Lost Newburgh: The Tragedy of Urban Renewal, Part 2

Preservationists raised the alarm when bulldozers in Newburgh’s 1960s urban renewal project began systematically destroying the city’s historic downtown. While some outstanding landmarks of Victorian architecture were razed, preservationists did succeed in saving a portion of the waterfront district. Plus, the promised redevelopment failed to materialize.

The following is a three-part series by Lynn Woods, co-producer and co-director of Lost Rondout: A Story of Urban Removal, a one-hour documentary chronicling the urban renewal of downtown Kingston. 

Unsurprisingly, considering the difficulties of relocating thousands of people prior to the construction of new housing, the projects were beset by delays. To speed things up, in 1968 the state took control. Newburgh was selected as the first project of the newly formed Urban Development Corp. (UDC), which was founded by Governor Nelson Rockefeller as a private corporation that had the power of eminent domain and could override local zoning laws and raise its own bonds to build housing and other development. Its director was Edward Logue, who had overseen the urban renewal projects in New Haven, which was then heralded as a model and was soon deemed a disaster, and Government Center in Boston (which included the highly successful Faneuil Hall marketplace). Logue’s job was to “carry on the $6 billion war on New York State’s ghettos,” noted an article in the November 2, 1968 Evening News. 

“Courthouse Square” or “Palatine Square”. Helen Gearn helped designate the Dutch Reformed Church on the National Register, saving the building from destruction. Marvel, Witfield, and Remick Architects

In his projects, Logue, who has been compared to New York City master builder Robert Moses in his ability to implement ambitious urban renewal projects, sought to integrate the housing stock, recommending that 20 percent of the new building be low income. He exemplified the progressive face of urban renewal, which ostensibly was a form of social engineering designed to eliminate slums, improve the housing stock for the poor as well as build new housing for the middle class and bring investment back to the city. (Ironically, the outcome of many urban renewal projects was stockpiling blacks in prison-like high-rise public housing projects and replacing their old neighborhoods with convention centers, cultural complexes, and high-income housing, increasing the segregation between black and white, rich and poor and fraying the community ties and human-scaled infrastructure that had helped keep low-income neighborhoods safe.)

Once again, the area of urban renewal was expanded. The UDC planned to demolish dozens of blocks for a $60 million plan that included new civic buildings, office construction, 575 units of middle income housing units, a department store, supermarket and parking lots connected to a new 9W arterial highway. Johnson, Chambers, and Landers streets between Broadway and First Street would be razed. But still, the developers failed to arrive. The UDC put most of its energies into the Lake Street mixed-income development, on the western side of the city. In the East End, it built the new library, scrapping plans for a locally designed library building designed within the old street grid, and new public safety building (currently in dire condition, despite being less than 50 years old).

Ultimately, garden apartments were built in a portion of the cleared land by the AME Zion church with federal HUD grants. They are backed by a massive, unsightly 18-foot-high retaining wall, in stark contrast to the graceful accommodation to the hill made by the sloped stone foundations of the 19th-century buildings that once stood there. Today, more than 45 years later, most of the leveled area still mostly consists of grassy hillside.

“Barry Benepe, former Newburgh director of urban development left office yesterday after receiving a subtle message – the lock on his outer door was changed” Photo by Pocne

Intensive lobbying by preservationists, as well as the exhaustion of federal urban renewal funds (which were eliminated in 1974 under President Nixon), eventually stopped the bulldozers. The Dutch Reformed Church, slated to be torn down, was saved, and in 1973 former city planner Barry Benepe and other preservationists were instrumental in having Montgomery, Grand and portions of Liberty designated the East Newburgh Historic District, one of the largest in the state. Benepe, along with co-author Arthur Channing Downs, Jr., also helped raise awareness of Newburgh’s outstanding architectural legacy in Newburgh Revealed, a booklet with numerous black-and-white photographs. Among the lost buildings is a trio of fine Second Empire-style houses on Grand.

Homer Ramsdell Mansion facing Liberty Street

Tom Daley has also preserved a record of the lost city, having taken thousands of photos of Newburgh’s East End when he was working for National Cash Register on Colden Street in the 1960s. Venturing into abandoned buildings, Daley captured architectural marvels with his camera, including details of grand curving staircases, marble mantelpieces, stained-glass windows and doors, intricate iron railings of limitless variety, pocket doors, gilded capitals covered in acanthus leaves, federal doorways topped by fan windows, parquet floors, terracotta panels, slate roofs, coffered ceilings…an embarrassment of architectural riches. Once, crawling through the partially open door of an abandoned firehouse, he climbed a staircase and discovered a huge room with pocket doors and a ceiling adorned with a medallion encrusted with cupids. He witnessed the unfortunate stripping of the doomed Homer Ramsdell mansion, which he visited one day to photograph after getting permission from the urban renewal agency. He had admired the second-floor Tiffany stained glass windows from the sidewalk and upon entering discovered them stacked up in the dining room, along with the mantelpieces and dismantled chestnut paneling; the next day it was all gone. “The antique dealers were making a fortune,” he said.

Particularly tragic was the loss of the 1868 Newburgh Savings Bank, a fanciful Gothic-style brick pile with granite trimmed arched windows and peaked roofs designed by Frederick Withers. The building was lauded by historians as one of the nation’s finest examples of Ruskinian Gothic architecture, but no matter: Jack Present, who succeeded Stillman as director of the urban renewal agency, explained to preservationists that the building had to go because it was in the path of one of the new proposed sewer lines. Among the protesters was Benepe, who insisted that the cost of rerouting the sewer line would be “infinitesimal.” But there was no stopping the bulldozers, and in November 1970 it came down. Two weeks later, the 1893 Palatine Hotel was demolished, the last of the grand 19th century public accommodations. Its destruction was approved to make way for a county office building on the site, which also never materialized.

Much of Newburgh’s waterfront is gone, but the memory of it is preserved in city and state records and numerous photos, including pairings of scenes before and after urban renewal on display on the first floor of the Old Courthouse, 123 Grand Street, the office of city historian Mary McTamaney [newburghhistory@usa.com].  Recently, the Newburgh Historical Society has scanned all of Tom Daley’s thousands of slides of the lost buildings and is in the process of indexing them by address. The full story of this sad chapter of Newburgh’s history is waiting to be told.

Thanks to Mary McTamaney for assisting with this article.

Lynn Woods is co-producer and co-director of Lost Rondout: A Story of Urban Removal, a one-hour documentary chronicling the urban renewal of downtown Kingston.

4 Comment

  • Lynn contact me at my e-mail address. I worked for the agency for over two years as a contractor. I have a lot of information about what went on behind the scenes. Ed Leonard #845-559-3005

  • I enjoyed your information about Newburgh. We used to be able to walk down Broadway then down Water street .It is such a tragedy what happened to Newburgh.We road the ferry and watched the planes land on the water and dock at the docks.. I lived in Walden and later was on the ambulance for the town of Montgomery.. We saw the change in Newburgh.