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Senate House State Historic Site

Hudson River Valley Review Vol. 22, No. 1

The Senate House State Historic Site is located in the uptown Stockade District of Kingston, on a corner lot that once belonged to Pieter Stuyvesant. The house was originally constructed in 1676 by Wessele Ten Broeck and was preserved by New York State as its second State Historic Site in 1887. It remains today as a heritage site, museum, and community resource.

The house as built in 1676 was a traditional Dutch dwelling, one story with a steep roof. Living, cooking, and sleeping took place in one room, with a basement and an attic garret for additional sleeping or storage space. Additions to the north and south were made to the house in the mid-eighteenth century, and the original interior was lost when the British burned Kingston in October 1777. What stands today was rebuilt in 1778. (You have to look at the stonework and other details to trace its earlier evolution.) The interior is typical of an English-style colonial dwelling, which the original house was converted to over time.

That evolution was a microcosm of the larger change happening in America’s colonial society, a change that began when the English assumed control of the colony in 1664. The dwelling’s one original room was eventually divided and added onto so that the house became a variation on the English tradition of a decorated main hall flanked by parlors, one formal and one informal. This main hall served as an opportunity for the owner to display items that would immediately signify the host’s importance. In addition to the creation of an entry hall and parlors, the “new” house featured separate bedrooms and a semi-detached kitchen.

This is the era that the staff of the Senate House interprets for visitors today. It has been refurnished with artifacts and replicas from the period that represent what any typical Kingston dwelling would have looked like in the late-eighteenth century. Assembled is a collection of furniture, kitchenware, bedroom items, and examples of what might have been found in the chamber occupied by the fledgling New York State Senate, including reproduction reading glasses, quill pens, a table, and chairs.

That is another story the house tells: In addition to being representative of daily life in Kingston circa 1778, it is where the New York State Senate took refuge (in exchange for daily rent) when it arrived in Kingston in September 1777. The owner then was Abraham Van Gaasbeek, a widower with an empty house whose business of shipping goods between Kingston and New York City had been disrupted by the same events that had driven the senate further and further north.

Following their Declaration of Independence in July 1776, the colonies began assembling committees to draft individual constitutions for each new state. The New York State Convention met in New York City to do this through December of that year, when they were forced to flee north as the British took control of Manhattan. They stopped briefly in White Plains, but had to leave again as the British advanced up the Hudson. They met briefly at the Dutch Reformed Church in Fishkill, but there was an epidemic of smallpox, so they continued north to Kingston, which had already acquired the reputation as a “nursery for every villainous rebel in the country.”

At the time, Kingston was the third largest city in the state—after New York and Albany—with more than 100 houses and approximately 2,000 residents between its uptown and waterfront. The constitution was finished here, its draft adopted on April 20, 1777, on the steps of the courthouse on Wall Street.

That accomplished, the representatives set out to fill their new government, with the bicameral legislature and judicial branch that remain today. By September of that year, the state’s fledgling judiciary was meeting in the courthouse, the assembly was convened at Bogardus Tavern, and seventeen of the twenty-four appointed representatives in the senate assembled at Van Gaasbeek’s house. All of this activity was treasonous in the eyes of the British Empire; if any of the participants in this government were caught, they would be hanged as traitors.

And the British were getting closer to the capital every day. The 1777 Campaign was a three-pronged attack on the colonies, its intent to divide the northern and southern allies by taking control of the Hudson River. The British were winning battles and gaining ground as they descended from Canada, and were temporarily being held at bay to the south by the great chain and fortifications at Fort Montgomery, in the Hudson Highlands.

Fort Montgomery fell on October 6, 1777. The British sank the chain after taking the fort, then sailed north. On October 13, as Burgoyne was losing at Saratoga, Sir Henry Clinton passed Esopus and came in range of Ponchokie Heights—above the Rondout waterfront—where the Patriots opened fire from a small battery. The British logs do not record any damage received from these rounds, but they do explain that this provocation brought them ashore, and that additional shots fired once they had landed were license to destroy the village. They marched from Kingston Point to the Stockade, sacking and burning all but one house along the way. They continued this strategy as they sailed further north, getting as far as Robert Livingston’s Clermont before news of Burgoyne’s surrender reached them and they turned back (but not before burning the Livingston estate as well). Instead of dividing the colonies, the British operations on the Hudson wound up uniting the Patriots in their outrage over atrocities such as the burning of Kingston.

One hundred and ten years later, a local group of preservationists petitioned the state to purchase and preserve the house as a museum that would tell the story of life in eighteenth-century Kingston. The Senate House State Historic Site opened its doors for business in 1887, and the people of Kingston brought artifacts by the trunk-load; attics, basements, and barns were emptied of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century heirlooms that were donated to the museum to help tell the building’s story. By 1920, when a local collector offered to donate his manuscript collection, the little house was already full to the rafters. The collector also had concerns about fire safety, so he offered his collection with the caveat that New York build a fireproof building to house the 25,000 seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century manuscripts. The state accepted the terms and built a Colonial Revival museum that is today considered another of Kingston’s historic treasures. The collection that inspired it is still housed there. (Known as the DeWitt Manuscript Collection, it includes signatures of presidents and famous Americans.)

The other major collection housed in the 1920s museum pertains to Kingston native John Vanderlyn. A precursor of the Hudson River School artists, Vanderlyn was himself the second of three generations of painters in his family. He is regaled as the first American-born artist trained in Europe.

Vanderlyn learned by copying the works of “masters.” One such work he painted was a version of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Aaron Burr, which Major Peter Van Gaasbeek purchased from the young artist and brought to the attention of its subject. Taken with the likeness, Burr invited Vanderlyn into his home in 1795 to paint more portraits; later that year, he recommended Vanderlyn to Stuart for formal education. Stuart soon returned the artist to Burr, claiming that he had nothing left to teach him, and suggesting he be sent to Paris. Vanderlyn sailed for France in 1796 under Burr’s continued patronage. He spent four years there, studying with Francois Andre Vincent and painting among such great artists as Jean-Auguste Ingres and Jacques-Louis David.

As the collection on display suggests, this was a time of quick maturity for the artist. Within a few years, his work underwent a transition from budding talent to an experienced precision. Paris seemed as agreeable to Vanderlyn as he was to it; his work was well received by the public and his painting of Caius Marius (1807) received a gold star from Napoleon in 1808.

When he returned to America, the artist had every reason to expect similar acclaim at home. His hopes high, Vanderlyn set out to paint scenes from classical mythology and young America’s history—narratives emphasizing important events. In 1812, he presented the public with Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos. But he had underestimated the American public’s prudish ways. The gallery displaying it so feared the repercussions of a man and woman standing together before the languid nakedness of the despoiled Ariadne that viewing hours were split between male and female audiences. Even the redemption of this particular work was tinged with Puritanical insult: a steamboat captain offered to buy it, but only if the artist cloaked his model. Vanderlyn took the commission and reproduced the painting, but this time with Ariadne under a sheet of gauze. This version was hung in the captain’s extravagant floating den. (The original is in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.)

Sadly, Ariadne was not the only artistic misadventure to befall the artist upon his return home. With the eye of an engineer, Vanderlyn had produced studies of the landscape at Versailles. These studies can be seen at the Senate House and show how he laid a grid over his subject that would help him to render it flat and then bend it to form a panorama. The panorama depicted a scene from the early nineteenth century populated with historical figures. The artist included himself drawing a viewer’s attention to Czar Alexander I and the King of Prussia standing in the gardens. Opening in 1817, the finished painting measured twelve feet high by 168 feet long, mounted around the inside of a rotunda that the artist had built nearthe present-day site of City Hall in Manhattan. At the time, panoramas were a great attraction throughout Europe, a sort of “virtual reality” of the early nineteenth century.

However, this proved another error in translation. Vanderlyn had financed the project by selling shares in it ahead of time, and the concept was well enough received to execute the project. But when the financiers entered the rotunda and looked around to find themselves in a foreign place with foreign people, the exotic nature of the experience was lost. Critics slammed the work as being off-topic (not American) and were not impressed by the panoramic experience. The panorama followed Vanderlyn to his indebted grave—he reassembled it time and again across the country, but it never covered its own expense or began to see any profit. Fortunately, the huge painting was preserved and can be viewed in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There were some commissions, most notably The Landing of Columbus at the Island of Guanahani, West Indies, October 12th, 1492, which hangs in the U.S.Capitol. But most of the money Vanderlyn made came from portraiture. No would bepatrons were interested in grand stories of Greek myth or American origins,but many wanted to see themselves or their families immortalized by the artist’sbrush. John Vanderlyn died miserable and penniless in 1855. One evening hechecked into the hotel that still stands across from the Senate House property inuptown Kingston and was found dead in his room the next morning.

But the defiant story of the Senate House and the melancholy epic of John Vanderlyn are not the only tales told here. The site also includes the Loughran House, used as an additional museum and office space, and the nearby Heritage Area Visitors’ Center, which offers visitor information, brochures on area attractions, and temporary exhibits.

One thing the stories here share—which is a testament to both the size of eighteenth-century America and the talents of the storytellers on staff—is that all of the various strands are intertwined. You will see not only how local individuals and movements influenced one another, but how the inhabitants of historic Kingston affected national and international events as well.

Christopher Pryslopski

The Senate House State Historic Site is located in Kingston at 296 Fair Street, online at: http://nysparks.state.ny.us/sites/info.asp?siteID=26, and can be reached by phone at 845-338-2786. It is open from April 7 through Oct. 31 Mon., Wed., and Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., and Sun. 11-5 p.m. Admission: $4 adults, $3 NYS senior citizens/groups, $1 children 5-12; children under 5 are admitted free. The site is also open year-round by appointment. Group tours are available year-round, and must be scheduled in advance. The Heritage Area Visitors’ Center is located at 308 Clinton Avenue.

 

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