This May, Uptown Kingston will see the relocation of The Tonner Doll Company to the former Chase bank building at the corner of Wall and Main, the opening of a new restaurant on North Front Street and the opening of a new bar, around the corner on John Street. Downtown, two new businesses have opened in the Rondout — a wine bar and leather tooling shop.
What’s spurring the activity are two trends: prices of buildings are getting low enough that they’re finding buyers, despite the onerous taxes, and committed landlords who care about Kingston are giving their tenants a break on the rent in order to bring in appealing new businesses.
“I think there’s no place like this,” said Robert Tonner, CEO of The Tonner Doll Company, standing in front of his new building at 301 Wall St. one recent rainy afternoon, as a workman carried a desk through the front door. “It’s a historic town, and it’s pretty intact,” said the former fashion designer, who lives in Stone Ridge. “People don’t know what they have. But it’s going to get discovered.”
The two other parties who have invested in Uptown and are about to open new businesses concur. “I’ve always loved the look of the area. I searched around and found a good deal on the building,” said Maria Philippis, owner of the new American bistro, Boitson’s, that’s about to open at 47 North Front. While “the taxes are scary, the building was still affordable,” she said, noting that she is renovating the apartment upstairs as a living space.
Around the corner, Giovanna Vis and her husband, Paul Maloney, are getting ready to open the Stockade Tavern at 313 Fair St. The tavern is being conceived as a low-key, classic “American drinking establishment” restoring the lost art of the cocktail, which never totally recovered from Prohibition, according to the couple.
The city’s historic ambience provides just the right setting, and its diverse population offers exactly the kind of clientele they hope to attract. “We’re excited about Kingston,” said Maloney. “We hope to get every type of person in the bar, from the politician to the drag queen to the bicycle kid.”
“We’d love to make the space more inclusive,” added Vis. “It’s for the construction worker and lawyer. We saw a niche.”
Tonner Doll’s new digs
The Tonner Doll Company, started 15 years ago in a rented room in Stone Ridge, was originally known for its fashion dolls. The company, which enjoys a global following, now also designs and manufactures a variety of character figures from films, combining the pop appeal of an action figure with the costuming of a fashion doll, said Tonner. started the business in a rented room in Stone Ridge 15 years ago. Acquiring the licensing rights for Harry Potter took the company to a new level, and today it sells dolls based on characters from many famous films, including Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland, and Twilight (the vampire doll from this film has proved to be a huge best-seller, said Tonner).
Tonner operated out of a loft at the Shirt Factory for years before renting space at a facility on Hurley Avenue, where he’s been the last seven years. He’s long been looking to buy a building. Two years ago, he outsourced the shipping to a company in Pennsylvania (the dolls are manufactured in China). That freed him to acquire a building with some charm, since he didn’t have to have a loading dock.
The granite and stone-faced bank building on Wall Street, originally built in the 1860s and retrofitted in the 1940s, fits the bill perfectly. The solid formality of the 10,000-square-foot building is appropriate for the headquarters of his successful, internationally known company; Tonner plans to install two planters along the front entrance. He is currently seeking a tenant for the first floor, a capacious space with a 1970s-era palette that is still lined with teller booths. “Ideally it will be a retailer. We want to bring more people to Kingston,” said Harris Safier, a broker at Westwood Metes & Bounds Realty who sold Tonner the building. “It’d make a cool modern furniture store or restaurant.”
The layout on the top two floors will accommodate Tonner’s staff of 20 employees with few alterations, besides a fresh coat of paint and new carpeting. The top floor will house his advertising and graphics department, along with a sculpting studio and office for his vice president. He is keeping the classic tile work and fixtures in the bathroom and the original speckled linoleum in what will be the kitchen (a find, he said). On the second floor, a large, light-filled room will serve as the studio for six designers. The long hallway will be hung with classic illustrations from Tonner’s collection. Opening up a door at the end, Tonner reveals the pièce de résistance: a posh, largely intact cherry-paneled office, which looks like it was taken from the Daily Planet.
The views from the building’s large, multi-pane windows (Tonner says eventually he’ll replace them with energy-efficient ones) reveal a stunning skyscape of rooftop pinnacles, slate mansard roofs, and other marvelous architectural details from the city’s heyday in the late 19th century. The location couldn’t be more convenient, with a choice of restaurants within walking distance, along with stores the company does business with: Robert Storm Photo, Catskill Art & Office Supply and Style Fabrics in Kingston Plaza. Given all these perks, the slight inconvenience in parking is a minor trade-off, he said.
Tonner is not a fan of the Pike Plan and points with dismay to the decaying column near his building’s entrance. He plans to repair it himself but says it’s a shame the “western colonial” arcade only serves to hide the “gorgeous” facades of so many classic 1920s and 1930s facades. At least one side of his building — along Main — is exposed. “I want to take this building and make it better. These buildings deserve to be preserved,” Tonner said.
An American bistro comes to North Front
Not many restaurant owners name their establishment after a former landlord, but then not many landlords are like Mr. Boitson. Maria Philippis grew up in the restaurant business and worked at the Rosendale Cement Company and the Locust Tree, in New Paltz, as well as restaurants in the city. Her landlord in Brooklyn always encouraged her to open her own place. When he died three years ago, he left her some money, and now she’s following his advice.
She’s hired Kipp Ramsey, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a native of Kentucky, as chef. The menu will lean toward American classics, such as steaks, hamburgers, and fried chicken, with mid-range prices and an emphasis on fresh, local produce. There will also be a raw bar, serving oysters, clams and shrimp. Ramsey worked at restaurants in the city and most recently at Mercado in Red Hook. He said the restaurant has joined several CSAs, to ensure a steady supply of fresh produce and reasonable prices. Philippis said Boitson’s will start out serving dinner five days a week. The restaurant also has a bar.
Boitson served in the Navy in World War II, and the décor of the restaurant, which is designed by Brian Early, takes its cue from that milieu. The nautical gray and navy blue woodwork and walls and thin marble tables set a tone that’s as earthy as a Brooklyn deli yet elegantly simple. Philippis, a former antique dealer, has graced her establishment with retro signs and artifacts from her collection. The delightful, frescoed artwork in the two bathrooms, painted by the artist Impala, were inspired by classic sailor’s tattoos. In the back, there’s a deck, which takes advantage of a mountain view few ever see. “It’s pretty cool,” Philippis said.
Philippis isn’t the only staff to relocate to Kingston. Ramsey and his girlfriend have moved into an apartment on Maiden Lane. “I love being able to walk to Elephant [the tapas bar on Wall Street],” he said. Impala, who is from New York City, has also moved up to the area and has been hired as bartender.
The return of the classic martini
Vis and Maloney live in High Falls, but they’ve been spending most of their time in Uptown Kingston over the past year renovating the bar, doing a lot of the work themselves to save money. (Vis’ father, who is an architect, did the finishing work.) Respectful of tradition, the couple have kept the original Tudor-style windows, reminiscent of a pub, and “S” Singer Sewing Machine Company logo on the door — an echo of the store that formerly occupied the space — along with the splendid coffered tin ceiling.
Vis and Maloney added the oak flooring, two built-in window banquettes (whose odd angles are a feat of carpentry), antique frosted-glass globe lights, and a striking original Federal mantel — rescued from Vis’s father’s barn — which is incorporated into shelving positioned along the copper-covered wall behind the bar. The tables have iron sewing-machine bases, and the iron treadles from the ancient machines decorate the back wall. “We wanted the bar to look like it’s been here for a long time,” said Maloney.
Landlord Don Johnson is an old friend of Vis’s family, and for the past two years, since the couple wed, he has been trying to persuade them to start the bar in partnership with himself. (Johnson has been eager to bring hip new businesses into Uptown and was also instrumental in persuading Anne Surprenant and her husband, Brian Early, to open the gallery that occupies the other half of the first floor of the building.)
Vis, who worked at a high-end catering firm in the city (she also holds a master’s in museum studies from Harvard University), and Maloney, a painter who has worked in a bar in Boston, eventually warmed up to the idea. A close friend who is a professional bartender involved in a bar in Boston called Drink, which serves drinks the way they were made in the 19th and early 20th centuries, has acted as informal consultant, getting them up to speed on how to properly make a cocktail, circa 1918 (before the Volstead Act became law in 1919).
It involves the nuances of shaking, stirring, hand-squeezing of fruit, and using the correct type of ice. The martinis and daiquiris that Hemingway drank were smaller, colder and more flavorful. The Stockade Tavern plans to open with a limited selection of drinks whose name you may know, but which perhaps you’ve never really tasted. It will also have four beers on tap, including Guinness stout, eight to 12 bottled beers, and six wines, plus a rosé and several sparkling wines, including Champagne, of course.
There won’t be a TV, at least not initially. The bar food will be limited but tasty: a pickle platter with a baked pretzel and whole grain mustard, sardines in the tin, Fleisher’s grilled sausage with a hot cherry pepper and a hunk of bread. The Stockade, expected to begin operation sometime in mid-May, will be open Thursday through Sunday, from 4 p.m. to midnight (until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday).
Mint and custom motorcycle seats
Two newcomers have also opened up shop in the Rondout. Mint, a tapas and wine bar at 1 West Strand, opened at the end of March. Co-owner Alessandra Tecchio, who also owns lower Broadway’s Dolce café, said business has been good. Indeed, on a recent weekend night, all the tables were full. The mint-green bar area resembles a comfortable lounge, with two black leather couches, while the dining area is painted a warm, adobe red. Tecchio and her siblings inherited the building from their late father and considered renting the space, but the rent was too high to attract a tenant. So Techhio decided to open a business herself.
The beautifully presented food is Mediterranean and consists of ten tapas dishes and five desserts, ranging from $3 to $12. Sample dishes include prosciutto on homemade focaccia with fig conserve (figs carmelized with onions in balsamic vinegar), a kale or white bean bruschetta, and a cheese fondue, with ham, bread, and fruit. There’s also a chocolate fondue, with berries, pound cake, pretzels, and macaroons. Mint serves a selection of French, Italian, and Argentine wines, and occasionally features live music. It’s open Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday from 5 to 11 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to midnight.
Around the corner, a 1962 blue Vespa scooter and Triumph motorcycle in the window of the small storefront at 25 Broadway are attracting attention. Pirate Upholstery specializes in custom motorcycle seats, and while owner Jay Teska does most of his business from afar — he works with Vespa dealers from all over the country, and deals with a clientele centered around the hipster-dense metropolitan New York City area — he is getting some walk-ins. “People buy these things and put it in the garage and forget about it, and no one up here knows how to fix it,” he said.
Teske, a former tattoo artist who is originally from Staten Island, also does leather tooling. He makes handsome leather bags that fit on the back of a motorcycle and repairs briefcases and purses. He’s open from nine to five Monday through Fridays and does appointments.
Teske and his wife left the city three years ago and were living in Gardiner — Teske’s shop was located in New Paltz — but they missed urban living. Kingston represents the perfect compromise — relatively relaxed, compared to the Big Apple, but with walkable shopping areas near home. They are renovating the apartment upstairs and plan to move in over the summer. Teske said the Rondout business community has been extremely friendly and welcoming.
“I love the old buildings, the history, and the architecture. I love being close to the water,” Teske said. “I’d love to get a sailboat and sail around on the Hudson.”