Ulster County towns rich in Colonial history, architecture

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NEW PALTZ, N.Y. -- New Paltz is the German name of a town founded by a handful of French Huguenots. The Huguenots were relocating from a largely Dutch town that had come under British control and had been renamed Kingston.

If that sounds convoluted, such was the mix of European cultures in colonial New York, and knowing this, it is small wonder that numerous sightseeing attractions in New Yorks Ulster County are today deemed historical landmarks.

I joined a walking tour of Huguenot Street (a National Historic Landmark District), which formed the core of the village established by 12 families in 1678.

The families had left France, where Protestants were persecuted at the time, to live in Pfalz, Germany, before putting an ocean between themselves and the French king.

The guided walking tours, at $7 or $10 depending on tour length, are conducted daily except Mondays, May through October.

The starting point is one of the original houses, called DuBois Fort because it was the house all villagers would repair to in case of attack; there are gun holes in the window glass. The house is a shop and museum today.

The full walking tour, lasting an hour-plus, takes in three of the nine 18th- and 19th-century homes owned by the Huguenot Historical Society, plus the French Church.

The oldest building is the Bevier-Elting House, believed to date from 1705; it was built by one of the 12 first families, and fortuitously owned from then until purchased by the historical society in the 1960s by Bevier descendants (eventually, through marriage, the Eltings) and never modernized.

It sits sideways, meaning one of the narrow sides of the house faces the street. In Europe, its owners would have been taxed based on the amount of street front the house used.

Once the only room in the house, the front room shows off 18th-century furnishings suitable for a kitchen-cum-living room-cum-bedroom; two rooms were added at intervals in the 1700s, and a basement accommodated slaves in the days when slavery existed in the North.

The walking tour ends inside the French Church, a reconstruction of the original, square 1717 structure; it had to be reconstructed because the Huguenots from time to time tore down their church and reused the stones to build bigger.

Inside, half the pews face the other half, and traditionally, the pulpit would be in the middle.

The Bevier-Elting House, the oldest of the stone houses on Huguenot Street in New Paltz. TW photo by Nadine GodwinThe Bevier-Elting House, other society-owned houses and the French Church are examples of the stone construction for which Ulster County is known.

The county claims the highest concentration of 17th- and 18th-century stone houses in America.  Some are still private homes or offices, but many are museums and others are restaurants, inns or B&Bs.

The Ulster County Historical Society is housed in the Bevier House Museum in Stone Ridge. That house-museum (open Thursdays through Sundays, June through September) is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hurley, a 330-year-old Dutch village with 25 stone houses, claims the oldest private homes in the U.S., and the houses are the core of another National Historic District. One stone house is the Hurley Heritage Society Museum.

Kingston, Ulsters county seat and the first capital of New York state, counts 21 pre-Revolutionary War stone houses, and that is despite the fact the British burned the city in 1777.

British Major General John Vaughan justified the destruction, calling the city a nursery for almost every villain in the country.

Four Kingston areas are National Historic Districts, but the relevant region here is the Stockade District, meaning the area that was inside wooden stockade walls built to protect the village from Indians.

The district is still laid out as it was in 1658 when the new village, then Wiltwyck, was settled.

Viewing of stone architecture in Hurley and Kingston is most often by self-guided walking tours, or through museum visits.

One of the more important house-museums is Kingstons 1676 Senate House, the private home where the New York Senate rented a room for its first-ever sessions, which were held as the British were approaching the city in 1777.

The house suffered fire damage but was repaired soon after. Descendants of the builder occupied the house until they deeded it to the state in 1888.

Guided tours, at $4, available Wednesdays through Sundays, mid-April through October, provide further insight into colonial living arrangements, in this case, among the reasonably prosperous.

The house includes two rooms where guests would have been welcomed; the host couples bed sits in the corner of the less formal one.

The Senates meeting room ordinarily would have been used as a shop; as it was, owner Abraham Van Gaasbeek collected rent from the state.

Ulster County is rich in Colonial-themed sightseeing attractions, but -- aside from the lure of a scenic Hudson River Valley setting and the attractiveness of Woodstocks music events to a subset of visitors -- the area can be visited with any number of other themes in mind, such as its wine trails, antique and pottery shops, harvest festivals, cultural events and even dude ranches.

The Oneida Indian Nation and the Oneidas Turning Stone Resort and Casino are also handily located in nearby Oneida County.

Patty Jacobson, deputy director, Ulster County Tourism, said the county receives an estimated 2 million visitors a year, roughly 40% of them on motorcoach trips.

Her agency created a new promotional CD this spring, called A Place to Call Home, which travel agents can request by e-mailing Jacobson at [email protected].

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to Nadine Godwin at [email protected].

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