Hudson's Latest Act

Despite Hudson's somewhat checkered past, this New York river town has undergone a renaissance since artists, gallery owners, poets, and other big-city émigrés have discovered its timeless charms.

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.

Alvaré and I zip across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to Cedar Grove, Cole’s attractive yellow house in Catskill, and stroll through its garden. The large outbuilding was Cole’s workroom, and it’s billed as the very first artist’s studio in America. Then we drive to Olana, Church’s Moorish 19thcentury fantasy high above the river.

The view is transcendent, chastening conversationalists into silence, at least for a minute. The sun is sinking into a golden cushion of cloud and absorbs our attention until it drops out of sight. We return to Hudson, a bit wistful that we aren’t painters. Back on Warren Street, I settle into the elegant apartment above Alvaré’s shop, which he rents to weekend visitors. Evening plans are loose: dinner at Swoon Kitchenbar (a local favorite), a look in at Red Dot bar and restaurant, and then a leisurely walk through the night streets. This proves more intriguing than anticipated, once you get away from Warren’s glaring orange sodium lamps. Side streets are dimmer and more mysterious, the sound of voices and laughter deepening the effect. Silent Federal or Victorian façades emerge from the gloom, and I notice one frame house set off by itself, lit by a single lamp, as though Magritte had painted it. A black cat darts along the foundation stones of a large Hudson River Bracketed structure flush with the sidewalk, and, at a remove of several miles, an eerie train whistle makes itself heard, a nostalgic sound pulling the mind across the night and back to an earlier century.

Alfred Corn has written for the New York Times and Grand Street.

Getting There

Hudson is just over two hours north of New York City, by train on Amtrak or by car via Interstate 87.

Where to Stay

Country Squire Bed & Breakfast 251 Allen St.; 518/8229229;; doubles from $110.

Union Street Guest House 349 Union St.; 518/8280958;; doubles from $100.

Where to Eat

Ca’ Mea Restaurant 333 Warren St.; 518/8220005; dinner for two $80.

Earth Foods 523 Warren St.; 518/8221396; lunch for two $20.

Red Dot 321 Warren St.; 518/ 8283657; dinner for two $40.

Swoon Kitchenbar 340 Warren St.; 518/8228398; dinner for two $90.

Where to Shop

Art Design Digression 22 Park Place; 518/3925312.

Botanicus 446 Warren St.; 518/8280520.

Carrie Haddad Gallery 662 Warren St.; 518/8281915;

Lounge 535 Warren St.; 518/ 8220113;

Mark McDonald 555 Warren St.; 518/8286320.

Richard Sena Gallery 238 Warren St.; 518/8281996.

What to See

Cedar Grove 218 Spring St., Catskill; 518/9437465;; $7 adults, $5 seniors and students.

Hudson Opera House 327 Warren St.; 518/8221438.

Olana 5720 Rte. 9G; 518/8280135;; entrance on guided tours only, reservations recommended: $7 adults, $5 seniors and students, and children under 12 free.

TSL 434 Columbia St.; 518/8228448;

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