Feels Like Holland

The Valley’s Dutch buildings, remnants of our New Netherland past, showcase a simple and elegant architecture

On paper, New Netherland was short lived, lasting from only 1609 to 1673. But this Dutch colony — whose center of gravity was the Hudson Valley — is still very much with us. You just have to know where to look.

Members of the Society for the Preservation of Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture (HVVA) do exactly that every month when they form a car caravan and visit Dutch building sites throughout the region. For them, the year 1673 isn’t a cutoff point, since the Dutch style persisted in America well into the 19th century. (The Bronck Museum in Coxsackie is the oldest Dutch complex in the Hudson Valley, dating to 1663.)

“The buildings might not always look Dutch from the outside, but they are all informed by Dutch building technique,” says HVVA board member Rob Sweeney. “The thing that ties all Dutch houses and construction together is the H-bent frame,” a style derived from the northern European medieval building tradition. Just picture the letter H: The frame has two vertical beams that connect by way of a horizontal cross beam. “You’ll see in all regions of New Netherland, but it is most visible in the Dutch barns,” Sweeney says.

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First stop on a Saturday morning tour: a 1790s Dutch barn complex on a busy road in the town of Wappinger in Dutchess County. It’s a miracle the enormous, dilapidated structure is still standing, surrounded as it is by scores of ranch houses. “Preserved” with a blue tarp and filled to the rafters with a building contractor’s junk, it caught the eye of Todd and Françoise Rodgers three years ago when they were househunting. “It was intentionally not mentioned in the sales literature for the property, because the realtor thought it would scare away buyers,” says Todd Rodgers. “The owners didn’t know the significance of what they had. We confused the realtor when we got more excited about the barn than the house.” Today, the barn is under restoration.

Dutch barn frameElements of style: The foundation of a Dutch barn, complete with H-bent frames

Walk into this massive, cathedral-like structure, with its central bay threshing floor, and you’ll get a crash course in Dutch construction: The distinctive form of the H-bent frame is immediately obvious. Built and hewn by the earliest settlers of the land, the barn’s massive timbers came from virgin forest. The Dutch Barn Preservation Society estimates that there are only 100-150 of these barns left in the state; at one time, there were thousands. Most of the barns remaining in the Hudson Valley are privately owned, but groups such as the Dutch Barn Preservation Society sometimes open them to public tours.

While barns are relatively easy to identify (even hidden under a blue tarp), houses are trickier to spot. They don’t all look the same. This is because the Dutch adapted their building materials to the geography, making bricks in areas with good clay, utilizing local stone where it was abundant, and of course using timber. That’s why you’ll see wooden houses in Columbia County, where there is little fieldstone, but stone houses in Ulster, where this material is abundant. Around Albany, wood houses with brick veneer were a popular building style. (It’s boggy in the Netherlands, so the Dutch never built foundations there using brick or stone. As a precaution, they liked to use brick veneer here for fear of the houses sinking into the ground, even though that’s unlikely!)

“This architecture is the product of the place, and that’s what makes it so special. You’ll find it nowhere else in the world,” says Sweeney. (Well, almost nowhere else. Seems that wealthy Texans have been making off with Hudson Valley barns, happy to offer their owners tidy sums so that they can carry them off and inject a bit of history in their home state.)

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VanDeusen HouseAn exterior shot of the Jan Van Deusen House in Hurley

Photograph by Manuela Mihailesco

Whatever their exterior appearance, there are certain characteristics that point to the houses’ essential Dutch character. Because inhabitants lived on the first floor and stored grain on the second floor, the houses, unlike New England farmhouses, often have granary doors. This is why the ceiling beams tend to be so large: to support all that second-story weight. The Dutch hand-planed the beams on the first floor smooth because they were meant to be exposed and admired like furniture. Rough-hewn beams were reserved for the attic.

Steep, pitched rooflines, divided doors, and interesting patterns in brickwork like mouse toothing — the arrangement of the bricks along the roofline into a series of triangles — are yet more Dutch hallmarks. Another defining characteristic of the Dutch home is its jambless fireplace, which has no sides or mantel. This building tradition continued through the first half of the 18th century, even after it became obvious that the English-style fireplace was more efficient. “It was just part of the Dutch DNA,” says Sweeney. “They held on to their traditions and techniques through the generations and were a tightly knit group, even though they were also tolerant of other cultures.”

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Even when Dutch culture took a nose-dive in the urban centers of New York City and Albany, it continued to survive in the Hudson Valley. “Through the 18th century up until the American Revolution, the Hudson Valley population was replacing itself with children but there were not a lot of new cultural influences flowing in, which helped preserve the architecture. People built what their fathers knew and kept the language and the religion [the First Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, which is still around today] together all the way up into the 19th century,” says Bart Bland, co-curator of Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture, an exhibit that runs through January at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers. The exhibit examines Dutch influence on the Valley through displays of paintings, photographs, and furniture from five different years: 1609, 1709, 1809, 1909, and 2009.

Elements of style: One home’s granary door, used to transport grain (below left)Dutch house granary door

Dutch house open fireplaceAn open fireplace, one of the trademarks of the Dutch colonial house (above right)

When Dutch customs finally did start to decline, author Washington Irving stepped in, publishing his History of New York in 1809, which rekindled a fondness for those original colonists ­— including the story of St. Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus­ — both locally and nationwide. Irving later bought a small Dutch farmhouse in Westchester, which he dubbed Sunnyside, and transformed it into an internationally known romantic monument to a bygone Dutch lifestyle.

“Irving had enormous influence,” says Bland. “Artists based their work on his writing. And even during his lifetime people were making pilgrimages to Sunnyside. He was responsible for jumpstarting interest in the Dutch and led the way to historians doing a more thorough investigation in the late 19th century.”

Holland-mania took hold around that time and continued on until World War I, with collectors scooping up Dutch antiques and paintings. “People took an interest in everything Dutch, attempting to rediscover their roots,” says Bland. Later, FDR would proudly recall his Dutch heritage in speeches and champion buildings in the Hudson Valley that incorporated fieldstone and copied, as he put it, “the early Dutch architecture which was so essentially sound besides being very attractive to the eye.”

In some parts of the Valley, you can still walk down the street and see examples of Dutch architecture nearly everywhere you look, particularly on Main Street in Hurley and the Stockade District of Kingston (home of the Four Corners, the only intersection in the country where you’ll find 18th-century stone houses on all four corners). But it’s not just the buildings that keep the Dutch legacy going. “The capitalist spirit of the New York of today can be traced directly to the Dutch,” says Bland. And that’s not something you can pack up and ship off to Texas.

Open to the Public

Luykas Van Alen House
Rte. 9H, Kinderhook
Surrounded by locust trees, this brick parapet-gable home, built in 1737, features such Dutch staples as a steep roof, jambless fireplace, and kitchen stocked with Delftware dishes. $5. Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m, Sun. 12-4 p.m. (Memorial Day through Columbus Day)

Bronck Museum
90 County Rte. 42, Coxsackie
The museum consists of two houses. The first, referred to as the Pieter Bronck House, is a one-room stone home built in 1663. The Leendert Bronck Home, constructed in 1738, is a two-room brick edifice connected to the original house by passageway. $5, $3 ages 12-15, $2 ages 5-11. Wed.-Fri. 12-4 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.- 4 p.m., Sun. 1-4 p.m or groups by appointment. Last tour at 3:30 p.m.

Upcoming Events:

Guilderland Barn Tour, September 26 (Albany County)
Sponsored by Dutch Barn Preservation Society.

21st Annual Country Seats Tour of Dutch American Rural Architecture October 3-4
Cosponsored by Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture and Hudson River Heritage.


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