According to Wikipedia, “Concrete is the second-most-used substance in the world after water, and is the most widely used building material.” Remnants of concrete firepits have been found in Syria dating back to 6500 BCE, and the oldest surviving concrete structures on Earth today are waterproof underground cisterns built by Nabataean traders in Syria and Jordan somewhere between 700 and 400 BCE, including at Petra. The ancient Egyptians built some concrete structures; the Greeks figured out how to create hydraulic cement by adding volcanic ash, or pozzolana.
But it was in Rome that concrete reached its early apotheosis as a building material. “The Romans used it in everything from bath houses to harbours, aqueducts to the Colosseum, systematising its production and application from the third century BC to the fall of the empire in the fifth century AD,” Nick Van Mead wrote in The Guardian in 2019. “Unlike modern reinforced concrete – which can last about a hundred years without major repairs or replacement – many Roman concrete structures are still with us many centuries later.” Notable among these is the Pantheon: the largest non-reinforced concrete dome in the world, completed in 128 AD, it still looks practically pristine.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, its superior concrete production technology using pozzolana was lost for centuries. The art of making hydraulic cement was revived in England in the 18th century. But it wasn’t until 1849 that a Frenchman named Joseph Monier got the idea of using metal to reinforce concrete; he started out making flowerpots with it and by 1875 had built a bridge. The first reinforced concrete house was built in a Paris suburb by François Coignet in 1853.
The Guardian article, titled “A brief history of concrete,” credits a California-based engineer named Ernest Ransome with popularizing reinforced concrete in the US: “Ransome’s first rebar concrete building was the Arctic Oil Company Works warehouse in San Francisco, which was completed in 1884. Five years later Ransome built the Alvord Lake Bridge in Golden Gate Park – the world’s first reinforced concrete bridge. The warehouse was demolished in 1930 but the bridge remains the world’s oldest surviving reinforced concrete structure.”
Too bad Nick Van Mead had never heard of the tiny neighborhood on the east side of the Kingston waterfront known as Ponckhockie. There’s a structure there, still standing — if more than a bit worse for wear due to acid rain — that was built of reinforced concrete in 1870: 29 years before that little bridge in San Francisco. It’s easily the earliest known example of a reinforced concrete building in New York State, and likely the oldest in America. Located at 91 Abruyn Street, just off the intersection where Delaware Avenue comes down a steep wooded hillside to reenter a residential area, it’s now known as the Ponckhockie Union Chapel, and a nationally registered historic site.
Old photographs reveal that on the opposite side of Delaware Avenue from the church, there used to be an enormous pit from which limestone was mined in the mid-19th century. It’s a northern spur of the same late Silurian dolomitic limestone formation that supported Rosendale’s once-thriving natural cement industry. When the Newark Lime and Cement Company decided it wanted to erect a non-denominational Sunday school for its workers’ families, it made perfect sense to build it right where the cement was being produced.
A Sunday school had been organized in an old brick one-room schoolhouse in the Ponckhockie neighborhood by Mrs. George North as early as 1854, but it bounced from place to place several times, acquiring a library and a cabinet organ along the way thanks to the efforts of the local Ladies’ Aid Society. In 1870 the Newark Lime and Cement Company stepped in with a plan to give the Sunday school a permanent home, “as a demonstration project to show what you could do with poured concrete,” says Charles Lawrence, a board member of what is now the Ponckhockie Union Congregational Church, which organized in 1915 and eventually purchased the Chapel building from the Cement Company. Lawrence and his wife both grew up on Bruyn Street and have been active members of the congregation since childhood.
Three bays wide and five bays deep, the rectangular edifice measures 40 by 65 feet, with exterior buttresses and a bell tower. Though it was built with poured concrete of cement mixed with bluestone aggregate, reinforced with iron rods and plates – a prototype for a construction technique that would soon revolutionize architecture in America – the structure was designed to mimic old stone churches, with an ashlar block pattern inscribed into a stucco exterior coating. An unusual structural feature is a system of ventilation channels built into the concrete that formerly provided what Lawrence calls “early geothermal” heating and cooling, before the ducts became clogged with decomposing concrete debris.
The bell tower surmounting the vestibule was originally topped by a soaring 220-foot steeple that, according to Lawrence, was used by boats on the Hudson River as a navigational landmark indicating that they were approaching the port of Kingston. Most of the spire was demolished in the early 1960s, having reached a dangerous stage of deterioration due to lightning strikes.
The church’s steeply pitched gable roof and arched windows reinforce the impression of its Gothic Revival style. Eight large arched stained-glass panels, plus eight small triangular windows in the peak, were added in 1923. Inside, the sanctuary boasts a vaulted ceiling with carved wooden beams and printed fabric covering the wood paneling in between. Ten rows of curved wooden pews with a central aisle, acquired in the 1920s, replace the smaller modular benches that were used in the days when the building served as a schoolroom.
A particular treasure is the building’s massive original 1871 pipe organ that stands to the right of the main altar. “It has a phenomenal sound, but it’s on the fritz. The bellows are dried out,” Lawrence explains as he coaxes a few notes out of the historic instrument. The soaring roof gives the space fabulous acoustics that lured choirs and other musical ensembles to perform in the Chapel right up until COVID-19. “You don’t even need amplification.” He estimates the cost to rebuild the organ at between $25,000 and $40,000.
During the winter months, to save on heating costs, the congregation meets for services in the church basement, which also serves as a cafeteria. The adjoining kitchen underwent a major renovation just before the pandemic hit, and was used to prepare dinners-to-go during the months when no live events could be held.
Standing in front of the building, or alongside it, it’s obvious that this historic structure has major problems. Weather has crumbled the stucco and much of the concrete surface beneath, especially on the buttresses. Bits of bluestone imbedded in cement litter the ground, despite the constant efforts of Lawrence and other members of the congregation to clean them up. The massive bluestone steps before the main entrance are askew and need realignment. The original slate roof of the building was long ago replaced with asphalt tiles, which themselves now need replacing.
Maintenance falls on the efforts and donations of a few diehard volunteers. This church, which once drew 150 attendees each Sunday, now has a core congregation of only about 15 regulars; Lawrence says that he’s related to most of them. There has not been a full-time minister in many years, but the Fellowship of Northeast Congregational Christian Churches to which this autonomous congregation belongs allows non-ordained lay speakers to conduct services. Robert Engel, Jr. currently serves as its “circuit rider” pastor three weeks out of the month, with the first Sunday’s worship and communion service led by Richard Caliendo.
Activity is beginning to return to normal, post-COVID, with the church’s longtime tradition of serving all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts from 8 to 11 a.m. on the first Saturday of the month recently revived. The price is $10. Sunday Worship Service begins at 11 a.m. weekly, and all are welcomed.
For the future, the Ponckhockie Union Congregational Church’s board and volunteers look toward a major multiyear capital campaign to raise funds to stabilize and reclaim the building. It’s too early to quote a dollar goal; “We’ve had three or four bids on different projects,” says Lawrence. More members – preferably with an interest in historic architecture – would be a big help, as would a volunteer or two with grantwriting skills. Meanwhile, the property is open to the public, if you just want to have a look around.
To learn more about the historic structure, visit www.nps.gov/nr/travel/kingston/k19.htm. To contact the church board about getting involved in the campaign to save it, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.