Today the home of Taylor and Elizabeth Thompson at 194 West Chestnut Street is a beautifully maintained residence on an elevated site with a splendid view of the Rondout Creek and Hudson River. The clapboard-and shingle-walled house was designed in 1886 by famed architect Calvert Vaux, once the partner of tastemaker Andrew Jackson Downing and later co-designer with Frederick Law Olmsted of New York’s Central Park.
Vaux’s client was Frank H. Griffiths, a flour and feed merchant in Rondout who apparently built the house a few years after its 1886 design. In the early 20th century it was the part-time residence of Griffiths’ daughter Anna and her husband, Arthur Frederick Sheldon, founder of a highly successful business school in Chicago as well as a leader of Rotary International. Their daughter Helen Sheldon inherited the house and occupied it until her death in 1976.
In the 1970s, the house fell into disrepair and its prospects for survival were dim. In October 1977, it was put up for sale and when Elizabeth Thompson saw it, she was smitten by the spacious interior with its ornately embellished staircase and pair of fireplaces. As her husband Taylor recalls: “It was love at first sight.”
Elizabeth had her own interior design business and was looking for an old house to restore. The house had not been lived in for two years and when Taylor first saw it, with its overgrown yard, shuttered windows, peeled paint, drooping porch and scattered broken furniture, he gulped and asked his wife, “Why do you want this house?” Elizabeth had already outlined what she wanted to do with it, so he says he did what any good husband would do — closed his eyes and said, “Okay, if you want it!”
The purchase was encouraged by realtor Bill Daron and Florence Cordts, friend of Helen Sheldon and executor of her estate. Miss Cordts, who resided in Ponckhockie in her family’s impressively towered and mansarded house (dated 1873) with its own magnificent river view, was firmly opposed to selling the property to the owner of the former Edward Coykendall mansion next door, which had been disfigured by the addition of modern apartments.
As Taylor recounts, Elizabeth set about getting it into shape. It took one year. The original plumbing and wiring had been ripped out by vandals to sell for copper scrap and the only heating system was a huge coal-burning furnace. The house had to be totally plumbed, re-wired and a new heating system installed. Then Elizabeth restored the kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms and beautiful wood floors. “We moved in for about 20 years of continuous restoration,” said Taylor. In fact, improvements to the building, its furnishings and the landscaped grounds have never stopped.
The house as originally designed by Vaux (his authorship is confirmed by entries in the diary of his brother-in-law, Jervis McEntee, the well-regarded landscape painter whose home was nearby) was large and commodious. Today there are 18 rooms on three floors but externally the house is a fairly austere example of what is called the Shingle Style. The walls of clapboard below and decoratively patterned shingles in the four gables above are flat with few projecting elements. A bay or oriel window stood out from both the West Chestnut Street façade and the opposite façade facing the Rondout Creek. A small balcony projected from the right side of the street façade, but it was collapsing in 1977. Elizabeth removed it and slightly shifted a nearby window to achieve a more symmetrical street front, while enriching this front by adding a balcony to what had been a simple oriel.
A more significant alteration was the replacement of the modest porch at the east end of the house, where the main entrance was originally located, with an enclosed screened terrace. The stone mounting block, carved with Griffiths’ name and now also with the Thompsons’, has been moved to the curving driveway from West Chestnut installed by the Thompsons. This driveway leads to the “Carriage House,” designed by Elizabeth in a style compatible with Vaux’s, and to the house’s current main entrance, formerly the basement service entrance.
The house has a rectangular floor plan, with the principal living and bedrooms mostly on the long side facing the panorama of the Rondout Creek and Hudson River, a view similar to Jervis McEntee’s from the studio-house (1853-54) Vaux designed for him a short distance to the east. Designing a house for Griffiths on a hill oriented to the Rondout and Hudson view, Vaux placed the main entrance around the corner from the creek and river front — something he had done more dramatically at Frederic Church’s Olana. A hint of Olana’s bold coloration can even be found in the red-tinted glass of the arched window lighting the Griffiths staircase. A larger yellow-tinted window colors the north light falling on Olana’s grand staircase.
Many of Vaux’s houses, both in Rondout and elsewhere, have not survived. McEntee’s studio is long gone. Vanished too are the houses of Walter B. Crane on Grove Street and Albert Terry on Broadway, as well as Samuel Coykendall’s West Chestnut Street mansion. Fortunately, Elizabeth and Taylor Thompson had the vision and creativity to bring 194 West Chestnut Street back to life during a time when few had the courage to undertake such an ambitious preservation project. It received a 2011 Preservation Award from the Friends of Historic Kingston.
Dr. William B. Rhoads is professor emeritus of art history at SUNY New Paltz and author of Kingston New York: The Architectural Guide, published in 2003 by Black Dome Press and now in its second printing. He serves on the board of directors of the Friends of Historic Kingston and on the organization’s Preservation Committee. He lectures widely on the architecture of the Hudson River Valley. This column will be an occasional exploration of Kingston’s numerous architectural gems and points of interest.