Hudson, N.Y.: An Elegant Transformation

Rail travelers to Hudson still use its original 1874 brick depot.

I used to consider myself a bona fide traveler, exploring everywhere from Costa Rica to Buenos Aires, Biarritz to Brussels. I looked at every calendar year as a puzzle, figuring out where to go, and when. With a home base in New York City — and Paris for two years, which invited its own adventures — almost every destination was accessible.

Then I fell in love, married, moved to Brooklyn and had a baby. Getting to the Upper West Side proved to be a feat; taking a train to Connecticut for the weekend, exhausting. Trotting off to a European capital felt as doable as dancing until dawn — something else I used to relish before becoming a mom. To feed my wanderlust, I had to turn my gaze to local destinations: the North Fork of Long Island, the Berkshires, Philadelphia and the Hudson Valley, seemingly every other Brooklynite’s favorite retreat.

Of course the Hudson Valley fulfills its promise as an escape: verdant hills, roadside farmstands, hawks and eagles overhead. But what of the city itself? Named for the English explorer who sailed up the river in 1609, Hudson, a city of just over 6,400, has had enough ups and downs to make the seafarers who settled it in the 1700s woozy.

From whaling and international trade in the 18th century, to cotton mills and brick yards in the 19th century, to cement plants in the early 20th century, industry has risen and fallen. After a long steady decline, the last 30 years in Hudson have seen a remarkable and elegant transformation, thanks in no small part to the influences of my home city, 120 miles to the south.

My husband and I made a quick visit last summer with our then 10-month-old and immediately fell for the mix of Federal, Victorian and Queen Anne architecture; the vibrant urban transplants we chatted with; and the amazing food, from cheese shops to taco trucks to James Beard-award-nominated restaurants. We stumbled into a brand-new gallery and tavern called ÖR that was once an auto garage, and noticed two hotels promising to open soon. We understood Hudson was a destination on the rise.

Nine months later, heeding the siren’s call to explore deeper and visit those new hotels, we left Amtrak at Hudson’s original 1874 brick depot less than two hours after pulling out of Penn Station. It was warm and humid, and the town’s artistic spirit was visible in the clogs and sundresses, Chelsea boots and cut-off jeans splattered with paint that locals were wearing.

We made our way up Warren Street, the city’s main drag, and checked into the Rivertown Lodge, once a movie theater and now a two-story, 27-room modern hotel. We immediately went to the bar for dinner and a drink (while I don’t travel or dance the way I used to, I can’t overstate how lovely an evening cocktail has become).

Sitting in the corner of the coolly designed sliver of a room — slate gray walls and a rolled bronze bar beneath a cedar ceiling punctuated by rows of glowing bulbs — I felt conspicuous with a wild-haired toddler in tow, but there were nothing but friendly vibes.

The bartender, who brought us our snap pea salad and roasted chicken, warmly talked about his own 6-week-old baby, while exiting patrons commented, “Enough with the cuteness!” making us feel welcome and at home.

So at home, in fact, that we started seeing Brooklyn everywhere. The next morning, after picking up excellent butter-laden croissants across the street at Bonfiglio & Bread and enjoying them with coffee in Rivertown’s modern, sun-filled lobby, we bumped into Monica Byrne and Leisah Swenson, owners of the Red Hook restaurant Home/Made, a favorite brunch spot of ours. Turns out, they have a house in the area, as do their friends Stefanie Brechbuehler and Robert Highsmith, the founders of Workstead, the Brooklyn design studio that happens to be responsible for Rivertown’s crisp and stylish interiors. We had escaped Brooklyn, but Brooklyn wasn’t escaping us.

As we set out for the day, strolling down Warren Street as it sloped gently toward the river, Hudson felt like a chic little city, albeit gritty at the edges and hippie at its heart. A classic stainless steel diner car from the ’40s houses Grazin’, an organic burger joint and the first certified Animal Welfare Approved restaurant in the country, which sits across from 7th Street Park, a modest square created in the 1780s, now crisscrossed by train tracks and shaded by large trees.

A huge Greek Revival residence had regal bones, but its porch and yard were strewn with rolled-up carpets, fur-collared coats and kitschy paintings of kittens in preparation for a “Barn & Yard Sale” that seemed, perhaps, to take place every weekend. Nearby, a man with tattoos called out to me, “Excuse me, is that an Ulla Johnson dress?” perfectly demonstrating the incongruous threads that bind the city.

Hudson’s current renaissance started in the ’80s when antiques dealers and artists rediscovered the area and started opening up shop. There are now dozens of antiques stores and galleries along Warren Street, all of which have attracted similarly creative retailers and residents.

There’s the wood-paneled Spotty Dog Books & Ale, a crowded bookstore made even more so by the people hanging out over pints of local brews while listening to acoustic guitarists or nerding out at trivia night. Valley Variety offers cooking demos and baking workshops along with modern home and kitchen accouterments. And Woodstock General Supply just expanded from across the river, hawking au courant country goods like canvas backpacks and shaving supplies.

As we window-shopped and gallery-hopped, we kept marveling at Hudson’s architecture. What were once banks and factories are now restored commercial and residential buildings, an impressive patchwork of colors and styles restored right down to the molded cornices, marble pilasters and stained glass windows. There are grand Queen Anne mansions with patterned roof shingles; charming Victorians with turrets and weathervanes; Italianate homes with mansard roofs and overhanging eaves.

As diverse as the architecture is, there’s a consistency, thanks in part to the city’s original grid layout of 50- by 120-foot lots and the general uniformity of the buildings’ scale.

We actually managed to spend two days strolling Warren Street, though we took a cue from the city’s nice and easy pace and broke it up with more leisurely stops. At the western tip of Warren Street, we settled on the grass of Promenade Hill for views of the river, and later hopped on the “Spirit on Hudson” for a 90-minute cruise from its dock at Riverfront Park, just down the street.

When it was time to eat, we didn’t dare bring our 19-month-old companion to Fish & Game, run by the former Manhattan chef Zakary Pelaccio, recipient of this year’s James Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast. The three-year-old restaurant has garnered lots of fanfare, and in my previous life I would have insisted on visiting the rustically elegant restaurant for dishes like burrata with anchovies and grilled swordfish with spring onions, but this weekend had a decidedly more casual bent.

On our earlier Hudson visit, we had discovered the lush garden at Red Dot, the city’s longest running restaurant and bar, and dined next to the owner, Alana Hauptmann. She and her husband bought Red Dot’s building in 1990 when it was in foreclosure and cost a mere $20,000. They moved up from the city and dedicated themselves to restoring the derelict space and, 12 years later, bought the property next door to expand the restaurant and gain the garden in which we ate.

“The Dot became the Cheers of Hudson,” Ms. Hauptmann later remembered, though it wasn’t without resistance. After joining the seven-year fight to block the opening of a large cement plant in town, Ms. Hauptmann endured stink bombs, BB pellets and taunts. “The town has changed dramatically over the years,” said Ms. Hauptmann, a Hudson pioneer. “I am glad that my buildings have risen in value. But I do miss the old days.”

Bruce Bergmann has also seen Hudson’s transformation from the front lines. We stopped at his gallery, BCB Art, to see some surprisingly powerful portraits by Richard Butler, the lead singer of the ’80s new wave band the Psychedelic Furs. By then, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Mr. Bergmann also hailed from Brooklyn.

In 1990, he and his wife bought the Bank of Hudson building, constructed in 1809, for weekend getaways. At the time the city was so down and out that kids across the street graffitied their own homes. But by 2003, the couple opened the high-end gallery and, two years later, smitten with Hudson, moved there full time.

The final stop on our “escape” from Brooklyn, such as it was, was Wm. Farmer and Sons, Hudson’s other new hotel, which is as plush and eclectic as Rivertown is sparse.

As Kristan Keck, who owns the 11-room inn and restaurant with her husband, the chef W. Kirby Farmer, generously insisted on setting up a crib near the towering king-size bed of our suite, she said she, too, had been a Brooklyn resident. She and her husband started spending weekends in the area and then bought the Hudson building rather unexpectedly. They became new parents and stumbled into this new life. Turns out, some places just feel like home.

Hudson Food Studio, 610 Warren Street, 518-828-3459; Southeast Asian fare created with local farms’ bounty. Spicy lump crab cakes, spicy chicken and rice noodles, and braised Chinese eggplant are indicative of the seasonal menu. About $75 for four dishes and wine,which amply serves two.

Swoon Kitchenbar, 340 Warren Street, 518-822-8938; A farm-to-table restaurant featuring crowd-pleasing American classics including oysters on the half-shell, house-made pastas, and entrees like pan-roasted salmon and skirt steak. About $120 for dinner for two with drinks.

Bonfiglio & Bread, 748 Warren Street, 518-822-0277; Fresh pastries, sandwiches and pizzas are responsible for the lines at this decadent bakery. About $30 for lunch for two.

Wm. Farmer and Sons, 20 South Front Street, 518-828-1635; Eleven rooms and suites and a vibrant bar and restaurant scene. Convenient to the train. Rates from$149.

Rivertown Lodge, 731 Warren Street, 518-512-0954; This hip new hotel has 27 rooms, common areas and an in-house bar/restaurant. From $199 a night.

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