From 17th-century stone houses to Gilded Age mansions to Arts and Crafts artists’ studios to a drive-in movie theater and one-of-a-kind “Junk Castle,” Ulster County’s architecture doesn’t lack for variety, rustic charm or historic interest. Leafing through Ulster County, New York: The Architectural History & Guide – hot off the press and written by William Rhoads, a retired professor of Art History at SUNY-New Paltz – one travels not just through time but through cross-sections of social history. Rhoads is as captivated by simple country churches as he is of lavishly ornamented commercial buildings in town, and describes John Burroughs’ famous rustic cabin Slabsides with the same relish as he does the rambling estate of landscape painter George Inness, Jr. (son of the even-more-famous landscape painter George Inness, Sr.). More than just a description of his stone, clapboard or brick subjects, his entries are enlivened by the rich cast of characters who strode through the county’s three centuries of history and made a lasting imprint on its building styles.
While former architectural guides to the region tend to have a narrow focus (stone houses, Hudson River estates), Rhoads delights in the eclectic. He is a wonderful tour guide, pointing out what’s unique or distinctive about a site and quoting from historical sources, often with an emphasis on the ironic or humorous. Despite his professorial background, Rhoads eschews an academic approach, basing many of his selections on personal discoveries that he made on serendipitous road trips taken with his wife Sally. That sense of adventure, combined with his astute attention to the contextual and graceful, easygoing prose, makes for a fun read, even if you aren’t an architecture buff.