Gay marriage: New York couples flock to Kingston for nuptials

Paul Joffe, 50, of Kingston, owns Celebration Wedding Paul Joffe, 50, of Kingston, owns Celebration Wedding Chapel in Kingston and hopes to turn it into the premier location for gay weddings. (Jan. 3, 2013) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

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Guy Veronick, 53, and John Condelario, 58, are same-sex newlyweds who went for an all-out church wedding in Kingston that included marching down the aisle in his-and-his matching suits as steeple bells tolled.

The nuptials were held at Celebration Chapel, a venue whose owner is hoping to turn this little Ulster County city of 23,000 into the gay wedding capitol of, well, at least New York.

"In the past, gay people getting married in a church was unheard of," reflected Veronick, a retired nurse from Woodstock who said he still happily weeps while watching the wedding video from November 2012. "I felt like society has finally acknowledged that gay people are real people with real rights."

That's what Paul Joffe thought too. As the owner of the property at 29 Wurts St., near the Hudson River waterfront, he has poured untold sweat equity and more money than he can count into his unique mission. So far, many reservations have been made by same-sex couples who are middle-aged and older -- love birds who never dared to dream of a traditional church wedding.

With Kingston sitting at state Thruway I-87 Exit 19 and accessible by bus and Amtrak, Celebration Chapel is billing itself as a scenic, less-expensive option to a pricey New York City wedding. Along with the chapel, a cottage industry of other gay wedding related businesses in the area, such as caterers, has emerged.

The market might actually be there, said gay activist and scholar Jonathan David Katz, who is director of the Ph.D program for SUNY-Buffalo's Visual Studies Department.

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"The chapel is exactly the image of marriage that people getting married are looking to find," he said. "It's quaint, it's beautiful, it's orthodox."

Entrepreneurs with picturesque marriage venues are also starting to appear in Massachusetts and Connecticut, two states that also sanction same-sex marriage, Katz said, adding that this is an industry that "went from nil to a solid business strategy."

HUDSON RIVER, HISTORY

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"The Hudson River is a very big draw whether you're gay or straight," said Robert Gregg, 56, who is marrying his partner Greg Juliano, 48, at the chapel during 2013's Memorial Day weekend. The two found the chapel on its website.

"There's sporting, gilded homes to visit from the Gilded Age. There's really something for everybody in the area. That's why we like it so much."

Back in 2005, Joffe bought what was then Trinity Methodist Church, an abandoned, boarded-up house of worship with a rotting, lopsided steeple. Joffe, a contractor/landlord from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, was visiting friends in the Kingston area when he spotted the mid-1800s church.

"I kind of lost my mind," recalled Joffe, 50. "It was in seriously bad condition but it's a beautiful space. It was made for celebration. It was really cool but nobody wanted it because it was really messed up."

He said he paid about $425,000 for it, moved into the wreck of a vestry with his girlfriend and proceeded to personally renovate the 4,000-square-foot chapel which has vaulted, 40-foot ceilings and a 4,000-square-foot reception hall downstairs.

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Underneath layers of moldy drywall, the original plaster walls were still intact. Five of the 13, 12-foot-high windows are original Tiffany Stained Glass. The wooden pipe organ works again. The steeple, completely rebuilt, is topped with a new copper weather vane that is a replica of the famous Kingston steamboat Mary Powell, known as "Queen of the Hudson."

Joffe's makeover efforts have received praise from city historian Edwin Ford, 94. "He has really done a great job on it," Ford said. "We've had a lot of churches on that street disappear." Once there were about a dozen on Wurt Street.

KINGSTON AS A GAY WEDDING DESTINATION

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On June 24, 2011, New York legalized same sex marriage. The next day, Celebration Chapel opened its bright red doors for business. Since then, it has hosted some three dozen weddings, more than half to couples who are LGBT -- lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered.

Rentals range from about $750 for a brief, small ceremony to $3,500 for full use of the entire building on a Saturday. The chapel also rents out for concerts and other events.

The Kingston area already has a sizable gay community and now it's just about "getting the word out" about the city as a wedding destination, said Ralph Goneau, 81, of Woodstock. He and Dick Wilhelm, 89, his partner of 42 years, were the first couple to marry in the chapel. Guests laughed and cried as they sang along to the wedding march, "We're Getting Married in the Morning," from "My Fair Lady."

The experience was "fantastic," Goneau said. "The chapel is in the oldest part of Kingston that was originally the capitol of New York State. It's a historic and romantic atmosphere."

Growing Kingston as a wedding capitol could happen, especially since it already has a significant LGBT population, said Vanessa Shelman Dine, project director for the city's LGBTQ Community Center, who attended the Goneau/Wilhelm wedding: "We are such a welcoming and affirming community."

The chapel is just one option, said caterer Sidney Orlando, 26, of the New World Home Cooking, a restaurant in the nearby Ulster County village of Saugerties, which her father, Ric Orlando, owns. In 2012, more than half of the weddings she catered were LGBT, Orlando said. A few were events at the chapel but a number were also home weddings. There are also commitment ceremonies, anniversary parties, love parties.

"A lot of them are doing beautiful, outdoorsy Hudson Valley stuff -- mansions and barns," she said. "I don't know if we can ever be the capitol of anything because we're in the shadow of New York. But we are also an amazing market."

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