“Kingston. Just the sound of it—the name has no cachet!” The man waves dismissively. “Kingston will never be Hudson.”
I’m in the bar at Gaskins and talking with an echt Hudson Valley power couple who are embeds in the local food scene but who also have ties to NYC marketing and media. We’re chatting about the debut of the Hotel Kinsley in Kingston—it’s by Charlie and Aviva Blaichman, who are partnering with Taavo Somer, tastemaker behind Freemans, the influential restaurant, bar, menswear boutique and barber shop in NYC. And, snug in the embrace of Germantown (and despite the fact that Zak Pelaccio is consulting at the Kinsley’s two restaurants), I have to agree: Kingston will never be Hudson.
Kingston’s very geography—multiple hubs separated by miles—means that the city will never have the walkable, cultural density of, say, Warren Street. It has no tourism-friendly Amtrak station (in fact, its closest rail station is in Rhinecliff, 12 miles and a river away). It’s not surrounded by picturesque farmland, and within its borders loom plasticky fast-food joints and chain stores. And then, if we’re being honest, there are Kingston’s three and a half centuries of spectacular booms and busts.
The city was New York State’s capital ’til 1777, when British forces burned it down. Then, in the 19th century, it was a money-spinning source for the bricks, cement, and stone that built Manhattan and Albany. Kingston once offered three rail stations and was the endpoint of the canal that fed Pennsylvania coal to the Hudson River. Later, Kingston held a 2.5-million-square-foot IBM campus that employed more than 7,000 people—but that busted along with those other booms.
Then there were the urban renewal plans of the 1960s and ’70s that promised prosperity, and not only failed to deliver but also sparked lawsuits and outrage. The most recent ding came when Jonathan Butler—augur of cool behind the international chain of Smorgasburg markets—killed Smorg Upstate in Kingston after two seasons of disappointing attendance.
What’s important, though, is that Kingston’s essentials remain, untethered to the “cachet” that prices real estate out of reach for creative businesses. This may be Kingston’s greatest charm. Not only is it central to booming Catskills tourism spots, but its streetscapes benefit from what one architectural historian called the “preservation power of poverty.” Continuously thriving cities eat their young: new buildings replace vintage before they can become historic. But Kingston is rich with grand, boom-time architecture that sustained prosperity never replaced. These landmarks welcome quirky, opinionated bars, cafés and restaurants, plus live music venues, artisan workshops and a thriving arts community—and now, Hotel Kinsley, which heralds a new boom by putting tourist heads in boutique beds.
THE KINSLEY HOTEL
There is delicious irony in that the Wall Street flank of the newly debuted Hotel Kinsley bears a plaque commemorating the Pike Plan, one of Kingston’s more contentious urban renewal campaigns. The 1970s-era project installed sidewalk canopies over portions of Wall and Front Streets in Kingston’s Uptown district. When the canopies decayed (and the 2011–2013 restoration was found to have structural flaws), no one wanted to either a) fund the $450,000 repairs or b) pay $868,000 to remove the canopies and restore the historic facades underneath. Such is Kingston.
Nevertheless, Taavo Somer is joining Charles and Aviva Blaichman as the operations guy behind a five-building, two-restaurant and one-food-market hotel campus that will introduce 43 boutique hotel rooms to Uptown Kingston. The interiors are designed by Robert McKinley and will reflect the personalities of each disparate building, though currently only 301 Wall St.—an august mid-19th-century bank—is open. Its sleek rooms punctuate the bank’s original lofty grandeur with modernist touches: hairpin-legged tables, Tivoli speakers and miniature Smeg fridges. The check-in desk is in the vault through a foot-thick steel door.
Of course, Somer is no newcomer to improbable sites. When he launched Freemans with William Tigertt in 2004 at the end of a disused alley off Rivington Street, his friends were skeptical. They couldn’t foresee that the restaurant’s aesthetic of rustic, taxidermy-hung, faded opulence would launch an international design zeitgeist whose 15-year trickle-down still echoes in the films of Wes Anderson and endless “Portlandia” skits.
Having trained as an architect, Somer’s career evolved through designing ironic $88 T-shirts, party promotion, hip bar ownership, and inventing the Freemans style. Despite this quintessentially urban skill set, by 2016 city life was losing appeal for Somer and his family. They’d already renovated a house in Accord—it’s featured in the book Freemans: Food and Drink * Interiors * Grooming * Style—but the decade of weekend schleps had become wearing. Worse, competition for private school placement was affecting the children.
“I was sitting in a playdate with my 6-year-old being interviewed by people asking her what college she’d like to go to, you know—what she was thinking of pursuing as a career. And I thought to myself: ‘I don’t think I want to be in New York City anymore.’”
When Somer and his wife leased offices in Kingston near their newly full-time Accord home, their real estate agent (who had Googled him) insisted that they meet their new landlord. “It turns out that Charlie Blaichman’s office is about 50 feet from Freemans on Chrystie Street; he’s been coming since we opened, and his wife, Aviva, loves Freemans. His son, Noah, would get clothes and haircuts at Freemans Sporting Club—basically, it took Kingston for us to meet, but we’d been neighbors for 15 years.”
Charles Blaichman is no Hudson Valley carpetbagger—he’s owned a house in Woodstock since the 1970s—but his reputation as a canny developer was made in NYC with his company, CB Developers. It anticipated (among other projects) the value of properties in the Meatpacking District and along Manhattan’s High Line before those neighborhoods ignited. These days, CB Developers is also venturing into projects in Accord, Rhinebeck, and Kingston.
Remarkably, given a project that includes a gourmet market (Fare and Main) and two restaurants, no one is fazed by the failure of Smorg Upstate or the closure (in 2017) of the Fleischer’s Craft Butcher flagship in Kingston after 13 years. Says Somer, “I think that there’s a depth to how Kingston could develop, with the population of Kingston and people coming in from Woodstock, Rhinebeck, and Saugerties—you know, if you look at that circle and how easy it is off I-87.” Then there is the diversity of Kingston’s hubs. “I feel like Uptown is developing like Lower Manhattan, and Midtown is almost like Bushwick. The younger kids are going there and opening up businesses.”
LOLA PIZZA AND KINSLEY
As much of a tastemaker as Somer, Pelaccio was recently credited in Esquire’s “Best of the Decade” feature for “kickstarting the new wave of cooking in the Hudson Valley.” His two Hudson restaurants (Fish & Game and Backbar) could also be credited with establishing the region’s haute bohemian ethic, attitude, look, and style. What attracted Pelaccio to the Kinsley was, as he says, “the way that Charlie and Aviva approached it. They’ve been in Woodstock for more than 30 years and have friends and family there. They’ve watched the area evolve… You know, they’re asking ‘What does this town need?’”
Pelaccio is consulting on Kinsley, the hotel’s restaurant, and also LOLA Pizza, its pizza and pasta place at 243 Fair St. His role is overarching rather than day-to-day: He assembled equipment, hired and trained staff, and oversees menus. He recommended Fish & Game’s phenomenal beverage director, Lila Holland, to advise at Kinsley and the hotel’s glittering cocktail bar.
Kinsley, at the corner of Wall and John, is a bright, tall-windowed space with velvety upholstery and oriental carpets; in winter, it seduces pedestrians from the street with a crackling wood-burning hearth.
“The room might feel more upscale than other places in town,” says Pelaccio, “but it’s also just really welcoming and full of natural light. And there’s an attention to detail, a level of execution, that people are really responding to.” Kinsley’s menu—tapas, salads, pastas, steaks (and even a burger)—is more democratic than either of Pelaccio’s Hudson restaurants. “It’s a hotel restaurant—so there’s a little something for everybody—but in more of a European style. And we’re embracing local products, obviously.”
With fierce, minutely tuned wood-fired pizzas, pastas, and candy-studded organic soft-serve, LOLA is breezier still. Its ’80s/’90s MTV playlist—Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch! C + C Music Factory!—sparks joy, while Somer’s chicly unbreakable cinderblock and terrazzo dining room works for both families and sophisticates (there’s a quiet bar round the side). Pelaccio describes LOLA: “You know—a lower price point, a little more family friendly, no reservations: get a pie and leave, or stick around and have some fun, frizzante Italian natural wines. And the way that I worked with Zach Wade [LOLA’s chef] is to do things with an Italian sensibility because, you know, I spent so many years traveling throughout Italy. These are simple pizzas and pastas, but it’s all about the details. “
So, now that it has a boutique hotel, will Kingston ever be Hudson?
“The surrounding area in Kingston has, what, 165,000 people? Compared to where I started out in Hudson,” Pelaccio laughs, “which swells to 7,000.”
Gaskins | @gaskinsny
Hotel Kinsley | @hotelkinsley
Taavo Somer | @taavosomer
Freemans | @freemansrestaurant
Zak Pelaccio | @zakarypelaccio
Robert McKinley | @studiorobertmckinley
William Tigertt | @wtigertt
Backbar | @backbar347
LOLA Pizza | @lolapizzakingston
This story was originally published in April of 2020.