Road Trip, Part Four: Huguenot Houses

For the anniversary of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (24 August, 1572), on which perhaps 3000 Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants) were slain in the streets of Paris, I am backtracking back to the New York town of New Paltz to feature some houses built by Huguenot exiles from seventeenth-century France.  These are the houses of Protestant survivors of France’s intense religious conflict and repression in the early modern era.

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre occurred during what became a very temporary truce in the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) for the occasion of a Capulet-Montague marriage between Henri of Navarre, symbolic leader of the noble Huguenot faction in France, and the French royal princess Marguerite of Valois.  All of the most powerful Protestant and Catholic nobles were gathered in Paris for the royal wedding, and what is generally assumed to have been a targeted assassination (engineered by the bride’s mother, the very Machiavellian Catherine de’ Medici) of Admiral Coligny, the Huguenots’ military leader, spilled out into the streets and was transformed into mob violence.  The wars continued, despite a very depleted Huguenot leadership and with pan-European support on both religious sides, until the bridegroom Henri of Navarre succeeded to the throne in 1589 (becoming Henri IV, the first of the last French dynasty, the Bourbons), made a political conversion to majority Catholicism (“Paris is well worth a mass”) and granted an official toleration decree to his former co-religionists with the Edict of Nantes (1598).

Saint Bartholomews Day Massacre by François Dubois (Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne) clearly shows Admiral Coligny hanging out of a window (right background) and Catherine de’ Medici (in black, left background) examining a pile of corpses.  Prints of the massacre, like that of Gaspar Bouttats below (Antwerp, 1670; British Museum) circulated around western Europe for a century and more, creating a sense of martydom on the part of French Protestants and a European-wide Protestant unity.

Even though they had been granted a limited toleration (until Henri IV’s grandson Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685) many French Protestants saw the writing on the wall and left the country for more tolerant (or Protestant) places:  the Netherlands, Germany, England, and the New World. Salem had a small Huguenot community, centered around the successful merchant Philip English, but as my brother and I visited Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, New York, this week, I thought these Hudson River Valley houses would better commemorate the Huguenot experience.  These American colonial houses are also a great reminder for an Anglophile and New Anglophile such as myself that not all pre-revolutionary American houses are English in inspiration.

The Hugo Freer House, 32 Huguenot Street, New Paltz, NY; built in northern and southern sections, 1694 & 1735.

The New Paltz Huguenots (often alternatively referred to as Walloons, as many came from the northern French region that is now Belgium) emigrated to American in the 1660s and 1670s and established important contacts in the Dutch settlement of Wiltwyck, now nearby Kingston, New York.  Kingston, along with New York and Albany, was one of the three principal settlements in Dutch New Netherland, and there are some great old stone houses there too, but as it later served as the first capital of New York, the British burned much of it to the ground in the Revolutionary War.  Twelve Huguenot families, the original “Patentees”, established New Paltz in 1678 by purchasing 40,000 acres of land from the resident Eposus Indians; seven of their stone houses survive on Huguenot Street.

The Abraham Hasbrouck House, 94 Huguenot Street, built in 3 phases between 1720 and 1740; a 1940 HABS photograph from the Library of Congress, showing its later dormers; windows and doors of different heights and sizes testify to its structural history.

The Bevier-Elting House, Huguenot Street & Broadhead Avenue, begun in 1698.  These long, sloping roofs do remind me of English seventeenth-century houses in Massachusetts. But not the stone. I love these crooked windows!

The recently-restored Jean/Jacob Hasbrouck House, Huguenot & Front Streets, built c. 1721.

Our last stop in this preserved Huguenot village was the old Burying Ground, which has a reconstructed “Old French” church in its midst.  The gravestones were themselves testimonies to the development of this community, as the original Patentee families married both within and outside their circle over the centuries, transforming themselves from refugees to Americans.

The Old Burying Ground and the reconstructed Church; a 1951 photograph of the cemetery before the Church’s reconstruction by Erma Dewitt, Hudson River Valley Heritage; an eighteenth-century marker.

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