Tired of renting, in 1919 suffragette, home economist, writer and lecturer Annie Eliza Pidgeon Searing began hunting for her dream cottage, ending up with a decaying 18th century stone cottage in Kingston, N.Y. She embarked on a restoration adventure at a time when interest in all things early American was high and “ancient” houses were being rediscovered. With the help of a restoration architect, she transformed the dilapidated little structure at 142 Pearl Street into a modern, livable home.
Searing was already a successful writer by the time she began her house hunt. Her stories, essays and poetry appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, The Delineator and The Century magazines, and she had some literary success with her 1884 book The Land of Rip Van Winkle: A Tour Through the Romantic Parts of the Catskills.
Her father, Frank Pidgeon, was an engineer and dock builder in Brooklyn, according to the Brooklyn Historical Society and one of the founders, in 1855, of Brooklyn’s Eckford Base Ball Club. Born in Brooklyn, Searing spent some of her youth in the Hudson River Valley and was a member of the class of 1878 at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. In 1880, she married lawyer John Welch Searing, a native of Saugerties.
When it came time to buy, Searing rejected the many newly built houses on the market. Her “soul rebelled” against paying from $4,000 to $6,000 for what she called “a home in a dry goods box.” Instead, she purchased the circa 1750 Johannes Masten House which, she wrote, she “had loved since her childhood.” She waxed poetic about her tale of restoration in the article “How One Woman Solved the Housing Problem” for the May 1921 issue of House Beautiful.
The restoration work was completed by Myron S. Teller, according to Kingston, New York: The Architectural Guide by William B. Rhoads. In her essay, Searing doesn’t name her restoration specialist, but notes that the builder, “a man of taste, as well as skill in restoring old houses, was given a free hand.”
Colonial fever had taken over Kingston in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Founded in the 1650s, the town was particularly rich with 18th century stone houses which were rediscovered, renovated and romanticized. No one was a bigger proponent of Kingston’s early architecture than native son and architect Myron S. Teller.
A stone house enthusiast, Teller restored multiple 18th century properties in and around Kingston as well as designed new “colonial” buildings, later in partnership with fellow Kingston architect Harry Halverson. One of Teller’s most iconic buildings is the Dutch Revival-style stepped-gabled Wiltwyck Inn, constructed around 1910 — a miniature Amsterdam canal house plopped into downtown Kingston.
Teller also gained a reputation as an expert in early American hardware. After running into difficulty finding originals or reproductions that were up to snuff, he solved the problem by starting his own foundry, turning out out reproduction locks, latches and hinges. He supplied hardware to the F.D.R. Presidential Library in Hyde Park (begun in 1939.)
Searing and Teller needed vision and enthusiasm to tackle the Pearl Street house. A photo taken before restoration appears to show solid stone walls but missing windows and a general ramshackle character. In a tale familiar to many an old house lover, she apparently leapt into the project despite well-meaning neighbors giving conflicting advice, but all apparently in agreement “that the woman was crazy.”
They mended the roof and altered it with the addition of multiple dormers to bring air and light into the upper level. The Dutch, or split, door and shutters were “painted a faded blue-green.”
The only other exterior change, according to Searing, was the construction of a kitchen porch with a blue-stone paved floor, a space she found made “an ideal place for the ice box and a tool closet and still leaves a place for a chair or two, in which one can shell the peas, string the bean, pit the cherries or just rock.”
On the interior, heat, electricity and plumbing were added for “modern comfort and convenience.” Where necessary, rotted wood was replaced and woodwork, including paneling and beams, was painted a pale ivory. The current wood floors look a little more 1950s pine “colonial” which, combined with some other alterations — including a pink bathroom — lead one to suspect there has been more “restoration” since Teller’s 1919 work.
Despite the goal to “restore, not to alter or enlarge” it is clear that on the interior some concessions for modern living were made. The house would have originally had a boxed-in staircase, but Teller fashioned a new staircase, “one of his triumphs,” according to Searing, as “without either newel post or rails, the railing is made of the sawed-off boxing. The steps rise at an easy grade and are the charm of the big hall living-room.”
The kitchen, with modern appliances, woodwork painted robin’s egg blue and linoleum flooring, was, Searing felt, “one of the prettiest rooms.” It appears to have been renovated since Searing’s time, and now sports panel-fronted cabinets with Colonial-style hardware in keeping with the cottage theme.
The beehive oven she mentions is no longer usable, but its brick dome shape is visible on the exterior. It can be accessed inside the house via a small wooden door next to the kitchen fireplace.
The relatively open spaces of the first floor entertaining areas give way on the second floor to sloped-ceilinged bedrooms with nooks under the dormers that seem perfect for writerly contemplation. Searing’s original five bedrooms have become four — possibly one was given up for an additional bathroom, as there are two full baths upstairs and a half bath below.
By 1923 Searing was already advertising the cottage for rent in the New York Times — the “charming colonial house” with five bedrooms came furnished for $125 a month for the winter season. She continued to live in Kingston until her death in 1942.
While you can no longer get that 1923 rental deal, Searing’s Kingston dream house is on the market, listed for $385,000 by Ita McAteer of Westwood Metes & Bounds.
The Pearl Street cottage is located just outside Kingston’s Stockade National Historic District, site of the original 17th century village.
Located about 2.5 hours from Brooklyn by car, Kingston remains a magnet for old-house restorers to this day, such as blogger Daniel Kanter of Manhattan Nest, thanks to its historic architecture and spots such as Zaborski’s Emporium, a 40,000-square-foot salvage shop with a large selection of historic plumbing fixtures.
The town has many fine examples of Victorian architecture, including Greek Revival, Italianate and Romanesque Revival. The Stockade National Historic District is one of four historic districts in Kingston, which was the first capitol of New York State.
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