Athens, N.Y.: A ‘Perfect Combination of Old and New’ on the Hudson

As a country music artist, Chely Wright traveled the world, but only one place really felt like home — Athens, N.Y., which she discovered about six years ago after playing at Club Helsinki in nearby Hudson.

“I called my wife and said, ‘We need to put down roots here,’ ” Ms. Wright recalled.

Perched on the Hudson River’s west bank, Athens is filled with Victorian, Greek Revival and Federal homes. Ms. Wright, who grew up in Kansas, yearned for the sense of community the area offered — but without a high-maintenance antique house.

“We wanted the charm of a historic neighborhood, but I also told my agent, ‘I want a brand-new build.’ He said, ‘You’re never going to find a new build in Athens,’” said Ms. Wright, 51, who is now the chief diversity officer for Unispace, a commercial design firm based in Boston, and the mother of 9-year-old twin boys.

After looking at some 30 homes over four years, Ms. Wright did, in fact, find what she was looking for. In February, she closed on a three-bedroom home in Athens, just a few blocks from the river, paying $595,000. Her family now splits their time between the house and an Upper East Side apartment.

The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse was completed in 1874 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Catskill Mountain Ferry Company offers tours of the lighthouse in the summer.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

She is among a wave of New Yorkers who have recently discovered Athens, a quieter, more laid-back version of neighboring Catskill, five miles south. At just under 30 square miles, the town is less than half the size of Catskill and has a population of 3,916, compared with Catskill’s 11,298, according to the 2020 census.

“It’s almost as though time stood still in Athens,” said James Male, the owner of House Hudson Valley Realty, who helped Ms. Wright find her home. “It’s a small, sleepy village almost right out of a movie set. It used to be everyone wanted to be near Hudson. Now it’s so popular, people want to avoid Hudson. That’s led to the movement of people going across the bridge to Athens.”

Amy Bennett, who lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, was so taken with Athens that earlier this year she bought three 19th-century brick buildings there, as well as a Victorian Airbnb and 58 adjoining acres on Route 385, which she rented to an organic farm. The total cost: $2.945 million.

“It’s this super-cute town right on the Hudson, and it seemed like it had a lot of potential,” said Ms. Bennett, 53, who owns two businesses in Brooklyn, Greene Grape Wine & Spirits and Greene Grape Provisions, a gourmet food market. “I like helping to reinvigorate a Main Street small-town economy and getting people to see how special but relatively unpopulated the area is.”

34 SOUTH FRANKLIN STREET | A five-bedroom, two-bathroom house, built in 1850 on 0.04 acres, listed for $615,000. 518-828-5154Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

What You’ll Find

Much of the architecture in the village of Athens — a 3.4-square-mile area in the heart of the town of Athens — dates to the 19th century, and it attracts buyers interested in restoration. Bob and Becky Hart, who relocated from Denver, had been visiting their daughter in Athens for nearly a decade before they bought a Greek Revival house there in 2018 for $105,000 and renovated it.

“We were interested in doing a renovation that respected the history but moved forward,” said Ms. Hart, 68, a former curator at the Denver Art Museum and now a freelance curator and art adviser.

She’s now on the board of the Athens Cultural Center, a nonprofit started in 2004 in an 1870s building that had been vacant for about a year. The center hosts several art exhibitions each year, along with a block party for each opening in the warmer months. It also holds a happy hour on the first Friday of every month, offers free art classes for children, and screens a monthly movie in the Athens Riverfront Park during the summers. In December, the center’s Athens Victorian Stroll of village architecture draws around 2,000 participants, said Jeremy Bloom, the center’s director. On summer Fridays, the nonprofit Athens Performing Arts Corporation holds concerts in the park.

A ferry service shuttles passengers between Hudson and Athens on weekends and offers tours of the 1874 Hudson-Athens Lighthouse. And every July, Athens sponsors a street festival that draws around 15,000 attendees.

Next to the park is the Stewart House, a restaurant, event space and nine-room hotel built in 1883 that residents describe as the heart of the community, especially during the warmer months, when they gather on its riverfront patio. Lois Ballinger and her husband, Lon Ballinger, bought the building in 2017, shortly after the sale of the Manhattan music venue Webster Hall, in which they owned a stake.

32 SOUTH FRANKLIN STREET | An eight-bedroom, three-bathroom house, built in 1867 on 1.62 acres, listed for $799,000. 718-501-3655Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

“My real estate agent insisted we go look at this small hotel in Athens — which, of course, we’d never heard of,” said Ms. Ballinger, who lives in Mount Kisco, N.Y. “Athens is a perfect combination of old and new. You have people who have lived here for five or six generations, and you have a lot of newcomers who moved in even before Covid.”

Newcomers and old-timers alike congregate at the local coffee shop, the Athens Rooster, opened two years ago by Melissa Chmelar, a former New York City restaurateur, and her husband, Jonathan Griffith. Denise McCarroll, the former owner of the Catskill bistro 394 Main, recently opened a restaurant called Seconds on the ground floor of one of Ms. Bennett’s buildings, 7 Second Street. When Catskill Bread Co., a wholesale bread business in Catskill, opened a retail shop on Second Street this summer, lines for the freshly baked loaves stretched down the block.

Many residents shop in Catskill and Hudson because Athens has no big-box retailers or grocery stores. “We found we don’t need some of the things we thought we needed,” Ms. Hart said. “My neighbors and I laugh at each other as we trot off to Walmart and Price Chopper, but we’ve learned you can get almost everything there, and then there are gourmet shops around.”

What You’ll Pay

The growing popularity of Athens is reflected in its real estate prices.

The median sale price for a single-family home jumped nearly 20 percent, to $427,290, during the first eight months of this year, from $357,243 during the same period last year, according to the Columbia Greene Board of Realtors. Even more striking, the median sale price in 2019, before the start of the pandemic, was just $197,000 — less than half of what it is now.

In late September, Zillow showed 16 single-family homes for sale in Athens, from a three-bedroom Federal home in need of restoration, listed for $225,000, to a five-bedroom log home on 1.54 acres with lake frontage, listed for $1.4 million. The log home is in Sleepy Hollow Lake, a 2,200-acre private community with 842 homes around a large man-made lake, with amenities including tennis courts, a driving range, two swimming pools and an events lodge; in 2022, annual dues were $1,892.

46 UNION STREET | A four-bedroom, two-bathroom house, built in 1900 on an acre, listed for $279,000. 518-469-2720Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The average annual property tax bill in Athens is about $5,235, said Raymond Ward, the director of real property tax services for Greene County. This is low for the region and a fraction of the typical Hudson tax bill; some residents say it factored into their decision to buy a home in Athens.

The Vibe

Residents say Athens is warm and welcoming. During the warmer months, it buzzes with activity.

“I like it because I can walk everywhere, and people are out and about, and you speak to people that you meet on the street and you get to know them,” said Mr. Hart, 77, a retired Episcopal priest. “We have a dog. When you have a dog, everyone speaks to you.”

Many residents say they were also drawn by the community’s creative energy and politically liberal mind-set. “I was very attracted to the people that we met here,” Ms. Hart said. “A great number of creative people live in this village, and people who share the values we have.”

As Ms. Wright put it: “We had every signal from the town and neighbors and people on the street to believe not only would we be safe here, but welcome.”

The Schools

Most Athens students attend schools in the Coxsackie-Athens Central School District.

During the 2021-22 school year, the latest year for which figures were available from the New York State Education Department, the district had an enrollment of 1,188 students in kindergarten through 12th grade; about 85 percent identified as white, about 8 percent as Hispanic, about 5 percent as multiracial, 2 percent as Black and 1 percent as Asian or Pacific Islander.

On 2018-19 state tests, 79 percent of Coxsackie-Athens High School students were proficient in English, 57 percent were proficient in algebra and 77 percent were proficient in geometry, compared with 84 percent, 71 percent and 70 percent statewide. In 2021, the mean SAT verbal score was 570, compared with 526 statewide; the mean math score was 559, versus 531 statewide.

The high school’s graduation rate in 2021 was 89 percent, compared with 86 percent for the state.

The Athens Rooster serves baked goods as well as breakfast and lunch items, like an “adult grilled cheese” with cheddar and fontina.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The Commute

Athens is about a 10-minute drive from Exit 21 on the New York State Thruway. The drive to the George Washington Bridge takes about two hours, depending on traffic.

The Amtrak train station in Hudson is a 15-minute drive. Round-trip tickets to New York City cost $62 to $148, depending on when the ticket is bought and whether it is for peak or off-peak hours.

The History

In 1665, Dutch settlers bought the land that would become Athens from the Mohicans, according to Lynn J. Brunner, the town historian. The village was originally a Dutch settlement called Loonenburgh, incorporated in 1805, said Jonathan Palmer, the archivist for the Vedder Research Library at the Greene County Historical Society. The New York State Legislature formed the town of Athens from parts of Coxsackie and Catskill in 1815. By the mid-1800s, it was a center of boat building and brick making and, by the 1880s, ice harvesting. Four major roads ran through Athens, including the Schoharie Turnpike, which brought traffic to the river landings, where the ice was stored in wood buildings.

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