Time Travelling at the Hudson River in the Catskills

The great lesson is that the sacred is in the ordinary,
that it is to be found in one’s daily life,
in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s backyard.

~Abraham Maslow, 1908 – 1970

Clermont, Germantown, New York

Rip Van Winkle and I time travelled in different directions in the Catskill Mountains.  Washington Irving’s first literary offspring awoke from twenty years’ slumber to find progress had altered the Hudson River life he knew.  I, on the other hand, crossed the New York state border and felt magically transported back in time.

On a recent weekend getaway, my husband Tom and I drove along winding roads where the first buds of spring unfolded across the pastoral landscape that inspired the Hudson River School of painters, America’s first art movement.  Its founder Thomas Cole, born at the turn of the 19th century, is said to have maintained that if nature were untouched by the hand of man, then man could become more easily acquainted with the hand of God.

It was easy to understand why Cole and his contemporaries felt divinely inspired here.  Even more than two centuries later, in the golden light of late afternoon, the passing scenery evoked a sense of contented peacefulness.  Flaxen fields shimmered in the gentle breeze, immense weeping willows presided over green lowlands dappled with hundreds of daffodils, and hawks rode wind currents high above decrepit barns dressed up with fresh coats of cherry red paint.  The scenery was achingly beautiful and from my passenger seat in the car, the farming life I knew to be hard and demanding appeared an idyllic existence.

The word “nostalgia” comes from the Greek, meaning “return home.” Nostalgia is defined as a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.  I can sometimes feel nostalgic for places I’ve never been and eras before my time.

Arriving in Hudson, we checked into our B & B tucked away on a quiet cul-de-sac.  The Croff House is a glorious old painted lady that owners Russ and Duncan lovingly restored over seven months in 2008.  Here, my time travel took me to another era, one of stained glass windows and sweeping staircases, and we enjoyed a cup of tea in front of a crackling fire in what had been the home of a leading society couple in 1875.  Fortified against the chill of the waning day, Tom and I decided to take a stroll down the main thoroughfare in Hudson before dining with an old friend who lives in the area.

Warren Street is a time capsule of remarkably well-preserved 18th – 20th century buildings, with an eclectic mix of styles standing side by side.  Hudson has been called the “finest dictionary of American architecture in New York State,” with hundreds of properties listed in the State and National Registers of historic places.  Abutting one another are pristine examples of more than seven periods, including Federal, Greek Revival, Carpenter Gothic, Second Empire, Italianate, Victorian and Arts & Crafts.  The juxtaposition of eras had my eyes darting from gambrel roofs to Roman-inspired porticoes, and over to elliptical fanlights, then moving up to elaborate scroll-work, and across to Corinthian capitals.

Off Warren, on State Street, the Federal style Hudson Area Association Library, erected in 1818, is now in its sixth incarnation, having lived several past lives—as the city’s poorhouse, a lunatic asylum, a school for young women, a private home, and then an orphanage.

Back at Croff House, I pondered one of my own past lives as I paced in the living room waiting for Mary, a college classmate Tom and I had not seen in more than thirty years.  Becoming reacquainted with her had been a bright spot in the otherwise sometimes intimidating, sometimes annoying realm of social media.  We had enjoyed online laughs at our freshman antics and came to realize what parallel paths we had been on for the past three decades. The evening was a meaningful validation of the karmic connection we shared and I later came across two bits of Hudson lore that underscored that the city was a fitting locale for our reunion.

Hudson served as the period set for the television program “The Wonder Years,” a series that always struck a chord with me, about adolescent life in the sixties.  I also discovered that a painting by Thomas Cole’s protege Asher B. Durand entitled “Kindred Spirits”  is considered emblematic of the Hudson River school’s philosophy, that only Nature and the Divine within the human soul are eternal.

An assortment of disparate people came together in Hudson’s early history.  The land was purchased from native Mohicans by Dutch settlers in 1662 and in 1783, a group of New England whalers, many of them Quakers, came west on the Hudson.

On Sunday morning, Tom and I headed south along the river on Route 9-G, making our way to the Clermont estate, tucked back from the road on the border of Columbia and Dutchess counties.  Clermont was the home of seven successive generations of the Livingston family over more than 230 years.  Built in 1728 by Robert Livingston, Jr. when he inherited 13,000 acres, it was the second largest private landholding in colonial New York.

The property is a monument to a bygone way of life and yet its rooms exuded a certain character, in part because much of its furnishings were intact and included poignant details like a ragdoll with a painted porcelein face and straw boater, and a bowl of apples on the sideboard of an oversized alabastor sink.  Imagining the estate as not just a museum but a beloved home was also possible because the knowledgeable guide shared stories about various Livingston personalities that made clear its inhabitants were living, breathing human beings with both foibles and forceful wills.

I was particularly struck by hearing about matriach Margaret Beekman Livingston, who managed the estate during most of the Revolutionary War years.  Because of the Livingston family’s prominent role in support of independence, Clermont was burned by British troops under the command of General John Vaughan during a foray up the Hudson River in the autumn of 1777. Margaret Beekman Livingston had a day’s notice the Brits were coming and oversaw the china being buried and as many of the family’s possessions as possible loaded unto wagons for transport to the safety of a relative’s in Connecticut.  Later, she rebuffed her son’s admonitions to move in with him in New York City, choosing to rebuild the family home and supervising its reconstruction between 1779 and 1782.

Outside, we admired the view–visible across the Hudson River from the house are the Catskill Mountains that inspired the estate’s name: Clermont means “clear mountain” in French. As we watched a huge freightor chug along the broad swath of water, I was surprised at the noise level of the river’s current, which made a loud but not unpleasant sound, like a liquid breeze.

In the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, Hudson became notorious for its Red Light district, with 15 of it old homes along Diamond Street serving as brothels. At the peak of the vice industry, Hudson sported more than 50 bars.

Today the city is known for its scores of antiques dealers, with close to seventy such shops.  On our last morning in Hudson, Tom and I poked around in a dozen or so of these storefronts.  Both of us are inveterate packrats equally fascinated with the bric-a-brac of other people’s lives.  I am drawn to vintage clothes, distressed furniture and religious iconography; Tom’s tastes run more toward rusty tools, duck decoys and faded LP albums.

Agreeing it would be the last shop we’d visit before embarking on our return drive home, we entered a store packed with previously-owned items—by Balinese, that is.  Along with colorful batik clothing, the shelves were stocked with folk art and architectural salvage from the Indonesian island.  The pieces were all so beautiful, I felt a yearning to experience first-hand the land that had produced such artistry.  I was captivated by an exotic puppet outfitted herself in batik as well as in beads and tassels.  While it felt somehow inauthentic to be purchasing Asian art in a hamlet that is a shrine to American architecture, I will enjoy my new marionette until I can shop for one in Bali.

The shop keeper walked us to the door, wishing us a safe trip home.  With the slightest of pauses she added “Where is home?”  I told her we were from the Boston area and after a slight pause of my own, tacked on “Nahant—it’s the smallest town in Massachusetts.”

Her eyes lit up and she exclaimed “I know Nahant!  I lived there for a summer…and wrote a book of poetry!”

3 thoughts on “Time Travelling at the Hudson River in the Catskills”

    1. Robert, it made my day to get this note from you! I have since done some fiddling with the essay–which I hope translates into an improvement and not a detraction! The beauty of the web–one can revise endlessly! Thanks so much for your note! Cheers, Meg

  1. What a great trip — just shows you don’t have to be on the other side of the world to find wonder. And I can so identify with the moment on the deck with your rainbow. Your heart was in the right place to accept the gift!

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