by Deborah Medenbach
SAUGERTIES — When Muppet scion John Henson died at home at age 48 of a massive coronary on Valentine's Day, he had just turned mountains of snow into a cozy igloo dwelling for his 10-year-old daughter. Creating remarkable living spaces was his personal obsession, though only a few people in town knew that it was his hand behind the reclamation of some of the town's most treasured historic buildings.
As loving and personally reserved as the Sweetums, the ogre character he'd played in his father Jim Henson's Muppet skits, he kept a low profile in town for more than 30 years, working diligently on fine-restoration projects at the Hill Street schoolhouse, the Dale Sanitorium and several other properties.
"The schoolhouse on Hill Street is right at the entrance to the village," historian Marjorie Block said. "Nothing is more significant than our gateway and he took the trouble to protect it. He could have altered it a great deal and he didn't."
When Henson arrived in town at age 16, he purchased the schoolhouse and apprenticed with family friend and artist John Kahn to restore the building, which served as Henson's office space.
"It's beautiful, with pretty elements everywhere. When truck vibrations on the road threatened the building, he built a concrete wall to absorb the sound, but it has grooves and glass that make it look like an ice waterfall," said village special projects manager Alex Wade, who'd been involved with most of Henson's projects during his two-decade tenure as building inspector.
"He didn't interact much with locals, but with those he did, you might find him romping over the Dale Sanitorium property in a four-wheeler," Wade said.
Mayor Bill Murphy met Henson only a couple of times, but knew of the generosity he extended behind the scenes. "A local family was burned out of their home two weeks ago and Henson gave them use of one of his houses until they could get back on their feet. Just like that," Murphy said.
Henson is survived by his wife, Gyongyi, who runs the Cherry Blossoms Boutique on Partition Street, and their children, Katrina, 15, and Sydney, 10.