If you think that the history of America and the Hudson Valley in the 17th and 18th centuries (particularly the Revolutionary War) feels just a bit too remote to register and grab your attention these days, the Senate House would like to have a word with you. Kingston’s Senate House State Historic Site tells many stories, ones that you can not only listen to, but that you can see, taste, smell, dance or sing to, try to play an instrument for, and experience lots of ways through its activities and programs.
Take one example, a commemorative program the Senate House does yearly around Independence Day entitled “Let Freedom Ring.” Its ceremony of patriotic speeches is no dry recitation. Musician Mark Rust, who will play again at the Senate House commemoration in July, said that when he has performed at this event before, he has played a patriotic song that goes with the speech, using an instrument of the era, and at times describing how the song came to be. It helps the speech be a “living, breathing thing,” Rust said. Such is just one way that the Senate House highlights history that people can relate to.
The site at 296 Fair Street, with its serene grounds, is a beautiful gem amid Uptown Kingston’s historic, bustling setting. Many people do not realize it is one of the significant cradles of democracy in the United States, where the New York State Senate met during war, in 1777, and forged the workings of a new government. This distinction is juxtaposed with the reality of enslaved people having lived in this Dutch household. The site also offers a revealing window into day-to-day living some two-and-a-half centuries ago.
The Senate House opens to the public for a new season of tours and events on April 19, running through October 31. Whatever your interests, glance at its schedule and exhibit descriptions, and you’re likely to find something that draws you. This isn’t a place where you walk around, tour once, and say, “Well, I’ve done that.” As Aaron Robinson, the Historic Site Manager, said, “It’s not a one-and-done visit.”
That’s because the Senate House State Historic Site mixes its guided tours of the house with community-oriented events; hands-on activities geared to all ages, and museum exhibits featuring changing displays. You can learn about the early days of creating a republic in meetings that took place in one room of the Senate House, and how the New York State Constitution was a foundational document for the later U.S. Constitution. You can also do crafts, listen to musical performances, enjoy seasonal and commemorative festivals, and get a firsthand sense of how people lived in the 18th century, such as how they produced food and made footwear.
No doubt the “bread and butter” of the Senate House is imparting its history, as Robinson said – particularly how it depicts the Dutch way of life in 18th century Kingston and what happened when the State Senate met in the house for approximately a month in 1777. The original dwelling dated to 1676, when Wessel Ten Broeck built a one-room Dutch-style house with a steep roof. The original house’s foundation still exists and is under the middle section of today’s Senate House. In the ensuing decades, the house remained in the Ten Broeck family. The inhabitants made three additions to the original house, including a detached kitchen.
Today, Senate House guides show the house as it might have been in the late 18th century around the time that the State Senate convened here. At the time of the Revolutionary War, Abraham Van Gaasbeek owned the house. He had married into the Ten Broeck family, but his wife, Sarah, and two of three children had died. Van Gaasbeek enslaved a number of individuals. By the time of the American Revolution, only the widower and a person he enslaved lived in the house. The war disrupted Van Gaasbeek’s business in shipping goods between Kingston and New York City. Meanwhile, the new state legislature needed a place to meet in Kingston, so Van Gaasbeek rented out a room to the State Senate – a win-win.
Thus, the Senate House history reveals the State Senate’s earliest meeting days, from September 9 until early October 1777, doing what Robinson termed, “an experiment in the rubber meeting the road,” of how to set up a functional democratic government. Of 24 senators, 17 came to Kingston and gathered in the plain chamber that Van Gaasbeek had used as a storeroom.
Yet, while this group of white men focused on raising funds and supplies for the colonial militia, devising rules, and setting up a government that espoused freedom and rights, a dichotomy existed – the contradiction of maintaining slavery in New York State as an institution, as Robinson pointed out. In its exhibits and tours, the Senate House is consistently seeking ways to “better tell the story” – how enslaved persons labored and contributed significantly to the Van Gaasbeek household, he noted.
The State Senate’s time in the Van Gaasbeek house was crucial though short. When the British troops captured Forts Clinton and Montgomery on October 6, 1777, little stood in the way of an advance north up the Hudson Valley. The Senate adjourned and fled Kingston. On October 16, British troops, under General John Vaughan, rushed through Kingston and torched the town’s buildings. As to how much of the Van Gaasbeek house was destroyed in the fire that ravaged Kingston, “that is the million-dollar question,” Robinson said.
Reconstruction of much of Kingston, including what is now the Senate House, likely began the following spring. In 1887, the State of New York acquired the property from a descendant of Wessel Ten Broeck, as those who advocated preserving the Senate House history were concerned it would be lost.
These are some of the key facts and stories from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries that the guides now introduce using multiple interactive screens in the orientation room. As the Senate House staff busily prepares, “We’re excited for the opening of the season,” Robinson said.
Besides guided tours of the house, the public can view two floors of exhibits in the Senate House Museum, built in 1927 to accommodate the site’s ever-expanding collections. Among the exhibits are portraits, landscapes, and drawings by Kingston-born John Vanderlyn, the first American artist to receive formal training in Paris, who became an internationally known artist in the early days of the United States. The Senate House holds the largest collection of Vanderlyn’s work. The museum exhibits showcase items that Dutch colonists used in New York, such as a large loom and incredibly ornate iron stove plate and explore subjects like slavery in early Kingston and Kingston’s Stockade as New Netherland’s “Third City.”
The day after opening day, the Senate House gets right to its combination of historic lessons and experiential, inventive activities. On April 20 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Senate House celebrates the 246th anniversary of the signing of the New York State Constitution in Kingston. Visitors can grab a copy of the original 1777 state Constitution, hear more about its content and principles, and do a quill pen writing activity.
In May, the Senate House kicks off the growing season, as in: What was it like to plant, grow, and produce food some 250 years ago? On May 20, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Those who show up can watch as Senate House folks plant an 18th century-inspired garden. Beekeeping, sheep shearing, and hearthside cooking demonstrations, as well as crafts, will complement the planting. These keep with the theme of everyday life in the 18th century. “It’s something that everyone can relate to,” Robinson said, “…showing some of the creative ways to get around the lack of modern conveniences.”
Every scheduled event includes a hands-on craft, such as making Dutch Delft tiles. In addition, the Senate House has “Saturday specials,” an interactive craft or activity for people of all ages that does not happen on a set schedule. A couple of past examples: “butter and toast,” when participants churned butter and made toast on an open fire using an 18th century toaster and a “learn to draw like John Vanderlyn” activity.
In June, the Senate House will be a host for a festival that is a modern evocation of African culture, expression, and experience during the time of enslavement by Dutch settlers in New York in the 17th century. On June 4, the second annual “Pinkster: Joy is an Act of Resistance” in Ulster County will make a stop at the Senate House. TRANSART is producing the multi-day festival, with the contributions and cooperation of hosts such as the Senate House.
During the early 17th century in New York, Dutch settlers marked Pinksteren (Dutch for the Christian holiday of Pentecost) with a period of resting, gathering, and holding religious services such as confirmations and baptisms. For African slaves, it was an opportunity to be with those from whom they were separated and to celebrate. Enslaved and free African Americans made Pinkster their own holiday well into the 19th century. As a time to honor ancestors in contemporary ways, the Pinkster Festival will feature drumming, music, dance, reenactments, food, and information about this historic celebration. For more information, see transartinc.org/pinkster.
Two major events round out the Senate House’s schedule. The 2023 commemoration “Let Freedom Ring” is on July 1 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The ceremony will have readings of historical speeches on freedom and independence. Singer/songwriter Rust, a Catskill Mountains native who plays guitar, piano, banjo, fiddle, and mountain and hammered dulcimer, will provide musical accompaniment to the ceremony. In addition, Rust said, when he performs during the event, he plans to invite people, especially children, to interact with the music by showing them how to play an instrument and letting them give it a try.
The Senate House’s 18th century autumnfest, on Oct. 1 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., puts those who attend in the mood for the season. There will be demonstrations of pressing apples for cider, candle dipping, blacksmithing, and more. Autumnfest will also have live performances of juggling, fire spitting, and tightrope walking. At both events, a militia will re-enact 18th century camp life.
The Senate House remains open during its regular hours for guided tours through October 31.
New discoveries, connections, exhibits, activities, and more: It’s what the Senate House does to make centuries-old history ever-fresh and enlightening.
From April 19-October 31, the Senate House and Museum will be open Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 1-5 p.m. The last guided tour leaves at 4 p.m. each day. Admission rates: adults — $7; seniors — $5; and children ages 12 and under – free. Site grounds are open daily from dawn to dusk. Visit senatehousekingston.org
for more information to help plan your visit.