For years now, I’ve had this idea about doing something on my blog other than just talk about myself and whatever I’m doing. Enough about me*. Let’s dish about other people.
(*I recognize I also owe you updates about me. life has been insane and I have a lot to tell you.)
When I moved to Kingston in 2013, I had barely spent any time here and didn’t know a soul aside from my realtor and the lawyer I hired for closing on the house, neither of whom seemed super excited to be best friends with their most recent 23-year-old client. Up to that point I had been laser-focused on the house itself and wanting to fix it up, which left very little consideration for the surrounding city or the risk of social isolation we were running by taking up residence in it.
I’ll never forget that first night. We (myself and my then-boyfriend, Max) had no working plumbing in the house, and no electricity on the second floor. We considered sleeping down in the living room—where the benefit of electric lighting made things slightly less creepy—but we didn’t have curtains, and Max worried that somebody might look in and see us cuddled on an air mattress and quickly hate-crime us, and our hideous murders would cut this adventure short before it even really began.
And so, groggy from a terrible night’s sleep on an air-mattress in our unfamiliar, pitch-black house, we set out the next morning in pursuit of coffee. The thing you have to understand about Max and I at this time is that we looked like a couple of adorable skeletal teenagers who accidentally parachuted in from Brooklyn. This was years before the mass Brooklyn exodus to Kingston that has gone berserk during the pandemic, so a pair of cute trendy gay boys walking down the sidewalk stuck out at the time. It was one of those gorgeous dewy spring mornings—crisp air, birds chirping, perfect blue sky breaking through the clouds—ya know. We walked by this beautiful old stone house with an incredibly lush garden behind a small picket fence. A man was outside tending the plants, and my vaguely southern manners demanded that I tell him how lovely his home was. So I did. His name was John.
I liked John the second I met him. His southern twang—diluted by years of northern living, but still plenty strong—immediately charmed me, and he emanated this rare warmth you don’t usually get from complete strangers. He wasn’t annoyed that my incorrigible impulse to chit-chat was disturbing his workflow, and if he was, he didn’t let on. He was—as you’ll see—handsome, kind, clearly bestowed with good taste and homemaking abilities (two things we desperately aspired to at that moment)—and mention of a boyfriend confirmed that this trifecta of qualities did, in fact, mean what I thought it might mean. John was was a distinguished elder-gay, we were charming little twinks tackling what we later found out was a home that had caught the attention and adoration of the community of old-house enthusiasts here in Kingston, and a friendship was born. He invited us over for dinner later that night, and we accepted. So within 10 minutes of walking out our front door for the first time, we’d made a friend and booked a free homemade meal. It was a warm welcome to Kingston that instantly made it feel like home.
Months prior, on our very first trip to Kingston—the fateful one during which I laid eyes, for the first time, on what would become my home—we stayed in an airbnb that our friends had booked. We knew the name of the owner of the house—Julian—but hadn’t met him, but we found out at dinner that John had. They were actually close personal friends, and John’s love of Kingston was really the reason Julian followed suit and bought his house in the first place. So John brought Julian to Kingston, and Julian inadvertently brought us to Kingston, so by transitive property John was the whole reason my life took this turn. Now I knew who to thank, or blame, depending on the day.
The inside of John’s home was as magnificent as the outside, and—of course—he’s also an excellent cook. Soon he started introducing us to his group of friends, who quickly became our friends, and all of a sudden we had a community. We had friends in Brooklyn—where we were still living about 5 days a week—but the thing about living in a big city like New York is that you’ll have dozens of friends that you never actually see. Everyone is too overworked and underpaid to want to hang out at the end of a long day, and nobody wants to take the train an hour to visit a friend—who technically lives only a few miles away—who had the audacity to rent a shitty apartment in a different borough. Life moved a little slower in Kingston. The cost of living was significantly lower, and being able to get in your own car and drive a short distance made socializing a thing that actually happened on a regular basis. It wasn’t long before we went from content weekenders to aspiring full-timers. This remains, in my mind, all John’s fault.
John is a fascinating person. He was born and raised on the family farm out in Tennessee—like way out in the country. Think tractors and pigs and stuff. Following the urge to get the hell out of there, he became an optometrist. He spent years living in Dallas, came to New York, eventually bought a property upstate, renovated and sold it years later, did it again (that second one an 80s split-level that he turned into a masterclass of mid-century modern design), finally landing at what was historically known as the Elmendorf Tavern, a 1723 stone building on the outskirts of Kingston’s original Dutch settlement called the Stockade District. His was, historically, a house of debauchery and good times, which is kind of perfect for John and the enormous social network you garner when you’re…well…John. John throws the best parties, and his home is such a cozy and fabulous backdrop to host them in. Everyone knows and loves John, and everyone knows and loves John’s house. The fact that he’s done what he has with it—on nights and weekends and days off, purely with research and a willingness to learn and a drive to honor the history of his home—is really something.
John had already been working on his house for a number of years when I met him so I never had a chance to see it before he started working his magic, but I have some sense of it. The building had been used as a doctor’s office for nearly a century before John took ownership—complete with basement rooms filled with old-timey medicine jars and some truly horrifying gynecological equipment—so there was quite a lot to do just to make it back into a home. He removed heavy curtains and wallpaper, wall-to-wall carpet that covered the original wide-plank floorboards, and put a kitchen in what had been the waiting room for patients. When I rolled in, the house was in a stripped-down rustic state, which was fabulous. John had exposed the original lime plaster in a few rooms (I think he sealed it with something to control dust, though it still flaked), and some of the wide pine flooring had been scraped down to raw, untreated wood. Most people wouldn’t really have an inkling that this was a work in progress, which I’ve always admired about John’s approach—he makes it look good at every stage. So it’s been exciting (and, at times, confounding) to watch John continue to change things up—everything from adding wainscoting and a hand-painted mural where the raw plaster had looked so good before in the dining room, to constructing one of the most creative bathroom designs I’ve ever seen (wait’ll you see it!). Everything is so goddamn clever and thoughtful, and it’s really taught me some great lessons. It’s OK—good, even!—for houses to change and evolve. As current stewards, we’re not the end of the history but an integral part of it, and getting creative and putting your own tasteful stamp on things is the fun of it. Houses—even ones that are 300 years old—are not supposed to be precious time capsules. They’re supposed to tell the story of their occupants and grow alongside them.
So anyway. Over the years, John has become one of my very closest friends. He’s been a sounding board for my own renovation ideas, and I’m honored that I’ve become one for his, too. He’s been a shoulder to cry on more times than I care to admit, and has been present for pretty much every major occasion in my life for almost a decade now. I love him dearly, and I’m so excited for you to love him, too!
Which brings us to…wait what’s this now? While John is an impossible act to follow, he’s far from the only person I know locally who’s doing some pretty incredible stuff with their old houses, and it feels unfair that I know about these people and you don’t. I want to share and celebrate their work, but I also want to share and celebrate them for making it happen. Because isn’t that what we love about old houses? The superficial surface-level stuff, sure, but the history of the occupants and evolution of the home over the years because of those occupants is what makes these places so richly layered and uniquely interesting. We often focus on original builders and owners, but I think folks re-making and reimagining these homes in the modern era is just as interesting and worth showing off!
In looking at old local newspaper archives for information about my house, I kept coming across this column from around the turn of the century called About the Folks. It was usually super short and very boring—often just dealing with comings and goings. This person went to spend a few days with relatives in Accord (only 30 minutes away by car nowadays) or that person came home to visit their dad before returning to NYC. There was other stuff too, though. So-and-so’s condition is improving in hospital after an accident at the brickyards. That lady had a baby, this family is going abroad for a year on a steamship sailing to Italy. It was the Facebook timeline a century before there was a Facebook timeline.
And so, because I lack creativity and original ideas, I thought it was a nice name for this series.
Originally I thought these would just be blog posts with pictures. Then my darling platonic wife Juliet and I started talking about a video element being nice, which then turned into 3 days of shooting and hours and hours of footage—there’s so much to see; the house is that good! Juliet has now spent months editing my little seedling of an idea into a four part documentary miniseries, and honestly? It’s REALLY GOOD. I think I’m allowed to say that because I had very little to do with it. I’m so proud of what we (she) created and so happy it’s ready for release! You’re gonna love it.
We’re releasing episodes every Monday for the next few weeks, with access a week early for Patreon subscribers…and the first episode is live now! For just $5/month you can see About the Folks as soon as the episodes drop, catch up on past exclusive Patreon content, and have the endless satisfaction of knowing you are supporting the creation of more content like it (which is much appreciated!). Sign-up is easy, and I hope to see ya on the other side! And if not, don’t worry—the first episode will be available for the general public in 1/31/22!
A huge thank you to my brother Jeremy for designing the titles, and another HUGE thanks to John for trusting us with his story and letting us treat him as our guinea pig for this project.
And a REALLY REALLY HUGE thank you to Juliet for all her work on this—it turned out beyond my wildest expectations and I’m endlessly in awe of her talents! Head on over to Patreon to check it out!!