How the historic Hudson Opera House paralleled—and propelled—the city’s cultural renaissance
The arched entranceway on Warren Street opens into a “grand hall” large enough to hold art exhibits and small performances. Larger performances are held in the West Room, and might be theatrical or musical, or a dance or a reading, or a cutting-edge multi-media event. At the Hudson Opera House, there is always something intriguing being presented. Last year the multicultural arts space hosted over a thousand events, most of them free to the public. Recent years here are not unlike the building’s 1880s heyday when it was Hudson’s cultural hubbub, offering plays and boxing matches and musicals and vaudeville and famous speakers and artists, even poultry shows—along with the occasional opera.
But if you continue down the hall, and don’t turn into the workshop room, where there will likely be a youth arts class or another kind of community children’s activity, you will reach the grand staircase and its curving balustrade. And at the top of the stairs, which go stage right and stage left, you’ll see the theater that the building was renamed for when the upstairs hall was refurbished in 1880. The 300-seat theater and its once-beautiful stage is the final restoration project for the Hudson Opera House, itself a large-scale historic rehabilitation that took two decades to get to its current condition of prolific programming. The oldest surviving theater in New York State, this impressive Greek Revival was reclaimed from a decline as steep and prolonged as the city’s own.
Built as the city hall with a “town hall” upstairs, the structure was abandoned shortly after city hall moved out in 1962. Purchased by an out-of-town developer, it was neglected for 30 years. The abandonment was both good and bad; bad because lack of maintenance almost damaged the building beyond repair, and good because, like most of Hudson, it was not demolished or ruinously converted—for the simple reason that it wasn’t considered to be worth the expenditure of knocking down or altering.
And so it survived, as did most of the two- and three-story commercial and public buildings on Warren Street, along with the area’s stock of early 19th-century row houses and Victorian residences. And because they were still there, people came to buy them and open businesses and restaurants and galleries, and to renovate the deteriorated houses to live in, and eventually, this destitute area became a destination.
The historic preservation of the Hudson Opera House, says executive director Gary Schiro, was a key component of the city’s economic revival. In 1992, a group of citizens formed a non-profit to rescue the building from dereliction and return it to civic and cultural activity. At the time of its one-room opening in 1997, there were only four other businesses near it.
“When we opened our doors, it was considered very foolish to invest in downtown Hudson,” says Schiro. “People were saying, ‘no one will ever come below Fifth Street.’” Now, demand for commercial space is outreaching supply, and HOH is preparing for the final stage of reopening its upstairs theater, which will “carry on the tradition of bringing great performances to Hudson.”
The restoration plan required complex design work utilizing a dozen designers and engineers. Expected to reopen within two years, the performance space will significantly expand HOH’s capabilities for theater and dance. “The dimensions are wonderful and the acoustics are fantastic, plus there’s the overall grandeur,” says Schiro.
And with larger audiences, HOH will be able to bring in an even higher caliber of artists, though the roster already includes Grammy-winning wunderkinds and nationally acclaimed artist-activists.
“It will be great to have more room,” Schiro adds, “but we see it as an extension of what the opera house is already doing, providing opportunities to a diverse audience that they wouldn’t have without it.”
Thar She Blows
What made Hudson, briefly, a whaling center
Hudson river sturgeon have been known to weigh a whopping 200 pounds, but these weren’t the marine monsters that the town of Hudson built its earliest industry around. Situated more than 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the tiny town (known originally as Claverack Landing), exploded in wealth and population around the time of the Revolutionary War as one of the nation’s largest whaling ports. The city’s seal and street signs to this day feature a breaching whale.
When war broke out in the colonies, trade with England was suspended and the British military shut down American coastal whaling ports. Whale oil—taken from the blubber of Right whales or the head cavity of Sperm whales—was, at the time, one of the most important commodities, used to fuel lamps, create candles, oil wool, and seal steel. So, whalers who had been doing business on Nantucket and the Massachussetts coast began to look for safer harbors outside of New England.
Seth and Thomas Jenkins of Nantucket sailed to New York City in 1783 and then up the Hudson River in search of land. They chose Claverack Landing, at the time a small farming community, for its deep bay and port-ready waterfront. Within two years, the city had been chartered (and name changed) and the Jenkins brothers’ Nantucket Navigators company had begun to lay out the city, complete with all the other industries, like sail making, they would need to support whaling. The population boomed and three other whaling companies sprung up in the area. By 1790, Hudson was the 24th largest city in the United States, coming within one vote of being named the New York state capital.
By the 1820s, however, the industry began to shrink, with coastal whaling ports making a comeback and kerosene ultimately replacing the demand for whale oil (however, Sperm whale oil was a key ingredient in automatic transmission fluid up until 1972). The last whaling operation finished in Hudson in 1844, coinciding roughly with Hudson’s peak population, a number that hasn’t changed much to this day.
The Art of Renaissance
Why an industrial city has enjoyed a modern textbook revival
The historical shorthand for postindustrial American cultural renaissance reads something like this: Enterprising gay population moves into economically desperate city/neighborhood, builds community and saves architecture through artistic investment, city emmerges from under the cultural radar a decade or so later with newfound appeal to the burgeoning Creative Class.
Present-day Hudson has become a textbook definition.
The town’s historical Warren Street thoroughfare was left in a state of disrepair when the mid-century vice industry failed to deliver anything economically sustainable. Then, in the mid-’80s, Alain Pioton opened the Hudson Antiques Center, followed closely by the English Antiques Center. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, similar such businesses began to follow suit, slowly rolling down the Warren Street hill toward the waterfront. Now, the Hudson Antiques Dealers Association represents more than 80 businesses in what has become an internationally recognized antiques district.
In 1991, Linda Mussmann and Claudia Bruce moved their avant-garde theater company Time and Space Limited to Hudson’s Columbia Street from its original location in a Chelsea storefront. Doubling as a cultural center, the space laid the social foundation for a local arts scene, boosted by its proximity to the Amtrak line and a population of New York City weekenders. The greater Warren Street area now includes galleries, restuarants, venues like Club Helsinki, Basilica Hudson, the Spotty Dog, Hangrr18, the reinvigored Hudson Opera House, WGXC community radio, and the soon-to-be-constructed Marina Abromovic Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art, not to mention an ever-growing calendar of parades and street festivals.
In just the past couple years, the city’s exponential growth in the area of arts and culture has earned Hudson feature pieces in The New York Times and a number of national magazines.
Fire and Water
Why does Hudson have a Museum of Firefighting?
American ethnologist Walter Hough once penned, “Man is the only mammal that overcame the fear of fire.” Whether it was used to cook food, clear land, or to forge tools, fire was an essential turning point in the civilization of man. Since learning to utilize the power of fire, man also has struggled to control it. Paris, London, New York, Chicago: Many cities standing today were scarred by fire damage over the course of their histories.
As fires ravaged early settlements, citizens did their best to douse flames with buckets of water passed from one person to the next. In the early 1700s, wheeled water pumps were designed to provide additional aid to these bucket brigades. Invaluable pieces of sophisticated machinery for that time, they were a far cry from the shiny red fire trucks that we know today.
As cities expanded, volunteer firefighting organizations were formed. New York City’s volunteers were disbanded when New York state legislation created the Metropolitan Fire Department in 1865. Four pieces of fire apparatus owned by the volunteers found new homes in area barns and other shelters.
A few years after the New York City volunteer corps disbanded, the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York was formed. Then in 1888, George W. Anderson, a wealthy businessman who had been a volunteer New York firefighter and was passionate about caring for firefighters who were sick, disabled or indigent, drafted a resolution to persuade FASNY of the need for a firefighters’ refuge. A committee was charged with finding a suitable location, and in 1892, the Firemen’s Home was built in Hudson.
“They looked at a lot of different locations, and they settled on this one,” says Jamie Smith, executive director of the FASNY Museum of Firefighting. It’s a nice property on the river with a lot of wildlife, she says, and “they thought it would be a pleasant place for older firemen to spend their retirement years.”
In 1925, a museum was constructed on part on the 125-acre complex, which would later also include a hospital. The four antique pieces of fire apparatus from New York City were donated as permanent exhibitions of the museum. The oldest was a 1725 Newsham pumper, and it is still the oldest documented fire engine in New York state.
Today, the Firemen’s Home takes care of firefighters who can no longer take care of themselves. The museum has expanded to house 90 pieces of fire apparatus, antique fire gear, fine art, and interactive discovery centers for children.
“The Firemen’s Home was the natural place for the museum,” says Smith. “It really was the perfect fit.”
Why gambling and prostitution flourished in Hudson
Bruce Edward Hall’s 1994 book Diamond Street: The Story of the Little Town With the Big Red Light District tells the story of Hudson’s heyday of vice, when, alongside many legitimate businesses and community organizations, gambling and prostitution were in full swing with the full blessing of the corrupt local authorities. It is today a relatively well-known piece of Hudson lore. But then again, it was well-known when it was happening, and not just locally: Old-timers tell of streets choked with out-of-state cars, and former Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka once told The New York Times that when he was stationed in Europe with the Army, everybody knew of Hudson’s reputation.
The vice era goes all the way back to the late 1700s, when Hudson was organized as a whaling port. The story goes that city leaders tolerated the brothels and grog houses because they served the transient population of sailors and wagon drivers. By the 1920s the sin industry was thriving, with 15 whorehouses, “neatly managed and protected by the Mayor and the Police Department,” Hall writes. On Diamond Street (now Columbia Street), $2 got you 20 minutes with a prostitute.
When Hall was researching his book, what struck him was how fondly the old-timers recalled the era when “the girls” were in town. The cottage industry kept Hudson bustling and its economy humming. “ ‘Everybody had a dollar in their pocket back then,’ is a phrase I’ve heard over and over,” Hall writes.
But it all came to an end—as Hudson slid into an era of prolonged economic decline—when state troopers, with no warning to local police, raided and closed down the brothels in 1950.
Written in Cement
Why Hudson was once an industrial powerhouse
Once upon a time, Hudson was dirty.
In this case, it was not the “dirty” world of gangsters, gamblers and hookers; it was the dirt that came from having cement plants in the city’s back yard. Jim Eyre, editor of Columbia County History & Heritage—published by the Columbia County Historical Society—described that city in 2003: It was the Hudson where “layers of dust from cement plants that—for many years—daily filled lungs and coated leaves, [and] darkened fields of snow, and left a powdery film on cars and household furniture in the city and for miles around it.”
The last cement plant closed in 1975, but for most of the 20th century cement factory work was a backbone of the local economy. This was an industrial city that’s not even a memory for those who moved to Hudson over the last couple of decades.
Why? Geography and geology.
Some of the best mineral deposits for making cement were discovered in the Hudson Valley in the 19th century. From south of Albany down to Rosendale and East to Schoharie County, mines were developed to extract the rich deposits to make both “natural” and Portland cement. As William Kelly details in the New York State Museum Record, cement plants sprung up in Beacon, the Kingston area, and Hudson. As for geography, Hudson’s location, with direct rail routes to both New York City and Boston, made it an attractive junction from which to ship cement products to these rapidly growing urban areas.
Some of the first prefabricated cement blocks were made in Hudson, and were used in local construction. The city was proud and pleased to be part of the growing industrial Northeast.
Times change, though, and the mineral deposits became depleted. While there is still a cement plant in Ravenna in Albany County, all the Columbia County plants are gone. And when St. Lawrence Cement proposed a new mega-plant a decade ago, local opposition was fierce—and successful.
Not everyone is glad Hudson’s industrial days are over, however. In a 2011 story in The New York Times, resident Calvin Wilson Jr. told a reporter, “All those old factory jobs, they’ve all dried up. . . . Me, I wished they’d built that cement plant.”