and North Front. When I got older I got 10 cents to take the bus from the corner of John and Wall to school but I’d save the money and walk.
Once in a blue moon somebody would drive to New York on a Sunday and shop at the Lower East Side and bring back some local delicacies that were hard to get in Kingston, like salami and bagels. (Although there were two Jewish delis in Uptown, and later, one on Broadway.) However, because there were no big companies and not a lot of jobs, when we graduated from high school we scattered.
Was it a supportive community?
My grandfather was a very kind man. If you brought your wife to his store and bought a fur coat, he’d go into your store downtown and buy bags of groceries. On the right side of Wall looking toward North Front was Whelan’s, a pharmacy that had a full lunch counter. Everyone got a cup of coffee there for lunch or dinner to hear the gossip. It was a small town. There was an elderly lawyer, whose wife had passed and was alone. He’d walk to Wall Street, and his brothers were worried that he didn’t get enough to eat, so they bought him lifetime dinners at Whelan’s. He’d passed my grandfather’s store, where my mother worked as a bookkeeper, and in the winter she’d make sure he was wearing a scarf. Everyone looked after everyone else. When my mother was a girl and somebody died, Rafalowsky, the president of the synagogue, would pin a note to her scarf saying that someone needed help and she’d go into every store.
During the Depression, my grandfather brought friends who’d lost money and their businesses to the second floor of his store, where they could start their business again.
What about racial tolerance?
When my father came here in the late 1930s we rented a place on Pearl Street that had a coal stove. My father hired a black man to keep it clean and stoke it. Once he got into some kind of trouble and he wanted my father to speak up for him, but my father was told if he did that, his career was finished.
Did you experience anti-Semitism?
In grade school everybody, blacks and whites, played together and intermingled, but the minute you got to high school and reached dating age, that stopped — not just between blacks and whites, but also Jews and Christians. There was no intermingling.
A lot of the activities for older children were at the Christian Y, and we didn’t go there. A little girl who was a Girl Scout asked me if I wanted to be a Girl Scout; if you did this, you got a star on your banner. My mother said OK, but then the girl withdrew the offer; it was a Catholic Girl Scout troop. That was the mindset of the time.
They also used to have evangelical stuff as an entertainment in high school. Before we graduated in 1948, the principal called us into his office one by one and asked what colleges we had applied to. When I told him Radcliffe and a few others, he said, “Who the hell do you think you are? Jews go to NYU.”
There was a great deal of snobbery and wealth. People with a Dutch background wouldn’t socialize with you. As Jews we weren’t included. This was a time when a lot of people did not show their Jewishness much. People were guarded. If you had a Jewish name you changed it; Tanya became Tillie and Abraham became Al.
And it wasn’t just Kingston. In the mid-1950s, when Jonathan got a job in California and we moved just south of San Francisco, we decided to buy a small house. When Jon when to sign the paper, it said you were not allowed to sell the house to any Orientals. He said “I can’t buy your house” and they took the reference out.
Being from Kingston, wow do you feel about the changes that are happening now?
When I look at the murals painted on some of the exterior buildings, most of them are not appropriate to Kingston and don’t relate to its history. They are destroying the one thing Kingston has that’s special, which is its history. They don’t belong there.
Also, buying online is killing everything. People who do this don’t realize they’re killing their own towns. And yet, when somebody wants a charitable donation, they go to the poor merchant.
Speaking of history, you helped found the Hurley Heritage Society.
After we moved here, there was some problems with people vandalizing the cemetery and so a committee was formed, consisting of me, Mrs. Paul (of the Paul family that owned a farm on the Hurley Flats), and Nancy Winter, who was also an antique dealer. We decided to ask everybody in Hurley to bring something historical from their family to share with us. An antique dealer served as the MC and when he saw the stuff people brought, such as items from the rent wars and the original minutes from the village of Hurley, he almost had a stroke. We met at the church and decided to form a historical society. Initially it rented space in an extension of the Elmendorf House, but after holding numerous bake sales and flea markets we raised to the money to purchase a building in 2000, which is where we’ve been ever since.