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.
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?”
Changing conditions to the city’s traditional manufacturing and port-based economy provided the initial rationale for urban renewal.
Urban renewal demolition continued into the 1970s, wiping clean thousands of structures and divorcing the city from its historic import - 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
(Visual essay by Cameron Blaylock.)