Clip of a discussion regarding the history of the County House (Orange Farms) presented by the Orange County Historian Johanna Yaun at the Valley View Advisory Committee July 20, 2021, 2 30 PM - 3 30 PM @ Government Center in Goshen.
On April 9, 2021 friends and family of Dr. David Schuyler gathered at Downing Park in Newburgh to honor his life and work with a memorial tree planting.
New York City, the American Revolution, and the Significance of the Number 45
After the end of the French and Indian War, there was tension over King George and Parliament’s plan to tax the Colonies to pay off the war debt. John Wilkes, editor of “The North Briton” newspaper and a member of Parliament, opposed the King in his publications. Wilkes’ most critical editorial was printed in 1763 in Issue # 45, a number highlighted to evoke memories of the Jacobite Uprising of 1745, commonly referred to as “The 45 Rebellion” or simply “45” in political culture. The King was personally offended and issued a warrant for Wilkes’ arrest. As a result, “Wilkes, Liberty, Number 45” lived on as a rallying call against unlawful imprisonment.
In New York City, the Sons of Liberty had a tradition of erecting “Liberty Poles” to voice opposition to British oppression. In 1766 they erected a pole in City Hall Park to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act. British soldiers chopped it down, the Sons of Liberty put a second one up, and it was chopped down again. The third pole went up and remained unchallenged until a year later in May 1767 when British soldiers noticed the townspeople gathering at the Liberty Pole to celebrate the anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act. They destroyed it once again. Undaunted, the Sons of Liberty erected the fourth pole, defiantly larger and wrapped in iron bands.
Soon after, the Quartering Act passed, requiring colonists to provide housing to British soldiers. The New York Provincial Assembly refused to support it, so they were prorogued, and the new Assembly approved public funds to be allocated for quartering troops.
In response to the Assembly’s reversal, an anonymous broadside began circulating in December of 1769 titled, “To the Betrayed Inhabitants of the City and Colony of New York.” The British soldiers reacted by setting off explosives at the Liberty Pole and leaving the splintered wood on the steps of Abraham Montayne’s Tavern and Coffee House which was located on Broadway, just across from the City Hall Park.
On January 19, 1770, the tension erupted into violence when a leader of the Sons of Liberty, Isaac Sears, interfered while British soldiers were posting broadsides of their own at an outdoor market by the East River wharves. Sears captured the offending soldiers and began to march them to City Hall. Other soldiers in a nearby barracks sounded alarm and then pursued the men, but crowds gathered to protect Sears. The crowd overwhelmed the soldiers and the soldiers fired shots into the crowd. Several people were injured. The incident took place in a small patch of grass known as “Golden Hill,” which is today visible only as a slight incline towards the intersection of William and John Street in the Financial district.
The Governor of New York offered 100 pounds in cash to anyone willing to reveal the name of the person who wrote the anonymous broadside. After three weeks passed without a response, the Governor ordered all printers in the city to be arrested and jailed. This led to printer James Parker being identified as a person of interest in the case. Parker then revealed that the author of the broadside was a man named Alexander McDougall.
A Fifth Liberty Pole was raised on February 6, 1770 on a plot of land owned by Isaac Sears. The next day, McDougall was accused of seditious libel against the Crown and coincidentally, his arrest warrant was number 45. In playing on this numerical association, McDougall became known as “the Wilkes of the Colonies” and demonstrators kept up a constant watch.
Every day, supporters appeared at his jail cell to cheer 45 times. Food and drink was shared, including 45 shots of rum, 45 pounds of beef, etc. On the 45th day, the Sons of Liberty brought 45 virgins dressed in white to sing Psalm 45. Newspapers humorously debated if there were really 45 virgins in the whole city to make up such a gathering, and one commenter joked that it was not possible since they were all 45 years old.
Because no one wanted the unpopular task of prosecuting McDougall, his confinement and the theatrics of his supporters lasted for three months. McDougall was ultimately released because the sudden death of James Parker, the printer, left the prosecution without any witnesses in the case.
The clash between the Sons of Liberty and the British soldiers that led to McDougall’s imprisonment is referred to as The Battle of Golden Hill. It is often considered by scholars to mark the “first bloodshed” of the Revolution. The second violent clash, known as the Boston Massacre, occurred six weeks later March 5, 1770 and resulted in five deaths.
For a brief time, during the years leading up to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the number 45 was understood as a symbol the American spirit in favor free speech and in condemnation of unlawful use of arrest to silence an opposing voice.
For this and many other contributions that Alexander McDougall made to the Revolutionary War, MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village/Soho was named in his honor.
I was invited to speak at the Sojourner Truth Awards Ceremony in March 2019, in which 600 outstanding middle and high school students from all over Orange County were honored for their academic excellence and resilience. The event was held on the campus of SUNY Orange in Middletown. The following are my notes from my remarks on the occasion.
Thank you for inviting me to provide context about Sojourner Truth's accomplishments. She was a remarkable abolitionist and women's rights advocate who was born here in the Hudson Valley in 1797.
Dates aren't always the most important thing about studying history, but in this case, I mention the year of her birth because it's related to her particular struggle. Just two years later in 1799, New York State passed the gradual emancipation act, determining that all people born into slavery after 1799 would be eligible for freedom by the age of 27. But those born before that year, like Sojourner, would remain enslaved for life.
In 1817 that law was amended to proclaim that all people in bondage in New York State would be freed no later than 1827. Sojourner's owner, John Dumont, a resident of the Esopus area of Ulster County, promised her an early release but later changed his mind. So she fled with her infant daughter to a neighboring farm and asked Isaac and Maria Van Wagnerer for help. These abolitionists paid the owner for her release and gave her a place to stay while she waited for her son's release from bondage. In 1827 Sojourner went back to the slave owner's home and asked for her five-year-old son, Peter. To her horror, she discovered that Peter had been illegally sold to a plantation owner in Alabama.
Sojourner went to a local lawyer named A. Bruyn Hasbrouck and asked him to help file a lawsuit. (The Hasbroucks were a well-established Huguenot family in New Paltz, some of whom were slave owners and some of whom, like Hasbrouck, were abolitionists.) He represented her in court for free, and although it took more than a year, they won the case and were able to get young Peter back from Alabama. Sojourner dedicated the rest of her very long life to traveling the country, telling her story, and speaking out against injustices.
Although the institution of slavery had been abolished in New York State by 1827 and Sojourner had paved the way for former slaves to seek justice in court, the conflict over slavery only intensified. Knowing that freedom was universal in the north inspired many of those still held in slavery in the south to take the risk and flee. Slave owners in the south responded by pushing for the government to pass the Fugitive Slave Act, which they did in 1850.
William Seward, a lawyer from here in Orange County who would eventually become President Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State, was a young senator advocating fervently against the act, which would make it a crime for anyone to aid a runaway. After the act was passed, it became impossible for a family like the Van Wagnerers to intervene on behalf of a runaway as they had done for Sojourner. But the abolitionists in the area didn't change their minds - they reacted by creating a local network of safe homes that could operate in secret in what we now know as the Underground Railroad.
It's not a coincidence that William Seward's old stomping grounds around Chester, N.Y. became the center "station" for fugitives traveling on the Underground Railroad. If these runaways were able to make it to Philadelphia, safe homes there would send them on a route through northern New Jersey, crossing into New York State on Greenwood Lake. They would be brought to the house of John Milton Bull on Walton Lake, who would transport them in his horse drawn carriage to the rectory of the Presbyterian Church in Chester, N.Y., where the Rev. James W. Wood fed and clothed them. The reverend would then determine the safest way north. Some people were placed on the "Willets Line," a route named for an abolitionist Erie Railroad conductor who would keep them safe as they traveled to Elmira. Others would be sent to the home of Dubois Alsdorf in Newburgh. Dubois (a black man) and his boyhood friend, City Librarian Charles Estabrook (a white man) had co-founded a marching band in 1850 that was made up of both white and black musicians. Having broken the color barrier in this way, Dubois Alsdorf was well connected to white society in both Warwick and Newburgh and could operate around the county under the guise of traveling to teach music and dance to his many pupils. Once in Newburgh, fugitives were ferried across the river and sent on a path towards Boston. If there was danger along the way, sanctuary was not far, as safe houses dotted the region. Many of them are well documented, such as Vail's Store on W. Main Street in Goshen and Peter Roe's house in Cornwall. Many others were lost to time and secrecy.
No doubt that this period just before the outbreak of the Civil War was a volatile time in New York State. And from it emerged the leaders Sojourner Truth and William Seward, whose actions saved thousands of lives before the war and whose convictions forged the policies that President Abraham Lincoln would come to admire and emulate.
I hope that seeing the name "Sojourner Truth" on the award you'll be receiving tonight will be an inspiration for you to think about how very rich our local history is, and how it can be used to understand society's complexities, past and present. On behalf of the Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus, I extend congratulations to each of you for receiving this award.
Searching through the County Historian's office files to jot down the notes for this event, I was only able to scratch the surface of a very complicated topic. Sojourner Truth herself had been born into bondage on the farm of the Hardenberg family, a name which pops up time and time again in local genealogical research woven into the family trees of many who still live in this region. In her lawsuit to get her son Peter back from slavery in the south, she was represented pro-bono by lawyer A. Bruyn Hasbrouck, whose ancestor's name was just recently removed from a building on SUNY New Paltz campus. I found references in the archive and online that alternatively attribute the naming of "Hasbrouck Street" in Newburgh to this A. Bruyn Hasbrouck, an abolitionist, or to other well-known Newburgh Hasbroucks such as Jonathan, who was himself both a slave owner and an influential officer in the local militia during the American Revolution, giving up his home at various times to military commanders such as Baron Von Steuben and Col. Timothy Pickering. The more you read into this period, the more difficult in becomes to judge the past by today's standards.
And yet, at a time when society is making strides to remove the names and images of racists and oppressors from public spaces (notably the decision made by The New York City Public Design Commission in 2018 to remove the statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims from Central Park), we are also failing to protect the stories and symbols of the fight for equality that took place over centuries. It's in this way that I am saddened to see A. Bruyn Hasbrouck's name get subsumed by the slave owning legacy of some of his relatives. It's also sadly discouraging that society has so far shrugged its shoulders at the A.M.E Zion Church leaders in Newburgh who have recently requested permission to demolish the historic 1905 church, a contributing structure to the East End Historic District, that was designed by architect Frank Estabrook, Charles' son, who was intertwined with the legacy of the famous Alsdorf family. If there was ever a place that could serve as a gateway for teaching a lesson of personal conviction in the face of unjust laws, and putting faces and names to the all too often obscured history of the Underground Railroad, it's this place.
This keynote address discussing the legacies of loyalists in the Hudson Valley was presented at the 239th commemoration of the Battle of Minisink.
On January 2nd a ceremony was held for the inauguration of Newburgh's new representative to the Orange County Legislature. The event took place at the old 1841 Courthouse on Grand Street, twin of the Goshen courthouse, which is now utilized as the office of the City Historian, Mary McTamaney, and serves as a "heritage center" for public programming. The following remarks were prepared for the occasion.
In 1969 and 1970 there was an argument between city leaders in Poughkeepsie and Newburgh and they insulted each other publicly in the local newspapers. This was sparked when the Dutchess County government was contemplating moving the County Seat out of downtown Poughkeepsie. Local residents and elected officials reacted vocally stating, "we don't want to be another Newburgh."
Today the meaning behind this reaction is lost on many of us in Orange County. But this dispute makes more sense when you understand the context of Newburgh's relationship with the County Seat.
The boundaries of Orange County were created by British Colonial powers in 1664 as one of the original counties of the Provence of New York. At that time the boundaries included all of what is Rockland County and extended up the Hudson and Delaware Rivers to the Moodna Creek. Newburgh was not part of the original towns of Orange County instead, it was in Ulster County.
If you picture the original boundaries of Orange County going all the way to the New Jersey border (although that border was in dispute for quite some time too), the landscape is defined by the series of ridges that are now included in Harriman State Park land. Therefore if you needed to vote or appear in court in the 17th and 18th centuries, and you lived south of the mountains, it was quite an arduous journey to travel to Goshen for the occasion. Many residents complained about the challenge so in 1748, while still under Colonial rule, this topographical difficulty was addresses in the passing of a colonial law. A second County Seat for Orange County residents was designated at Orangetown.
A few decades ago, a former County Historian named Donald Clark conducted research to examine census records from the mid-18th century to understand more about why this second County Seat was necessary. He found lots of evidence in marriage records that these two regions indeed operated very separately. He found that it was more common for a Goshen resident to marry someone recently arrived from Barbados then from what is now Rockland County.
When the boundaries were redrawn in 1798, the southern towns became Rockland County and Newburgh was carved from Ulster County and added to Orange County to even out the territories. As part of this bargain, Newburgh was granted the other "half" of the half-shire status. So for 172 years from 1798 to the new Orange County charter of 1970, Newburgh and Goshen shared this designation. The twin courthouses structures built in the classical style by Thornton Niven in 1841are relics of this past.
In 1970, when Poughkeepsie and Newburgh officials were carrying on in the newspapers, the two cities had a lot in common. They were both deep in economic struggle and trying to steer their Urban Renewal programs into recovering blighted downtowns. Retail was moving to the malls in the towns, industry was moving to the southern States.
Orange County centralized its offices at the newly constructed Paul Rudolph-designed Government Center in Goshen and passed the new charter creating the County Legislature and County Executive positions. The loss of County presence took an additional toll on the City of Newburgh, without Courts for instance, the lawyers' offices moved off of Liberty Street, taking away the street traffic necessary to maintain the small businesses that street.
When Poughkeepsie officials invoked this struggle in the local papers saying they didn't "want to be another Newburgh," a Newburgh Councilman was quick to hurl insults back across the river pointing out that Poughkeepsie had doomed its downtown by constructing the Route 9 beltway. But ultimately, the Poughkeepsie city officials were right: possessing the County Seat is an asset to a downtown. But even if a community doesn't have the County offices on their streets, they do have an advocate in the County through their Legislator.
As an Orange County official and Newburgh resident, I thank you all for inviting me to welcome Kevindaryan Lujan to the role of County Legislator.
Brutalism, Still Controversial After 50 Years
When I began my term as County Historian, Ted Sly was kind enough to go over some of his most memorable moments in the post. On one occasion around 2010, he explained, he met with members of the Paul Rudolph Society and toured them through the Government Center where they encountered hecklers, one of which shouted out from the office, “Tear it down! Tear it down!” It wasn’t my first inkling of the animosity that has persisted in the community regarding the Orange County Government Center since it was dedicated in 1970 but I appreciated his warning.
In 2012, just a year after super storm Irene flooded the building causing the County to move all government offices to temporary locations, historian Cornelia Bush scoured the minutes of the Orange County Board of Supervisors to build a timeline of Paul Rudolph’s relationship with the project. In her notes, she expanded on the discontentment expressed by local taxpayers due to cost overages and five years of legal battles with the construction company. The research in itself was necessary to dispel the misunderstandings that have been propagated over time by those who have advocated for or against the demolition of the building for almost 50 years.
I thank past County Historians Ted Sly and Cornelia Bush for compiling a body of research that I’ve been able to expand upon.
Paul Rudolph’s name first appears in Orange County records in 1963, a time when he had already established himself as a modernist home builder in Sarasota, Fla. and was serving as chair of the Yale Architecture School. The year before, he had completed the Temple Street Parking Garage, the first of two projects that, according to his 1997 obituary, would help “crystallize Mr. Rudolph’s reputation in the 60s.” The second of those projects, the Art and Architecture Building at Yale, would be completed by the time of his January 1966 appearance in front of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. A trip to New Haven by any of the Board of Supervisors would have demonstrated Rudolph’s design capabilities and we can assume that they knew his design would be in a similar Brutalist style.
It is often asked why members of county government - seated in a traditional village like Goshen-chose to hire Paul Rudolph to design their new government center. And from what I’ve heard from the few officials who are still around today, it’s because they bought into the 1960s idea of bringing modern efficiency to government through state-of-the-art design. The purpose of County Government was expanding at the time and the Board of Supervisors needed to consider bringing on a manager to centralize operations. As the first County Executive, Lou Mills, who took office in January of 1970, explained it during a 2006 interview, “there was a trend at the time for the State to push human service problems onto the Counties, but they didn’t want to pass along funds” to provide for the added responsibilities. The Board of Supervisors brought in consultants and they recommended a new charter to create a County Executive and Legislature form of government.
In the spirit of what Lou Mills calls a “tremendous change in the way the County operated,” the Board of Supervisors also decided to move from the 1887 building on Main Street to a new location. In 1963 the Board of Supervisors contracted the two “associated” architects Paul Rudolph and Peter Barbone to create a design and provide cost estimates. The Board of Supervisors secured funds amounting to $4,410,000 through a bond resolution in March of 1964, revised the estimated funds to $4,600,000 through bond resolution in April of 1965, and voted unanimously (with one absent) in May of 1965 to proceed with the firm. On January 14, 1966, a special session was held for the architects to present their design to the Board of Supervisors. At the next regular session February 11, 1966, a discussion ensued in which John McMickle from Middletown asked questions about the cost of the building and Henry Parry, Jr. from Highlands “addressed the chair and asked if the design could be ‘toned down’ a little, but stated he was in favor of the proposed building.” At vote, the resolution to approve preliminary sketches and authorize architects to “prepare working plans and drawings” passed with Ayes 31, Noes 4, Absent 1.
It’s not known how much of the structure was designed by Paul Rudolph, how much of the detailing was provided by Peter Barbone, and most significantly, how much was improvised by the two construction firms who interpreted the plans. By 1970 additional bonds were needed to cover the cost of construction which had ballooned to $6,489,000 - and by the time the building opened, the cost was $6,899,506.73. As per the initial contract, Barbone and Rudolph received 7.5 percent of construction costs as their fee.
Concerns about structural problems with the building and outrage over the cost increases cast a shadow over the opening ceremonies in December of 1970. Although when interviewed, Lou Mills stated that the building had “bad roofs and bad concrete” but added that to his recollection, “people enjoyed working there.” Whatever the sentiments, what’s clear is that the general construction firms Corbeau Construction Corp and Newman Construction Corp entered arbitration with Orange County which lasted for five years. During the time of arbitration, the County was not allowed to make repairs to the roof, exacerbating the leaks that had already started before opening day. During those legal proceedings, the construction companies claimed that Rudolph’s blueprints were incomplete, requiring them to spend extra time and capital in designing solutions. The arbitration was eventually decided in favor of the construction companies.
Over the decades that followed, the need to maximize the use of the square footage, requirements for handicap access, and contracting for regular repairs through an RFP bid process took its toll on the architectural vision of the Government Center. In my first memory of the building as a child, the sweeping steps in the courtyard were cracked and blocked off by yellow caution tape and the second floor offices were uncomfortably drafty. It wasn’t until I saw the pictures so artfully taken by Joseph Molitor in 1970 that I realized this was once an architectural masterpiece. But only a decade and a half had passed between that shabby appearance of my 1980s childhood and those beautiful photos. Members of the citizens coalition “Taxpayers of Orange County” that formed in 2011 to advocate for a full restoration of the structure allege that this deterioration of the building was avoidable, and furthermore that County officials were so embittered by the ballooned construction price and wasted legal funds that they rejected stewardship of the architectural signature elements.
Paul Rudolph’s body of work became the subject of controversy almost immediately after construction. His Art and Architecture building at Yale was set on fire by student protestors in 1969 because, according to his obituary, they regarded “the building’s severe concrete design as a symbol of the university’s antipathy towards creative life.” Similarly, the Orange County Government Center was criticized for creating a cold and stark institutional space that distanced the elected officials from the public. By 1970, the year that the Orange County Government Center opened, Rudolph’s work was falling out of favor in the United States.
Gradually from the time of construction to the evacuation of the building in 2011, as the years took their toll on the structure’s functionality, the attitude that the building should be demolished took hold amongst the County Legislators. Meanwhile in art culture there was a revitalization of interest in Paul Rudolph’s work that began around the time of his death in 1997 and the building was featured on the World Monument Fund’s “Most Endangered” for 2012. The renewed interest from the public came just in time for this particular building, with pressure from community groups and international cultural organizations, the most iconic part of Rudolph’s design for Orange County was rescued and restored as part of the new construction plans. How this happened will be a topic for a future article.
If you are interested in the recent renovation of this Paul Rudolph masterpiece, visit Grit Works in Newburgh to view an exhibition of photos by Isaac Diggs. The show “Home Sweet Home: Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center” will open Nov 25th 6-9 PM and remain on display through Jan 7th 2018.
New Historic Marker features the legend of Claudius Smith "Cowboy of the Ramapos"
Why "legend and lore?"
One of the challenges faced by public historians is to develop an understanding of a local historical story well enough to distinguish between fact and fiction. But even when the facts are available, making these distinctions is an art rather than a science because often times a local story has taken on cultural meanings that complicate the narrative. Other times an unsubstantiated story has been repeated so fervently that it is a perfect gateway to entice the public to thirst for the "real" story.
In recent years, the William G. Pomeroy Foundation has given public historians a tool to better address these fascinating but sometimes far-fetched local narratives. In partnership with the New York Folklore Society, the Foundation created a historic marker program to commemorate legends and folklore as part of New York State's history. This grant program extends funds to local historians to research, write and install markers that look similar to a traditional roadside markers but painted in maroon coloring to set them apart.
The need for this sort of validation of local folklore as an essential part of what makes a community unique is particularly relevant to the Hudson Valley villages and hamlets where so many layers of the past interact in one space. The Pomeroy Foundation asserts, "Folklore is an expression of our common past, yet it draws attention to what is unique about our community. Passed from person to person over time, there is often historical truth at the heart of every legend." Here in Orange County this is certainly true and many readers would easily be able to draw up a list of dozens of legends from our past that had an impact on the way we view our communities.
The first "Legend and Lore" historic marker that was created for Orange County was due to the initiative of Deerpark Historian Lynn Burns who received the grant in 2015. This sign explains a story associated with Joseph Brant's raid in on the settlers in 1779 that has been passed down through the generations as oral tradition.
Soon after the unveiling in Deerpark, the County Historian's office was approached by Goshen Historian Ed Connor and local history author Sal LaBruna to collaborate in applying to the Pomeroy Foundation for a marker to share the local legend about Claudius Smith. The grant was awarded and funds were approved by the Orange County Legislators on the Education and Economic Development Committee.
Who was Claudius Smith?
During the American Revolution the British forces controlled New York City and prevented safe passage along much of the Atlantic coast. Patriot transportation and communication lines ran through the Hudson Highlands and crossed the Hudson River at several points north of Stony Point. The Continental Army officers headquartered in rented houses in the valley and encampments of soldiers were spread from Fort Montgomery to New Windsor and Fishkill.
There was neutral ground in between the two armies but it was occupied by refugees in alliance with either side. Among the bands of marauders were "cowboys" sympathetic to the British cause and "skinners" sympathetic to the Patriot cause. The outlaws plundered cattle and stole supplies from those who lived in this region making it a lawless struggle to survive. A contemporary writer Joshua Hett Smith described the loyalist plunderers stating, the "composition of these predatory gangs of Cowboys was loose, including confirmed Tories, British deserters, runaway slaves, and Indians; their number was indeterminate; and their tastes in thievery were undiscriminating." No one crossing these hills, including Washington's messengers, was safe from their ambushes.
The leader of the band of cowboys was known to be Claudius Smith who operated out of Smith's Clove (now Monroe) and sheltered his men and their stolen goods in the Ramapo Mountains around Tuxedo. He was captured in 1777 but as the Sheriff escorted Smith to the jailhouse in Goshen, a band of his followers assaulted the Sheriff and released their leader.
In 1778 the death of a patriot Major in his home during one of the cowboy raids brought forth testimony from local citizens who claimed that Claudius Smith was the murderer. Governor Clinton offered a bounty to anyone who could apprehend Smith and by October 20, 1778, he was in custody. Smith stood trial at the Goshen Courthouse and was convicted of three burglaries, which carried a sentence of death, by hanging.
On January 22, 1779, Claudius Smith was brought outside to an improvised gallows of a noose tied on a tree limb. It is said that he fixed his eyes to the east towards Slate Hill hoping to spot a ground of friends on their way to stage a rescue. No rescuers came forth. Without a word from Smith, the cart was pulled away and he was hanged that day in front of a crowd.
Many stories emerged about Claudius Smith over the years. Until the 1920's locals would point to a tree in the churchyard and claim it was where Smith was hanged. Others tell tales of the caves where his treasures are still waiting to be uncovered. The most persistent legend about Claudius Smith is that his skull was placed over the doorway of the Goshen Courthouse when it was erected in 1841.
Please join us as we unveil Orange County's newest historic marker on October 30th at 4PM in front of the 1841 Courthouse, 101 Main Street, Goshen, NY. Feel free to celebrate the Halloween season and dress like a patriot or a loyalist for the occasion.
Many people have heard of the pre-fab homes that Sears, Roebuck and Company produced between 1908-1940. Sears offered 370 models and over 70,000 were built across the nation. Many of these homes are still standing around Orange County, I’ve heard stories of them in almost every community. These homes used conventional balloon-framing techniques and materials in their kits. But, our local architectural variety includes another story of a pre-fab housing solution from the 20th century that is less familiar.
For a short two years, from 1948 to 1950, the Lustron Corporation created pre-fabricated enameled steel homes that were advertised as low maintenance and affordable.
The idea began with a Chicago inventor named Carl Strandlund who, in response to the post-World War II housing shortage, created a division of the Chicago Vitreous Enamel Corporation to construct homes in a Columbus, Ohio factory. They planned to construct over 45,000 homes but only 2,498 homes were completed. Although they had orders for over 8,000 more units, after only 20 months of operation, the company closed its doors and 800 employees were laid off. The closure was due to failing to repay a 12.5 million Federal agency Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) loan that was borrowed to begin production. The Lustron Corp. was selling the homes at a low cost between $6, 000-$10,000 per unit and the company was losing money on each order. Although the cost seems inexpensive, the Lustron homes were sold through a dealership system similar to automobiles distribution which meant the dealers had to cover the initial costs of purchasing lots, pouring concrete slabs and running utility lines. The final home purchaser would be paying around $11,000 to acquire the completed property which was considerably more than buying a typical wood frame house at the time.
The architectural prototype was created in collaboration with architects Roy Burton Blass and Morris H. Beckman as a 1,000 square foot, two-bedroom home made of steel framing. The exposed steel on the interior walls and roof had a porcelain-enamel finish. The manufacture of each home required 12 tons of steel and 1 ton of enamel. The customer could choose the colors from a number of options including pink, tan, yellow, aqua, blue, green and gray on the exterior and beige or gray for the interior. The 3,000 pre-made parts would be carried on a truck and assembled on a concrete slab.
The homes were designed to use space effectively. Every room had built-ins which accounted for over 20% of the home’s square footage. The bedroom had a vanity, the dining room had a buffet and pocket doors throughout the home eliminated the need to allocate space for a swinging door. One futuristic luxury that was included in every home was a built-in washing machine that with the addition of a rack could do double-duty as a dishwasher.
A few months ago I was alerted to the existence of some of these gems in Middletown. After a bit of commentary from the Facebook community on the Orange County History and Heritage page, a follower pointed out a street in Newburgh that also featured a cul-de-sac of authentic Lustron homes. Please let us know if you know of any more in the area because the Preservation League of New York is compiling an inventory for their records.
These are the seven Lustron homes identified in Orange County. Two are on Roosevelt Avenue in Middletown, the third is on Riverview Road in Highland Falls and the final four are on Hampton Place in Newburgh. The four in Newburgh have been covered in traditional siding but the distinctive roofs are visible.
"I wasn't made for the great light that devours; a dim lamp was all I had been given, and patience without end to shine it on the empty shadows."