Newburgh's Dutch Reformed Church: The Albatross of Urban Renewal

By Johanna Yaun, Orange County Historian

On a summer day in 1998, I stood on Grand Street, waiting. First Lady Hillary Clinton's press bus had broken down on I-87 and she was now several hours late.

When she finally arrived, she gave an impressive speech and pledged funds ($128,205) through the Save America's Treasures program to stabilize the upper gallery of an A.J. Davis designed masterpiece, the Dutch Reformed Church.

At 14 years old, I was just beginning to take an interest in historic preservation. I was already aware that Newburgh possessed a vast array of historic structures, but Clinton's visit was an inspiring notion that the ruins I had grown up around in the post-urban renewal era were finally getting the attention they needed and deserved. The work done with the grant stabilized the building and prevented what would have been an imminent collapse. Things were looking up for Newburgh's historic district.

But in the preservation game - especially in a city like Newburgh that struggles with a variety of social and economic challenges - the checkmate remains perpetually out of reach. Thirteen years after Hillary Clinton's grant remedied one immediate concern, there was no one hero to step in when the interior coffered ceiling collapsed. The effort to save the structure hit another low.

The following year, I took a walk with architect Peter Smith along the Quassaick Creek, which borders the south side of the City of Newburgh. Along the way he pointed out ruins of a once thriving mill-powered industrial center and we chatted about ups and downs that we've experienced in our efforts to restore Newburgh's historic district. The Tower of Victory was getting a new roof but the Reeve House had been butchered by yet another absentee landlord. The shops on Liberty Street were open for business for the first time since the 1960s but city officials were trying to approve a disastrously corrupt development plan for a vacant lot on Broadway.

And, the tragedy - the coffered ceiling, a showpiece of Davis' 1835 vision - lied splintered in a heap of rubble.

I learned from Peter that while I waited in the heat, excited to shake the First Lady's hand back in 1998, he was on the FLOTUS bus. That traffic delay, which seemed inconvenient to those waiting in Newburgh, had graced him with the time he needed to speak to Clinton in detail about the great significance of the Dutch Reformed Church. What may have been planned as a simple PR appearance became a transformative opportunity for Newburgh: First Lady Clinton was inspired to scrap her planned notes and speak from the heart. But similar to the efforts of City Historian Helen Gearn in 1968, Clinton's intervention afforded the building one last majestic breath before the roof came crashing down little more than a decade later.

The Dutch Reformed Church is one of the most prominent buildings in Newburgh's historic district and it is illustrative of the growth and prominence of the city, as well as the albatross of Urban Renewal. If you stand on its steps today, you'll see an empty space that was once the Palatine Hotel, a parking lot that, at one time, was a dense residential block, and a tired post-urban renewal library in the hillside. The Dutch Reformed Church, the shell of the Downing and Vaux designed City Club, and the 1841 County Courthouse triangulate the sunken land that reminds us of that loss. Those who know a bit of local urban planning history look at that void and are reminded of the "Palatine Square" plans for a courtyard space that never was.

In 1968 the city slated the church for demolition by the Urban Renewal Agency, which paid $96,000 to purchase it. However, preservationists acted quickly to have it designated on the National Register of Historic Places, which blocked Federal funds from being used in the demolition. The church languished until 1974 when the Federal HUD agency ordered that it either be razed or sold, so the city bought it for a mere $7,000. Soon after, the Hudson Valley Freedom Theater purchased the building but defaulted after repairing the roof with an NPS grant. The property reverted back to the city in 1984, falling into disrepair once again over the remainder of the decade.

In the 1990s, the City Historian Kevin Barrett renewed the fight to save the structure and the current City Historian Mary McTamaney has sustained that effort. Under their tenures, small but necessary projects have been completed, such as the column restoration, repair of drainage systems, and stabilization of the foundation. In 2005 the World Monument Fund put the Dutch Reformed Church on their list of the world's most important endangered cultural sites.

Over the years, McTamaney has combed the local records to provide documentation; Nancy Thomas led the efforts of the Newburgh Preservation Association (NPA) to plot a sustainable future for the Dutch Reformed Church; Wint Aldrich reached out to New York State officials for assistance; David Schuyler wrote and spoke of the building's importance in a continuum of architectural history; Stuart Sachs climbed on the roof and worked on leak prevention; Giovanni Palladino offered architectural advice; Jim Hoekema filled out grant forms; Bill Krattinger applied for State and Federal landmark designations; Michael Gabor staged an artist's photo that brought the building's precarious state to the public eye; and David Burnett snapped an Instagram photo that made its way to National Geographic.

Others, such as Bill Bolger, John Mesick, Steve Tilly, Mark Carnes, Maurice Hinchey, and Betsy McKean, also aided the cause through leading tours, drawing up plans, seeking support, and reaching out to donors. This list of heros is not complete as many others served on the NPA board or worked within the city government to secure this latest transition as the building was released from the purview of the NPA in 2014.

A few weeks ago, the city planning department released a Request For Proposals (RFP) for the Dutch Reformed Church, the City Club, and vacant river view property. With 50 years of highs and lows to draw upon, many in the preservation community are holding their breath again. Will a sustainable plan finally be forged? Will a visionary step forward to steward the building now that the city is in a period of revitalization? Will this Grand Street corridor see new life, or will this be another footnote in the slow death that the Dutch Reformed Church has been suffering since the first blow of Urban Renewal?

As I listened to Clinton's speech nearly two decades ago, I felt like the Dutch Reformed Church had finally closed a difficult chapter in its history. What I didn't realize on that warm summer day is that the church - and in fact, all of Newburgh's historic district - is not only vulnerable in times of economic decline but it is equally at risk in times of rebirth. As those who witnessed the abject devastation of the Urban Renewal program are beginning to fade away, the role of the historical community, cultural institutions and the old buildings has to transform from one of a rigid protection of the past to one of infusing the place with historical depth and meaning for new populations to shape as their own.

An RFP on the table means that developers are envisioning a new life for the Dutch Reformed Church. And I am once again full of hope that this will be its moment the validates passing the torch for so long.