by Bill Batson
Win Perry can measure his Hudson Valley heritage in centuries. “My ancestors have been farmers and boat builders and were descended from the earliest European settlers in Rockland County,” Perry told me recently. As President of the Historical Society of the Nyacks for the last 12 years, Perry works tirelessly to commemorate the heritage of all the families that call the Nyacks home. This building that houses Nyack’s historical society bears witness to the depth of Perry’s connection to the village and reminds us of the benefits of historic preservation to the future well-being of our community.
The Historical Society operates from the ground floor of the Depew House located on the corner of Piermont and Hudson Avenues behind the Nyack Library. The house, which was constructed in the Italianate architectural style, was built between 1850 and 1851 by Peter Depew. The ample covered front porch overlooked green houses that the Depew family operated in what is now Memorial Park.
In a speech given in 1860, Captain Isaac P. Smith recalled his own childhood in 1814 when Nyack consisted of just seven houses. In Capt. Smith’s account, three of those houses were owned by the Tallmans and one by the Depews. One branch of Perry’s family began when Uriah Perry arrived in the 1750s; another line can be traced to the Tallmans. Harman Tallman was the first European-born settler in Nyack and Rockland County arriving in 1676.
Perry may have inherited his dedication to the public service that is historic preservation from his mother. She was a schoolteacher who went on to work for a Rockefeller family foundation where she helped start the Colonial Williamsburg project in Virginia. Before joining the Historical Society Board, Perry, who is an architect by trade and historian by passion, described his work on the preservation of the Edward Hopper House in the 1970s as one of the greatest adventures of his life.
The Historical Society of the Nyacks was launched through an invitation published in The Journal News by Florence Katzenstein on March 1,1994. Katzenstein, who became the Historical Society’s first President, now heads the events and fundraising committee.
Before they moved into their current space at the Depew House, the organization stored its collection of historic material in the homes of members and the basement of Village Hall. But that did not limit the organization ‘s activities. The group has published six books and a quarterly newsletter, launched popular biennial house tours and lecture programs.
In 2005, the Historical Society partnered with the Nyack Library to publish Carl Nordstrom’s account of three centuries of race relations titled “Nyack in Black and White.” In 2009, documents gathered by Dr. Lori Martin that chronicled the role of African Americans in the history of the village were included in the exhibit, Fish and Ships. The inclusion of Dr. Martin’s research coincided with the publication of her book “The Ex-Slave’s Fortune: The story of Cynthia D. Hesdra.“
Perry describes the Fish and Ships exhibit as the groups “biggest success in terms of raising interest and awareness about Nyack’s history.” The exhibition filled eight rooms and the corridor of the Pavion Building on Cedar Hill Avenue with pictures and artifacts from the community’s past and included a special section on student responses.
Walking tours, both virtual and via slide show, have become a popular Historical Society attraction. The John Scott Armchair Walking Tour, which consists of slide shows and lectures on local history, is named for a preeminent Rockland County historian and was produced for many years by Bob Goldberg. The organizational torch for the tours was recently passed to Nyack Library local history director Brian Jennings.
Goldberg will be the giving November’s Armchair lecture on Wednesday the 14th at 7p at the Nyack Library and Thursday the 15th at 2p at the Valley Cottage Library. I have the honor of presenting a slide show of my work for the program in October on the 10th at 7p at Nyack Library and on the 11th at 2p at Valley Cottage. The armchair series is also supported by the Friends of the Nyacks.
The space at the Depew House is already too small for the needs of the Historical Society. Eventually members would like to acquire a property that is of equal historic and architectural distinction as their current home, but that is more accessible for foot traffic and has more space for exhibition and storage.
In their current facility, the group has managed to build their archive and exhibit some artifacts. Items currently on display include a piano made by the Tallman Factory and two Wilcox and Gibbs sewing machines. Perry was able to make a small green reed organ that was in storage in his barn available to the public. The instrument was used in the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church that now houses the Elmwood Playhouse. Selected drawings from the Nyack Sketch Log are currently hanging in the exhibition space. The show entitled Nyack History: One Sketch at a Time can be viewed on Saturdays from 1-4p in Oct., Nov. and Dec.
Historic preservation is not an esoteric luxury but an invaluable tool in helping a community honor past achievement and avoid past mistakes. Restoring and preserving landmarks, like the Hopper House for instance, can also provide more immediate benefits. Communities around the region are scrambling to bolster their local commercial districts by attracting consumers and tourists. When we treasure our history, which is arguably eclectic and storied, we are also helping to secure our future.
The Historical Society of the Nyacks is located on the lower level of Depew House at the corner of Hudson Avenue & Piermont Avenue (behind the Nyack Library and across from Memorial Park). Admission is free. The exhibition space and bookshop are open to the public every Saturday from 1-4pm. More information about events and membership is available at nyackhistory,org
Special thanks to Bob Goldberg, Jim Hershberger, Brian Jennings, Judy Martin, Gini Stolldorf, Leontine Temsky and the Board and Members of the Historical Society of the Nyacks and the Friends of the Nyacks.