Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Big Old House "Buffet"

This is Broadway, the widest street in Newburgh and the widest in all of New York. That's the Hudson River at its eastern end. When I went away to college in the mid-1960s, small river cities like Newburgh - and Peekskill and Poughkeepsie and Hudson - were flourishing. Their downtowns were filled with stores and shoppers, their residential neighborhoods lined with well maintained and, in many cases, distinguished old houses. A generation later, these charming and historic little cities were in ruins, victims of fast changing demographics, an insidious suburban mall culture, brutal highway construction and, worst of all, that cruelly mislabeled nemesis of historic architecture, "urban renewal."
Newburgh fared worse than most old cities on the Hudson, in spite of having more to offer. It is compact, historic, in a beautiful location, filled with fantastic old buildings, an easy trip from Manhattan, and convenient to transportation. Intentionally or not, it has been developed into a regional center for social services, especially those for correctional system parolees. Newburgh's manufacturing base, once considerable, fled years ago, but I was happy to find the E. & O. Marri Corporation, maker of "World Famous La Bolla Guitar Strings," still holding out on Broadway.
Last September when "Big Old Houses" toured Newburgh's Crawford mansion I was stunned to discover such a local profusion of grand old houses. Many were in distress (or close) and/or for sale at extremely low prices. Of course, buying a house in Newburgh means living in Newburgh, but there turns out to be a hardy band who wouldn't live anywhere else. Or so they say. The gate in the image below surrounds the Hasbrouck House, a distinctly uncomfortable looking stone farm house that sheltered General Washington during the crucial revolutionary war years of 1782 and 1783. In 1850 it became the first state-owned historic site in the country. It's also the center of a south-of-Broadway neighborhood called Libertyville/Washington Heights that contains a potpourri of appealing and reasonably priced old houses.
Adjacent to the Hasbrouck House is the so-called "Tower of Victory," built in 1910 to provide an elevated platform for surveying the stunning river scenery. Originally there was a roofed pavilion on top of it but, like much else in town, it burned down.
Picturesque fences like the one below surround three sides of the park.
Some adjacent blocks are modest, albeit charming.
Others, especially Grand Street immediately north of the park, are more architecturally upscale.
The owner of this Second Empire manse is on his fifth Newburgh house. His property and its good looking neighbors across the street constitute one of Newburgh's many islands of good taste and maintenance scattered across a cityscape in often dire condition.
Further to the south is Washington Heights, a suburban development from the 1890s, filled with roomy houses almost all of which have been chopped into apartments. Newburgh is a capital of Section 8 housing.
More elaborate houses, with a more prosperous past, lie north of Broadway in the Montgomery-Grand-Liberty Historic District. One of Grand Street's anchors is Newburgh's iconic Dutch Reformed Church, designed in 1835 by the famous Alexander Jackson Davis. The image below was probably taken about the time I went to college.
This is what's become of it now. Local preservationists, desperate to raise matching funds in order to take advantage of restoration monies already allocated, were disheartened by the recent collapse of the ceiling.
My friend Johanna Porr, director of the Historical Society of Newburgh and the Highlands, guided me up Grand Street, Newburgh's Park Avenue, with a combination of knowledgeability and cheerful resignation. The former public library, not a local icon, perhaps, and now a fundamentalist church, is the sort of building that makes old eastern cities so visually appealing.
Another (albeit much diminished) local icon is the former City Club of Newburgh, once the meeting ground of forgotten local bigwigs. One imagines plush and dark woodwork, good liquor, expensive cigars and "men only." These days, only big cities have clubs like this. Newburgh's was a victim of the same forces that devastated the rest of the place. The City Club was carefully restored for adaptive reuse in 1975, and completely gutted by a fire six years later.
This sign might be Newburgh's most recognizable present day icon.
Beautiful properties alternate with devastated ones at the southern end of Grand Street. The further north you go, the more consistent the cityscape becomes.
Not really a house, this attractive block of flats was designed in 1891 by none other than Stanford White. Depressing to note, it too is now sealed because of a fire.
People aren't discouraged, however, largely I suppose because of the amount of house you can get for practically nothing. A New York City man is renovating this one.
This delightful small mansion, originally called "The Glen," started life in the 1840s as an A.J. Downing villa, before being elaborately enlarged in 1895. The City of Newburgh is its present reluctant owner. If you buy it you'll make a lot of friends in this town.
The interior is decayed and overused, but all the good stuff - stairways, fireplaces, moldings - is still there. In fact, it doesn't look a lot different than my house did when I came along in 1981. However, my house is in swanky Millbrook and the Glen is on Grand Street in Newburgh. According to informed local opinion, anyone able to pitch the city with a reasonable plan, a track record, and funds sufficient to renovate has a good chance of getting the place for almost - if not literally - nothing.
Even "nothing" can sometimes be too much. This appealing old house, which looks to me like a modest 1870s Stick Style upgraded with an 1890s wing, is currently in foreclosure. The young couple who transformed it from just another Newburgh wreck have now abandoned it.
A man with deeper pockets owns this grander house next door. Buying at the peak of the recent real estate bubble, he is rumored to have paid one of the highest prices in the neighborhood, around $300,000.
The houses are getting grander - and more regularly owner occupied - the further north we go. This one has apartments (note the iron fire escape) and the sort of big old house type expenses (I see a blue tarp on the roof and missing balusters on the porch) that bedevil old house owners.
To look at some of these pictures, you wouldn't know there were sketchy neighborhoods anywhere near. Of note is the fact that none of these houses is barricaded behind tall fences or barred windows.
Stanford White, so often credited with designing buildings he'd never seen, is credited with designing this one too. I think it's quite possible.
This well cared for Colonial Revival speaks eloquently to the taste of the early 20th century.
Not a big house, but how great are those shingles?
This one's a real colonial, or close to it. It was built in 1830 on lands subsequently engulfed by the growing city. The present owner also bought at the top of the boom, for $300,000.
We came to the top of Grand Street and turned around.
Montgomery Street runs parallel to Grand, a block closer to the river. It's equally tree- and big-old-house lined, and equally appealing. If you're an A.J. Downing fan, you'll salivate over this textbook Downing villa, despite its assorted multi-family related mutilations.
This one is the oldest house on Montgomery Street, and in beautiful condition.
The houses get older as we move toward Broadway. Many have fine river views.
This streetscape reminds me of Orson Welles' "Magnificent Ambersons."
Here's the Crawford house, home of the local historical society and subject of last July's post.
I am told the house on the left, a totally renovated Downing-designed villa with sweeping river views, recently sold in the high $200,000s.
Now we're getting into rental apartment land, although the neighborhood remains appealing.
This house marks the line on Montgomery Street where the juggernaught of urban renewal was stopped. No doubt there were (and probably still are) those in town who would have happily demolished every house we've seen so far. Today's Broadway is a bit desolate, but in truth it was never Newburgh's retail center. That was down on Water Street, an area totally flattened by urban renewal and, forty-odd years later, only partly rebuilt.
At least Newburgh was luckier than Poughkeepise, whose business district was sucked dry by new high speed arterial highways, while its riverfront was sealed off by an expressway-type reconstruction of Route 9.
Nobody shops in downtown Newburgh, but a collection of surprisingly resilient restaurants and taverns has taken root and is apparently making money. Cafe Macchiato across from Washington's Headquarters could be in Soho; the Newburgh Brewing Company overlooks the Hudson from a former airplane engine factory; there are half a dozen others, including the North Plank Tavern, site of the monthly meeting of the Newburgh Horse Thief Detecting Society (that's the local history club).
Want to be a pioneer? Start with this link: