Gerald Celente at the front door of Jansen House, one of the historic buildings on Kingston's Four Corners.
Revolutionary corner, revolutionary renaissance
A fresh face for Kingston's historic Four Corners
By Deborah Medenbach
Photos by Michael Bloom
TRAP DOORS, HANGING BEAMS THAT ONCE once were gallows, mysterious wallpaper and small spaces used for the Underground Railroad: The four stone buildings at Crown and John streets in Kingston mark the only intact pre-Revolutionary intersection in the country, each with its own mysteries marking three centuries of life here.
Jansen House, Franz Roggen House, Kingston Academy and the Matthewis Persen House all were burned when the British stormed Kingston in 1777, and these structures were restored or expanded shortly thereafter. For the first time since their construction, three of the four historic buildings are under the stewardship of one owner.
Gerald Celente, whose Trends Research Institute office is half a block away on John Street, would be the first to say he's "not into real estate," but a cascade of events put his name on the deeds, lightened his bank account by $1.5 million and galvanized his personal convictions about history and the preservation of beauty.
Celente spent much of April 2012 in Berlin to launch a German translation of his Trends Journal magazine. He noticed ancient buildings bridged by new architecture to renew war-bombed districts. He thought about sophisticated societies that succumb to troubled leadership, but he took heart in the tradition of grassroots uprisings in America.
"This is where I live and this is where I will stay. If Kingston is where the first Revolution happened, why not a second? We are in Colonial Kingston," Celente said, emphasizing a second revolution would be one of fostering beauty as an antidote to fear. "Art is the way of finding the true meaning of the human spirit. I surround myself with beauty and art. Young people think (box stores and fast food restaurants) are all there is. There is no beauty, grace or dignity to that way of living. It drains the heart and is soul sapping."
Within a week of Celente's return from Berlin, the Franz Roggen house at 42 Crown St. was his. The building was in immaculate shape, and his only task was to rent out the office suites, state Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk being his first new tenant. Meanwhile, diagonally across the intersection, a Middle Eastern stone merchant of Celente's acquaintance was considering the purchase of the Kingston Academy.
"Ahmad Khadra said he heard the Academy was for sale and I said, 'Let's have a look at it' and within 15 minutes, we decided we would buy it together," Celente said. By October, the pair closed on the 35 Crown St. building.
"This (past) summer, I learned that Aphrodite's was for sale," Celente said, referring to the most recent owner of Jansen House at 43-45 Crown St. "Originally Ahmad and I were going to go in on it together, but at the last minute he had to back out. I decided it was important for me to go forward anyway since it was in foreclosure." While Dr. Aphrodite Clamar's side of the house was in immaculate shape, the apartment addition that had once been a medical office needed renovation.
"Now the last thing in the world I wanted to do was to buy another building, but (Realtor) Win Morrison approached me to say he was putting the Schneller's building up for sale," Celente said. The brick structure on John Street bordered the Roggen House's garden, and whoever owned it would have significant impact on the famed Four Corners intersection and Celente's own offices two doors down.
"It made sense to have it all connected, so I bought that one too," Celente said.
He had already converted the former Mohican Market into the Trends Institute's headquarters, putting top craftsmen to work from basement to roof. With this block of historic properties in place, he could do his part to not only preserve the past but cultivate an elegant corner of a walkable city.
"It's impressive that he's willing to take it on," said former Friends of Historic Kingston President Haynes Llewellyn. "By purchasing five buildings and restoring them, he's showing a real commitment to the area. Not everyone who comes through consults the Landmarks Commission, but Gerald is well in the process."
"When you look at the postcard book the Friends of Historic Kingston just came out with and see what was once in Kingston that is now gone, you have to ask, 'Why can't we have that again? Bring it back to the highest quality?'" Celente said. "I'm doing my part for the renaissance."
When the ceilings of the Kingston Academy were exposed, workmen discovered wallpapered panels like the one above on the support beams.Kingston Academy
The Kingston Academy was built in 1774 as a place to study languages, math and the arts. After being burned by the British in 1777, but according to state documents, it stayed closed only for five months while all resources were brought to bear to reopen. Young artist John Vanderlyn studied here in the late 1780s, graduating in 1791. The building closed in the 1830s and became a carpenter's shop, a newspaper office, a Sears appliance store and a series of restaurants.
Celente retained architect Joseph Hurwitz of Woodstock to work up floor plans for a restaurant and international market on the first floor, while the second floor will remain untouched as the WGHQ radio station offices. Habib, a Tunisian master mason, repointed the building's stonework where the ancient mortar had turned to powder, and he prepared the floors for limestone tiles.
The first phase of renovations cost $120,000 just to get the building into rentable condition. "The complete job will be an additional $300,000 or more," Celente said.
"We're really amazed at what he's doing," Llewellyn said. "He's doing it right. He's hauled out all the kitschy stuff and has the resources to do things that will help preserve the buildings for generations to come.
"His designs for the canopies over the doors at the Kingston Academy are much like the ones on the neighboring building, and he's talking to the Landmarks Commission about color choices so it all ties in with other buildings on the block. The limestone flooring is in keeping with the building and will be beautiful when he's done."
In removing the patchwork of centuries of multiple uses, workmen discovered that the underside of the upstairs floorboards, now peeking through open rafters, were wallpapered with delicate scrolls, floral sprays and filigree. Why would anyone put expensive ancient paper on surfaces that would never be seen?
"My best guess is that when it burned down (in 1777) they reused walls to make floors, but that's just a guess," Celente said. Wallpaper conservators date the paper to an early American wallpaper company that certainly had 18th-century beginnings but was most popular in the mid-19th century. Precise dating has not been done, and the paper's reason for hidden beauty remain a mystery.
The Jansen House on Crown Street was originally know as the "House of Doctors."Jansen House
The earliest house at 43-45 Crown St. was built in the mid-1600s, burned in 1777 and rebuilt in 1790. The current building retains a small portion of the sturdy, 20-inch-thick original limestone walls toward the rear of the structure and one original front door. The building, known as the "House of Doctors," had been a home and medical office for Jansen family doctors and was most recently a personal residence.
A 20th-century account about the building told the story of the return of a former resident doctor who demonstrated the operation of a system of pulleys hidden behind false panels alongside one of the fireplaces that opened a trap door in the floor. Since the main part of Jansen House did not require renovations, the location of the hidden system remains a mystery.
Every day for the month of April, florist Brian Bender-Tymon sanded floors and the curving banister of the one-story former medical office wing, removing a dozen layers of paint. The refinished floors, painted walls and pastel-trimmed accents are now the new home of Petalos Floral Design and Eugene Gregan's Permanent Bouquet Art Gallery, which opened in May.
The bright, well-kept main portion of the building will either be rented as a residence or used as a bed and breakfast.
"That's a good use of that building," Llewellyn said. "A little shop and maybe a bed and breakfast. It was so deadly dull before. Nothing ever happened there. Now it will have some life to it."
The Roggen House was used as a station on the Underground Railroad for fleeing slaves.Roggen House
The Roggen family occupied this 1752 house for close to 200 years. After the British burned the building, the walls remained standing, and the main beams reportedly were used as a gallows. It's possible the building was still used in this way when Vanderlyn was a schoolboy across the street.
The hanging beams were incorporated into the reconstruction of the house in 1800, perhaps as a warning against traitors and miscreants. The building's history of supporting grassroots justice are borne out in the second-floor closet's use for the Underground Railroad to hide fleeing slaves. Roggen House now houses a securities firm, Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk's local office and additional office space.
The only corner of the historic Crown and John Street intersection not now owned by Celente is the Matthewis Persen House at 74 John St., which has been owned by Ulster County since 1914.
The building, named after its longest resident, shows five phases of development, from the simple wooden house built by a Dutch surgeon to several stone additions as fires or occupational adaptations made necessary.
A comprehensive architectural exploration of the site in 1999 turned up 20,000 artifacts, which were carefully catalogued. Highlights of the excavation are on display for public viewing.
The nondescript brick building on John Street was once the Schneller's butcher shop. The building has been gutted and will be home to a small restaurant with shared access to the Roggen House garden for summer outdoor dining and jazz music sometime in the fall.
"Just mentioning it on the street, people have nostalgia about what it used to be when it was the Schneller's Beer Garden," said chef Juan Romero, who runs Duo Restaurant across the street.
"For the Schneller's building, I'll spend $150,000 in the first phase," Celente said of the complete renovation of the simple building and creation of a scenic garden access and deck on the side of the structure.