By Alberto Gilman
The Dutch Reformed Church, a historical and staple landmark in the City of Newburgh, continues to seek remediation, stabilization and further community assistance and support in hopes of one day being restored to its former glory.
The World Monuments Fund website stated that the church was first built in the mid-1830s by architect Alexander Jackson Davis on the hillside overlooking the Hudson River. The WMF is a globally recognized organization that is dedicated to saving historical places all across the world, promoting community enrichment and cultural understanding.
The building was constructed in a Greek Revival style and was active until 1967, when the congregation vacated the site. The building was ultimately saved from demolition during the Urban Renewal process that came through the city, and in the years following, the building eventually remained vacant and required extensive interior and exterior work. Today it continues to neighbor the City Club and the Newburgh Free Library. In 1998, former First Lady Hillary Clinton visited Newburgh and pledged financial assistance to the city in hopes of saving the DRC through the Save America’s Treasures program and the building was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 2001 according to the WMF. In 2009 and 2010, WMF welcomed high school students from Newburgh to participate in roof and building remediation projects, but in 2011, the coffered ceiling of the building collapsed and caused setbacks to the project. Asbestos was later discovered in the building and has thus limited access.
Thomas Dodd, President of the Newburgh Preservation Association [NPA] and a resident of the city, shared to his Facebook page an image of the DRC that showed various sections of the building displaying exterior sagging, mainly the western wall which showed signs of sagging due to water damage. The post drew comments from various supporters and other community member input. In the city, Dodd’s development work includes current work on the Liberty Street school and previously Weigand’s Tavern on Liberty Street.
“As the President of the Newburgh Preservation Association, saving and helping others save and protect historical buildings in the City of Newburgh is really a tremendous priority for me,” said Dodd.
While Dodd was aware and supportive of the grant writing for protection of the building, his main concern was the speed at which the city was looking to address the current state of the DRC. Dodd shared stabilization could be done quicker if the building were in private/nonprofit ownership. The city has had ownership over the DRC for some time.
“One of our missions at the Newburgh Preservation Association is to help others preserve buildings. So we’re available to people to talk about their buildings and we want to take all our knowledge and experience and history and put it forth to save these very endangered structures that are not only beautiful and special, but they also represent an incredible amount of revenue for the city in tourist dollars,” said Dodd.
Newburgh City Councilman Anthony Grice said the city is focused on a number of projects.
“There are several projects that this council inherited. Some of those projects were the [Delano-Hitch] swimming pool, which we are now fixing, we have the money for that,” Grice said. “Another one is the Shelter House and the pergola at Downing Park, which we are also fixing as well.”
The Delano-Hitch pool was currently under various design processes and was slated to be completed in 2025 after several years of disrepair and closure due to COVID. The Shelter House, which previously ran as a cafe, closed several years prior and the pergola at Downing Park has been covered in graffiti for some time and requires cleaning and remediation. Both also patiently wait for a new usage.
“It’s not that we [the city] are not very, very aware of the condition of this building and it’s not that we are not doing anything for it, the main issue is that it has asbestos in it. And so to do asbestos removal, which we are in the process of doing, that takes a certified company that has the equipment and the proper insurance and everything else; we can’t just have anybody that’s going in and removing asbestos,” said Grice.
Along with the asbestos removal, Grice added that the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR ) and New York State’s historic preservation processes also need to be followed. For Grice, he was confident in the ability of Public Works Commissioner Jason Morris, Director of Planning and Development Alexandra Church and all other members of the city executive staff for their grant writing and their additional work in saving this building. For the future of the space, Grice would like to see the space converted into another new event space open to the public and for community uses. Concerts, meetings and other community events would a possibility to have hosted there. Grice shared that when he was a child, he had been in the church for a concert prior to its closing.
Orange County Historian Johanna Porr Yaun, a longtime supporter of this structure, also contributed her own comments on the project. “I would say that my entire life, I’ve been watching that building slowly deteriorate. And I think that that’s the way that most people in this community feel,” said Porr Yaun. “I think it’s good to renew interest in this building as many times as we can.”
According to Porr Yaun, the DRC and City Club building, also on the Grand St, were both slated to be torn down during the Urban Renewal process but were ultimately saved by concerned citizens and activists. The Palatine Hotel however did not fare the same as it was torn down.
Porr Yaun also recalled as a teenager when Clinton had pledged her support for the DRC. The amount of pledged funds at that time was a little over $128,000 but that funding has since been used for stabilization of the building. “It never really came together. It’s nowhere near the amount of money we need, we need $5 million or more. If we could get our act together, we could have the premier historic district of the northern part of the country,” said Porr Yaun. “Why should we care? Because having this building as an asset of our historic district is going to bring tourism dollars from the right kind of people that we want here. The kind that are going to care about our cultural diversity, they’re going to care about what it is that we have to offer as a community as we are now.”
Former city mayor and councilman Nicholas Valentine, who serves currently as the NPA Treasurer, also offered his comments following Dodd’s post. “The city is incredibly busy with so many things that are happening right now and so many issues. It’s an expensive project. It’s a huge building,” said Valentine. “Down the road, there will be something that can be done to that building, where the public is involved and uses it.”
Longtime Newburgh resident Giovanni Palladino, who became inspired by the architecture of the DRC as a child and went on to pursue architecture as a career, offered his own thoughts as well. “This is such a great building. It’s not only a treasure to the City of Newburgh, but it’s a national treasure too. Until there’s a set of drawings and really understanding the current condition of the building and what needs to happen for that building to come back to some sort of potential use, I think an investment in those drawings need to happen,” said Palladino. “It [the DRC] could be a symbol of Newburgh to say, look, we can look to the past, preserve the past, understand who we are in the past, but let’s take this building as a symbol of what we can be in the future and what this building should be in the future. We can’t turn our backs on these great architectural treasures.”
City Chief of Staff Mike Neppl said the city has been monitoring the condition of the church.
“After decades of neglect, the City is now actively working on restoration plans for the Dutch Reformed Church. Late last year, the City used grant money from the New York State Office of Parks & Historic Preservation to undertake environmental testing by QUEST Diagnostics. That testing found considerable environmental concerns, including asbestos, that will need to be abated before further stabilization work can occur,” said Neppl. “That testing work included monitoring by our long-term structural engineering team at Ryan Biggs Clarke Davis, whose various reports from the last few years are available on the City’s website. They have been professionally and actively monitoring the structure for nearly 15 years.”
While the exterior and overall building patiently wait, in July 2022 the city celebrated a new large-scale light art installation known as Forcefield, which displayed on the exterior of the building through sponsorship by the organization Strongroom. City residents, supporters, friends and other creative minds joined artist Liz Nielsen to celebrate the project and support the DRC. A virtual tour is currently available on the city website to the public to view the building’s interior and exterior.