FHK is pleased to feature these articles authored by Dr. William B. Rhoads, Professor Emeritus of Art History, SUNY New Paltz, and author of “Kingston New York: The Architectural Guide” and “Ulster County, New York: The Architectural History and Guide.” Dr. Rhoads serves on the Board of Directors of Friends of Historic Kingston. These selections appeared previously in the “Kingston Times.”
The American Legion Building on West O’Reilly Street
Aubrey Arnst graduated from Kingston High School on June 28, 1917, after enlisting in Company M, the local unit of the National Guard, earlier that month. Shortly after Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, which marked the end of the war, Kingstonians were told that Arnst had been killed September 29 on a French battlefield, as had his high school “chum,” John Joyce. Four other “boys” from Kingston High School died in the war that took the lives of more than 116,000 American soldiers and sailors. Kingston historian William C. DeWitt estimated that there were some 80 casualties from the city and Ulster County.
American veterans of the war founded the American Legion in Paris early in 1919. Kingston veterans lost no time in organizing and the American Legion held its first meeting in Kingston in July 1919. That November saw the unveiling of a bronze World War I Honor Roll Tablet on Broadway in front of City Hall with hundreds of names of those who served. But Kingstonians who died in the war were to be more fittingly memorialized in the American Legion Building first proposed in 1920, built in 1925, opened in 1926, and standing today at 18 West O’Reilly Street, just off Broadway and around the corner from the High School and City Hall, the civic center of Kingston. The Daily Freeman observed in May 1925 “that the project of erecting the American Legion Memorial Building has made a deep impression on the people of Kingston,” and in 2012 it deserves to be better known than it is.
Mayor Morris Block headed the Citizens’ Committee in 1925 to raise funds for the new building, and within a year fund-raising and construction were completed, thanks to the efforts of World War I veterans and the enthusiastic support of Spanish-American War veterans and other patriotic Kingstonians. (The cost of the building, including its 50 by 100-foot site, was $35,000.) At the building’s dedication in 1926 its “Colonial architecture” was said to be “in keeping with the history of the city of Kingston which has long been known as the Old Colonial Town.” The Colonial design had been contributed in 1922 by Charles Schoonmaker Keefe (1876-1946), architect, Kingston native, and veteran of the Spanish- American War. Charles Keefe was motivated to push the project partly because his half-brother Robert, a flyer in the Aviation Corps in France in 1918, suffered head injuries in a plane crash and was described as “a total disability of the World War.” Architect Keefe’s specialty was residential design; among the best of his Kingston houses is one planned in the Tudor style in 1926 for a past commander and chairman of the Legion’s building committee, Stanley J. Matthews, at 61 Lounsbery Place.
Keefe drew several schemes for the Legion building–those that survive in the Keefe archive at the Friends of Historic Kingston are dated May 16, 1924, through March 1925. The end result was a plain, red-brick exterior enhanced by a white Colonial portico of four slender columns with simple Doric capitals, triangular pediment, and delicate cornice. The light gracefulness of the portico stemmed from the Federal style of American architecture around 1810, which was accepted by architects of the 1920s as within the broadly defined “Colonial period.” Architecture from the Colonial period was understood to be distinctly American, free from the taint of foreign cultures, and therefore perfectly suited to use by patriotic Americans.
As a memorial building, it was appropriate that the entrance hall should feature a bronze memorial tablet, designed by Keefe and cast by the Gorham Company, set in a marble panel. While not listing the names of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the World War, the tablet did state that the building was “Erected by Kingston Post 150, American Legion and Patriotic Friends in Memory of Those Who Gave Their All for Freedom and Democracy. November 11, 1925.” Further, the tablet quoted lines from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, among them: “from these honored dead we take increased devotion to the cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion.” The memorial and patriotic functions of the plaque were emphasized by a wreath and American eagle, as well as crossed swords and the emblem of the American Legion, all in bronze. Below the tablet, a bronze vase rested on a marble shelf.
In the 1920s many Americans felt that World War memorials should not simply be monuments but should also serve some useful function. The Commander of the Kingston Post, George W. Potter, in seeking funds for construction of the building, argued that for the post “to render its maximum public service it must have a home of its own, where it can create and foster among its membership, as during the war, an atmosphere of self-sacrifice and service for the common good.” Legionnaires had helped families bring back the bodies of those who died overseas, and, according to Dr. Fred Snyder, a physician and Legionnaire, the local post obtained “hospitalization and vocational training for sick and wounded veterans. . . . The American Legion, and the American Legion only, is the big brother of the disabled veteran. . . . Without the American Legion to prepare and present their claims to the Veterans’ Bureau at Washington, the disabled would be out of luck.” Disabled veterans who could not find employment or qualify for government assistance had in the Legion a source of funds for food, clothing, and shelter for themselves and their families.
The American Legion, though its Americanism Committee, also saw itself has a source of patriotic education, teaching school children the proper use and display of the flag, and teaching adults who were new citizens both the privileges and duties of citizenship. Conrad J. Heiselman, chairman of the Americanism Committee and later a Republican mayor of Kingston, further emphasized the Legion’s role in “fighting radicalism” in the person of “reds” or Bolshevics. Heiselman assured potential donors that “This Memorial Building will not be a lounging room. It will be Kingston’s Service Station, from whence will come words, thoughts, influences and actions that will be 100 per cent American, for God and country.” These last four words found their way to the cornerstone, also inscribed with the date 1925.
Still, the building would serve Legion members as a Prohibition-era clubhouse, and while some described two of the main rooms on the first floor as trophy and reading rooms, others called them a “lounging room” (with “comfortable chairs . . . and a large open fireplace”) and a “reading or card room” (now functioning as the bar room). A magnificent framed drawing, “Columbia Gives to Her Son the Accolade of the New Chivalry of Humanity,” signed and dated 1919 by Edwin Howland Blashfield has long hung over the fireplace mantle of the “lounging room,” later renamed the Hamilton Fish Colonial Room after the Dutchess County congressman who served in World War I as an officer leading black troops. This original drawing represents the female personification of Columbia bestowing knighthood on a kneeling American soldier with the stars and stripes billowing in the background. Lithographic reproductions of the drawing, including the signature of Woodrow Wilson, were individually inscribed with the names and units of those who died or were wounded in the service of their country. The drawing was given to the Kingston post in 1927 by Mrs. Agnes Quackenbush, widow of Colonel Gerrit V. S. Quackenbush and formerly of Troy. On the second floor was a kitchen and an assembly room that could be divided by sliding doors for use by the men of the post and the ladies auxiliary formed in 1921. In October 1925 Keefe drew suggested furniture layouts for the “Ladies Room” next to their assembly room, as well as for the first floor lounging room.
In the 1920s it was believed that membership in the American Legion would be limited to veterans of the World War, and so after their passing the building would “become city property, for use as a community center, historical building, or whatever is decided best at that time.” Kingston’s last World War I veteran, former mayor John Schwenk, died in 2000 at age 101. However, in 1942 veterans of World War II became eligible to join the American Legion, and today the American Legion Building on West O’Reilly Street continues to serve its original functions. Readers interested in an excellent, comprehensive history of the post should consult MEMORIES OF YESTERYEAR: KINGSTON POST NO. 150, AMERICAN LEGION by Joseph E. Sills, Jr.
William B. Rhoads
“A Very Pretty Frame House”?
The Trumbull-Amacher House on Marius Street by Arthur Crooks
At 80 Marius Street, a block away from busy Washington Avenue, stands, precariously, what was planned in 1876 as one of Kingston’s finest houses. Built for John H. Trumbull, it was designed in a fashionable, freely interpreted Gothic style by Arthur Crooks, architect of the newly completed City Hall. In recent years, however, the house has received minimal maintenance, and today it reminds onlookers of a decaying house drawn by Charles Addams with spectral overtones. Prospects for its preservation seem dim, but admirers of the house have not abandoned hope.
Crooks’s drawing of the house, published in the American Builder in December 1876 as “a very pretty frame house” and brought to light by historian Annon Adams, shows crisply defined patterns of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal boards making up the walls while horizontal bands in the steeply sloping roof indicate alternating dark and light slates. The Gothic style is suggested in the angular arches of the porch and the vertical thrust of the polygonal turret at the left, as well as the high roof with its prominent dormer windows, finials, and chimneys.
Architect Crooks, after serving as a draftsman for the great Gothic Revival church architect Richard Upjohn, built his own successful practice in New York City. Crooks had designed Kingston’s City Hall (1873-75) for the newly formed city government using the richly colored and ornamented Gothic of Italy: the original tower (before a fire and rebuilding in the 1920s) was modeled after that of the Palazzo Vecchio, or town hall, of Florence. The colorful Italian Gothic was also employed by Crooks in designing St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Rosendale (1875-76), an important and well-preserved example of the revived Gothic in church architecture. The original colors of the Trumbull house’s walls are not known, but a 1907 photo shows the X- patterned boards in a dark color, therefore resembling Gothic half-timbering against the lighter colored horizontal boards reminiscent of plaster in old Gothic half-timbering. The interior trim of the house, when viewed in November 2009, exhibited few of the ornamental flourishes that the exterior might imply were within.
Little is known about owner John H. Trumbull. In 1877 he was among a large group of Kingstonians planning to observe the centennial of the founding of state government. He was deceased when his property was advertised for sale in 1881 in The New York Times as well as the Kingston Daily Freeman. The grounds of “about 8 acres or more” were described as “under fine cultivation” with an “abundance of choice fruit and shade trees.” From the “beautiful suburban location on Golden Hill,” there was said to be a “magnificent view of the famed Esopus Valley, the Catskills, and Shandaken Mountains.” Today this view is hard to imagine from Marius Street, part of a compact neighborhood of modest houses.
Trumbull’s widow, Sarah M. Trumbull, still resided in the house in 1899. In 1922 it was occupied by Volney Mason, a machinist. By 1931 Mrs. Adele Mason operated a “lodging house” there, and in 1977 Mrs. Adele V. Turner provided “furnished rooms.” However, early in the present century it was the residence of Maryanne Amacher (1938-2009), a well-known experimental composer and sound installation artist. In the 1970s Amacher collaborated with John Cage and composed for choreographer Merce Cunningham; beginning in 2000, she taught electronic music at Bard College. While her friends are creating an archive of her work, admirers of Crooks’ design and Amacher’s artistry have not as yet succeeded in preserving the distinctive house on Marius Street.
William B. Rhoads
A Romantic Ruin in Ponckhockie
Explorers of Uptown Kingston are familiar with the ruinous colonial-era house on Frog Alley, just off busy North Front Street. Its stone walls, windowless and unroofed, stand (thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Friends of Historic Kingston) as tangible reminders of the early builders of the settlement. At the other end of the city, in Ponckhockie, stands a more mysterious ruin shrouded in summer-time vegetation at the dead end of little-traveled Yeomans Street. Its high concrete facade looks vaguely like a church, but in fact it was built about 1870 as a mule barn for the Newark Lime & Cement Manufacturing Company, Kingston’s “largest manufacturing establishment” in 1880. The company provided cement for U.S. fortifications, the Croton waterworks, and other projects across the country and even in South America.
In the 1840s the company quarried stone (“cement rock”) from the hill known as the Vleightbergh (Hasbrouck Park Hill) overlooking the Rondout Creek, but processed the stone into cement in Newark. Then in 1850 it began construction of a plant extending from its Rondout Creek wharves to its quarries tunneled into the hillside. The 1871 Ulster County Business Directory reported that the works produced over 225,000 barrels a year and consisted of “twenty-one kilns for burning the stone, two mill buildings in which are fourteen runs of 3-feet stones” (for grinding), as well as storehouses and various shops. Our ruin would have been one of the “commodious barns for storing hay and other crops of the farm, with extensive stables connected.” The facade of the barn is clearly pictured in the lithographic print of the company’s works published in the 1875 County Atlas of Ulster. The artist also included a mule or horse pulling two carts joined together on what must have been railway tracks linking the quarries with the tops of the kilns. In 1880 the stable room quartered 30 horses or mules.
The barn itself demonstrated through its concrete walls the structural and decorative possibilities of the company’s product, as did the Children’s Church (1870; now the Ponckhockie Congregational Church) nearby on Abruyn Street designed by J. A. Wood for the benefit of the families of company workers. At the barn, the windows and central doorway are distinguished with Gothic-style drip moldings intended to divert water from openings below. The narrow centerpiece at the top of the facade indicates that a monitor roof once rose above the broad lower slopes of the roof, as in factories of the time. However, the wide central doorway, Gothic moldings, and vertical accent atop the facade call up images of church architecture.
The making of lime and cement continued here through the end of the 19th century. A c. 1896 photo by R. Lionel DeLisser shows two men at work “in the mines,” a cave-like quarry, and the New York Times (Nov. 18, 1896) reported that the “plant” was working at “utmost capacity.” But Kathy Burton has found that depressed business conditions caused the closing of themanufactory in the winter of 1905, affecting nearly 200 families.
Some 20 years after the closing, local residents purchased and found a new and unexpected use for the aging mule barn, whose address was given as East Union Street. In August 1927 Emanuel Baptist Church, an African American congregation (then described as “colored”), prepared the ground or basement level of the building as temporary quarters for the church. At the same time ambitious plans were announced, drawn by young Kingston architect Augustus Schrowang, to turn the structure into “an up to date religious and social center” (Kingston Daily Freeman August 26, 1927). Architecturally, this meant transforming the slightly ornamented barn into a proper church in the Gothic Revival style. The front of the building would be altered with gracefully pointed Gothic arches rising over the doorway (fitted with Gothic hinges) and over three upper windows (fitted with Gothic tracery and stained glass). Internally the basement would become a social room with kitchen, toilet and boiler rooms. An entrance vestibule would lead upstairs to the main church auditorium (48 feet by 66 feet) seating 600, with a gallery above seating an additional 200. This effort to create a handsome “Religious and Social Center” for Emanuel Baptist Church was led by its pastor, the Rev. Charles H. King, described as “an earnest worker” in raising $2,250 in his eleven months in the city. The building committee was headed by white men: the chairman was the Rev. Charles B. Smith, pastor of the Wurts Street Baptist Church, and the treasurer was Frank Matthews, a prominent Kingston businessman.
In 2011 the door and window openings of the facade remain as they were for the mule barn: it would have been very difficult to rework the thick concrete walls. There is no roof, and no indication of how the interior was revamped for the church’s use. The only clear sign of the church’s presence is a broken and weathered segment of the cornerstone inscribed with the church’s and King’s names and the church’s founding date, 1926. The church was listed in city directories at this site (155 or 157 East Union Street) from 1931 through 1950. In 1951 its address is given as 229 East Strand, which today and for many years has been the location of the New Central Baptist Church.
Ruined castle walls are preserved as romantic artifacts abroad, and efforts are underway to preserve the crumbling walls of Bannerman’s Castle, the early 20th-century armaments warehouse in the Hudson River. A ruin associated with a key local industry, using a material not widely adopted by architects anywhere at the time, and a landmark in the history of Kingston’s African American community–there are a whole host of reasons why these walls, resonant with so much history, deserve preservation.
194 West Chestnut Street
Today the home of Taylor and Elizabeth Thompson at 194 West Chestnut Street is a beautifully maintained residence on an elevated site with a splendid view of the Rondout Creek and Hudson River. The clapboard and shingle-walled house was designed in 1886 by famed architect Calvert Vaux, once the partner of tastemaker Andrew Jackson Downing and later co-designer with Frederick Law Olmsted of New York’s Central Park. Vaux’s client was Frank H. Griffiths, a flour and feed merchant in Rondout who apparently built the house a few years after its 1886 design. In the early 20th century it was the part-time residence of Griffiths’ daughter Anna and her husband Arthur Frederick Sheldon, founder of a highly successful business school in Chicago, as well as a leader of Rotary International. Their daughter Helen Sheldon inherited the house and occupied it until her death in 1976.
In the 1970s the house fell into disrepair and its prospects for survival were dim. Then in October 1977 it was put up for sale and when Elizabeth Thompson saw it, she was smitten by the spacious interior with its ornately embellished staircase and pair of fireplaces. As her husband Taylor recalls: “It was love at first sight.
Elizabeth had her own interior design business and was looking for an old house to restore. The house had not been lived in for two years and when Taylor first saw it with its overgrown yard, shuttered windows, peeled paint, drooping porch and scattered broken furniture, he gulped and asked Elizabeth, ”Why do you want this house?” She had already outlined what she wanted to do, so he says he did what any good husband would do — closed his eyes and said, “‘Okay, if you want it!”
The purchase was accomplished with the encouragement of realtor Bill Daron and Florence Cordts, friend of Helen Sheldon and executor of her estate. Miss Cordts, who resided in Ponckhockie in her family’s impressively towered and mansarded house (dated 1873) with its own magnificent river view, was firmly opposed to selling the property to the owner of the former Edward Coykendall mansion next door, which had been disfigured by the addition of modern apartments.
As Taylor recounts, Elizabeth set about getting it into shape to move in. It took one year. The plumbing and electrical wiring that was originally in the house had been ripped out by vandals to sell for copper scrap. The only heating system was a huge coal-burning furnace, so the house had to betotally plumbed, re-wired and a new heating system installed. Then Elizabeth restored the kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms and beautiful wood floors, and Taylor says, “We moved in for about 20 years of continuous restoration.” In fact, improvements to the building, its furnishings, and the landscaped grounds have never stopped.
The house as originally designed by Vaux (his authorship is confirmed by entries in the diary of his brother-in-law, Jervis McEntee, the well-regarded landscape painter whose home was nearby) was large and commodious. Today there are 18 rooms on three floors but externally the house is a fairly austere example of what is called the Shingle Style. The walls of clapboard below and decoratively patterned shingles in the four gables above are flat with few projecting elements. A bay or oriel window stood out from both the West Chestnut Street facade and the opposite façade facing the RondoutCreek. A small balcony projected from the right side of the street facade, but it was collapsing in 1977. Elizabeth removed it and slightly shifted a nearby window to achieve a more symmetrical street front, while enriching this front by adding a balcony to what had been a simple oriel. A more significant alteration was the replacement of the modest porch at the east end of the house, where the main entrance was originally located, with an enclosed, screened terrace. The stone mounting block, carved with Griffiths’ name and now also with the Thompsons’, has been moved to the curving driveway from West Chestnut installed by the Thompsons. This driveway leads to the “Carriage House,” designed by Elizabeth in a style compatible with Vaux’s, and to the house’s current main entrance, formerly the basement service entrance.
The house has a rectangular floor plan, with the principal living and bedrooms mostly on the long side facing the panorama of the Rondout Creek and Hudson River, a view similar to Jervis McEntee’s from the studio-house (1853-54) Vaux designed for him a short distancet to the east. Designing a house for Griffiths on a hill oriented to the Rondout and Hudson view, Vaux placed the main entrance around the corner from the creek and river front–something he had done more dramatically at Frederic Church’s Olana. A hint of Olana’s bold coloration can even be found in the red-tinted glass of the arched window lighting the Griffiths staircase–a larger yellow-tinted window colors the north light falling on Olana’s grand staircase.
Many of Vaux’s houses, both in Rondout and elsewhere, have not survived. McEntee’s studio is long gone. Vanished too are the houses of Walter B. Crane on Grove Street and Albert Terry on Broadway, as well as Samuel Coykendall’s West Chestnut Street mansion. Fortunately Elizabeth and Taylor Thompson had the vision and creativity to bring 194 West Chestnut Street back to life during a time when few had the courage to undertake such an ambitious preservation project, which received a 2011 Preservation Award from the Friends of Historic Kingston.