Bronze plaque commemorating Ulster County Chronic InfirmaryIt speaks well of the newly formed city government of Kingston that the first building it erected, between 1872 and 1874, was an institution to care for some 200 of the city’s poor. The City Almshouse was designed by the region’s leading architect, John. A. Wood (1837-1910), who had already designed many important Kingston buildings. Wood used an up-to-date Victorian style, the Italianate, to create a building with a three-part facade that was both dignified and economical.  Italianate features include the freely interpreted classical forms of the porch, the variously arched windows topped with drip moldings, the projecting eaves, and the gently pitched roof. Also worthy of preservation are a utility building and barn or stable behind the main building. The Almshouse interior was remodeled in 1954 by architect Harry Halverson to serve as the Ulster County Chronic Infirmary, but the original exterior was minimally altered.

Architect Wood based Kingston’s three-part Italianate facade on the Poughkeepsie City Alms House he had designed earlier, in 1868. Poughkeepsie’s former Almshouse, listed on the National Register in 1978, can now perhaps be a model for the preservation and adaptive reuse of Kingston’s structure. Poughkeepsie’s main building has been successfully renovated as Maplewood, housing for senior citizens, while the adjacent barn or stable has been adapted to function as Mill Street Loft, an arts program for young people.[1]  Ulster County proposes a similar adaptive reuse that will preserve this historic building, the first built by the new City of Kingston after its creation in 1872 and the work of a distinguished nineteenth century Hudson Valley architect.              

Early Care for the Poor in Ulster County and Kingston

In his history of Kingston written in 1888, Marius Schoonmaker wrote that the trustees of the early township of Kingston had “uniformly from the time of their incorporation taken care of the poor of the town and provided for their wants.”  Provision for the poor was, in fact, written into the town’s charter.  In 1770, the colonial legislature explicitly made the trustees overseers of the poor.  But it was 1790 before the township’s Board of Trustees resolved on building an alms house.  They also specified a piece of property on which it would be built.[2]

In time, other use was found for the property on which an alms house was to have been built but the resolution to have an alms house remained in effect. In 1803, the town trustees set forth a plan for selling off lots in the town’s “Commons” or undeveloped wood and pasture land to the town’s freeholders.  The money collected for selling the lots would be used to finance support for the poor, presumably including the building of the alms house first mentioned in 1790.[3]

Kingston City Alms HouseIn 1805, the Village of Kingston was created out of the larger township.[4]  Although provision of some kind was probably made for the poor of Kingston village, no building seems to have been designated for this purpose nor, based on a reading of Stuart Blumin’s study of the neighboring Rondout village, does that much newer village, incorporated in 1849, seem to have included such an institution. In 1872, the villages of Kingston and Rondout combined to form the City of Kingston.  At the very first meeting of the city’s new Common Council, Mayor James Lindsley pointed out that the State Legislature provided for the establishment of an Almshouse Commission and bonding authority of $10,000 to build an alms house.  According to Mayor Lindsley, the greatest change in the new Charter was in taking care of the poor and the distribution of alms.

A newly appointed Almshouse Commission voted at its first meeting to visit the Alms House in Poughkeepsie.  In June of 1873 the Commission voted to hire J. A. Wood, an architect who was well-known in the Hudson Valley “to draw the plans and superintend the construstion of a large and suitable building for the keeping of paupers.”  After acquiring 21 acres on the outskirts of Kingston for a building site, the Commission determined that $10,000 was not enough to build the alms house and went back to the State Legislature for permission to bond up to $25,000 for the building.

Work began during the summer of 1873 with Henry Otis chosen to do the masonry work. It was the first of a number of buildings on which Wood and Otis would work together.  The new Kingston City Almshouse was opened in June of 1874.[5]

Black & white postcard of Kingston City Alms HouseThe New Almshouse

The 21-acre site for the Almshouse was on Flatbush Road at the northern boundary of the village.  The facility was intended to care for somewhere between 150 and 200 of the poor.[6]  The main building consisted of a four-story main building (30 x 60 feet) with adjoining three-story wings (each 40 x 40 feet), in an Italianate style clad in brick.  Plans were made for a large brick barn (30 x 50 feet) and for a frame laundry building behind the Almshouse.  A quarry behind the laundry was to provide stone for a wall around the property.  Of the 21 acres, 16 were to be cultivated for vegetable gardening together with apple trees.  A spring-fed reservoir (38 feet in diameter and 8 feet deep) was to provide water.  The site itself cost $7,000 and the main building $23,000.  Another $22,000 was allocated for the grounds.[7]

The Almshouse opened in July, 1874. Six years later, an unnamed reporter in the Kingston Daily Freeman wrote that “There has been an immense amount of work done by the inmates of the institution in the years since 1874 in grading.  Other cities have their charitable institutions . . . but there are few cities that can boast of as good and well kept an Alms House as Kingston can.  Much fault has been found of the cost of its erection, but those who conceived the plans were working for the future, and coming generations may praise them for their far-seeing wisdom.  It is a substantial building, and when poor people have become so old that they have no kith or kin on which to depend for support may thank fortune to be allowed to live their remaining days in such a home as is here provided for them.”

“The house as far as cleanliness and fresh air is concerned is as good as any hotel or summer boarding house in this or any other county. It would pay any one to visit the Alms House, and go into its upper stories, as the best view can there be obtained of the surrounding country in our city.  The view takes in a grand sweep nearly all the Catskill range and the Shawangunk mountains, the whole of old Kingston village and a long stretch of country including the level plain toward Saugerties,  which already has been waving fields of grain.  Just inside the main entrance to the building are the two offices of the Superintendent . . . . The dining room is very pleasant, having windows its entire length and facing the Catskills. . . . The kitchen contains a mammoth American cook stove.  The whole building is heated by steam . . . .”[8]

Later or Additional Buildings

The one-story building with monitor roof immediately behind the main building of the Almshouse is identified in 1932 Sanborn maps as the laundry, built sometime after 1880. A similar laundry was built just behind the Poughkeepsie Almshouse.

The barn or stable further to the rear of the property (probably the building scheduled to be built in 1880) again relates to stables or barns behind the Poughkeepsie Almshouse.

Bronze plaque honoring Linda UhlfelderA Burying Ground

A “burying ground” at the Almshouse is mentioned in these issues of the Kingston Daily Freeman:

May 3, 1907: Body of Frank Sheldon (with “bad habits”) interred.

June 23, 1909: Body of unidentified man killed in north yard of West Shore Railroad buried at Almshouse, but now identified and disinterred for burial in New Jersey.

April 12, 1910: Body of Mag Graney found in Hudson River “after a debauche” probably to be interred at Almshouse burying ground.

August 15, 1911: Body of Henry Clark who died suddenly on upper Broadway interred in the Almshouse burial ground after Undertaker Murphy unable to communicate with relatives.

Similarities Between Kingston and Poughkeepsie Almshouses

Both of the alms houses have a central, three-story main block flanked by matching two-story wings placed slightly forward of the main block. Both are in the Italianate style in terms of their porches, window heads, cornices, and low roofs with slightly rising gables.[9]

More Recent History

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Almshouse was commonly known as “The Poor House” and was administered by the Board of Alms Commissioners . In 1948, the building was vacated and, in 1954, the property was transferred to the county for use as a chronic infirmary.   The Ulster County Infirmary operated in the building until new facilities were built at another site (Golden Hill) in 1973.  Thereafter, the building served as offices for the Ulster County Health Department until 2014 or 2015.[10]               

 Architect J.A. Wood and riendsThe Architect: John A. Wood

 [The following is from William B. Rhoads’s Kingston New York – The Architectural Guide (page 179):

 A. Wood was the leading architect in the Mid-Hudson region in the late 1860s and 1870s, designing several of Kingston’s most prominent buildings of that period. Born in 1837 in the Town of Bethel, Sullivan County, he was the son of Stephen C. Wood and Mary Crist Wood. By 1863 he was practicing in Poughkeepsie, where his office remained until 1871 when he established his office on Broadway in New York.  His operations were centered in New York for the rest of his life.

His buildings in Kingston include First Baptish Church, Albany Avenue, 1868; conversion of former Dutch Reforemd Church to St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, 1869; Kignston Music Hall (later Opera House), on Fair Street, 1867-1869; Ulster County Savings Bank, Wall Street, 1868-1869; Office of Simeon and William B. Fitch , Wilbur, 1870; Children’s Church, Ponckhockie,  1870-1871; Kingston City Almshouse, 1872-1874;  Thomas Cornell Carriage House, 1873;  Dr. Robert Loughran House, Fair Street, 1873; Kingston Argus Building, Wall Street, 1874 (demolished); First Presbyterian Church, Elmendorf Street  , 1878; New York State Armory , Broadway, 1878; and Stuyvesant Hotel, John and Fair Streets, 1910.

Wood became something of a specialist in hotel design, and was responsible for the second Overlook Mountain House (1878) above Woodstock, the Tremper House (1879) in Phoenicia, the Grand Hotel (1881) at Highmount, as well as hotels in Georgia and Florida.  The most famous of the latter is the Tampa Bay Hotel (1891), preserved by the University of Tampa.

A. Wood died in Middletown on December 18, 1910, and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Town of Bethel. His career hs been the subject of intense and fruitful research by Annon Adams and James Storrow, who have generously shared their findings with me.

[Rhoads describes the Kingston Almshouse on page 114:]  It speaks well of the new city government that the first building it erected was an institution to care (inexpensively) for 150 to 200 of the poor of Kingston.  J. A. Wood had already designed the Poughkeepsie City Almshouse in 1868, and so he repeated the Italianate elements of that three-part facade in a fashion that alludes to the dignity of municipal government while avoiding expensive ornament.  In 1954, the building was remodeled by Harry Halverson to serve as the Ulster County Chronic Infirmary.

Bibliography        

Adams, Annon. “Victorian Ambitions: J. A. Wood’s Architectural Legacy in Ulster County,” a slide lecture presented to the Ulster County Historical Society at the Bevier House on November 3, 2007.

Blumin, Stuart M. The Urban Threshold – Growth and Change in a Nineteenth-Century American Community. University of Chicago Press. Chicago, 1976.

Kellar, Jane and Roberts, Peter. “Preservation of the Kingston City Alms House (1872) – Kingston, NY.”  Comment presented to Ulster County by the Friends of Historic Kingston about the preservation of the Alms House.                                      

Kingston Daily Freeman, June 2, 1880. “City Alms House…What a Reporter Saw of Interest.” (Available online at fultonhistory.com; search “Kingston Alms Houses” and see third of twelve items).  Kingston, New York.

Rhoads, William B. Kingston New York – The Architectural Guide. 2003.  Black Dome Press.  Hensonville, New York.  The Alms House is pictured and described on page 114.     

Schoonmaker, Marius.  The History of Kingston, New York from Its Early Settlement to the Year 1820. Burr Printing House. New York: 1888.      

[Sections of this application were prepared by Lowell Thing using extensive notes provided by William B. Rhoads. Lowell Thing can be reached at twothings@hvc.rr.com.] 

[1] For information on Maplewood, contact Burt Gold, principal at Fallkill Properties, Collegeview Ave., 471-8433; on Mill Street Loft, contact Carole Wolf, 471-7477; this contact information provided by Professor Harvey Flad of Vassar College.

[2] Schoonmaker, pps.  376-377.

[3] Schoonmaker, p. 378.

[4] Schoonmaker, p. 382.

[5]Adams.

[6] Rhoads, p. 114.

[7] Kingston Daily Freeman, June 2, 1880.

[8] Kingston Daily Freeman, June 2, 1880.

[9] Rhoads informal note.

[10] Kellar, p. 3.