The Dutch Reformed Church is an important symbol of the role Newburgh, New York, played in the cultural, social, and economic development of the emerging United States. Built between 1835 and 1837, the church sits on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River and is a reminder of the wealth that came early to settlements in New York. Newburgh served as George Washington’s headquarters during a pivotal point in the Revolutionary War and the area’s prosperity allowed the congregation to hire a well-known architect, Alexander Jackson Davis (1803–1892), to create an early example of Greek Revival architecture. Davis told a local newspaper that the church’s portico, seen from the Hudson River, “will henceforth serve as a conspicuous and characteristic landmark indicative of the taste, discrimination, and sense of classical beauty of the inhabitants of Newburgh.”
The mid-twentieth century brought a period of socioeconomic decline to Newburgh, leading the congregation to vacate the church in 1967. Since then the vacant structure has faced inadequate maintenance, vandalism, and threats of demolition. In 1998 former First Lady Hillary Clinton announced that the church had been awarded a Save America’s Treasures grant, and in 2001 the building was named a National Historic Landmark.
A compelling example of the significant part preservation can play in community life
Following the Dutch Reformed Church’s inclusion on the World Monuments Watch in 2006, we supported the design of its roof restoration. In 2009 we launched a field school program at the church in partnership with the City of Newburgh, the National Park Service, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh, and the Newburgh Preservation Association. Twelve high school students participated in the six-week hands-on program, learning preservation techniques while making repairs to fire-damaged parts of the church and repairing and restoring its windows and exterior architectural details. During a second practical course in 2010, students continued the work started by previous participants. They also built a staircase to provide better access to the cellar, where restoration work was being carried out.
The project is a compelling example of the significant part preservation can play in the life of a community through theoretical and practical training as well as the formation of connections between civic and private organizations. Sadly, a major portion of the church’s plaster ceiling collapsed and fell to the floor in December 2012, causing damage to the pews and setting back restoration prospects considerably. However, the site’s inclusion on the Preservation League of New York State’s “Seven to Save” list in March 2016 is an indication that advocates will continue pushing for improved protection for the site, its restoration, and its eventual return to productive community use.