The Colonial Era (1609-1783)

The Colonial Era (1609-1783)
Neil Larson, Larson Fisher Associates

The Hudson Valley is a distinctive and diverse architectural region with buildings spanning nearly four centuries and ranging from the elaborate Hudson River mansions of wealthy land grant patentees and capitalists to the modest farmhouses and working-class dwellings dispersed among its rural towns and villages. From before its settlement by the Europeans, the valley was a verdant garden, abundantly watered by the river and its numerous tributaries. Since then, the region has enjoyed continuous prosperity and growth, which has created a cultural landscape filled with a variety of types, periods and classes of architecture that is unrivaled by any other American place. This great range and complexity of buildings has deprived the Hudson Valley of a concise and coherent architectural history, but we shall try to identify some of the landmarks here.

 Map of New Netherland and extent of early Dutch settlement from Remembrance of Patria (1988), page 34


Dutch Architecture

The Dutch were the first colonists of the region following the "discovery" of the river by its present namesake Henry Hudson in 1609. With this venture, the Netherlands claimed possession of a territory that extended from the Delaware River on the west to the Connecticut River on the East and established trading locations in various places on all three rivers. On the Hudson, they set up fortified outposts at the mouth of the river on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, which they called New Amsterdam, and at the head of navigation near Albany, which they named Fort Orange. While these were strategic locations for the principal interest of fur trading, "company towns" quickly grew up in these locations. The colony was administered by the Dutch West India Trading Company, and they populated the trading posts with farmers, craftsmen, and laborers (including African slaves) to support the communities. They also built forts and stationed soldiers to protect their interests from the incursions of the Indians and neighboring English and French colonies.

It was in this early period that Dutch architecture was introduced into the Hudson Valley, a phenomenon that occurred nowhere else on the North American continent. (There were other similar Dutch settlements in the West Indies and South America.) The forms and construction methods of the buildings that appeared were based Dutch precedents. In the compact urban settings of New Amsterdam and Fort Orange, these houses were visibly similar to the townhouses from home, though smaller in size and more economical in materials and decoration.

 Detail of Johannes Vingboons's View of New Amsterdam, c1664 from Remembrance of Patria (1988), page 95

These little houses with their steep-pitched roofs and gable ends facing the street represent the first phase of European architecture in the region and Dutch houses continued to be the most prominent domestic building form in the Hudson Valley for the next two hundred years, even though the English "conquered" the colony in 1677. The historic Dutch houses that people visit today were all built well after the English Conquest, but still exhibit those defining Dutch characteristics. Because they were allowed to retain the lands they held before the English arrived (and obtain more) and since the English agreed to not interfere with their religious and cultural life, the Hudson Valley Dutch preserved and nurtured their ethnic identity perhaps more than would have occurred had the Netherlands remained in possession of the colony.

Sturdevant House, Albany NY, built c1725, photo, c1875 from McKinney Library, Albany Institute of History and Art

The Dutch disdained the English for reasons of their long history of cultural clashes in Europe and endeavored to remain apart from them. But they also took advantage of the English policy of land grants to extend their hold on the Hudson Valley's best farmlands. The Dutch West India Trading Company did not encourage general settlement until the end of their tenure when more and more of their colonists abandoned the confines of the Manhattan and Albany stockades to homestead out in the region's lush watersheds. So much pressure was placed on the government that they finally had to relent and create a new town west of Fort Orange on the Mohawk River at Schenectady, although they knew they would never be able to control the unsanctioned fur trading that took place there. One of the last official actions taken by Director General Peter Stuyvesant was to quell disturbances between the Indians and European squatters in an area known as Esopus located about midway between New Amsterdam and Fort Orange. Stuyvesant paternalistically chastised natives and homesteaders alike and had the Europeans erect and move their houses within a stockade there. The new town was named Wiltwick (Wild Place) and became the third Dutch center in the Hudson Valley. After the Conquest, the English renamed the town Kingston. This area quickly became the largest wheat producer in the region. After furs, wheat and flour were the colony's major export commodity.

Model of Kingston Stockade built by Port Ewen (NY) Boy Scout troop, 1950's from a booklet published for the Kingston Bicentennial Celebration, 1976

By the end of the 17th century, Dutch lands and towns had multiplied dramatically. From their insider position and with the indulgence of the English governors, Dutch homesteaders moved on to arable lands south and east from Albany into what are now Rensselaer, Columbia, and Greene counties, from Kingston into Ulster and Dutchess counties, and into Westchester, Rockland and Nassau counties from New York City, as well as into northern New Jersey. Before anybody realized it, the Dutch had obtained control of the region's best land and created more new towns than the original colonists ever imagined. Each town center developed its own distinctive Dutch architecture. The best Albany houses were constructed with wood frames encased in brick. Kingston builders opted for stone over brick and erected the distinctive stone houses for which the county is renowned today. The extensive brown sandstone deposits in the southern part of the valley (picture the Palisades), which includes northern New Jersey, led to a preference for that material in the construction of the best houses. On Long Island, where stone and clay were rare, a tradition of wood frame houses covered in fish-scale shingles developed.

Lendeert Bronck House, Coxsackie NY, stone portion c1670, brick portion 1738 photo by Neil Larson

Wessele Ten Broeck House (The Senate House State Historic Site), Kingston NY photo by Neil Larson

Harmanus Tallman House, Germonds NY from Rosalie Fellows Bailey, Pre-Revolutionary Dutch Houses and Families in Northern New Jersey and Southern New York (1936), page 256

Catharyna Rombout Brett House, Beacon NY [a Long Island house type built by people from that region in Dutchess County] from Landmarks of Dutchess County, 1683-1867 (1969), page 24


The Country House

Immediately following the conquest, the English brought their hierarchical conception of land and society to New York. The English government of this colony was far different from the communities that characterized New England. In fact, the governance of the Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island colonies were more akin to the trade company arrangement that the Dutch exercised in New Netherland than to the proprietary colony the English created in New York. New York became the personal domain of James Stuart, the Duke of York and brother to the king, Charles II. The colony existed at his pleasure. Governors were appointed to patent lands to faithful subjects who would, in turn, populate their lands and produce profitable goods that would benefit the purse of the duke and the shareholders in this system. Thus, many large land patents were granted to initiate the partitioning of the Hudson Valley into marketable real estate. Some patents were obtained by partnerships that intended to either inhabit their lands (as in New Paltz in Ulster County or Kinderhook in Columbia County) or to create and sell lots for profit (as in the Great Nine Partners Patent in Dutchess County). Others were managed as proprietorships, that is kept in single ownership and partitioned into leaseholds (such as Rensselaerwyck in Albany and Rensselaer counties or Phillipse Manor in Putnam County). These proprietors built new houses to establish a headquarters for settlement and set up mills, stores, docks and roads in their vicinity.

Ariantje Coeymans House, Coeymans NY from Helen Wilkinson Reynolds, Dutch Houses in the Hudson Valley Before 1776 (1929), page 9

Under this system, a hierarchy of ownership and privilege was created that led to another of the region's notable architectural objects: the country house. Initially, these houses, while decidedly larger than those of their tenants, were limited in plan and decoration. Their two-story height signaled their social prominence, although they contained only two rooms per floor. The family resided in the upper two stories, while the kitchen and slave quarters occupied the basement. In the first half of the 18th century, as the colony grew in area and number, the quality of life improved for proprietor and tenant alike. Landlords adopted more of the elite taste of the English aristocracy, and it was reflected in their homes.

Philipse Manor House, Yonkers NY from Benson Lossing, The Hudson, from the Wildern to the Sea.

With this, the tradition of the Hudson River country house was begun. The appearance of these houses was inspired by the great city and country houses being built in England during the period. English architects led by Inigo Jones were designing new houses in the style of the Italian Renaissance in an effort to finally break the hold the Medieval Gothic tradition had held there. This modernizing movement was spurred by a growing middle class, a nouveau riche that was not interested in preserving connections to the past. More middling mansions were built in England in this period than palaces, and they served better as models for the American "aristocracy," who were more middle-class than rich anyway. Generally, two stories in height with a center passage and four rooms on a floor, the Hudson Valley country house was a small but elite dwelling for New York's privileged land-owning class.

 Teviotdale, Linlithgo NY, c1770 photo by Neil Larson

Settlement decentralized the colony and diminished the importance of the original Dutch towns, in particular, the commercial entrepôt where the river met the ocean. New York City was the capital of the English colony and the center of government and trade, but the growth of the rural areas created a large new country constituency (most of it Dutch) that was pitted against city interests. The perennial upstate-downstate division that characterizes politics in New York today got its start in the late 17th century as the landed gentry challenged the city merchants for power in colonial affairs.


Farmhouses of the Hudson Valley

By 1750, most of the region had been settled in a network of small local communities that still survives today. Communities were composed of a number of farms and associated industries and trades; farms were by far the fundamental component of rural life. Each community was its own distinct entity, essentially self-sufficient though interdependent with others around to it. The population was made up of people of all economic classes and cultural diversity was common. Virtually all the houses that survive from the 18th century represent the dwellings of the upper classes of rural communities. These were the houses that were constructed to last and carry farm families into ensuing generations. Continuity in rural life was tied to the land. The architecture of the three principal Dutch areas evolved and matured into what can be distinguished as a Hudson Valley architecture.

 Columbia County farmhouse, c1760 photo by Neil Larson 

 Thomas Jansen House, Dwaarkill NY, c1770 photo by Neil Larson 

 Parsonage, Tappan NY, c1770 photo by Neil Larson

Other ethnic communities established a presence on the Hudson Valley rural landscape as well. A small number of French Huguenot (Protestant) refugees found their way to Kingston in the late 1600's, and in 1677, twelve of them obtained a patent to lands along the Wallkill, which they named New Paltz. They built their permanent homes in stone and in the style of the early Dutch houses of Kingston. One of them, the gable-front Bevier-Elting House on Huguenot Street, may be the last surviving example of the type of those original stone houses. Another, the Jean Hasbrouck House, is remarkable for its extraordinary scale.

 Bevier-Elting House, New Paltz NY, c1690 and later photo by Neil Larson 

 Jean Hasbrouck House, New Paltz NY, c1721 photo by Neil Larson

A large number of farmers in the Hudson Valley in the 18th century were German. Like the Huguenots, they were refugees but from the economically and politically unstable states in the Palatinates of the upper Rhine. Unlike the Huguenots, they arrived in the region destitute and expected to labor on plantations set up by the English to produce naval stores. This project failed almost immediately and the "Palatines" spread out throughout the valley. Since few of them had the personal resources, they often chose to lease farms from the proprietors on the east side of the river. The Germans also built in the Dutch manner, though often at a more modest scale. Stone buildings built by more successful tenant families remain as landmarks of this important cultural group.

 Abraham Traver House, Rhinebeck NY, c1780 photo by Neil Larson

Cultural groups coming to the Hudson Valley from the European continent: Dutch, French, German, Scandinavian all affiliated within a general Dutch community that was distinguished by its opposition to the English culture. Outside of New York City, English settlers in rural areas were generally forced to assimilate into Dutch communities, rather than vice versa. One exception to this was in what is now known as Orange County. (Most of present-day Orange County was part of Ulster County in colonial times, and today's Rockland County was known as Orange County.) Settled by Protestant Scots-Irish immigrants in the 1740's, the countryside southwest of Newburgh became known as Little Britain because of the remarkable concentration of non-Dutch communities there. This area was part of a broader British cultural zone that extended from the Chesapeake to New England. The Orange County community connected with other British settlements in western New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania along the Delaware River and with coastal Connecticut via Putnam County, which was also heavily populated with people from the British Isles. This narrow strip of British settlement divided the predominantly Dutch areas of the mid- and upper-Hudson Valley from the more mixed, multicultural region that developed around New York City.

Map of Colonial Era Counties in New York from David Ellis et al., A History of New York State (1967)

British farmhouses in the Hudson Valley were dramatically different in plan and appearance than their Dutch counterparts. Where Dutch farmhouses employed linear plans with rooms connected end-to-end (a function of their traditional post-and-beam construction system), British farmhouses had their plans consolidated and stacked around a single chimney. Thus, British farmhouses were tall and square, while Dutch farmhouses were low and rectangular. Although they were culturally related to the classic center-chimney houses of New England, the British farmhouse as it developed along the Atlantic seaboard in the 18th century emphasized a multi-storey form with a narrow, three-bay façade with a side entry.

William Bull House, Hamptonburgh NY, c1725 from Seese, Mildred Parker. Old Orange Houses. (1941), page 13

If it were not for their size, plan and farm function, these British farmhouses look like they evolved from townhouses like their Dutch counterparts. Yet, they did not have the same history, even though their orderly three-bay facades are visually reminiscent of urban architecture. These houses have their antecedents in the rural dwellings of northern England and Scotland, including the fortified houses and castles that still remain there.


Townhouses of the Hudson Valley

Dutch and English townhouses were similar in appearance because of the narrow frontage of their urban lots dictated multi-storey plans and compressed three-bay facades. Once the English took control of the colony, the appearance of New York City changed dramatically. Physical and economic growth in the 18th century gradually erased any evidence of New Amsterdam, so that by the end of the Revolutionary War, Romantics such as Washington Irving were lamenting the nearly complete loss of the town's old Dutch character. One-hundred-and-fifty miles upstream, Albany was more isolated and many of its Dutch relics survived into the 20th century. Even at that, Albany's Dutch architecture became infused with the English taste in the 19th century as immigrants from New England and economic growth following the completion of the Erie Canal brought the town more into the mainstream of American life.

Street scene in Albany c1810, James Eights, c1840. from collection of Albany Institute of History and Art




Suggested Reading

Bailey, Rosalie Fellows.Pre-Revolutionary Dutch Houses and Families in Northern New Jersey and Southern New York. 1936; rpt. NY: Dover, 1968.
Blackburn, Roderic H., et al. Rembrance of Patria; Dutch Arts and Culture in Colonial America 1609-1776. Albany NY: Albany Institute of History and Art, 1988. 
Cohen, David Steven. The Dutch-American Farm. NY: NYUP, 1992.
Dunn, Shirley W. And Allison P. Bennett. Dutch Architecture Near Albany: The Polgren Photographs. 
Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 1996 
Eberlein, Harold Donaldson and Cortlandt Van Dyck Hubbard. Historic Houses of the Hudson Valley. NY: The Architectural Book Publishing Co., 1942.
Piwonka, Ruth, and Roderic H. Blackburn. A Visible Heritage, Columbia County, New York : A History in Art and Architecture.Kinderhook, NY: Columbia County Historical Society, 1977. 
Reynolds, Helen Wilkinson. Dutch Houses in the Hudson Valley Before 1776. 1929; rpt. NY: Dover, 1965. 
Seese, Mildred Parker. Old Orange Houses. Middletown, NY: Whitlock Press, 1941. ______. Old Orange Houses, Vol. II. By the author, 1942.