The city of Kingston has a rich history, and is perhaps most notable for its colonial roots: It was New York’s original capital until British troops set fire to the town during the Revolutionary War. More recently, the city played a major part in the development of 20th-century technological advancements thanks to IBM, which ran a 2.4 million-square-foot plant there from the mid-1950s into the ’90s. To shed light on this historic time, the nonprofit preservation group Friends of Historic Kingston (FOHK) has created an exhibit and commemorative book both entitled Kingston: The IBM Years.
“It’s worth sharing this information because Kingston has a history beyond colonial times, beyond the British burning the city, and it’s important to realize this,” says project director Ward Mintz, a board member and volunteer at FOHK. “I drive by the plant — now Tech City — often, and wonder what life was like there. As an architectural history buff, I’ve realized that nearly all of Kingston’s suburbs and mid-century architecture were due to IBM and its impact on the economy.” At its peak in 1985, the computer giant employed up to 7,100 men and women at the site, which was both a manufacturing plant and engineering laboratory; some of the products developed there included the nation’s aircraft control system, and interactive displays and software that eventually led to our modern-day personal computers. The repercussions of building such a large facility in what was a relatively rural area shaped the growth not just of the city, but the whole county. “We felt it was important to show the company’s impact on Ulster County and the rise of the suburbs; in essence, Kingston had no suburbs before IBM,” Mintz says.
On the job: Workers assemble components for System/360 mainframe computers in the 1970s (left), and study the console for the SAGE air defense system in the 1950s (right)
For the exhibit, Mintz and other volunteers spent nearly two years gathering information and artifacts from former company employees — and from the buildings themselves. For instance, volunteers found a whiteboard in one office with magnetic letters reading “The End Is Here” affixed to it; they presume it was left behind in 1994 when the plant’s closing was announced. “Visitors will get to see a lot of older images including industry in Kingston, IBM’s arrival in the Hudson Valley, and the people affiliated with IBM,” Mintz says. “We have a number of objects and memorabilia, including an electric typewriter made in Kingston in the 1950s, and a 3270 Information Display System manufactured at the plant starting in 1970 — both lent by IBM. And there’s a fantastic scrapbook from one IBMer filled with promotion announcements, photos of professional development classes, cartoons, and more.” Gifts given by IBM to honor members of the Quarter Century Club — employees who had worked at the company for 25 years — are also on view, and include charm bracelets and commemorative plates (one of which is decorated with an image of the old Kingston Post Office that was demolished in 1970).
An aerial view of the Kingston facility shows the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge in the background
“It’s a great privilege to create an exhibit while the people who experienced it are still alive, and you can benefit from their memories,” says Mintz. “That’s a really, really exciting thing.”
The exhibit takes place at the FOHK gallery at the corner of Wall and Main Streets in uptown Kingston. It runs through October 31 and admission is free. Published by Black Dome Press, the book contains essays and illustrations, and can be purchased at the gallery for $25.95. Visit FOHK’s Web site www.fohk.org for more information.
Kingston: The IBM Years (Black Dome Press) by Friends of Historic Kingston