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Hudson's Latest Act

Whitney Lawson An example of the historic buildings found on or near Warren Street, in Hudson, New York.

Photo: Whitney Lawson

On a sunny morning in Hudson, New York, the skies hazy as though made of milk glass, I stand on Warren Street, trying to make sense of this town’s layered history. Set on the Hudson River less than 100 miles north of New York City, the town’s history includes 17thcentury Dutch settlers, 18thcentury merchants, and 19thcentury whalers who began their voyages to the South Seas from its deep harbor. In the 1830’s, Thomas Cole, the founding genius of the Hudson River School of painting, set up shop across the river in Catskill. He was joined there by Sanford Robinson Gifford, a Hudson resident, and then by Frederic Edwin Church. During the robberbaron era in the early 20th century, Hudson was an upstate pleasure capital with notorious bordellos. Later, the town went into a slow decline, its historic homes falling into notexactly picturesque ruin.

By the end of the sixties, poverty and crime were widespread. A decade or so later, however, a new round of gentrification had begun, paving the way for the town’s bohochic present. Key pioneers included the painters Edward Avedesian and Ellsworth Kelly (who settled in nearby Spencertown). The poet John Ashbery was alerted to Hudson’s potential by these artists, and he and his partner, David Kermani, found an underpriced Queen Anne Victorian house on Court Square and began to renovate it. During a dinner with them and my friend Philip Alvaré, Ashbery talks about his early days here, when many houses on Warren Street were boarded up, but explains that patience has had its rewards.

Another accelerator for Hudson’s revival was the influx of antiques shops; the first was a group store opened in the early eighties by Byrne Fone and Alain Pioton. Byrne, the author of Historic Hudson: An Architectural Portrait, has been a key proponent of preserving Hudson’s old buildings. During the eighties Warren Street suddenly spiffed up with new shops and restaurants, and this remains true today: there’s 18th and early19thcentury furniture at Botanicus, modern vintage pieces at Mark McDonald, contemporary furniture at Lounge, and many purveyors of bizarre or campy junk. Epitomizing the trend away from antiques to modern pieces, McDonald transformed a prewar department store into an airy, multilevel atrium filled with design classics, art books, and revolving shows of contemporary decorative art.

There are numerous art galleries in town, including understated spaces like Carrie Haddad, Richard Sena, and Art Design Digression LTD. When I ask painter Bill Sullivan what he likes about Hudson, he conveys glee at living in the epicenter of the Hudson River school, whose approach to landscape he has adapted for a modern aesthetic.

For lunch, I choose Earth Foods, one of Hudson’s most popular hangouts. Sitting at the counter encourages intimacy with adjacent strangers, and soon I’m speaking with Stephanie Rose, a painter. She tells me her portrait of Ashbery has just been hung in the Albany Institute of History and Art. We discuss some of the nearby attractions: the Catamount ski slopes; Bard College, with its Frank Gehry–designed performance center; and the charming towns of Rhinebeck and Great Barrington.

In Hudson itself, mustsees include the Opera House, formerly the City Hall; since its recent restoration it has served as a nonprofit cultural center for group art shows, readings, and music events. A privately owned counterpart is Time and Space Limited, or TSL, founded by ex–New Yorkers Linda Mussman, a playwright, and her partner, Claudia Bruce, an actor. TSL hosts theater, cult movies, art shows, readings, and a summercamp program for neighborhood children.

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