“At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to think of every spot as the possible site of a house,” said Henry David Thoreau as he took axe in hand in March 1845 to build his one room home at the edge of Walden Pond. A preservationist at heart, he also used two second-hand windows with glass at a cost of $2.43. More than a century later Americans are still drawn to Thoreau's dream of a home of one's own—a sanctuary as well as a refuge to which to invite friends. Only now choices are fewer. Housing in America is expensive and in
metropolitan New York it is unaffordable which is why most people we know can tell a tale of a bidding war in which they were out priced. New construction doesn't have the strength and structural integrity of a solid old house. No one wants to contribute further to urban sprawl and the destruction of open space, family farms, and precious resources. What to do? It is this line of reasoning which brings many of us to the Hudson Valley.
The migration from Manhattan has been steady, and in recent years it has pushed beyond Westchester, Putnam, and Rockland Counties into Orange, making it the fastest growing county in the state. Brokers are recognizing that the best values can be found in the county's three cities—Port Jervis, Middletown, and Newburgh. These cities have in place the necessary and valuable infrastructure of water, gas, sewer lines, and schools. While these may need upgrading they are functional and available. In addition, newcomers from Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Hoboken are drawn to the inherent urban qualities of these cities. Newburgh has a tremendous asset in its Victorian and turn-of-the century housing stock as evidenced by whole streets in the Historic District that are elegant and desirable. It is a multicultural city, enjoying the benefits of diversity and community, as urban centers are known to be. Of the county's three cities, Newburgh is right on the Hudson River and the most affordable city in Orange County within commuting distance of New York. Its privileged location on the Hudson River at the crossroads of two major highways and Stewart International Airport make it doubly attractive. The Newburgh ferry is operational and commuters to Manhattan easily connect to Metro North rush hour trains to and from the city. A vital part of the valley's history, revolutionary roots, and illustrious past intersect in Newburgh. Major architects and landscape painters of the American romantic movement of the mid 19th century came from Newburgh or lived and worked here. In fact, Newburgh and her
creative and inventive citizens have played a role in American life disproportionate to her size.
“This is a very pleasant place to build a town on,” observed Henry Hudson in 1609 when he docked the Half Moon in Newburgh Bay. During the Revolutionary War, the Hasbrouck family's stone farmhouse served as General Washington's Headquarters between 1782-1783.
Within a generation Andrew Jackson Downing was born in Newburgh and gained national prominence. He was the editor of the Horticulturist, a monthly journal devoted to “Rural Art and Rural Taste” and through its pages Downing set out to reform American taste. Within months he had a national readership and a reputation
that his journal was the equal of similar magazines in Europe.
The Horticulturist had much the same influence on American rural architectural and landscape fashion as Martha Stewart's Living does in some quarters today. It is no wonder that one biography is called Apostle of Taste . Downing brought Calvert Vaux, the Scot, to Newburgh where he wrote Villas and Cottages. Together they strove to develop an architecture of “distinctive characteristics that show it to be a genuine American invention.”
Several of Vaux's actual designs were built for citizens of Newburgh. These are buildings of national importance by one of America's greatest architects—and they are all in Newburgh. After Downing drowned in the Hudson heroically trying to save fellow passengers on the steamer Henry Clay , Vaux returned to
England and hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Thus the names of Vaux and Olmsted became inextricably conjoined. It was Olmsted who suggested they enter a design for the Greensward in New York City. They won the commission to design Central Park. For a time they had offices both in "Appleton's Building, Broadway, NY and at Newburgh, on the Hudson.” Their last park collaboration was Newburgh's Downing Park, designed in honor of Vaux's mentor. Newburgh's buildings include designs by Thorton McNess Niven, Frederick Withers, Frank Estabrook, and A. J. Davis, whose Dutch Reformed Church (1837) has been called “the greatest surviving ecclesiastical commission of America's greatest architect of the era.” Strolling the streets of Newburgh, one is struck by the elegance, vitality, whimsy, or notable details in building after building whose designer's names are unknown. The eye notices ironwork, cornices, decorative carvings, fences, bay windows, doorways and door hardware, roof finials, beveled glass, slate roofs, shutters, and cupolas on carriage houses. There is such a plenitude of architectural detail and embellishment to please the eye and imagination, it is not
surprising a cross section of Newburgh's strongest advocates are homeowners who are preservation minded.
If you buy in Newburgh's Historic District—as elsewhere—you are entering into stewardship. You have announced to the world and to your neighbors that you embrace and appreciate the legacy of yesteryear and seek to preserve its importance—that you are in favor of “the real thing”—ornamental plasterwork, decorative moldings, marble fireplaces, stained glass, parquet floors, stenciling, cast iron footed tubs, fretwork, dadoes, chair rails, lincrusta, and eye brow windows of real wooden sash.
Richard Bedrosian, retired CUNY English professor, is past president of the Newburgh Preservation Association and co- chair of Newburgh for Newcomers, which reaches out to potential homeowners drawn to the Hudson Valley. From “AHidden Hudson Valley Treasure” reprinted from the April/May 2005 issue ofHudson Home & Garden
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