There isn’t much to attract Vassar students in Newburgh—at least, not on the surface. But I spent this past Saturday there on a build for Habitat for Humanity. Driving around, I couldn’t help but be awestruck by the stunning architecture and pervasive public art. Neo-classical churches, grand Victorian manors, murals and street art were to be found around every bend.
By asking questions of fellow volunteers and embarking on a little research of my own, I learned about the great number of cultural secrets Newburgh has to discover. Take the Dutch Reformed Church, for example. Just a half a block from one of the build sites, it stands like a sentinel over the waterfront. A mixture of a downsized Athenian Parthenon with La Madeleine church in Paris, the façade of massive pillars supporting an enormous pediment is a prime example of the Greek Revival. The church was designed by Alexander Jackson Davis in 1835, and is now a National Historic Landmark.
While the columns have recently been repaired, it is clearly in desperate need of some restoration—in 2005 it was even on the World Monuments Fund “100 Most Endangered Sites” list. Yet a quick visit just to see the current exterior is worth it, and I intend to return to take in the massive interior, as well.
Just down the street is Washington’s Headquarters, the nation’s first historic site. General Washington spent more than a year in this house from 1782 to 1783, directing the war and planning America’s future. It was here that Washington ordered a cessation of hostilities, effectively ending the Revolutionary War in April of 1783. In the same neighborhood you can find the David Crawford House, host of the Newburgh Historical Society. Build in 1830 in the same Neoclassical style of the Dutch Reformed Church, it also serves as a museum of wealthy 19th century American life. Unfortunately, both the Crawford House and Washington’s Headquarters run full throttle April through October—for now, poking around the exterior is your best bet.
What is most striking while driving through Newburgh is a wall of black and white portraits. Located on the side of the Ritz Theater (sidenote: a then-unknown Frank Sinatra sang there in 1940 and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez debuted there as a Vaudeville act in 1941), the forty-four portraits of both Newburgh citizens and crumbling Victorian mansions proffer the heart of the city to every casual observer. The pictures are hung to resemble windows in the side of the building, and I think it is appropriate to draw the metaphor that they are like windows to the soul of Newburgh.
The artwork immediately reminded me of the famous international artist JR, whose project “Inside Out” is essentially printing out enormous portraits of faces and pasting them in public places. I inquired after a Habitat volunteer the artist’s identity for the work in Newburgh, and he dedicatedly tracked down the name for me: Dmitri Kasterine. Kasterine spent his life photographing cultural icons (think Johnny Cash, Roald Dahl and Rudoph Nureyev), and some of his work currently resides in the collections of the Smithsonian and London’s National Portrait Gallery. For the past sixteen years, Kasterine took portrait pictures of Newburgh residents, and just this past September published a book entitled “Portrait of a City.” But it is the public element of his work on the side of the Ritz Theater that is most impactful worth a quick trip.
Finally, on the south wall of the Ritz Theater is another mural—this time a colorful and made of paint, not black-and-white photography. It is entitled, “Transcendence”, and is the first in a series of five murals planned by the The Newburgh Mural Project in collaboration with artist Dasic Fernandez. “Transcendence” is about the unifying power of the arts to extend beyond all boundaries. A second mural, “Roots”, is about the connection of one’s past, present and future while the third, “Transformation”, expresses the connections between the material and the individual. All three can be found within the Historic District, and from all I can tell two more are forthcoming in the next year or so.
The contrast between the crumbling buildings of Newburgh and these cultural and historical sights is not as tension-filled as one might expect. Especially when it comes to public arts projects, I am a huge fan. Murals can brighten someone’s day and bring a community together—the presence of art and color spreads hope and a sense of renewal. Indeed, during the Great Depression, the government formed a Public Works of Art Project both to employ artists and create works to inspire the American people. Philadelphia currently boasts the moniker “City of Murals” from the over 3,000 murals created by the Mural Arts Program since 1984. Murals provide the chance for artists to give back to the community visually and also the opportunity for education.
I thought I would be inspired by my work with Habitat on Saturday, and I was—just not in the way I expected. The restorative efforts Newburgh has undertaken are visibly making a difference, and already I am dying to return to explore some more. The Old Town Cemetery began in the early 18th century, and there are other public art projects I glimpsed from the corner of my eye that require further investigation. More importantly, it got me thinking about Poughkeepsie, and the potential for Vassar to undertake such art projects, potentially collaborating with schoolchildren in the area. Just a little food for thought as we all part for Winter Break—visit Newburgh and think about the possibilities, and let’s revisit the subject next semester when we are refreshed. Who knows what spring will bring.