Newburgh races to restore historic Dutch Reformed church

The Dutch Reformed Church in Newburgh, which has

The Dutch Reformed Church in Newburgh, which has been largely abandoned since 1967, took a turn for the worse in January when its roof collapsed. Now, local residents are looking to raise up to $12 million to fix the structure and open it up as a community center. (April 19, 2012) Photo Credit: Karl de Vries

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When the Dutch Reformed Church first rose above Newburgh's landscape more than 180 years ago, it was hailed as a young nation's pre-eminent example of Greek Revival architecture, a monument to a burgeoning port city's vitality.

But nearly two centuries later, the dilapidated, abandoned church has been the subject of numerous and aborted restoration efforts and mirrors Newburgh's own hard times.

Today, a team of concerned residents is hoping to raise as much as $12 million to save the landmark structure, now owned by the city of Newburgh.

"(The church) represents some of the setbacks Newburgh has experienced on a broader scale," said Kevin Burke, a member of the Newburgh Preservation Association, which is spearheading efforts to rehabilitate the building. "If (Newburgh) is going to be revived as a city, it's going to be revived through its architecture."

Built at the height of America's Greek Revival movement in the mid-1830s, the church serves as architect Alexander Jackson Davis' tribute to structures such as the Temple of Artemis. Beyond the 6-foot chain-link fence that now guards the church stands a more than three-story tetrastyle portico featuring four 32-foot tall Doric columns, a pediment that peaks at 50 feet and a wooden gable roof. An 1868 addition stretched the church to roughly 120 feet long, and its large sanctuary, capable of packing in hundreds of worshipers, to nearly five stories tall.

Perched roughly 130 feet above the Hudson River, the church became a familiar sight to merchants sailing up New York and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, becoming a National Historic Landmark in 2001. As part of the city's roughly 15-acre historic district, the church is counted among the city's numerous surviving historic sites, the most notable of which is George Washington's final headquarters during the Revolutionary War.

But the church steadily fell into disrepair after its congregation left town in 1967. Despite various restoration efforts over the years -- including a drive several years ago that resulted in the repainting of its iconic columns -- the church today is a creaky, crumbling pile of stucco rubble and shards of wood. The latest setback came in January after the roof collapsed in a storm, sending hundreds of pounds of wood crashing onto the pews and making the building virtually uninhabitable.

Rebuilding efforts would require the removal of debris, addressing water seepage, restoring electricity, restrengthening the floor, rebuilding damaged pews and stabilizing plaster and stairs, among other tasks, according to Giovanni Palladino, an architect who chairs the church's committee in the city's preservation group. It will likely take up to $1 million just to make the church safe for occupancy, Palladino estimates, and another $11 million to restore it to its former glory.

But, he added, "we won't really know the extent of the renovation until we get started."

Major changes, major decay

The church's deterioration, it could be said, is not unlike the hard times upon which Newburgh has fallen, said Mary McTamaney, the city's historian.

Once a major shipping hub along the Hudson River, major changes in the mid-20th century -- McTamaney cited the creation of the Interstate Highway System, the rise of suburbia, the construction of the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, and a series of race riots during the late 1960s and early 1970s -- combined to marginalize, if not destroy, Newburgh's identity as a thriving port city.

Businesses closed up, and today, more than 25 percent of the city's nearly 29,000 residents live below the poverty level, according to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau between 2006 and 2010.

For church advocates, Newburgh's rough-and-tumble present means donations are hard to come by.

"There are no 1 percenters, no 5 percenters, no 10 percenters in Newburgh," said McTamaney, a fourth-generation city resident whose family moved here during the Civil War. "We're not a rich place, and I don't believe we ever will be."

The city itself doesn't have the resources to chip in, either, evidenced by austerity measures that resulted in a slashing of Newburgh's workforce by a third over the past two years, said Mayor Judy Kennedy. And while residents would welcome a sparkling, restored church, matters such as public safety and affordable housing are more pressing, said lifelong resident Melinda Stapinsky, 37.

"It would be nice to see (the church) come back to life," she said, "but right now, there are other priorities."

The preservation group hasn't launched any official fundraisers yet, as they're still considering options, Palladino said. But several ideas that have been floated in recent months include leasing the grounds around the building, holding events with local performing arts centers and holding concerts on the green, and, with some luck, securing more state and federal grant money and perhaps attracting a philanthropist or two to the cause, Palladino said.

Ultimately, officials hope, the church will be restored into a modern-day Lyceum, a place where community members can congregate to express local concerns. And for the small band of volunteers dedicated to its recovery, the church's claim to history and place as a Newburgh icon are worth salvaging at any effort.

"The fact that it's lasted this long is a testament to the quality of workmanship of a lost generation," said Palladino. "For me, it won't become a lost cause until the last column falls."

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