Weekend Detour: Beacon, New York

Weekend Detour: Beacon, New York

By Laura Feinstein
Located in the sleepy hamlet of Beacon, New York, Dia:Beacon attracts international visitors to its cutting edge design center and surrounding attractions. Residing on the site of a former industrial mecca, and created to house the Dia Art Foundation's larger works, Dia:Beacon provides a unique spot and weekend arts destination just outside the city.

The town of Beacon, New York, has seen many residents pass through during its long years in existence. Settled first by the Dutch, and later the English, Beacon came to prominence during the Industrial Revolution as the "The Hat Making Capital of the U.S." At one point, it boasted almost 500 hat factories inside city limits. Attracted by well-paying jobs and a veritable Babel of international workers, the town was certainly one of the most diverse and thriving areas in the Hudson Valley (though it could never have been called cosmopolitan).

Like many similar industrial towns across the U.S., the 1970s brought on an unprecedented economic downturn, causing a sizable chunk of the population to flee, bringing along with it much of the culture and commerce. Though for many years the area teetered on the brink of extinction, its newest residents have been helping to put it back on the map with a new, creative vibe. Artists, weary Brooklyn residents, and young creative class families enticed by cheap rent, good schools, and a close proximity to the nearby art world of New York City, appear to be here to stay.

As part of a Renaissance ushered in by the opening of Dia:Beacon in 2003, which acts as an outpost of Dia:Chelsea, Beacon has been flourishing with an abundance of small businesses, charming eateries, and intriguing young galleries.

Just a quick hour and a half outside of New York City, the best way to reach Dia:Beacon is via Metro-North’s Croton-Harmon line. Conveniently trailing the length of the Hudson River, this leisurely train ride taken at the right time of day provides the kind of exquisite views of the Palisades, and front-row seats to epic sunsets, that make a visitor understand the appeal of this lush slice of land to the original colonists.

On a recent Saturday, Dwell ventured up to Beacon for a day of art, intimate coffee shops, and a peek at a town only slightly changed by time.

Our first stop in Beacon was to visit Dia, where we spoke with Managing Director Susan Baton, to find out more about the decision to open such a challenging and design oriented museum in such an unusual location.

What was the impetus for using Beacon as the site?

Dia pioneered the conversion of industrial buildings for the installation of contemporary art—a practice and aesthetic now widely adopted by museums and galleries internationally. Dia:Beacon was a former Nabisco printing factory. It offered expansive spaces that were uniquely suited to the needs of our collection of large-scale installations, paintings, and sculptures. In keeping with our history of single-artist, site-related presentations, each gallery was designed specifically for the presentation of one artist’s work.

How have you seen the area change since it opened?

Beacon has grown into a cultural destination and we like to think we helped make this possible. We work closely with Beacon City School District to develop an extensive Arts Education Program for their students; it is estimated that we pump more than $12 million into the local economy; and last year we brought over 75,000 visitors to the area.

Are there any events or exhibitions planned for the fall visitors should know about?

Yes, we have a busy fall season planned. Opus + One, first comprehensive exhibition in North America devoted to the work of Paris-based artist Jean-Luc Moulène, and Circa 1971, a selection of video and film works by key figures in early video art from the collection of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), are on view until December 31. Also, each month we host a gallery talk and October 13 is our next Community Free Day, which provides free admission to residents of Columbia, Dutchess, Greene, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster, and Westchester counties.

If someone who was design oriented visited for the weekend, where would you recommend they stay over night, or places they should also visit?

The newest place to stay in the area is the Roundhouse, which will open hotel rooms in 2013; the Rockwell Group–designed restaurant and lounge are now open. Similar to Dia:Beacon, the Roundhouse was a former industrial site. I love that most of the design work and furniture in the hotel was created by local artisans, including woodwork by Jessica Wickham, and glass by Niche Modern and Hudson Beach Glass. Manitoga/The Russel Wright Design Center is in nearby Garrison, about seven miles south of Beacon.

Are there any restaurants that you or the rest of the staff of Dia:Beacon often go to?

Absolutely, staff patronize local establishments, and recommend them to visitors, and like Homespun, Amarcord, The Hop, Beacon Falls Café, Sukhothai, and the Patio at Roundhouse, among others. Beacon has amazing coffee at Tas Café, Bank Street, and the Coffee Shoppe as well.

Would you say there is a growing community in the area of artists and design enthusiasts?

Absolutely, there is a strong creative class in Beacon, and it is growing every day. From artisan-based businesses to graphic designers and fine artists, I am impressed with the quality of the work and its contribution to a creative economy.

Is there anything else you think people should know about Dia:Beacon?

Yes, we will be kicking off our 10th anniversary celebration in spring 2013, so we will have a series of events planned around that, and hope to introduce more visitors to all that Dia:Beacon has to offer.

Located just a short distance north of New York City, Beacon offers a welcome change of pace—greenery replaces concrete sidewalks and a Bohemian flare permeates the town. With a total population of just over 15,000, this hamlet has a tight-knit feel, and plenty of room for city-weary visitors to breathe in the Hudson River Valley air.

Just up the road from the Beacon train station, Dia:Beacon’s wide spaces and epic installations allow for total immersion within its unique gallery space. Adaptively reusing the former Nabisco factory's structure, Dia’s design was conceptualized by American artist Robert Irwin, who intended for the museum to retain the site's industrial character.

Working in collaboration with the architecture firm OpenOffice, a sensitive master plan was devised for the museum building and its exterior setting. Today, Dia:Beacon has nearly 240,000 square feet of gallery space.

Inside, Dia hosts a wealth of rotating activities, including gallery talks and lectures, Saturday Public Tours, and a Community Free Day that often includes collection tours, workshops, and other design-related events.

One of the highlights of Dia:Beacon, this sculpture created by Richard Serra is best viewed in the late afternoon, when its foreboding steel structures both alludes to Dia’s industrial past and the sleek minimalism which permeates its current space.

North, East, South, West, Michael Heizer, 1967/2002. Dia Art Foundation.

In addition to rotating exhibits, Dia also has several works on permanent view. This includes the above piece by Michael Helzer, which gives visitors the feeling of an endless drop when viewed from the right angle. Though roped off for safety reasons, those lucky enough to be allowed past can experience a jarring optical illusion that displaces the senses, while also creating a sense of aesthetic wonder.

One unusual fact about Dia:Beacon is that the galleries are lit almost entirely by natural light. As a result, the museum’s hours may vary seasonally. If you’re planning an upcoming visit, be sure to check Dia’s website for updates.

With pieces assembled largely during the 1970s and early 1980s by Dia’s founders, the collection also includes some of the most important artists of the 20th century, including Joseph Beuys, Louise Bourgeois, Gerhard Richter, Lawrence Weiner, Sol LeWitt, Cy Twombly, and Blinky Palermo.

For those looking to turn their trip to Dia:Beacon into a full-day event, the town offers a plethora of shops within close walking distance. In addition to its easy-going atmosphere, most of the attractions in Beacon are along the stretch of Main street, making it easy to pack in a full day of sightseeing without having to travel too far.

If you’re looking for a caffeine refuel, or merely to have a leisurely conversation with other local Beaconers, head over the Bank Square Café on Main street. With a hip clientele, gourmet coffee, and an overall early 90s-meets-modern-design feel, Bank Square could easily be mistaken for one of the better java shops in Williamsburg or Portland. Minus the long wait of course.

Sharing more in common with its Brooklyn brethren than just a love for quality coffee, Beacon also has an emerging bike scene that’s been quickly taking over the area. Opened to cater to this growing demographic, Beacon Cycles has an impressive selection of bicycles ranging from full carbon road bikes to dual-suspension mountain bikes by Kona, Jamis, Surly, DK, and We The People. For those visiting just for the day, Beacon Cycles also offers the chance to rent, providing the perfect opportunity to explore the without needing a car.

In addition to being a great place to pick up some of your favorite Kid Robot designs, Dream In Plastic’s colorful storefront is also home to cult-zine Clutter, and a host of hard-to-find toys and memorabilia.

If you get tired of sightseeing and want to grab a bite, Beacon’s food culture has flourished along with its recent design influx. Whether you’re a vegetarian, a world-culture culinary enthusiast, or simply want a good sandwich, Beacon has everything from Egyptian food to a meatless joint to satiate your appetite. Poppy’s, a local favorite, is known for its organic grass-fed beef patties, served without pretension and plenty of flavor.

Zagat-rated and beloved internationally by people who know good food, Poppy’s is run by local celebrity and chef Paul Yeaple. Food lover extraordinaire and former contestant and champion winner on the Food Network’s Chopped, Yeaple’s crisp fries and engaging persona frequently lure reticent New York City food lovers to Beacon to sample some of Poppy’s delectables for themselves.

While the food is certainly a draw, so is the eclectic décor, which includes vintage signs, pinball machines, and a fully decorated back patio.

The low cost of renting a storefront coupled with an internet retail boom has allowed many small shops in Beacon to retain a lavish storefront while also running a thriving, viable business.

One place that fits this bill is Hudson Beach Glass, a fully functioning glass studio that’s been creating sculptural curiosities for over 20 years. Conceived by a collective of blowers and artisans, Hudson Glass Shop is open to the public and can also be found online site at hudsonbeachglass.com.

Decorative eggs at Hudson Beach Glass.

The kiln at Hudson Beach Glass.

Another such place is home goods store and designophile paradise, Global Home. Created by two New Yorkers hoping to flee their corporate jobs, owners Joe and Vivian (at Vogue and Martha Stewart Omnimedia, respectively) sold their belongings and decided to travel across the world. On their journeys they came across hundreds of objects of aesthetic delight, and upon their belated return to the states decided to open a shop of their own.

Inside Global Home, visitors will find goods ranging from Balinese marriage beds, to glass paintings from Senegal, Moroccan tea tables, and antique Ming-style chairs.

Dubbed "modern exotic" by its founders, Global Home also features an assortment of internationally curated textiles, home accessories, and designer candles. To check out some of their wares, you can visit their site: globalhomeny.com.

For those young at heart (or with actual youngsters) head to Play Toys and Gifts, where you’ll find everything from Mexican jumping beans to candy you thought had gone off the market years ago. If you can imagine a toy, you can probably find it there.

With a local arts council comprised of several important community figures, Beacon has been paying special attention to growing its local artistic community through public works, festivals, and ongoing activities. For more information, visit BeaconArts (BACA) at beaconarts.org.

Along with Dia, Beacon’s ongoing commitment to contemporary fine art also extends to the proliferation of new galleries that call the area home. One of its most famous residents, Fovea Exhibitions, specializes in shows centered on photojournalism and is gaining an international reputation for insightful contemporary photography.

One of the most popular events in Beacon—and a great way to check out local artists—is their frequently held Beacon Open Studios event. During this citywide event, called "BOS" by residents, artists make their work open to the public, allowing visitors to go on self-guided tours through the studios of their choosing.

For those looking to explore the more historical side of the area, Bannerman’s Castle provides a glimpse into some of the lesser-known design anomalies of the area—a direct result of the different influxes of immigrants through the region’s history. Created as a fortress to house the arsenal of a colonizing Scotsmen, the castle was often thought to be haunted. Native Americans and Dutch settlers avoided it for fear of "resident spirits and goblins." The state of New York owns the castle and tours can be obtained through bannermancastle.org


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