Protecting Our Past With The Historic Preservation Commission
The town of New Paltz is rich with history; one does need to travel far to see buildings as old as the nation’s foundation. The Historic Preservation Commission for the Village of New Paltz arose in the early 2000’s as a local government body focused on the preservation of this architectural history, with the organization’s goal stated on their website as being “To protect, enhance, and perpetuate the heritage of the Village of New Paltz”. Thomas G. Olsen, an English professor at SUNY New Paltz, leads the commission as the current chair and works to foster “Heritage tourism”, a means to keep history alive through material and documentary sources explaining the stories of the local past.
The commission’s history begins with the founding of the Huguenot Historical Society in the 1970s. Kenneth Hasbrouck, a direct descendant of town founder Abraham Hasbrouck, brought those who supported the preservation of local history together and encouraged them to protect and restore many of the town’s oldest buildings. The society saw massive success with this project, successfully establishing the Huguenot Street Historic District in the 1980s. Originally, all requests to alter historic property contained within this district were directed to the Village Planning Board, but in 1994 further efforts were taken to continue the positive project of preservation. This led to the eventual creation of the Historical Preservation Commission in 2001, with the primary purpose of establishing historic landmarks and overseeing requests to architecturally change historic buildings.
A major facet of the Historical Preservation Commission’s purpose is to save historic property information and make it available to the public. This information is predominantly available through their website, http://hpc.townofnewpaltz.org/, where various interactive maps, charts, and primary sources are located. The most informative pieces of the site are found under the headers ‘Map’ and ‘Then and Now’. The ‘Map’ section contains a detailed overview of the town of New Paltz, breaking the village down into smaller sections where architectural information is available about the town’s oldest buildings. This information includes the year each building was created, it’s original foundation, and it’s present purpose. ‘Then and Now’ serves a similar function, though it does not take the same visual mapping format. Here, the commission documents the most well-known and historical buildings from their origins to present time. The information provided is quite extensive, with all available primary sources listed as well. Additional features of the site include a timeline of all settlements in New Paltz, a sixteen-minute video with notable members of the commission explaining their work, and downloadable sources. The site also includes resources for more in depth inquiries or research, linking to the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection at the Elting Memorial Library.
In making such a vast quantity of local historical information available to the public in a way that can be easily understood and absorbed, the Historical Preservation Commission successfully accomplishes its goal as a public history site. Anyone, regardless of their background in history, can access the information the commission has assembled and form a sense of community and political identity. From completing their formal work as a local government body and volunteering the data they gather to the public, the commission continues to preserve and protect the town’s history.