But now, that history is more that just a generic retelling whose hazy lineaments lack connection with the here and now. Two museums-in-the-making, one located in Uptown, the other in the Rondout, are allowing people to get closer to Kingston’s past.
Both buildings and their locations are historically significant and each beautifully complements the other: The 1661 Matthewis Persen House, located at the corner of John and Crown, touches on Kingston’s colonial origins and demonstrates how a house built by a 17th-century Dutch surgeon from New Amsterdam was expanded and adapted to new uses through the centuries, mirroring the area’s economic shifts. The Reher Bakery, a decades-long family business that survives nearly intact, provides a compelling window into the pre-Urban Renewal Rondout. Visiting both sites, one’s sense of Kingston’s many-layered past takes on dimension, texture and personality, as if one were rummaging in a distant ancestor’s attic.
In each case, budgetary constraints haven’t yet allowed for a full restoration, but the conceptual approach that resulted instead provides a fascinating experience. Each works as a kind of stage set for the drama of time, presented as a fluid continuum in one case and a prolonged moment in the other. Dedicated volunteers spearheaded and continue to support the preservation, creating the exhibitions and allowing public access.
The Matthewis Persen House, which is named for its longest occupant, is located at the only intersection in the U.S. with four pre-Revolutionary War houses on each corner and is one of the very few Dutch colonial houses still standing. (A stockade post hole was also discovered under the dirt floor, although it doesn’t correspond to the line of the actual stockade.) After being acquired by the county in 1914, the Persen housed government offices — most recently the Cornell Cooperative Extension — before being closed in 1999 due to structural instability.
The county subsequently invested $2.06 million in its restoration, of which the first step was obtaining a historic structure report on the house by architect Ken Barricklo. The house opened to the public in 2006 under the auspices of Friends of Historic Kingston, with FHK volunteers providing free tours. This year, it’s being operated by the county, with tours conducted by two paid interns. The county is also partnering with various historical organizations. Last Saturday, for example, a couple of red-coated historical re-enactors from the 16th Light Dragoons were on the premises, and this Saturday the Hurley Historical Society will give tours and host a display of its materials.
The house is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. until Labor Day and on Saturdays through the weekend before Thanksgiving. County Clerk Nina Postupack said the county eventually hopes to have the site federally accredited as a museum, which would qualify it for federal grants; part of the requirement is keeping it open a certain number of days to the public each year.
Postupack said at least 624 people visited the site from May 29 through July 3 this year. Ulster County archivist Ken Gray, a trustee at the FHK who has conducted free tours, said the Persen House “seems to appeal to a broad cross section of ages. Young people like the Native American artifacts and cannon balls. People who live down the street had never been in the house before and are amazed by the scale. People who live in stone houses like it because they get to peer behind the walls and ceilings.” The site has also attracted foreigners, including visitors from the Netherlands, France, Germany and Australia, he said.
Thousands of bits of the past
Glass cases on the first floor display copies of deeds and a sampling of the 20,000 artifacts that were found during an archaeological dig conducted by Joseph Diamond, professor at SUNY New Paltz, during the restoration. They include thimbles, buttons, buckles, straight pins (dropped between the floorboards in quantities by two tailors who occupied the house in the 18th-century), fragments of pottery and Delft tiles and rusted Revolutionary War-era cannonballs.
One of the rarest items is a metal bodkin, a hair accessory worn by Dutch and Flemish women that went out of fashion in the late 17th century. Native American projectiles, dating from 1700 BC to 1720 AD, and trade beads are also on display, as are numerous fragments of clay smoking pipes. (Two of the pipe makers have been identified. One, based in Amsterdam, was active from the late 17th to the early 18th centuries.)
Interns Jill Overbaugh and Charles Van Benschoten gave this writer a tour through the building, which was constructed in five phases. Architectural drawings in each of the sections show how the house grew like Topsy, with roofs, walls, stairways, doors and even fireplaces being uprooted and shifted over the years. Openings in walls and a floating platform on the second floor in one area enable visitors to get a sense of how the house evolved.
Wide floorboards bowed by time, hefty beams — many original — handsome paneling beneath the windows, Federal-style mantels, skinny Dutch-made bricks and other details immediately place one back in Kingston’s agrarian past, when sloops transported grain grown in the fields and ground in local mills to New York down the Hudson and the lands west of the Hurley ridge were a dark, wolf-populated wilderness.
Phase 1, nestled at the corner of Crown and John, has a foundation dating from 1661. The original wood-frame building, which had a cellar and loft, was torched by Esopus Indians in 1663 after a series of skirmishes with the Dutch settlers. They captured Rachel Van Imbroch, the wife of owner Gysbert, a surgeon and barber. (She was later returned.) The house was rebuilt in stone, and the English-style hearth came later.
Phase 2 is the adjoining room along Crown Street, part of a two-story stone 1698 addition. It served as the apothecary and grocery store of Dr. John Goodwin in the mid-1800s; a fragment of the French wallpaper that papered Goodwin’s shop can be seen over a doorway. A bottle of arsenic that was found in the adjoining kitchen was identified as having been bought at the pharmacy of C.S. Clay in the mid 19th-century (a small exhibit contains photos of both bottle and pharmacy, which occupied a nearby stone building tattooed with advertisements).
Phase 3 was originally occupied by a barn that adjoined the Phase 2 addition, later replaced by a kitchen and scullery. The dirt floor here was the site of the archaeological excavation (one stands on a suspended wooden floor in this part of the house). It’s three feet lower than the current street level, indicating the shift in ground elevation over the last three centuries. The archaeologist identified two burn layers in the soil, one dating from the Esopus conflagration and the other from the burning of Kingston by the British in 1777. A reproduction brick jambless Dutch fireplace, such as probably existed in the original building, has been built in the space, its brick hooded form rising gracefully to the second floor.
Phase 4 consists of the large, two-story section along John Street, which was built in 1735 by Cornelius Persen and his brother Adam. The Persen brothers lived and operated their tailor shop in the building. The second-story portion, a ballroom-size room with ample windows, later became a tavern after Cornelius’ son Matthewis inherited the building. Strangely, the exposed beams, shaped with an axe, are scrawny, crude and of varied size. Historians speculate the shoddy workmanship is due to the haste with which the colonists had to rebuild after the October 1777 burning by the British, due to the imminent arrival of winter.
To shore up the roof, which threatened to collapse in 1999 thanks to the substandard beams — though they did hold up for more than 200 years — the architectural restorers constructed an ingenious steel cradle that supports the beams and roof. An opening at one end of the room exposes a portion of the original 18th-century shingled roof of the Phase 2 building. Two ancient valleys — a kind of open gutter running off the roof — are also revealed, one carved out of a tree trunk.
Fast forward almost two centuries to Phase 5, a two-story brick extension added by the county in 1922. Glass display counters on the second floor display more artifacts, including a mid 19th-century man’s leather shoe (the square toe and low heel retain a swaggering panache), a pair of deerskin moccasins, animal bones, old newspapers and a couple of faded 20th-century post cards. An elegant molding affixed to what was once the outer wall of Phase 4 provides a sense of the building’s appearance in the early 19th-century. In addition, a lighter portion of the stone wall indicates the presence of a shed or other long-gone structure that protected it from the weather.
Time warp back to a lost Rondout
Like the Persen House, the Reher Bakery preserves the home, store and production center of a family business, but its context is the first three quarters of the 20th century, following the transformation of the Kingston economy by numerous waterfront industries and garment manufacturing. Frank Reher, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, started the business in 1908. It passed down to his seven children, who operated it until the late 1970s. His youngest son, Hymie, deeded the property to the Jewish Federation of Ulster County, Inc. (UCJF) in 2004, shortly before he died.
It’s probably the only building left in Rondout with an original, pre-Urban Renewal store interior, complete with wooden cabinets, iron columns, huge oven, metal baskets, two enormous wooden dough-rising troughs with lids, loaf pans, bread cutter, racks, barrels, a scale with weights, a Camel ad, metal lifesaver holders, even the original paper bags. Hymie, who lived upstairs in the apartment where he grew up, occasionally baked rolls in his store up until the 1980s, so the furnishings and fixtures span nearly 75 years. “Here we have at least one interior that’s preserved as well as the exterior,” said Geoffrey Miller, a retired teacher and local historian who chairs the committee at the UCJF overseeing the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History, as the project is officially called.
The corner building dates from the 1880s and was originally occupied by James Van Buren, a purveyor of leather, tallow and wool (the wooden cabinets may have been installed by him). The production area is located in an adjacent building, which is connected to the store by an interior door and has an enormous loft on the second floor. Miller, who first recognized the Reher Bakery’s historic value and was instrumental in its acquisition by the UCJF, said what started out as a Jewish history project has become something bigger. Miller envisions the site as “a cultural center that speaks to the whole community and the development of Rondout from the point of view of immigration.”
The UCJF has obtained two state grants totaling $625,000, but a portion of the money has been frozen due to the state budget crisis, delaying the planned restoration. The UCJF has also collected $60,000 in private donations, as well as two $10,000 community development black grants, which paid for the storefront renovation in 2008. Miller said the bulk of the remaining money will be spent on structural repairs and exterior renovation, including doors and windows, roof reconstruction, and masonry and foundation stabilization. The building has been empty since Hymie died and has slowly been deteriorating, with paint peeling from the ceiling and cracks in the plaster walls.
After basic repairs are made, Miller hopes to restore the bakery and the store along with one of the two upstairs apartments, re-creating the typical living quarters of the shopkeepers who once predominated in the area. The second apartment would become a library and office. There would also be spaces for workshops and exhibits. The UCJF has hired Albany-based preservation architect Marilyn Kaplan, who has drawn up preliminary plans.
While the renovation has stalled, Miller, who worked on a dissertation while a graduate student at New York University on pre Civil War music in the Hudson Valley and has spent years researching Rondout history, has been nonetheless moving ahead. He installed historic photos and two exhibits downstairs and opened the bakery to the public during the Kingston Time Festival in early June; it’s now accessible by appointment (call 338-8131).
The details of history
In the store, beveled cutting boards, wire bread racks, a brown paper roll, two barrels, a rack of yellowed old Daily Freeman papers from the mid-1990s, wooden crates, pencil nubs and other sundry items are coated in dust. All the equipment in the adjacent bakery is intact, as if waiting for Hymie’s ghost to get back to business. Miller researched the equipment and made some interesting discoveries: the large Triumph dough mixer was bought in 1947 — the bill of sale is on display — but utilizes a design that was featured in a 1916 edition of trade publication Bakers Review. Reviewing Bakers Reviews dating from the same period on-line shed light on the enormous Bennett oven; Miller found an ad depicting an identical contraption that lauded the oven’s portability. The interior lights of the oven still work, and a yank on the rubber handles, shaped like mallets, still flips open the doors. Coal, which powered the oven before it was converted to gas, was stored in a rear room.
Blow-ups of two circa-1890 photos of Rondout, taken from Jack Matthews’ collection, hang on the walls, providing a vivid bird’s-eye view of the huge chunk of town that was torn down. The two exhibits further locate the visitor in the vanished city. “Intersections” pairs now-and-then photos of a number of sites pre and post Urban Renewal, enabling one to envision the dandy buildings that once occupied today’s vacant lots and sites of depressingly ugly modern structures. We glimpse the Orpheum Theater, a brick pile with a bracketed gabled roof that once loomed across the street from the Reher Bakery; rows of crowded storefronts that once lined East Strand and lower Hasbrouck Avenue where the arterial highway now roars; elephants marching up Broadway in a circus parade. Other photos show men in a rowboat navigating the flooded Strand and the intersection of Strand and Ferry in the 1920s, with jazzy electric signs and trolley tracks intact.
The second exhibit evokes Rondout as it was in 1914, with maps of several main thoroughfares indicating the locations and names of businesses, compiled from the 1914 city business directory. Interior shots of shops, taken from Kingston historian Edwin Ford’s collection of glass negatives at the Friends of Historic Kingston, accompany the map. There are men in bowlers hanging out in saloons, barbers at the ready, a boot black, and a lineup of tailors posing on their annual picnic. What a richly scented and sound-tracked world it must have been, a bazaar as exotic as the Kasbah: strolling down East Strand, one passed a tinsmith, plumbing supply store, shops selling shoes, carpets, coffee, oil cloth, tobacco and fruit, a “Lyric Theater,” confectionary, watchmaker, photographer and milliner.
Upstairs, Hymie’s apartment is pretty much the same as it was when he died, with deco-style linoleum on the kitchen floor and a stove at least 60 years old. A toilet was added on the second floor landing for the store workers, and a cupboard holding dishes for Passover, which tradition holds can’t be stored in one’s dwelling, is crammed into an odd exterior hallway running along the far side of the apartment. The high ceilings and large windows lend a pleasant airiness to this apartment and the one above it, but the drabness of the furnishings signified a way of life predicated on hard work, religious observance, and presumably simple pleasures.
“We have a treasure here,” said Miller. “This building is part of the golden age of Rondout. If a building could represent what happened here, it’s this one.”