Restoring a very old Newburgh marketing device, but first, the funding

TOWN OF NEWBURGH – It was meant to be a marketing tool for the village of Newburgh in the 1830s. Modeled after a Greek temple, the Dutch Reformed Church on Grand Street had oyster shells built into its facade for him give off a pearly glow, hoping to attract visitors traveling north on the Hudson River.

“The church elders who formed this congregation were among the most influential in Newburgh in the 1830s, and they knew that if they built something big it would build the center of the village there,” said Newburgh historian Mary McTamaney on Wednesday.

But modern development has blocked the building’s river view; travelers on the Hudson can no longer spot the large pearly building. And its current state of disrepair is obvious to anyone who passes by 132 Grand St.

It has not served a congregation since 1967, and the town of Newburgh is the current owner of the building. Despite its flaws, the city has not given up on restoring it.

Newburgh City Council voted March 14 to spend $5,000 on grant consultant Elizabeth McEnaney to figure out how to find funds to rehabilitate the historic landmark.

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Minutes of the old church’s council meetings soon after it was built reflected the struggle of the small congregation to maintain the large structure – a problem that has evidently persisted for over a century.

This image from the 1933 Historic American Buildings Survey shows the Dutch Reformed Church at 132 Grand Street, Newburgh.

It cost the congregation $20,000 to build the church. This total included payment for land, materials, construction and furnishings, according to a registration form submitted for its nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1839, two years after the church was officially dedicated, the congregation took out a mortgage on the building to pay for the expensive construction. Several more expensive construction projects followed, including the replacement of the four-story roof and windows and large-scale redecoration projects carried out in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“In order to achieve the dream, they were always spending beyond their means,” McTamaney said.

Unable to pay for the upkeep of the large building, the congregation left the large town church in 1967 and moved to a smaller building in the town of Newburgh, according to the historian.

The year they moved, the congregation began renting out their old home to a Pentecostal congregation that was also struggling to maintain it, McTamaney said.

In the late 1960s, the church was to be demolished by the Federal Urban Renewal Agency. According to local historian Johanna Porr Yaun, who wrote about the church’s history in a post on the online history blog, the New York Almanack, she was saved by curators who helped secure her a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

The town of Newburgh purchased the property for $7,000 in 1974 and sold it to the Hudson Valley Freedom Theater. But the theater company defaulted and ownership returned to the city in the 1980s, according to the New York Almanack.

It has been unoccupied since and has deteriorated further.

In particular in 2012, part of the heavy plaster ceiling inside fell.

In 2017, the city used state grants to fund a technical study. The report says the ceiling collapse did not cause significant damage, but overall the church needed extensive stabilization work to the tune of $400,000. Repairs today would likely cost a lot more, given the rising cost of labor and building materials.

The building is still “remarkably stable”, said Ali Church, Newburgh’s director of planning and development.

“It’s not falling apart, but it still needs a lot of work,” Church said.

To do work

This is where the city hopes grants consultant McEnaney can step in.

Planning and Development Director Church said that over the years the city has received grants to restore the church, but their status is unclear. Questions remain as to whether some have expired or whether the city must spend them in a particular way to become eligible for additional funding.

One of the unspent grants includes $50,000 from the New York State Bureau of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, awarded to Newburgh in 2004, which required a 50% match from the city.

McEnaney’s scope of work will include developing a spending strategy for the next 12-18 months. She will also work with the engineers who completed the 2017 study to get their input on how to prioritize stabilization work using existing funds.

Director of Planning and Development, Church, made it clear Wednesday that the old church building will not be fully restored by the end of McEnaney’s services. But she hopes McEnaney can help create a plan for next steps.

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