A Passion for Poughkeepsie
Nancy Cozean is not only the city’s mayor, she’s also its biggest booster and an avid collector of its history
by Mary Forsell
Photographs by Thomas Moore
Back in the ’70s, Nancy Cozean and her husband, Donald Jacob, met at a seance sneakily set up by their friends to bring them together. At the time, she was working as an anchorwoman in Indiana and he was doing PR for a local university. “The man holding the cards said I’d just met the man in my life,” recalls Cozean with a laugh.
In all likelihood, the medium wasn’t so much gifted as just a good observer of human nature. Cozean and Jacob have such a natural rapport, anyone could see they were destined to be together.
“We both grew up in small, rural communities [she in Missouri and he in northern California], and both of us have always had a career interest in government,” says Cozean, who currently serves as the mayor of Poughkeepsie. “Donald had been in the state legislature of North Dakota and worked for Congress.”
They moved to Poughkeepsie from Roosevelt Island, New York City, in 1980, a strategic decision that placed them halfway between Manhattan, where he was an executive with Pfizer, and Albany, where she was a broadcast journalist and anchorwoman with WNYT. Freed from the constraints of apartment living, they discovered yet another common interest: old houses and their furnishings. In earnest they began visiting auction houses, antiques stores, and historic homes to learn about the decorative arts of the area, young daughter Josephine (now a recent college graduate) always with them. “We brought her to Madam Brett’s in Beacon as a child and she was able to identify pieces by era without having to be told,” Cozean says. Soon, they’d acquired their share of antiques.
“One of the reasons we bought this house was to find places to put everything, including my mother’s antiques,” recalls Cozean. When the downtown
It took a little convincing for Cozean and Josephine to accept the house. “There was a lot of shag carpeting and pickled wood,” recalls Cozean with a grimace. But once she saw the third floor — a cozy space covered with old barn wood — she knew there was hope. “It just gave me such a good feeling. I made it my campaign headquarters.”
While little needed to be done to the third floor, which now houses the couples’ combined collection of American Indian artifacts and precious stones, the rest of the house was a different story. Throughout the first floor, they ousted cheesy details like hot orange doors, dropped ceilings, and flocked wallpaper in favor of architectural salvage and period fixtures that look like they were there from day one.
The biggest challenge was recreating a dining room in a part of the house that had been used as the doctor’s office. When workers were taking out a dropped ceiling, they discovered an old door header that gave a clue to the original layout. The couple decided to put back the doorway, installing early American chestnut doors, which they outfitted with Wedgwood knobs. Going with an airy, feminine look, they added French-inspired window treatments, rose medallion pottery, and a Sheraton table. A gleaming marble mantel salvaged from a Newburgh home completes the light and bright look.
“That’s Robert Redford’s door,” says Cozean, pushing open a solid mahogany behemoth
Jacob acquired from a dealer who claimed the actor brought it back from Europe. Today it separates the dining room from Jacob’s office, where he sometimes works in his role as executive director of the Neuropathy Association. In complete contrast to the soft colors of the dining room, this space — formerly a sanitized, all-white doctor’s examination room — features Poughkeepsie-made brick and a terra-cotta color scheme, as well as curiosities ranging from a circa 1812 Masonic lodge clock to a prehistoric Canadian snail and boxing gloves signed by the likes of Floyd Patterson, Mike Tyson, and Joe Frazier. Construction workers exposed a door leading to the outside, revealing the room’s original identity as the kitchen.
Finding phantom doorways is one thing. Coming across a hidden wall of glass is quite another. While doing renovations in the second-floor master bath, workers came within a hair of smashing a perfectly intact wall of vintage glass brick that had been buried under plaster. Rather than updating the bath, Cozean decided to go with its retro feeling, adding more glass brick for privacy and sprinkling in dainty 1920s mirrored vanity tables.
With the construction work done, Cozean and Jacob set about adding finishing details. The kitchen displays a Dutch-American chest, Shaker boxes, and a Hudson Valleyâ€“made Queen Anne chair with its original red paint intact. “One of the things we’ve learned is that you can’t try to fix the dings and nicks. It’s part of the history of the piece,” says Cozean.
Lined up in the picture window is the couple’s collection of blue and beige Poughkeepsie stoneware, acquired piece by piece over time at auctions and stamped with coveted names like Riedinger and Caire. “Ceramics and glass are of interest to us because Poughkeepsie had such an established reputation as a manufacturing center. It was well known,” says Cozean. Also among her Poughkeepsiana is a collection of silverware, much of it gifts from friends. “Someday I’d love to have a museum showing Poughkeepsie’s tremendous wealth of industrial manufacturing,” says Cozean.
What they treasure most, though, is their collection of the works of Hudson River School painters sprinkled throughout the first floor. Cozean recalls how years ago, when she and Jacob started going to auctions, “we were seeing these realistic-looking paintings. Some of them were very primitive-looking, and we didn’t know about the Hudson River School, but we loved the theme of them.”
The more they acquired, the more it launched them on an “interesting detective search,” says Cozean. “We learned about how clouds and people’s attire can give you clues to the artist and period, and how American artists were not really respected in their own right so they had to add European themes to make it more acceptable for the genre.”
Their curiosity led them to local painter/restorer St. Julian Fishburne, who dated and restored several canvases. One painting, once owned by Matthew Vassar and attributed to Victor DeGrailly, actually survived a dog jumping through it thanks to Fishburne’s careful restoration work.
“We’re exposing them to less light to preserve them, but when you go up to Olana [home of Frederic Edwin Church] and see light on the paintings and see the details, it is just really tremendous,” says Cozean. She and Jacob sometimes visit the sites where the paintings were created — the Catskill Mountain House, Anthony’s Nose — to compare then and now. “For us, these paintings freeze time and show us how it was in another era,” says Cozean.
Cozean’s passion for the past also takes expression in her “hall of history,” papered with framed documents ranging from old maps to town records. In her own office, she displays letters from the likes of Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, and Mario Cuomo. “It’s a recording of and participation in American history.”
A member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Cozean is related to Daniel Boone and has an ancestor, Sarah Barton Murphy, credited with establishing the first Methodist Sunday school west of the Mississippi. With such a direct connection to U.S. history in her blood, it’s little wonder that she is so tickled by the fact that the traveling exhibition Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America will debut in January at the Mid-Hudson Library System auditorium (adjacent to Adriance Memorial Library) on Market Street in downtown Poughkeepsie. “He was a strong promoter of urban commerce,” Cozean says of Hamilton. “He saw cities like Poughkeepsie as centers of commerce and manufacturing that would provide economic energy for the nation at a time when much of the nation’s wealth was vested in huge farm estates.”
In her own way, Cozean carries on that message: “My job is to say to the people, the city is primed now and I think it’s important for the city to continue to emphasize its unique ability to continue to manufacture as part of its commerce. The artists that came up the river had an enormous impact, from the early Dutch onward, to the more modern wares that are being made at places like Barrett Clayworks. It’s kind of a reinvention and a reawakening.”