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Kingston NY: An Historic Hotspot on the Hudson

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WHY GO: It’s hip, it’s hot, it’s contemporary, it’s historic. Kingston NY was the center of New York Government for several months, a key coal shipping port, and place where former slave, Sojourner Truth, pleaded for and won (in court) her son’s freedom. Most of the attractions and shopping are found in Upper Kingston – the Stockade District – where early settlers fortified themselves from hostile Esopus Indians – and Lower Kingston aka Rondout on the riverfront, where coal barges and tourist steamships vied for space. Craft beeries will already be aware of Keegan Ale in Mid-Kingston, but here’s something you may not know (even if you live in town): Kingston’s I-587 is the shortest Interstate in the country at just 1.21 miles long. Pair this trip with New Paltz/High Falls escape for a real Hudson Valley getaway.

Things to Do in Upper and Lower Kingston NY

UPPER KINGSTON

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WALK: Kingston Stockade National Historic District, Upper Kingston. In 1658 to protect his constituents from Native American raids, Director-General of the “New Netherlands” colony, Peter Stuyvesant, demanded that all 6o or so residents who lived along the Hudson River move 1 ½ mile uphill to a defensible point. Colonists built a 14 ft. high fortification wall on the bluff above the river, encompassing a church and residential homes. The walls are long gone, but the Stockade District is one of the oldest and most charming neighborhoods in America. Within it see:

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VISIT: Kingston Old Dutch Church. Established in 1659, this is the longest continuously operating Protestant Dutch Reform congregation still in operation in New York. Designed in 1864 by Minard LeFever, the fourth structure for this congregation was built over an existing cemetery, encasing many buried parishioners beneath its stone floors. 13-oclock-clock-old-dutch-church-kingston-ny

Come for a tour (call for information) or just pop in to see the Tiffany-like stained glass window behind the alter, a magnificent Moller Pipe Organ with three keyboards, an original pulpit bible from the 1600’s, 1700’s hymnals, original Civil War battle flags and upstairs in a small museum, a collection of historic artifacts and memorabilia including a travel chest from 1676. Drop in most Thursdays from 12:15-12:45 in Fall and Spring to hear an organ concert – perhaps the best way to be immersed in this age old congregation. Before leaving the grounds, look up to the clock tower to see a huge oopsy: the clock maker originally deemed the noon hour “13 O’ Clock” – XIII. Open year round for self-guided tours Mon-Fri 10-4.

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TOUR: Matthewis Persen House. This 1661 structure, owned by Ulster County from 1914 until it was abandoned in 1999, tells the story of Kingston in its stone walls and singed wooden beams. Slated to become an office building, local history groups saved it from development, stabilized the “bones,” unearthed 20,000 archeological artifacts during restoration, and opened the Persen House to the public in 2008 as a Cultural Heritage Center.

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Though named after its longest resident, the first owner of the Matthewis Persen House was barber/surgeon Gysbert Van Imbroch, who died in 1665 leaving a complete inventory of his home. This inventory, translated from the Old Dutch in 1896, is the basis for a new permanent exhibit upstairs – posters that tell the story of day-to-day life in the 1600’s here. Among clothing and home goods, Van Imbroch’s holdings included yoke for oxen, ice skates, a child’s coat “made by the savages,” and the largest book collection in the New World.

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Depending on your interest, you’re bound to discover something compelling here. Physicians might find the history of barber/surgeons of particular interest. According to engaging guide, Taylor Bruck, “at the time, doctors were strictly diagnosticians, but surgeons were anyone with sharp implements.” Fashionistas might pick up some old ideas to tweak for today, like all-the-1600’s-rage “stomachers” – embroidered triangular bodice attachments that could be swapped out like ties – and the Dutch “bodkin,” a lacing needle that doubled as a head ornament – found on site. And students of political history might be surprised to learn that government regulations are nothing new: 1600’s laws demanded that houses be built with tiled roofs and that homeowners keep chimneys clean (one household fire could destroy whole towns), with stiff fines for non-compliance.

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Like many older homes, this one was built in phases, and a 45-minute tour will take you on a timeline through each extension. In 1661, Dr. Van Imbroch, his wife, Rachel, and three children lived in one wooden room, burned by Native Americans (who also kidnapped Rachel – though she managed to escape) and rebuilt in stone. Phase II: In 1669 a second room was added on and you’ll see both rooms in raw form, as this project is a work in progress. Phase III – from 1698-1735 saw the construction of the kitchen with jambless fireplace. In 1739 (Phase IV), Matthewis Persen turned the building into a “Public House” tavern and ran it until 1818. For nearly 200 years, the stone structure cycled through a succession of owners and uses, and now can be enjoyed and studied by all. Tours are free, Memorial Day to Labor Day Tue-Fri 9-4:30, Sat 9-3, Sep – mid Nov Sat. 10-2 or by appointment.

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TOUR: Senate House State Historic Site. From April 1777 until Kingston was burned down by the British in October 1777, the New York Senate met in this private house as a matter of security. During the American Revolution, local government moved around to remain in continuous operation, and here, Abraham Van Gaasbeek rented out space in his private home so that NY State government could stay intact. A tour here includes one of the oldest public houses in America – the only original building affiliated with the formation of the New York State Government. Visitors are shown a typical Dutch style home decorated as it would have been around the time of the US Revolution, including a Colonial Revival kitchen and a cooking/sleeping room the size of a studio apartment. In the room where the NY Senate assembled, guest can handle reproductions of items that were used then.

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The SHS also maintains a small museum with the world’s largest collection of John Vanderlyn paintings. Born and raised in Kingston, Vanderlyn (1775-1852) was the first American artist to study in Paris (sponsored by Aaron Burr), the first artist to paint Niagara Falls, predating the Hudson River School of Art, and the first to paint an American Nude. Open mid-April – October, Wed-Sat 10-5, Sun 1-5, free.

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VISIT: Volunteer Firemen’s Hall and Museum of Kingston. Besides the old fire trucks you’d expect to find in a Fire Station Museum (here a 1934 Sanford and 1957 American LaFrance active until 2008), you’ll see ornate parade and hose carriages, harrowing photos of local fires like the one caused by a train load of dynamite, and transmitter controls through the ages complete with a sample numbered call box and board listing each street and its corresponding number. Upstairs, the Victorian era room, replete with heavy carved furniture, books, and portraits, is the perfect space for local heritage meetings. Open April, May Sept, Oct Fri 10-3 and Sat 11-4, June-Aug Wed-Fri 11-3, Sat 1-4.

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PHOTO OP: Ulster County Courthouse. It was here, in this 1818 courthouse, that escaped slave and abolitionist, Sojourner Truth, saved her son from slavery in Alabama in 1828 – the first black woman to win a case against a white man. Truth went on to become an advocate for freedom and women’s rights.

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PHOTO OPS: O + Murals. The stunning murals that grace buildings in Kingston were gifts of O+ (referencing the blood type) – an arts organization that exchanges the “medicine of art for the art of medicine.” In other words, beauty for medical care. A more than fair exchange, I’d say.

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VISIT: Fred J. Johnston Museum. Called a “mini Winterthur,” this museum of decorative arts is housed inside a lovely 1812 Federal style house. Open May-Oct, Fri. and Sat. 11-4, $5.

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WALK/SHOP: Stockade District Shopping Area. Sidewalks on the two main shopping streets are covered like old-fashioned arcades making shopping a pleasurable, dry experience even when it’s pouring out. Favorites include: Fleishers Craft Butchery -Supplying New Yorkers from their storefronts on the Upper East Side and in Brooklyn, Fleisher’s is a purveyor of local, pasture raised, antibiotic and hormone free meats. Green Thumbs Plants – pretty up your house or office and do a good deed at the same time. This florist-gift shop is run by and for ARC. Bop to Tottom –  Fun gifts and inexpensive jewelry and scarves render this corner shop a favorite in Upper Kingston and Oak 42 – This brand new women’s fashion boutique sells well-made, reasonably priced comfortable clothes, a winner all around.

LOWER KINGSTON AKA THE RONDOUT

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VISIT: Hudson River Maritime Museum, Lower Kingston. In the 1800’s, the deepwater Rondout Creek, at the mouth of the Hudson River, was (and is) a protected hurricane hole like no other. Not quite halfway between New York City and Albany on the formidable Hudson, Rondout bustled with barges, laden with tons of black coal that had been loaded 108 miles up the D&H Canal in Honesdale PA. Here, the coal was transferred to larger barges right outside what is now the Hudson River Maritime Museum and sent to points north and south. Though the Hudson was chiefly a commercial byway back then, it became a tourist mecca by the late 1800’s and well into the 1900’s when steamships and Day Liners allowed the city-weary to escape for a mere pittance.

hudsons-half-moon-maritime-museum-kingston-nyYou can’t miss this small but info-packed museum, identified by the big 1898 Mathilda Tugboat on drydock out front, that provides easy to digest nautical snippets of the Hudson River in general and Kingston – then called Rondout – in particular. Start your self-guided tour with an historic 100-year-old small-scale model of Henry Hudson’s 1609 ship, the Half Moon before moving on to the meat of the museum in the East Gallery.  

ice-boats-hudson-maritime-museum-kingston-nyYou’ll want to spend at least 30 minutes (or more) here, with exhibits on all aspects of maritime Hudson from Rowing Teams to 50 ft long Ice Yachts, the fastest vehicle on earth (there’s one unassembled 80 ft. original in storage too large to display) to Ferries (the only way over the River prior to bridges), to Tugboats. There are exhibits about the Geology of the Hudson, Ice Harvesting and other topics of importance, but perhaps the one that resonates the most with visitors is a display on the Day Line.

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The Hudson River Day Line ran from 1860-1971 out of Manhattan, transporting millions of people (as a kid, I was one) on full day trips. For just a few dollars, you could motor up the Hudson – most likely to Bear Mountain State Park, a popular stop – and dine in the ship’s restaurant surrounded by nice artwork, while listening to live music and enjoying ever changing views. It was a true respite from the heat and din of the city.

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Right out back, look for the Sloop Clearwater – the ship that Pete Seeger built in the 70’s and ran to bring attention to the then polluted Hudson – at its home berth. There are also transient and seasonal slips for area boaters, and the Ralph Allen Boat Shed where wooden boat artisans are working to restore the Sloop Woody Guthrie (a companion to the Clearwater) from the Beacon Boat Club. The Hudson River Museum recently opened its Riverport Wooden Boat School, where, if you are so inclined, you can participate in a one-day workshop to build your own rustic bench ($250) or a weekend building your own toboggan ($290, materials included). Museum open daily 11-5, $7 adults, $5 kids.

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RENT BIKES/SHOP: J. Teske Leather. Buy leather goods and rent a vintage-reproduction bike at this modest little leather shop known around the world for its custom motorcycle and bicycle seats (average price $350 for beautiful hand-tooled work). Know someone who loves craft beer? The leather strap 6-pack holder balances ingeniously over the center bike bar ($90).

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SHOP: Next Boutique. A seemingly small women’s fashion shop that just keeps going with variety of offerings at very fair prices.

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SHOP: Kingston Wine Co. Though tastings are scheduled most Saturday afternoons, you’ll find a match for your wine-soaked wants and needs at this chic shop.

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SHOP: Clove & Creek and Hops Petunia Florals. Never show up empty handed to your friend’s country house. Lovely artisanal products from the hands of hipster-makers at C&C are the perfect compliment to custom made floral arrangements. (See also, wine, above).

Where to Eat and Drink in Upper, Mid and Lower Kingston

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DRINK: Keegan Ales, Mid Kingston. Tommy Keegan put Kingston on the beer map with this house of Old Capital Golden Ale, Mother’s Milk Stout, Hurricane Kitty IPA (named for his feisty Grandma), Helga Lager and a bunch of others you can try out in a spacious tasting room.

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EAT/LUNCH: Hoffman House, Upper Kingston. Built in 1679 and on the National Historic Landmark, the Hoffman family owned and occupied the house for 201 years until donating it to the Salvation Army in 1908. Pat and Ginny Bradley purchased the property in the auspicious year of 1976 (America’s Bi-Centennial), and restored it using original floorboards, mantles and door paneling, opening it as a restaurant in 1977 as one of the historic highlights of the Stockade District. Your basic Reuben, French Dip, Burger, Wings and Salads, are very good and fresh. No surprise it’s a popular hangout for city movers and shakers.

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EAT/DINNER: Boitson’s, Upper Kingston. The signature Cauliflower Wings with Hot Sauce and Blue Cheese is “the most popular dish,” which gives you an idea of the cuisine and clientele at this fun but seriously good eatery. Mason jar votive candles on marble tables lend romance to the narrow brick walled space. Frank Sinatra warbles while you dine on Dr. Frank’s Stuffed Oysters ($14.50), Molasses Glazed Salmon ($24), those OMG fantastic Cauliflower Wings ($11), and a host of inventive dishes.

EAT/UPPER KINGSTON: Locals also love Sissy’s for great vegan, Duo Bistro for fine dining, Outdated for coffee, and The Stockade for drinks.

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EAT/LOWER KINGSTON: Savona’s Trattoria, Lower Kingston/Rondout. A cute Italian place on the Kingston Rondout across from the waterfront, it’s a local favorite for friendliness and delicious tweaks on rustic dishes, i.e. a slightly sweet and moist Salmon Limoncello ($13.95) that made my taste buds happy.

EAT/LOWER KINGSTON. Locals also love Armadillo for authentic Mexican food, Brunette Wine Bar for fine vino and nibbles, and Enchanted Cakes which are to baked goods what some NYC spots are to pizza; slices only please. But oh, what slices they are.

Where to Stay in and Around Kingston NY

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STAY: Stone House B&B, Hurley. You’ve toured the famous stone houses nearby – now stay in one of the Maven Favorites. Sam and Nadia Scoggins preside over this 1705 home just outside of tiny Hurley NY. Each of five distinctive rooms contains a trove of antiques with updated beds as comfy, soft and cloudlike as a luxury inn’s can get. Find our full write-up HERE.

STAY: In Kingston, The Kingston B&B, Antique Stone House and Rondout Inn are highly recommended, along with the just opened Forsythe B&B with four themed bedrooms.

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