In 1835, architect A.J. Davis designed the Dutch Reformed Church of Newburgh, N.Y. The Greek Revival structure was built atop a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. Its extravagant mass and southward-facing façade adorned with four thickly fluted Ionic columns welcomed river-bound visitors to this city 60 miles north of New York City.
The view today carries the same weight— the structure still commands, its mass makes you feel insignificant—but perhaps more so due to our inability to fix it. The Dutch Reformed Church now is a shell, its non-original columns volute-free, its portico peeling away, its exterior walls oxidizing brittlely. The National Historic Landmark cruelly wears a frayed banner reading, “Save America’s Treasures.”
Since the congregation left the church in 1967 and sold the parcel to the Newburgh Urban Renewal Agency, the monument has been largely vacant. The church is just one decaying building in a city full of them. They all beg the question that Newburgh city historian Mary McTamaney says is most often asked of her: “What happened here?”
A plaque in McTamaney’s office provides a clue. It’s dated Nov. 14, 1974, and is from the New York State Association of Renewal and Housing Officials. It salutes the City of Newburgh for “having successfully completed more urban renewal projects than any other New York State city in its population category.” The celebratory tone may speak to bureaucratic might, but it belies what was happening—or had already happened—to the built and social fabric of a city shaped by architects and landscape architects such as Davis, Frederick Clarke Withers, J.A. Wood, Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux, and Andrew Jackson Downing.
Changing conditions to the city’s traditional manufacturing and port-based economy provided the initial rationale for urban renewal. But in regard to its architectural and cultural heritage, McTamaney says, “Newburgh was too naïve to understand the value of the commodities it was trading away.”
Those trades go back to 1959, when plans for the demolition of the densely inhabited and trafficked Water Street district were unveiled. Urban renewal demolition continued into the 1970s, wiping clean thousands of structures and divorcing the city from its historic import.
That historic weight extends beyond its architectural and design muscle. This is the city where some of the earliest desegregation efforts—spearheaded by a successful African-American family, the Alsdorfs—were made; where Thomas Edison lived and built one of the first electric substations; where George Washington, stationed in Newburgh longer than anywhere else during the Revolution, put down an attempted military coup and solidified the republican future of the nascent nation.
City Planning at a Price
As in the rest of the country, the postwar period pushed the city in a more managerial direction, driven by the hand of Modernism. Progressivism-by-bureaucrat was complicated in Newburgh by city manager Joseph Mitchell’s “Thirteen Points” policy, an early attempt at work-for-welfare that was cast in racial tones and was ultimately thwarted with the help of state intervention. Mitchell’s tenure in Newburgh inflamed tensions between black and white neighbors, just as urban renewal began to erase the public spaces, stores and houses that Newburghers all knew as home.
“[Urban renewal] undermined the family stories of a third of the population,” McTamaney says. “When you take away the space people occupy, you vastly deteriorate the context of the story of the city.”
When planner Barry Benepe, hired in 1967 as Newburgh city planner, came to town from New York City, he intended to keep the city’s context intact. In a talk from that year, Benepe—referencing urban planner Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (MIT Press, 1960)—speaks of Newburgh as being “among the fortunate few” cities to have “its own particular identity,” owing to its siting and architectural grandeur. His own ideas for the city were to build off of its legacy. As he says today, “It made sense that urban renewal had to consider the historic fabric.”
Benepe applied this credo in his position, advocating for plans that would perpetuate Newburgh’s “imageability.” He did so from both preservationist and forward-thinking impulses. During the few years of his tenure with the city, Benepe employed inclusivity in his approach, bringing a mixed black-and-white group from Newburgh to study the planned town of Reston, Va.; proposing a new bus system around Broadway, the city’s main thoroughfare; performing economic analyses that revealed the higher per-square-foot values in the city were found in what were considered “slums”; and envisioning the creation of a civic plaza that, he says, “would marry an American vernacular with the Italian proportions and monumentality of Verona.”
The designs for Palatine Square—taking its name from the city’s most stately hotel, the Palatine, which was demolished in 1970— would have incorporated the Neoclassical-style Court House, the Vaux-and-Downing-designed City Club Building, and the Dutch Reformed Church into a grand public space on Grand Street. Benepe’s persistent advocacy went over well enough that upon showing up for work one day, he found himself locked out of his office. The city council soon voted away his position as though it never existed.
Newburgh’s decline continued through the 20th century. The construction of the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge in 1963, north of the city’s downtown, took people farther away from the city core, eroding the shopping district. That same year, the 223-year-old ferry service between Newburgh and Beacon stopped. An inability to deliver on renewal-era proposals pockmarked the city’s hills with vacancy and derailed its sense of place and being. Much of the demolished material from the old city was buried under torn-up now-forgotten streets—a peculiar case of a city eating itself.
“A good bit of [the demo’d material] is in the hollows of old sand and gravel works beyond the city limits, but more of it is still right here with us, under us,” McTamaney says.
Public trust was eroded by successive administrations of flailing governments, whether the inefficacy stemmed from corruption, graft, or empty coffers that were unable to execute city services. With abounding vacancies, property taxes continued to rise as those remained had to pick up the slack, a situation exacerbated after the 2008 Great Recession. By 2011, the city was unflatteringly referred to as “the murder capital of New York” by New York magazine.
But if urban renewal fractured the city’s built form and civic identity, it also catalyzed its resilience, humanity, and the recognition of its beauty. Benepe’s book, Newburgh Revealed, published in 1975 by the Greater Newburgh Arts Council, was instrumental in documenting the city’s East End Historic District and its eventual placement on the National Register. The Newburgh Preservation Association (NPA) was founded in 1978 to steward the city’s architecture and viewsheds. Hope sparked throughout the years. In a 1986 New York Times profile titled “Newburgh Tries to Recapture Its Past Glory,” then-Mayor Joan Shapiro declared Newburgh “a city to be reckoned with.”
Throughout its ups and downs, the city has continued to attract people. Growing Central and South American populations, and a steady trickle of predominantly white newcomers priced out of New York City, have mixed in with the city’s older Italian, African-American, and other diverse communities. New stores and restaurants line the Liberty Street Corridor, site of the Washington’s headquarters landmark. The number of annual permits for building rehabs has topped 200 in recent years. The Newburgh Community Land Bank, an independent nonprofit that stabilizes and readies homes for rehabilitation, has sold more than 60 properties since its inception in 2012.
“It’s the first time in 13 years since I lived here that it feels like there’s really traction,” says Allison Cappella, an attorney and board president of the NPA, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Cappella says the organization, though always “engaged in the physical realm of the city,” has taken a more activist role of late to connect newcomers to the city’s past, including the urban renewal era.
Despite, or perhaps because of, small green shoots in the local economy, finding agreement toward redevelopment that fully moves the city beyond the urban renewal era has proven elusive. In 2017, the city awarded an RFP to develop 2 Montgomery Street, a parcel with Hudson River views, to New York– based Alembic Community Development. The RFP bundled together development rights with the stabilization of the Dutch Reformed Church, as well as the remaining fragments of the adjacent City Club building.
Alembic, which works on mixed-use affordable housing projects in New York and New Orleans, was one of three firms to respond to the city’s RFP. Its plans included a mixedincome 140-unit apartment building with a set number of supportive housing units and nearly 19,000 square feet of commercial space for 2 Montgomery Street. The rehabilitation work on the church would be completed separately; its programming was not specified.
“Our goal was to restore [it] and work with a coalition of nonprofits and community organizations to develop the best use,” says Alembic principal Benjamin Warnke. “We didn’t anticipate maintaining long-term ownership in the church.”
Community uproar ensued when the winning bid was announced, as a small but vociferous group of residents questioned the RFP process and the bundling together of the various sites, as well as the supportive housing services included at 2 Montgomery Street. Among other talking points, the group argued that such a site could potentially be developed as a higher-end project, given its affordance of prime waterfront views, and therefore deliver more taxes to the cash-strapped city.
The city killed the project in late 2018 , and intends to rewrite the RFP. For now, the Dutch Reformed Church—like much of the city around it—sits vacant, wrestling with the legacy effects of renewal and collapsing under the weight of its own history, but peering out beyond its past with hope.