Bricks and mortar: why Kingston’s Historical Brownstone Program is a pioneering history program

By: Christine Parr, Historical Brownstone Program Coordinator

Asking for permission to make a historic house into a historic house. At first glance it might seem something that would be a huge ethical and legal dilemma, but in the framework of the Historic Hudson City Program (HHP), this is a rather easy act to take on. As the largest voluntary historic resource in the state of New York, HHP provides guidelines and support to communities that are interested in making their houses, a significant source of local culture and history, into historical houses. Since being established in the 1960s, HHP has helped over 30,000 people in the Hudson Valley communities of Kingston, Mount Vernon, Cambridge, Rutherford, and Westford make their house historic by providing training and mentoring.

The HHP was founded by Charles King, publisher of the local newspaper, to revitalize the Hudson Valley’s local history. By offering support and training to community partners in local historical preservation projects, HHP has been able to create a vibrant community that conserves much of Hudson Valley’s rich historical fabric and gives new importance to our collective past. The students who attend HHP classes are handpicked from across the Greater Hudson Valley by local historical organizations and businesses to participate in the classes. Even for these students, the program is a unique experience. Previously for twenty years, the HHP program in Kingston has trained eighty area students a year (sometimes twice a year); this is a lot of history. Even with all of this activity, King, being King, wanted more.

So King began the HHP Project to stop the dilapidation of the town’s historic houses, giving Kingston an opportunity to preserve its local history and culture. The program began in 2008 and now includes sixteen distinct activities that are supported by this year’s funding from HHP’s major sponsor, the New York State Department of State. The program offers similar classes and tuition savings at seven other sites in and around Kingston, each with their own separate focus and the cost of the class/tuition are covered for participants from Kingston. The HHP program is a very successful way to preserve the town’s history – both its buildings and its people – and also to provide well-trained teachers and student volunteers, who receive special scholarships for HHP.

The HHP Project in Kingston is the premier educational tour and social club, which means it is quite an impressive place. The twice yearly tours of the buildings are interesting and designed to teach the audience to think about Hudson Valley history and to reconnect them with living history. The tours focus on the residential and industrial history of Kingston in the early and mid-1800s, when local white society was trying to overcome a legacy of racism to become a more integrated and integrated community.

These tours include the history of the black owners and their black servants, including several funerals in their homes. Visitors also can see the huge 1883/84 Kennedy mansion (originally a large plantation house) and the recently purchased Charles Drake Mansion, along with other Hudson Valley buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Kingston also has a historic coffee house known as the Lucky Joe’s, located in the beautiful Calabash Restaurant. The Lucky Joe’s was first opened in 19th-century Kingston and started with only a couple of tables of Irishmen, the other tables were all Jewish. Today, the Lucky Joe’s features a great diverse crowd of visitors, including groups from around the world. To make sure Kingston’s historic streets and buildings are accessible, HHP has also restored and listed on the National Register the three foot wide sidewalks that run along all the main thoroughfares in the city.

Although HHP is known for its fascinating artifacts and lively history, the main thing that Kingston students learn is practical. Throughout the program they are given a ton of practical history tips, like how to spot old things in your own home that need updating. The classes are excellent, hands-on experiences, and share the skills the Kingston students need to stay engaged with their new knowledge of history and to continue to have their own local history projects.

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