290 Liberty

In Memoriam

text: Burke Blackman
images: Diana Mangaser


Sitting vacant and abandoned for the last thirty years, the Italianate row house at 290 Liberty now teeters precariously, looming perilously close to its neighbors.  Roof open, interior collapsing, a doors-width open gash running the length of the rear façade from the third floor to the basement, its days are dwindling.  The Newburgh Community Land Bank is preparing for the home’s demolition upon order of the City of Newburgh’s Codes and Fire Departments; no purchaser with capacity and wherewithal to undertake an estimated million-dollar reconstruction project has appeared to save it.  Such is the unfortunate fate of a neglected, crumbling building that for decades passed through owners unable or unwilling to shore up its ailing envelope, repeatedly cycling into and out of foreclosure. 

But while 290 Liberty’s more recent history has been one of neglect, it saw vibrant life for nearly a century, serving as home for a succession of Newburgh families and a doctor’s office treating many a neighborhood resident.   Though the structure can no longer be saved intact, the stories of those who once lingered within its brick and timber bear recalling and preserving.  By doing so, we permit the address to persist in collective memory as a place of habitation, of life.  Also, by examining 290’s story within the context of the larger historical forces affecting Newburgh post-1950, we come to an understanding of the factors leading to the home’s demise and the challenges involved in preserving a distressed community’s built environment.

The ornate row house was most likely built around 1884 for siblings Alexander and Susan Colden, of the prominent Orange County Coldens.  (Colden Street in Newburgh was named for their great-great uncle Alexander Colden – trustee of the Glebe, son of colonial governor Cadwallader Colden, and recipient of a royal charter from King George II to operate the Newburgh ferry.)  290’s Alexander worked in Newburgh as a grocer’s clerk and salesman, while Susan was a dressmaker along with Alexander’s wife, Phebe.  One can imagine the solid, middle-class living these incomes provided, enabling the construction of a unique residence with several exterior design flourishes, such as the patterned slate mansard roof and bracketed cornice with paneled frieze.  Together, these three family members lived at 290 Liberty for about a decade until Alexander’s death in 1893.  Susan, who died in 1905 is buried nearby in the Colden Family Cemetery at Coldenham off of Route 17K.

Clarence and Elizabeth Ormsbee and their children Addison and Lucie followed the Coldens at 290 Liberty beginning in 1896.  Clarence was a physician and the first to establish a doctor’s office at the address, while son Addison was a member of the bar, practicing law in Newburgh until 1901 when he moved to New York City.  As professionals, both and Clarence and Addison were the subject of entries in the Portrait and Biographical Record of Orange County, New York in the mid-1890s.  Daughter Lucie took title to the home from her mother, Elizabeth, in 1907 and continued to live there with her husband, Francis B. Robinson, until 1921.  Mr. Robinson forged a career in real estate and insurance in partnership with his brother Charles.

For about the next forty years, 290 Liberty would be the residence and office of neighborhood physicians, from Dr. Douglas Gordon beginning in 1923 through Dr. William Shearer into the 1960s.  Consider the countless runny noses, sore throats, and other ailments treated within its walls; the space must have been a site of healing for many residents.  During much of the twentieth century, doctors’, dentists’ and lawyers’ offices were commonly interspersed throughout Newburgh’s residential neighborhoods, representing an early form of live-work use that is once again being encouraged along Liberty today.

Little is known about the home’s final owner-occupants, Russell and Pauline Gill, other than Mr. Gill worked for Ruberoid Co., local makers of vinyl, asbestos and asphalt tile.  The Gills moved into 290 Liberty during Newburgh’s Urban Renewal period and resided there until 1987, when the widow Pauline sold the home to an out-of-town investor.  The neighborhood surrounding 290 saw great change during the Gills’ tenure.  Large-scale demolition reached Montgomery and Grand Streets, and Newburgh’s post-war economic decline accelerated with the closing of Stauffer Chemical and Stewart Air Force Base. These factors, combined with the destruction of Newburgh’s downtown waterfront area and the development of newer housing and shopping outside the City, created a climate of increasing vacancy and abandonment in the community, eventually touching 290 Liberty around 1990 and continuing to the present.    

After decades of slow deterioration, the Italianate row house at 290 Liberty will soon disappear into memory.  This outcome is a departure from the overwhelming majority of the Land Bank’s work-to-date.  NCLB has a long-standing preference for preserving buildings, recognizing that the City’s architecture is part of what makes it a community of choice.  In severe cases like 290, however, it is not always feasible.  While emergency controlled demolition is now the home’s fate, efforts are underway to salvage exterior elements that can be removed safely, and these will be made available for other restoration projects in Newburgh.  By rescuing reusable pieces, we hope to honor 290’s history and the lives it once hosted, while contributing to the renewal of other historic structures serving current and future residents.  Stay tuned for salvage updates!