In Kingstons Uptown district you can leave your car behind. But bring along your gift list, an appetite, and an interest in American history.
By: Rita Ross Published December 13, 2006 at 12:00 AM
New Yorks first capital, Kingston has charms both historic
and modern by Rita Ross
You dont have to be a history buff to enjoy a day in Uptown Kingston. But it wouldnt hurt. After all, where else can you stand at Four Corners, the only intersection in America where 18th-century buildings still remain on each corner? A few blocks away you can check out the 1676 Senate House, the oldest public building in the nation. In fact, the six-block radius that makes up the Uptown, or Stockade, district, is chock-full of historic buildings. But with a lively arts scene, a handful of unique bookstores, Soho-style boutiques and funky eateries, you can also focus on enjoying yourself in the here-and-now.
The city of Kingston actually has three distinct sections. Besides the Uptown district, there is the Rondout waterfront, a revitalized 19th-century cobblestoned area on the Rondout Creek. In between lies the midtown or Broadway area, home to the Ulster Performing Arts Center with its showplace Broadway Theater. Ambitious walkers (total time: approximately 40 minutes) may elect to take in all the sights along the Kingston Heritage Trail. Beginning at the visitors center on Broadway in the Uptown district, the trail passes through midtown and ends at the waterfront district. Along the way, youll see the 1876 City Hall and the 1903 Kingston City Library, which was built by Andrew Carnegie using locally quarried bluestone. The trail is self-guided, but the Friends of Historic Kingston offer escorted tours of the city from May through October.
Dutch settlers from near Albany first relocated to Uptown Kingston in 1652. Six years later, they built a 14-foot wooden stockade hence the districts name to protect the town from Indian attacks (a peace treaty eventually was signed in 1664).
But Kingstons troubles continued into the next century. Named the first capital of New York State in early 1777, it was stormed by the British in October of that same year, when nearly all of the buildings burned to the ground. (Only one structure, the Van Steenburgh house, was left untouched; legend has it that the British officer in charge of the attack had been charmed by the owners lovely daughter.) Terrified residents fled to the nearby village of Hurley, but later returned to Kingston and rebuilt nearly all of its stone houses.
Today, 21 pre-Revolutionary war buildings a concentration found nowhere else in North America still stand within this region. Many of these architectural gems are now open to the public. The stone Senate House, where the New York State constitution was created, is now a museum. Other notable sites worth visiting include the Firemens Museum; the Henry Sleight House (which dates back to the 1600s); and the Fred J. Johnston House Museum, a Federal-style building where writer Washington Irving and U.S. President Martin Van Buren reportedly stayed.
Towering over Uptown is the white wooden spire of the exquisite Old Dutch Church. Built in 1852, this Renaissance Revival stone structure features a huge Louis Tiffany stained glass window and a vaulted ceiling that is a replica of the one in Londons St. Pauls Cathedral. Historic artifacts in the vestibule include a letter from George Washington; another famous George Clinton, New Yorks first governor is buried in the well-maintained churchyard. On December 16, the Mendelssohn Club of Kingston performs an annual holiday concert at the church. Plan to arrive early; its always standing room only. (Visit www.mckny.org for more info.)
An added bonus to visiting Uptown Kingston in winter is the fact that both Wall and North Front streets (where most of the action takes place) have turn-of-the-century-style permanent canopies over their sidewalks. The idea for this covered pedestrian walkway, decorated with latticework and pretty planters and known as the Pike Plan, came from the late Woodstock watercolor artist John Pike. It was his inspiration, too, to decorate the heart of the Stockade with thousands of clear light bulbs. Lit each year throughout the holidays, the twinkling bulbs transform the thoroughfare into a delightful wonderland.
Strolling down the street, I momentarily pictured myself ambling along in New Orleans French Quarter (pre-Hurricane Katrina). True, jazz was not spilling out into the street from behind every door and I wasnt being bombarded by tourists clutching drinks. But the cheerfully painted pink, yellow, and blue row houses some with elaborate ironwork were delightfully reminiscent of that Louisiana city.
If you think an independent bookstore indicates a town has arrived, then youll really appreciate Kingston. Alternative Books, a longtime center of the citys social and cultural life, features three rooms of hand-picked treasures celebrating the arts, literature and the humanities. Housed in a historic blue row house on Pearl Street, Pages Past is a true find for antiquarian book lovers and for collectors of vintage comic books. Hours are by chance or appointment only, although they try to be at the shop on weekdays.
Some of Wall Streets many shops include BlueByrds Haberdashery and Music, where you can chill to the blues (a store specialty) while keeping your head warm (unusual hats, ditto). Bop to Tottom (yep, we got that right) sells loads of cool toys, gadgets and accessories for both kids and adults. Further along youll find Theresa & Company, a clothing store for babies and children; owner Theresa Misasi chooses the duds with an eye toward one-of-a-kind pieces, handmade items (look for great sweaters), and natural fabrics. Traders of the Lost Art is a good place to browse for Native American arts, while upscale housewares can be found at the Well-Seasoned Nest. A brightly-colored dress from Bali was on the rack at Zees Boutique, which carries ladies sportswear. Oriental dishware and such is sold at Kimms; if youre in a Renaissance state of mind, pop in to Knightly Endeavors for back-in-time clothes and costumes.
Kingstons arts and cultural scene is big, and getting bigger. The city has a First Saturday celebration every month, featuring gallery openings and receptions, artists talks, and other special events. I was glad to see that both the Wright Gallery and the Coffey Gallery feature works by Hudson Valley artists; Velsani Arts & Antiques had delightful pieces ranging from Venetian glass to Art Deco treasures.
You wont go hungry in Uptown Kingston, either. Always popular is Le Canard Enchaine on Fair Street. Chef-owner Jean-Jacques Carquillats authentic French bistro serves all the classics, including an especially tasty cassoulet, as well as a prix-fixe lunch that cant be beat, according to Zagat. (There jazz piano bar on weekends is worth a visit too). Back on Wall Street, check out the Kingston Tea Garden. Dont be misled by the funny old chop suey sign hanging outside: inside, they serve hickory barbecue and distinctive sandwiches. Be sure to stop by Fleishers Grass-Fed and Organic Meats its legendary in the Hudson Valley when youre planning healthy holiday meals. (By the way, owner Joshua Applestone, the brawny guy standing behind the counter, was a vegan before becoming a butcher.) Bread Alone is a popular spot to pause for some tasty refreshments. The menu includes gourmet coffee and tea as well as specialties ranging from black bean burgers to yogurt parfaits.
The shopping bonanza continues around the corner on North Front Street. Browse through Inspired for books, gifts, and inspirational items. Full Circle features shabby-chic gifts. The funky Sams Swap Shop has everything from bongo drums to golf clubs in the window. Need to relax? Madison & Lange Beauty and Tanning is an upscale salon/spa, and the Colonial Health Food Center has been a mecca for positive-living items since 1961. Youre sure to feel like a kid again at J&Js Hobbies, an old-fashioned shop that sells cool stuff like train sets and airplane models.
Front Street eateries include Nekos, where you can chow down on traditional favorites like split pea soup or a chili platter at this old-fashioned luncheonette. Looking for a snack thats sure to delight the youngsters? Try Dallas Hot Weiners.
The nice thing about Kingston is that it is a city thats hip but not arrogant, small but not claustrophobic, and historic but not preserved under glass. An added plus: in the Uptown district, you can stash your car and walk everywhere. So let the strolling begin.