Tasteful time capsule: Kingston’s Fred J. Johnston Museum

The Federal-style house was bequeathed to the Friends of Historic Kingston  upon Johnston’s death in 1993. (photo by Julie O'Connor)

The Federal-style house was bequeathed to the Friends of Historic Kingston upon Johnston’s death in 1993. (photo by Julie O’Connor)

There are few places more pleasant in the Hudson Valley for exploration on foot than Kingston’s Stockade Historic District.

A large component of what makes Uptown Kingston so charming is its abundance of Colonial Era architecture, intact and livable and standing unassumingly at streetside, as if blissfully unaware of how radically the city has changed around it. The epicenter of this time warp is the intersection of John and Crown Streets, where all four corners are populated by pre-Revolutionary stone houses: the only locale of its kind in New York State. But the Old Dutch Church with its fascinating old gravestones and the historic Senate House, where our statehood was born, are but a short stroll away.

Much of the credit for the fine state of preservation of so many Stockade District properties belongs to the organization called the Friends of Historic Kingston (FHK). “Historic structures and streetscapes are the connective tissue of a community. They are the fiber that forms a community’s memory, giving it meaning for successive generations. When a community loses that memory, it loses its soul.” So says FHK’s website, and the Friends take that philosophy seriously.

But preservation of historical and architecturally significant sites is only one facet of FHK’s mission. Promotion and education are seen as important goals; after all, what good are all these lovely old buildings if no one ever visits them? FHK is also determined to “acquire, preserve and exhibit materials relating to regional history and culture”; and to exhibit materials more ephemeral than stone, you need an appropriate indoor space. One such place is the building owned by FHK at the corner of Wall and Main Streets that was once home to a nationally renowned antiques collector, dealer and ardent preservationist, the Fred J. Johnston Museum.

The late Fred J. Johnston. (photo by Dion Ogust)

The late Fred J. Johnston. (photo by Dion Ogust)

Born in 1911, Fred J. Johnston left school to work in one of Kingston’s shirt factories, but began to invest some of his meager earnings on collecting antiques while still in his teens. He used the family garage as a showroom and eventually opened an antiques shop, which struggled at first. So he took a job with restoration architect Myron Teller, who introduced Johnston to Henry F. du Pont, owner of what is now the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. Johnston, who had a knack for designing tasteful and beautiful interiors, was put to work acquiring period furnishings and architectural parts for Winterthur, and in time he became a sought-after consultant for restorers and antiques collectors nationwide.

Johnston went on to become a staunch advocate for preservation of the historical integrity of what is now the Stockade District. He was instrumental in creating the City of Kingston’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and served as its first chair. He rescued his historic Kingston home from a plan to build a gas station on the site, restored it personally over many years and used it as a showroom for customers. It was so artfully furnished and decorated that, according to Johnston, DuPont referred to the house and collection as a small Winterthur on the Hudson. The circa-1812 Federal-style house was bequeathed to FHK upon Johnston’s death in 1993, and remains a showplace for much of his decorative arts collection.

The Johnston Collection contains exemplary pieces of case furniture – cabinets, secretaries and chests – as well as Hudson Valley chairs, American glassware and pottery and pictorial needlework. The pieces range from the 17th to the early 19th century, with an emphasis on the Federal style, reflecting how American homes were furnished during that period. There are also several sketches by the noted Kingston artist John Vanderlyn. Johnston is said to have been committed to the “demythologizing” of antiques, displaying mundane and practical housewares alongside fine and fragile works of art.

Today, FHK continues to display the house and its contents just as they were left by Johnston. Guided tours of the Johnston House are offered from May through October, on Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sundays by appointment. Special tours for groups or individuals can also be arranged at any time by calling (845) 339-0720.

 

FHK is a membership organization that depends heavily on individual donations to keep on doing its good work. So sign up, and bring along your friend the deep-pocketed philanthropist as well. Tax-deductible donations are accepted via personal or bank check, submitted by mail to FHK, PO Box 3763, Kingston, NY 12402. You can download a donation form at https://www.fohk.org/get-involved/become-a-member/. The other way to make a contribution is via PayPal, using the link at https://www.fohk.org, where you can also find out a lot more about Fred J. Johnston and the Friends’ activities.

The Friends of Historic Kingston have issued two newly designed brochures that provide self-guided walking tours of the Stockade and Rondout National Historic Districts. The Stockade District walking tour brochure includes 50 tour stops that highlight the development of New York State’s third-oldest city and the birth of New York State in Uptown Kingston in 1777. The Rondout brochure includes 35 tour stops that reflect the rapid rise of the village into a prosperous maritime center with the opening of the Delaware and Hudson Canal in 1828.

It’s all part of the Friends’ ongoing effort to promote awareness of Kingston’s history and architecture. The free brochures are available at the Friends of Historic Kingston Gallery at the corner of Main and Wall Streets, the Visitor Center at 20 Broadway, the Senate House State Historic Site at 296 Fair Street, the County Office Building at 244 Fair Street and at local shops and businesses.

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