Wednesday, September 19, 2012
A Fine Survivor in a Gritty Town
As you can see below, 189 Montgomery is happily still standing, which cannot be said for the rest of this architecturally extraordinary and much beleaguered little city (population: about 30,000) some 60 miles north of Manhattan. German Lutherans settled it in 1709; Washington made it his headquarters from 1782 to 1783; it became a city in 1865; boomed during the Gilded Age; and continued to do to until the bottom fell out in the 1960s.
According to the sign in front of 189 Montgomery, the Captain Crawford house now houses the Historical Society of Newburgh Bay and the Highlands. When built in 1830 it stood in what one assumes was splendid isolation on a 500-acre estate. Fifty years later, the high Victorian residences of Newburgh's prosperous bourgeoisie had engulfed it, elbowing in on its fine river views. The resulting neighborhood of mansions - or "near" mansions - survives today, four blocks from Newburgh's main commercial drag, Broadway.
Catty corner to the Crawford place is a textbook example of an Andrew Jackson Downing villa, in mint restored condition no less. Newburgh was home to some of the Victorian era's most influential architects, among them Downing, A.J.Davis, and Frederick Clarke Withers. These men's design aesthetic is not everybody's cup of java. If you like the look, however, you'll swoon over Newburgh. Poverty, the lunatic handmaiden of historic preservation, has triumphed over noodle-headed 1960s "urban renewal," with the result that most of the place is still extant.
Did you know that Newburgh was the first American city to have its own Edison electric power plant? (I didn't). Or that Broadway is the widest (132 feet) street in the state of New York? Or that in 1939 RCA conducted an historic experiment here which proved that people would actually watch television sets?
The Society is doing a lot of work on the Crawford house. The sight of new copper leaders may provoke pangs of envy in the heart of many an old house lover. Until the sixties, Newburgh was a beehive of manufacturing and machinist trades. The Coldwell Lawn Mower Company was the largest in the world until it was subsumed by Toro. Newburgh's Sweet Orr Company was the largest manufacturer of overalls in the world. So busy was Newburgh that in the fifties, the city fathers purposely discouraged IBM from opening a facility here, lest it lure the local workforce away from local employers. Nowadays, we're thrilled to simply see a contractor put up a copper leader on the side of an old house.
The chimneys are being rebuilt too, as are the Ionic capitals atop the porch columns, and the steps to the front entrance.
The glory of this house, for me anyway, is the front door. There is a temptation to call everything with columns on it "Greek Revival." To my eye, however, the Crawford house could just as well be described as a very high style late Federal house. Whatever you call it, the design of the front door is extraordinary, the usual Federal period restraint taken to positively baroque extremes.
A pretty nifty place to sit and watch the you-know-what go by, I'd say. That's the Downing villa down on the corner of Montgomery and Clinton Streets, with the Hudson in the distance.
The public entrance to the Crawford house is now in back. The ungainly ground floor addition, which looks for all the world like a recently enclosed porch, has actually been there since 1851. There's a moat beneath it, with windows opening from the basement. These presumably provided natural light at some point in the past, although there's not much of that now.
The delightful fretwork on the porch is clearly newer than the dignified old door behind it. I'm ready to go inside, but as readers of my column know, I am strictly a front door kind of a guy.
Captain Crawford was his father's partner in a family shipping business, although his nautical sounding title stems from service as an artillery captain in the War of 1812. In 1830, the same year he built his mansion in the fields north of booming Newburgh, Crawford bought the first steamboat in town. One wonders where he got the fingers to put into so many other remunerative pies - among them banking, cotton mills and railroads.
Historical Society director Johanna Porr, who has just let me in, is looking out toward Montgomery Street and the river beyond. The Crawford house has a very straightforward floor plan. A front-to-back center hall on the ground floor separates double parlors on the north from a dining room and service rooms on the south. On the floor above, four bedrooms and a sewing room radiate off a center stair hall.
Now we're looking the other direction, with the front door behind the camera and the stairs to the second floor just inside the back door. At first I didn't understand the placement of what looks to me like an exterior door - complete with transom and sidelights - spang in the middle of the center hall. On reflection I'm pretty sure it was meant to be closed in the winter in order to isolate seldom used formal rooms.
This door leads to double parlors running along the north side of the house. You've probably already noticed the beautiful furniture, all of which once sat in fine old Newburgh houses. It gets more beautiful the further you go.
The Crawford house may lack an endowment - a great source of concern to the present director - but doesn't lack for local friends. Many of the latter have donated gorgeous antique furniture from former family houses. This suave Duncan Phyfe sofa is a good example.
The house was originally heated with coal fires in the marble fireplaces.
This door leads back to the entrance hall.
Now we're looking into the rear parlor. The alcove in the distance is inside that odd looking addition we saw on the back of the house.
The alcove banquette has a sort of President Grant/Pullman parlor car look to it.
There were once five piano manufacturers in Newburgh. This Carman and Fancher rectangular grand dates from 1850.
Let's return to the hall, take a closer look at the flying stairs, and then...
... a still closer look at the extraordinary stylized dolphin on top of the newel.
The formal dining room, located on the south side of the center hall, is furnished with the same donated sumptuousness as the rest of the house. Neither the Parisian porcelain, the family portraits, the Empire antiques, nor the gorgeous curtains (reproduction gifts from a society member) are original to the room, but the overall look is pretty close to what it must have been. The sole piece in the entire house that did belong to Captain Crawford is the silver coffee urn.
When the house was built, the three doors on the dining room wall opened not onto a lady or a tiger, but rather a kitchen dumbwaiter (on the left), a library or study (my guess as to purpose, in the center), and a dish and silver pantry (on the right). So they remained for a century, until the onset of the Great Depression. By then, the house was owned by the Dietrich family, three of whose four children remained at 189 Montgomery, unmarried, until they all died within 45 days of each other in 1953. For a generation before their mysterious coordinated ends, they had, in order to make ends meet, shared the family home with two genteel roomers. One lived in the dining room and the study, with private adjacent bath.
This corridor leads from beneath the main hall stair to a warren of rooms that was once the roomer's bedroom and bath.
What was once a rooming house bedroom is now the Society's gift shop. The dumbwaiter to the kitchen in the basement was located in front of the door on the right.
Let's go to the basement and look at the (nowadays) nearly unintelligible kitchen.
An ancient iron cook stove once sat on the stone floor where the modern boiler with its aluminum flue pipe sits today. The old prep table in the middle of the room looks as if it might have been there in Crawford's day. The Dietrichs continued to use this room as their kitchen, ate in the adjacent family dining room with their boarders, and had to hike all the way down here to use the bathroom, which they had installed when the roomers came.
Even in their glory days, the families who lived in this house would have taken most meals in this downstairs family dining room. The grand dining salon on the main floor would have been reserved for entertainments and special occasions.
Two big basement rooms on the north side of the house are devoted to museum exhibits. The former stone floored laundry contains a chimney stack rescued from the demolition of A.J.Downing's own Newburgh house.
Let's head to the second floor, where four bedrooms and a sewing room radiate off a central stairhall.
This small sewing room at the eastern end of the hall has a view of the river from beneath the columned porch. That moveable panel at the bottom of the window allows access to an exterior balcony.
Two bedrooms on the north side of the house are painted salmon pink and filled with extraordinary - sometimes very extraordinary - antiques. The Dietrichs' second roomer lived here, co-opting the former second floor family bathroom as his own, and requiring his landlords to scurry to the basement in order to use the toilet. The Society has furnished his second room as a child's bedroom.
The two big bedrooms on the south side of the house are painted yellow and dedicated to researchers using the Society's archives.
We'll cross the second floor landing for a quick look at the roomer's bathroom - because I never miss an old bathroom - although in truth there isn't much to see.
When built, this was a high quality house, but not high enough to have real mahogany doors. Period faux bois painted on pine has become, at least to modern eyes, almost as attractive a substitute. This door leads to the attic.
A couple of live-in servants were, typically enough, housed in wretched under-the-eaves cubicles, where they roasted in the summer and froze in the winter. Later Victorian houses would pay more attention to servants' comfort.
When the three Dietrich siblings died in 1953, the John Sloan White Funeral Home on neighboring Grand Street immediately tried to buy their house and demolish it for a parking lot.
Hearing this, the Historical Society went into emergency mode and raised sufficient funds from friends and members to buy the house for a new headquarters. Newburgh's economy may have been booming in 1953, but a big old house could still be bought for under $20,000.
The Second World War is generally credited with pulling America out of the Great Depression and the establishment of Stewart Field outside depression stricken Newburgh aptly illustrated the point. Newly arrived airmen who poured money into local businesses also created a serious housing shortage, causing the subsequent slicing and dicing of Newburgh's housing inventory. After the war, the city first shunned IBM, then watched with alarm as downtown businesses evacuated Broadway to follow GI Bill homeowners to new malls in the suburbs. In 1963, the Newburgh Beacon Bridge opened, enabling freight carrying truckers to skip not just Newburgh's aging railroad infrastructure, but Newburgh itself. Meanwhile, in a quest for economies of scale, state and county officials consolidated welfare and parole facilities in Newburgh, a reasonable move considering the city's abundance of cheap housing.
Newburgh's architectural inventory is so extraordinary that newcomers keep coming to fix up old houses, in spite of some pretty obvious urban problems. Indeed, the city's present mayor came originally to help a son fix up an old house, then wound up running for office. The City of Newburgh may be struggling, but the Historical Society is part of an iron willed cadre determined not to let the place fail. Besides maintaining the Crawford House, the Society sponsors a year 'round calendar of events, the primary being an annual December Candlelight Tour of restored mansions and adaptive re-use projects. The tour begins at Crawford House and costs $25 in advance, $30 at the door. The link is www.newburghhistoricalsociety.com.