Fred Johnston led efforts to preserve the history of Kingston, beginning with the historic home that bears his name.
In the 1930s, while selling antiques in his Kingston shop, Fred Johnston often stopped to admire the Van Leuven Mansion, a dignified Federal Era town house that stood on the corner of Main and Wall Streets. The building’s classic lines and historical lineage so impressed the 27-year-old, self-taught antiques dealer that he was determined to save it from demolition. In 1938, when the clapboard house was scheduled to be razed and replaced with a Standard Oil gas station, Johnston scraped together $6,000 for the asking price. Today, the Van Leuven Mansion, now known as the Johnston House, still stands on the same corner, as a museum that celebrates Americana, historic preservation, and Kingston’s history.
By purchasing the house, Johnston saved more than the structure. He helped preserve the integrity of Kingston’s Stockade District — a neighborhood rich in 18th century stone houses, gothic bungalows and Victorian homes. To Johnston it seemed more fitting that a historic home — rather than a gas station — stand across from the Old Dutch Church graveyard, the resting place of George Clinton, who served as vice president under Jefferson and Madison. For a man who appreciated history, it was preferable that a historic home stand two streets from the Senate House, where defiant colonists drafted the first New York State Constitution.
Johnston knew that the site’s history predated the Revolutionary War, as the plot appears on a 17th century map of the Kingston — then named Wiltwyck — settlement. A merchant named Elias Hasbrouck owned the plot just before the war. While serving as Captain of the Rangers with General Richard Montgomery in the failed invasion of Canada, Hasbrouck’s home was torched by British troops. Rather than rebuild, he moved to Woodstock Village to try farming.
With its proximity to the Ulster County Courthouse, Hasbrouck’s lot was the ideal location for an attorney, so John Sudam built a home there in 1812. Attracting attention for his brilliant courtroom arguments, the 30-year-old attorney was eventually elected to political office. At the age of 41, Sudam was elected to the New York State Senate and served two terms. He also served as a Regent of the University of the State of New York, succeeded by his friend Washington Irving. Sudam entertained other notable friends in the house, including President Martin Van Buren and painter John Vanderlyn, whose portrait of Sudam hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Members of the Sudam family owned the house until the 1880s when the Van Leuven family bought it and lived there until 1938. After Johnston bought the house, he worked to restore it to its former Federal Era glory, stripping away subsequent renovations and re-creating authentic details, such as the breakfast room’s raised paneled woodwork. He salvaged a mantel for that room and a dining room chandelier from nearby homes headed for demolition and sought furnishings and decorations with a connection to the home’s history, including Vanderlyn sketches and chairs that reportedly belonged to Van Buren. When Johnson died in 1993, the home was given to the Friends of Historic Kingston (FHK), a preservation organization he helped create.
“What’s unique about the Johnston House is the vision of the donor who was an ardent preservationist,” said Jane Kellar, FHK executive director. “Fred Johnston had a marvelous sense of history. And he left the building and his collections so that there would still be pride in this corner.”
As an antiques dealer, Johnston helped popularize early 17th to 19th century American furniture. He sold an exterior storefront to Henry Francis DuPont for Winterthur, which is shown on Winterthur estate tours today. Johnston and the wealthy horticulturist/collector became friends and exchanged over 800 letters.
“He traveled widely for business and found inspiration from historic homes and places, such as Colonial Williamsburg,” said Kellar. “His dealings with clients took him to many historic properties and reinforced the notion of how important preservation was.”
After saving his own home from demolition, Johnston helped save other Kingston buildings. In 1965, he joined a coalition of business leaders, architects, garden club members, and antique dealers to form Friends of Historic Kingston.
“They were aghast at the damage being done by urban renewal,” said Kellar.
Since then FHK has saved several endangered historic homes. To reinforce the importance of preservation, the organization gives guided tours of historic Kingston streets and the Johnston House from May through October. Johnston’s former warehouse now serves as a gallery space for exhibits focusing on Kingston’s past — from Hudson River paintings to the legacy of Kingston’s IBM presence.
“How many chances does a small town have to preserve a bit of history?” said Kellar. “What he did continues to make a significant difference in the streetscape of Kingston.”
This story was originally published in Hudson Valley Magazine.