Feels Like Holland
The Valley’s Dutch buildings, remnants of our New Netherland past, showcase a simple and elegant architecture
(page 1 of 2)
On paper, New Netherland was short lived, lasting from only 1609 to 1673. But this Dutch colony — whose center of gravity was the Hudson Valley — is still very much with us. You just have to know where to look.
Members of the Society for the Preservation of Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture (HVVA) do exactly that every month when they form a car caravan and visit Dutch building sites throughout the region. For them, the year 1673 isn’t a cutoff point, since the Dutch style persisted in America well into the 19th century. (The Bronck Museum in Coxsackie is the oldest Dutch complex in the Hudson Valley, dating to 1663.)
“The buildings might not always look Dutch from the outside, but they are all informed by Dutch building technique,” says HVVA board member Rob Sweeney. “The thing that ties all Dutch houses and construction together is the H-bent frame,” a style derived from the northern European medieval building tradition. Just picture the letter H: The frame has two vertical beams that connect by way of a horizontal cross beam. “You’ll see in all regions of New Netherland, but it is most visible in the Dutch barns,” Sweeney says.
First stop on a Saturday morning tour: a 1790s Dutch barn complex on a busy road in the town of Wappinger in Dutchess County. It’s a miracle the enormous, dilapidated structure is still standing, surrounded as it is by scores of ranch houses. “Preserved” with a blue tarp and filled to the rafters with a building contractor’s junk, it caught the eye of Todd and Françoise Rodgers three years ago when they were househunting. “It was intentionally not mentioned in the sales literature for the property, because the realtor thought it would scare away buyers,” says Todd Rodgers. “The owners didn’t know the significance of what they had. We confused the realtor when we got more excited about the barn than the house.” Today, the barn is under restoration.
Elements of style: The foundation of a Dutch barn, complete with H-bent frames
Walk into this massive, cathedral-like structure, with its central bay threshing floor, and you’ll get a crash course in Dutch construction: The distinctive form of the H-bent frame is immediately obvious. Built and hewn by the earliest settlers of the land, the barn’s massive timbers came from virgin forest. The Dutch Barn Preservation Society estimates that there are only 100-150 of these barns left in the state; at one time, there were thousands. Most of the barns remaining in the Hudson Valley are privately owned, but groups such as the Dutch Barn Preservation Society sometimes open them to public tours.
While barns are relatively easy to identify (even hidden under a blue tarp), houses are trickier to spot. They don’t all look the same. This is because the Dutch adapted their building materials to the geography, making bricks in areas with good clay, utilizing local stone where it was abundant, and of course using timber. That’s why you’ll see wooden houses in Columbia County, where there is little fieldstone, but stone houses in Ulster, where this material is abundant. Around Albany, wood houses with brick veneer were a popular building style. (It’s boggy in the Netherlands, so the Dutch never built foundations there using brick or stone. As a precaution, they liked to use brick veneer here for fear of the houses sinking into the ground, even though that’s unlikely!)
“This architecture is the product of the place, and that’s what makes it so special. You’ll find it nowhere else in the world,” says Sweeney. (Well, almost nowhere else. Seems that wealthy Texans have been making off with Hudson Valley barns, happy to offer their owners tidy sums so that they can carry them off and inject a bit of history in their home state.)