If These Stones Could Talk
Strolling the Stockade of Kingston
By Sharon Nichols
Fair Street Historic District. Photograph by Phyllis A. McCabe
The lovely, manicured lawns and stone walkways on the corner of Clinton Avenue and North Front Street in Uptown Kingston always seem inviting. A great lunchtime getaway from those who work in the area, there’s usually someone there snacking among the flowers and trees. This is the garden behind the Senate House, one of many old buildings in the area which has a tale to tell. Uptown Kingston is one of the oldest neighborhoods in America, and today it is a treasury of historic architecture as a State and National Historic District.
In 1658, between 60 and 70 European settlers from Holland, England and France living along the Esopus Creek moved to the Uptown area. Land disputes between the settlers and the Esopus Indians, farming side by side for several years, had brought both sides to the edge of war. Ordered to move for their own safety by Colonial Governor Peter Stuyvesant, they carted their houses, piece by piece, and rebuilt them behind a 14-foot wall made from tree trunks pounded into the ground. Their new stockade village was called Wiltwyck, and it was the third city established in the Dutch colony of New Netherland (New York City was called New Amsterdam, Albany was Beverwyck, and Hurley was Nieu Dorpf; Wiltwyck was renamed Kingston in 1664). The wall was knocked down in the late 17th century when a peace treaty was signed; remnants of the wall were found during an archaeological dig in 1971.
The streets of the old Wiltwyck village today remain laid out just as they were in 1658. Twenty-one pre-Revolutionary War stone houses are still standing, and these gorgeous structures are unique to Kingston and the surrounding area; no other place in North America has anything like them. Most of these sturdy buildings are used as homes, offices and restaurants today, but they were once single rooms with lofts and were expanded and given facelifts over the years with additional rooms, Gothic gables and Victorian gingerbread trim. But the rustic limestone and mortar, which the settlers took straight from the fields, still catches the eye when you walk past. You can reach out and touch the simple elegance of these walls. If only these stones could talk, what would they say?
These stones saw the birth of the government of New York State in 1777, when Kingston was declared the first state capital and hosted the Senate, Assembly and Constitutional Convention. They also saw—and survived—the tragedy on October 16 of that year, when British troops invaded the area and torched over 300 homes and barns. The state government was forced to move out of Kingston, but the residents stayed and rebuilt the village. The ghosts of the joy and tragedy of the era still remain.
The 1658 Stockade District offers guided walking tours of this early Dutch settlement. On the first Saturday of each month, May through October, guided tours begin at the Friends of Historic Kingston Museum, 63 Main Street, at 2 pm (admission is $3 for adults and $2 for children under age 15). But let’s say you’re in the area during the week or on an off-season month and would like to explore the streets on your own. It’s a simple and enjoyable stroll through history (and there are some great modern things to see, too).
A day of “Living History” at Senate House State Historic Site. Photograph courtesy of Senate House State Historic Site
You could begin your walk anywhere, but a good place to start would be the Visitor’s Center in the northeast corner of the Stockade Area. Built in 1837 by Thomas Van Gaasbeek, the center is open May through October. Walking south along Clinton Avenue where the east wall of the stockade once ran, turn right on John Street, the southern boundary of the original stockade, then left on Fair Street and right on Main Street to walk by The Old Dutch Church cemetery. Here are the tombstones of some of the early settlers, many of the inscriptions in Dutch; here also is the grave of George Clinton, New York’s first governor. The Old Dutch Church, at 272 Wall Street, is the city’s oldest institution, the first congregation organized in 1659. Rebuilt in 1852, the Renaissance Revival style church holds the 1794 steeple bell from Amsterdam, made from molten copper and silver items given by families at baptismal rites. Also on Wall Street is the Ulster County Courthouse, rebuilt in 1818 after the British burned the original. The New York State Constitution was drafted here, George Clinton was sworn in as first Governor, and local slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth later sued and won her son’s freedom from slavery in Alabama.
Crossing Wall Street, you’ll see the Friends of Historic Kingston Museum and Fred J. Johnston Museum, which feature 18th and 19th century antiques, and local history and art exhibits. Here you can also pick up Kingston New York, The Architectural Guide, a comprehensive 205-page book, to help you in your stone sightings. These museums, however, are only open May through October, Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 4 pm; guided tours are $3 for adults and $2 for kids. Friends of Historic Kingston also host lectures by historians, authors and archaeologists, and features demonstrations such as blacksmithing, paper modeling and furniture making.
To continue your walking tour without guidance, here also on Main Street are the houses of Dr. Cornelius Elmendorf, Tobias Swart, Dr. James Elmendorf and Jacob Tremper. These early 1700s structures are good examples of those which have received facelifts and enlargements, but if you look closely, you can still see original stone.
Turning the corner right on Green and Crown Streets is the gorgeous Cornelius Tappen House, one of the oldest Stockade houses left standing. Once the home of George Clinton, the salt-box style house with its uncut and uncoursed stones is an example of a “rubble” house. Burned by the British in 1777, it still has some of the original windows. Also known as Kingston’s first post office, the Tappen House was slated for demolition in the 1970s, but the house was rescued by Heritage Savings Bank, who bought and restored the building. Also at this junction is the Henry Sleight House, built in the late 1600s and later enlarged. The rear of the house is the oldest, still retaining a bee hive oven and original Dutch doors. This building has been the headquarters of the Wiltwyck Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution since 1909. Across the street is the Judge Lucas Elmendorf House, a 21-room mansion with three cellars possibly used as living quarters for the slaves who built the house.
The corner of John and Crown Streets is called The Four Corners, simply because this is the only intersection in the United States where 18th century stone houses stand on all four corners. The Franz Roggen House (1752) at 42 Crown Street still has the original etched glass on the front door. A long narrow closet just above the entrance is said to have been a hiding place for slaves, and a large beam was once part of the local hanging scaffold. Across the street is Kingston Academy, New York State’s first two-year college, established in 1774. It is now a Mexican restaurant.
These are only a portion of the beautiful vintage buildings of the Stockade area which are rich with vibrant history. To continue the walking tour on your own, you might continue around Crown and Green Streets, or back to the Senate House museum, 296 Fair Street, to pick up some brochures and a map, or to take a guided tour of the Senate House itself, open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm.
Amidst the turmoil of the British invasion of 1777, New York’s first Senate met in one of the simple one-room Dutch-style stone houses, the home of merchant Abraham Van Gaasbeek, built in 1676. Here they adopted a system comprising of a senate, assembly and judiciary that still exists today. Succeeding owners enlarged the house, each change reflecting the increasing prosperity of the family. New York State acquired the property in 1887 and constructed the adjacent two-story museum in 1927. Today, the two structures exhibit a diverse collection of artifacts.
Inside the Senate House, which has gone through four building phases, you can see antique bullseye glass which was installed in the doors to help light the dim rooms. A colonial revival kitchen leads to a family room, then to a more formal living space where beautiful family portraits still hang. The largest room, the meeting place of the Senate, is filled with reproductions that visitors can handle. A stroll over to the museum reveals the works of historical portrait painter John Vanderlyn; here is the very first painting of an American nude (which Vanderlyn was eventually forced to paint clothing on), a portrait of George Washington and the first American paintings of Niagara Falls. In other areas of the museum are antique grandfather clocks and spinning wheels, the enormous pilot wheel from the 1861 Hudson River Steamboat Mary Powell, and many, many other beautiful treasures which have been donated by local residents over the years. Admission to the Senate House and museum is $4 for adults, $3 for groups and seniors and $1 for children.
The Jean Hasbrouck House in New Paltz. Photograph courtesy of the Huguenot Historical Society
If you’re a fan of the old stones and are excited to explore other stone house walking tours in the area, there are original villages in Hurley and New Paltz, which are also National Historic Districts whose streets are lined with 300-year old houses. Huguenot Street Historic District in New Paltz (www.hhs-newpaltz.org) is open May through October, Tuesdays through Sundays, from 10 am to 4 pm with guided tours. Their Colonial Street Festival, held the second Saturday in August at 18 Broadhead Avenue, New Paltz, opens landmark stone houses to the public; you may take your own walking tour starting at the Visitor Center on Huguenot Street. At the same location in October, a Haunted Huguenot Street walking tour takes place. The second Saturday in July is Hurley Stone House Day at 52 Main Street in Hurley; costumed guides lead you through eight of America’s oldest private homes from the 17th and 18th centuries; guided walking tours at other times are available through the Hurley Heritage Society (www.hurleyheritagesociety.org). And for fans of Kingston’s history, there’s a re-enactment of the 1777 Burning of Kingston held bi-annually in October (www.ci.kingston.ny.us).
These areas of Ulster County and their rough-hewn houses are some of America’s most unique landscapes. Don’t pass it by without a second glance. You may just return home with your own tales to tell.