Kingston’s Wilbur and Ponckhockie neighborhoods have long been overlooked. Insufficient attention has been paid to how improvement and investment could enhance the architectural richness and historic heritage of these Rondout Creek communities.
No more. The City of Kingston has just released a draft architectural and archaeological sensitivity report that surveys each neighborhood’s buildings to determine their suitability for designation in historic districts or as individual landmarks.
The report’s public release in late June marked a first step in getting segments of the two neighborhoods or individual buildings on the National and New York State Registers of Historic Places. Residents have had an opportunity to learn about the initiative this month.
City staff and consultants presented and discussed the findings in two neighborhood meetings. The first was on July 18 at the Blackbird Infoshop and Café on Abeel Street. The second was this past Tuesday, July 25 at the historic Ponckhockie Congregational Church, 93 Abruyn Street in Ponckhockie.
The consequences of these steps could be significant for both Kingston neighborhoods. The report will serve as the basis for creating asset protection plans for Wilbur and Ponckhockie, according to the city government. In announcing the draft plan’s release, mayor Steve Noble said, “The often-overlooked neighborhoods of Wilbur and Ponckhockie played key roles in Kingston’s storied history. Each of these neighborhoods possesses assets that need to be protected, preserved, and recognized.”
River, creek and canal
Currently, Kingston has four historic districts: the Stockade, Fair Street, Rondout-West Strand, and Chestnut Street.
Archaeology & Historic Resource Services (AHRS), a consulting group based in the hamlet of Rock Tavern in New Windsor, completed the extensive inventory of the Wilbur and Ponckhockie neighborhoods. The firm worked in conjunction with a project advisory committee made up of neighborhood residents, a representative from the Friends of Historic Kingston, the Common Council members representing Wilbur and Ponckhockie (Michele Hirsch and Steve Schabot), and a member each of the Historic Landmarks Preservation and Heritage Area commissions.
A 2021 state historic preservation grant of $27,016 and a local match of $11,590 funded the survey, The project team has
been creating a digitized inventory of historic assets in Wilbur and Ponckhockie and a detailed written history. Before anything further happens, the public must have opportunities to learn what the historical survey might mean for the neighborhoods.
Benefiting from their fortuitous locations linked to the Rondout Creek and Hudson River, Wilbur and Ponckhockie played significant roles in Kingston’s industrial era of the nineteenth century — albeit different industries and during separate ranges of time. The completion of the Delaware and Hudson Canal in 1828 made Kingston a hub for transporting goods, particularly coal, to New York City and other East-Coast markets. Wilbur and Ponckhockie both grew rapidly at certain times, as industries developed that took advantage of the transportation connections of river, creek, and canal.
Largest exporter of bluestone
It was the bluestone industry that sparked Wilbur’s economic and population growth. In Ponckhockie, it was the natural cement industry.
Wilbur today is a quirky mix of small industry cheek-by-jowl with Route 213 and a sleepy by-the-Rondout-Creek feeling. Its buildings, ranging from abandoned structures to lovingly-cared-for houses, lie on streets and lanes that snake in curves and ovals at varied levels on the hills above the main road. The hamlet has a modest community park.
Starting in the 1820s and 1830s, Wilbur — known as Twaalfskill Landing until 1837 — was anything but a forgotten place. It was a major distribution site for the bluestone that commercial operators in the area quarried.
The Fitch Company brought bluestone from approximately a 15-mile radius to its yards at Wilbur. By 1850, the Fitch Company’s facility not just transported bluestone from the yard but transformed rough stone into finished products through sawing, planing, smoothing, and polishing. The site was messy and clamorous. Fitch became the largest exporter of bluestone in the world.
Today, the Simeon and William B Fitch Office Building at 540 Abeel Street, a handsome, charming Second Empire-style edifice with walls of bluestone cut in irregular sizes, is perhaps the most visible presence that remains of the bluestone industry in Wilbur. Architect J.A. Wood designed the structure to embody the ultimate emblem of richness, with its polychrome arches and a mansard roof with an iron crest. This building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2016.
The principal investigators of the AHRS report surveyed 62 properties in Wilbur. The survey found four other individual structures likely candidates for the National Register due to architectural and/or historical significance. The Nathaniel Booth house at 116 Wilbur Avenue (built c. 1820-1850) is a vernacular variation of a Federal house with bluestone construction. Also among them is a Queen Anne-style cottage (c. 1890) at 7 Lebert Street, an “excellent and highly intact example of nineteenth-century pattern-book architecture.”
The proposed Wilbur Historic District would consist of eleven buildings constructed between approximately 1840 to 1880. The potential district is a collection with cohesive qualities and characteristics, including their stone-masonry construction, relationship to Wilbur’s development during the rise and height of the bluestone industry, and their relatively high degree of integrity. The buildings lie on Abeel, Dunn, Davis, and Burnett streets, and Davis Avenue.
The forgotten child
The AHRS report also suggested an extension of this potential historic district to include three properties on Fitch Street. The former Church of the Holy Name at 23 Fitch Street, built around 1884, is an excellent example of a Gothic Revival church that used bluestone in the lower portion of its predominantly brick exterior.
Alderwoman Michele Hirsch of Ward 9, who represents the Wilbur neighborhood, welcomed the initiative for a historic district. “I am incredibly excited that this historic, cultural, and archeological site survey is the first step in what will hopefully result in the former hamlet of Wilbur, or individual properties, receiving placement [on the registers],” she said. The Wilbur designation felt “like a step back in time, due to its geographical constraints and unique architecture that hugs along the once-industrious Rondout Creek that helped build Kingston and New York State.”
With its geographic constraints, Wilbur felt in some ways cut off from the rest of Kingston, according to Hirsch, “like the forgotten child” of the city. Historical designation could help Wilbur obtain state funding for sidewalks, crosswalks, and other infrastructure improvements.
During the Covid pandemic, people working at home more in Wilbur found it far from easy to walk to the Rondout for food and other needs. Getting more attention for the neighborhood is a positive, the Ward 9 aldermember added.
Residents wanted to know what a historic district would mean. The Kingston Land Trust’s acquisition of six acres of abandoned quarry and woods and the plan to create a trail make it important to strike the right balance in terms of the pressures that gentrification brings.
Cement, brick and lime
Like Wilbur, Ponckhockie benefited from its location along the Rondout Creek waterfront. With access to the Hudson River, and proximity to the Delaware and Hudson Canal, Ponckhockie became linked to the natural cement and brick industries in Kingston. Its bountiful architectural inventory provides evidence of these industries.
The product that ultimately put Ponckhockie on the map of America’s early industrial locales was high-quality Rosendale cement, produced from natural cement powder mixed with water. The discovery of huge deposits of natural cement rock in areas around Rosendale during the building of the D&H Canal in 1825 was pivotal.
The rock could be mined and processed into a powder. (The production of natural cement had first started in Chittenango, a town east of Syracuse, in 1818.)
The Industrial Revolution vastly increased the demand for cement in the United States.
The Newark Lime and Cement Manufacturing Company was one of the early and eventual leading companies in manufacturing natural cement. Its founder originated the company and incorporated it in Newark, New Jersey and later leased and then purchased a quarry in Kingston. By 1851, Newark Lime and Cement had completed a new manufacturing plant near the Rondout Creek, just west of Ponckhockie.
In 1872, the company had holdings of more than 250 acres in Rondout. Its facility consisted of 21 kilns, and some 300 people worked there.
By the late 19th century, the use of Portland cement had expanded in the U.S., spelling the doom of the Newark Lime and Cement factory. It closed in 1905.
Much of Ponckhockie’s architectural character evolved in connection with another successful industry: brickmaking, the AHRS report explained. The industrial workforce sought housing in Kingston neighborhoods such as Ponckhockie.
The brickmaking industry flourished in the Hudson Valley during the 19th and the early part of the 20th century, The longest-running brick manufacturer, the Hutton Company Brickworks, established a brickyard to the northeast of Ponckhockie that remained in operations until 1980. The brickyards drew Italian and Irish immigrant labor, and later, African-Americans.
Thoughtfulness and balance
The survey of 246 properties in the Ponckhockie neighborhood revealed an abundance of valuable historic structures, for possible individual listing on the National Register or as contributing properties within a potential historic district. Ponckhockie has a potential historic district of 184 contributing properties, built from circa 1856 to circa 1940. Twenty-one of the 184 may be eligible for individual listing on the National Register. The neighborhood has a high concentration of notable examples of Italianate buildings and early vernacular interpretations of the Federal style, plus a lesser number of examples of Queen Anne, Gothic Revival, and Second Empire styles.
Two Ponckhockie buildings are already listed on the National Register. One is the former Moses Yeomans House, 252-278 Delaware Avenue, built in 1742 and renovated in the Gothic Revival style in the mid-19th century,
The National Register-listed 1870 Ponckhockie Union Chapel (Ponckhockie Congregational Church), a rare and early example of concrete construction expressed in a Gothic church, is surely one of the most unique buildings in Kingston. Officials of the Newark Lime and Cement Manufacturing Company commissioned and paid for its construction. According to architectural historian William B. Rhoads, it had a dual purpose: It served as a non-sectarian Sunday school, and it demonstrated the practicality of a concrete church.
Architect J.A. Wood designed the church. Its walls were of local natural cement combined with crushed bluestone, and it had a finishing effect of cement stucco scored to make it appear like stone blocks. Known as the Children’s Church, it is the earliest known example of reinforced concrete construction in New York State,
The authors of the inventory acknowledge that the proposed Ponckhockie historic district is relatively large, “and justifiably so.” Historic properties are gradually being lost as time passes.
Potential candidates for a historic district include 1 Ponckhockie Street (c. 1870), which the survey calls “the finest and largest brick example of an Italianate house” in Ponckhockie; 9 Grove Street (c. 1880), one of the few high-style Queen Anne houses in the neighborhood and one of two executed in brick; and 54 Gill Street (c. 1869), the former home of David Gill Sr., for whom the street is named and possibly the largest wooden Italianate house in Ponckhockie. Rhoads wrote in his Kingston architectural guide that the owner of 54 Gill accomplished “a virtuoso performance with Italianate paired brackets supporting the projecting eaves ….” Its rehabilitation is being documented online at the Disaster Mansion website, the report added.
After some 150-plus years, many of these Ponckhockie houses and buildings continue to draw investment, care and even substantial rehabilitation efforts.
There’s a reason why many welcome the new attention to preservation efforts, Ward 8 alderman Steve Schabot maintained. “As the alderman representing Ponckhockie, and one whose family history has roots in the local industries, I am proud to see this work recognize and celebrate the heritage of a neighborhood which grew out of the brick manufacturing, cement, and lime industries, along with tourism brought from Hudson River travel,” said Schabot. “I am encouraged that we are moving to protect and enhance the neighborhoods with thoughtfulness and balance.”