First (or Front) Street, Haverstraw: The Gilded Age in Rockland

STORY BY JARED RODRIGUEZ

PHOTOS BY TOM MCGUIRE

From one gilded age to the beginning of another, First Street in the historic Village of Haverstraw, NY has celebrated new beginnings of all sorts. First, or Front Street as it is also called, was the seed from which the Village of Haverstraw grew and it remains to this day the most striking feature of this extraordinary river town.

First Street is aptly named, as it is the first First Street in Rockland County. Of all the downtown street grids in Rockland, Haverstraw’s is the oldest. Its street grid dates to the turn of the 18th Century when a land speculator laid out First, Second, Third and Fourth Streets off of Middle Street in the village. The streets extended from the pre-Industrial docks at the foot of current-day Main Street in Emeline Park. At that time, Haverstraw was a rural estate boasting one of the most prominent bluffs upon the Hudson River.

As industrialism took root after the Revolutionary War in Haverstraw, businessmen began to see the country bluff as an ideal location for their homesteads. Brickyard owners such as the DeNoyelles family, who reaped wealth from the rich clay deposits along the shore in Haverstraw, built luxurious homes there.

Starting from the south end of the street, these homesteads stand side by side overlooking the widest point of the Hudson River. The existing Haverstraw Elks’ Club occupies the Fowler Mansion, of brickyard riches. The home, which exists today as a Queen Anne Victorian, started out in the “Federal Style.”

As tastes changed throughout the 19th century, the house underwent various alterations. Today, the house is a unique combination of Federal, Greek Revival and Queen Anne elements boasting a cylindrical turret, a two-tiered porch and imposing pediment at the top of a grand hill that sweeps down toward the river edge. This site is likely the most dramatic in the entire village.

On the opposite corner is one of the oldest homes in downtown Haverstraw. A simple house sits at the corner of First and Canal Street; it is now clad in vinyl, but only 10 years ago, the home was in its original condition. The house was built around 1790 in the years after the Revolution, witnessing the very birth of Haverstraw. Local historians say the house originally served as an inn and tavern into the early 19th century.

The site likely saw Revolutionary War action and various exchanges between British troops and colonists, as Haverstraw was a main landing point for the British Navy and military forces; the shallow water and broad beaches here invited several skirmishes throughout the war.

As one walks north from the eldest house on the street, the homes become more and more grand. The two homes between South Street and Van Houten Street boast remarkable Mansard roofs. One is concave and the next is a combination of concave and convex elements. Both homes are in the Italianate style, but include various Second Empire and even Carpenter Gothic components.

Moving north, various Italianate, Queen Anne, and Federal styled homes flank the west side of the street. Sadly, most of the homes on the Hudson River side of the street have been demolished. First Street has lost well over a dozen grand homes to lack of interest in historic preservation in the last 100 years.

Several past residents from Front Street have continued to tell a story of a large, beehive-shaped room buried into the side of the bluff. One entered the round brick room from a small ¾ sized door in the basement of 41 First Street, a house now demolished but once inhabited by a Captain Woolsey commander of the legendary Emeline steamboat for which the present day park is named.

The room could have been intended for several uses, however, its dimensions and characteristics point to the riverfront’s industrial origins. The beehive room was likely used as a retort, or a beehive kiln used in the firing of brick. If the room still exists below the intersection of South Street and First Street, it is the oldest and last remaining intact relic of the brickmaking industry.

I mentioned a new gilded age. First Street is, today, the seat of renewal and preservation in the Village of Haverstraw. Similarly to Hudson Avenue, First Street is attracting new residents – particularly from New York City.

There is an element of adventure on the street; homes are being meticulously restored and residents here see vast potential in the ancient street grid that extends from their backyards. At a July 3rd fireworks party on Front Street this past Independence Day Weekend, fresh faces to Haverstraw spoke wide-eyed about the ornate homes here.

They were in awe that a place that reminded them of Brooklyn or the Lower East Side could exist so gracefully at the widest point on the Hudson, 30 miles north of bustling New York. It does seem like the beginning of something new, but we cannot know where we’re going unless we know our past.