Consider for a moment Kingston’s value as a city with a rich historical heritage. Like that of a natural resource, the value of its historic fabric is rooted in its survival over time and its finiteness. Its aesthetic qualities attract people, and compel us as a community to protect and preserve them. Kingston is now at a tipping point and the community must consider how much economic development its historic fabric can sustain before it’s torn beyond mending.
Like ecosystems, historic neighborhoods have many interrelated elements. More than just a collection of old buildings and sites, its thoroughfares, topography and open spaces are the warp to the community tapestry’s weft. This tapestry, woven through the centuries by natural forces and countless hands, provides Kingston with a distinct sense of identity, history and authenticity. This fosters a dynamic, sustainable, diverse and inclusive community, as well as being a major economic engine.
But like its natural counterpart, a district can be exploited for short-term gain. Over time, the fine threads of an old place are worn down and covered over, and someplace becomes anyplace when the links with the past are lost.
Kingston’s Stockade Historic District is unique. Of New York’s three original Dutch fort settlements — New York and Albany being the other two — its original boundary footprint is still readily apparent. This is largely due to its location on a plateau-like promontory overlooking the fertile Esopus Creek plains. As the legend goes, Peter Stuyvesant, the last director-general of the Dutch-held New Netherlands colony, personally chose the site for its advantageous topography, which is edged by bluffs on three of its four sides. This not only provided good drainage, but when fortified with a log palisade, a bastion and a guardhouse, it brought some measure of security during the turbulent frontier days of the settlement when colonists battled the native Esopus for rights to the land. The fort, which was initially confined to the northeast corner of today’s district between North Front, Clinton, and John streets and west of Wall Street, was expanded three times between 1658 and 1677. The siting of house lots within the fort determined much of the street pattern we have today.
By the early 18th century, the stockade had lost its usefulness and was taken down. Successive generations built new buildings, blocks and streets, adding texture and depth to the town without fundamentally altering its character. Most new developments have maintained a consistent scale and building type pattern. Modestly ornamented two- and three-story brick buildings line the commercial blocks of Wall and North Front streets, forming continuous street walls and storefronts. The adjacent blocks are more varied in character and appearance with houses and buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. Today’s Kingston Stockade District is a 350-plus-year-old civic testament to continuous — and mostly incremental — change.
The historic harmony has from time to time been challenged. The greatest threat to the Stockade’s integrity, besides the great conflagration set by the British in 1777, came with the mid-20th century’s urban renewal efforts. While Kingston’s Rondout area certainly bore the brunt of the era’s heavy-handed civic “improvements,” the Stockade District too grappled with the era’s manic drive to usher in economic progress. Two separate proposals would have disrupted the colonial street pattern to increase traffic flow through the district. The urban renewal plan also flagged a number of old, underused and varyingly derelict buildings for demolition. Preservation campaigns were waged: the Hoffman House, the John Tremper House at 1 North Front St. and the Dr. Luke Kiersted House at 95 John St. were saved, but the 18th-century stone Jacob Bruyn Building and the mansard-topped County Clerk’s Office Building were lost. Today the old Bruyn lot is the woefully underused Peace Park. Kingston’s lone corporate Modern office building overlooks the site where the County Clerk’s building stood, an architectural rebel in its masonry and clapboard context.
The system of sidewalk canopies along sections of Wall and North Front Street, known as the Pike Plan, was another urban renewal effort. While local attitudes differ about its worth as they have since it was first proposed by the Woodstock artist John Pike in 1969, there is no question that the plan imposes a sameness where individual business’ identities are most critical. It’s ironic that the initiative’s most vocal proponents were preservationists who considered installing the canopies to be a restorative act. (A restoration of what remains unclear; in fairness, it was a Hail Mary effort to slow the loss of commercial activity to suburban shopping centers.)
But after 43 years of existence, the canopies too have become part of the district’s identity, for better or for worse.
The last decade and a half have brought two equilibrium-challenging development proposals. The first was a 12-story condominium building to rise on the site of the dilapidated municipal garage (also an urban renewal project) at the base of the bluff along North Front Street. A fierce debate ensued over its height, with preservationists arguing that the building would dwarf those in the district. The proposal was eventually withdrawn.
Today, a new proposal for the same site is widening a fissure in the Uptown community. Many business leaders are narrowly focused on its potential for economic stimulus. But community residents have concerns about the project, among them its architectural appropriateness, the site’s infrastructure capacity, and its lack of affordable housing. First presented in late 2017, the development, called the Kingstonian, seeks to do horizontally what the previous proposal did vertically as an interconnected complex of equal-height buildings spanning multiple lots with an outdoor plaza as its spine. It will contain a mix of ground-floor retail and market-rate residential units, much of which will sit atop a new parking garage structure. A hotel will be housed in a replica of the old hotel building currently standing at the northeast corner of the site, which will be demolished. The section of Fair Street descending from North Front Street will be closed to through traffic to accommodate an entrance to the garage from Schwenk Drive and the plaza above. This will undoubtedly alter the experience of the centuries-old settlement boundary where the change in the natural elevation is most evident in the district.
The proposal challenges the Stockade’s integrity in other ways. At present, the bulk of its architecture is dominated by balconies, cement board siding, and bright white trim — a design palette characteristic of a coastal condo complex. Further sharpening the comparison is the fact that an outdoor swimming pool will serve as an internal focal point.
Ideally, new buildings in historic neighborhoods build on the place’s pre-existing narrative. They neither imitate nor snub it, but instead engage in a subtle architectural dialogue with the past. To achieve this requires a deep reading of the context and its significance. If a new project can’t contribute to the neighborhood’s narrative, then the next best hope is that it’s neutral to the neighborhood’s context; it neither adds to nor detracts from it. In other words, it doesn’t spoil the magic.
This is a difficult bar to clear for a development that has no historical precedent. Totaling over 176,000 square feet with upwards of 1,400 linear feet of street façades, the Stockade District has never seen a development of the Kingstonian’s scale or street-swallowing scope. For comparison, the two façades of the old Stuyvesant Hotel at the corner of Fair and John streets total 300 linear feet. As it stands, a significant junction of the Stockade will be built anew by a Vermont-based architect whose architectural perceptions of the district appear to be overly simplistic and who to date has not publicly presented his work to the community. Yet his architecture, if realized, will shape the experience and interpretation of the district for decades to come.
This concern should not negate others. The climate crisis is upon us. With a substantial amount of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by buildings, the race is on to reduce their carbon footprint. In this light, channeling precious funds into new parking infrastructure seems positively retrograde. Affordable housing is another pressing need that will not be addressed by this project.
These concerns are not mutually exclusive. Much of the late ecologist Aldo Leopold’s work wrestled with the idea of reconciling private economic interest with public well-being. In writing about resource conservation, he urges society to, “Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Maintaining this symbiosis is also important in historic districts. There too is a fine balance between economic growth and preservation. What we build matters. How and where a building gets built, how it comes to be used, how it supports a community and contributes to the “sense of place” matters. If a building cannot rise to the occasion then perhaps it is best it not rise at all.
Marvelli is a historic preservation consultant and, until recently, a vice chair of the Kingston Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission.