Union Street Historic District

By Julia Maisel-Berick, American Studies, Class of 2024.

Facing the threat of urban renewal, one Poughkeepsie neighborhood resisted the encroaching demolition efforts through community action and remains a symbol of resistance to this day. Officially registered on the National Register of Historic Places in December of 1971, the Union Street Historic District represents several centuries of Poughkeepsie’s history. Union Street was the city’s first such official district, given its role in resisting demolition from the urban renewal underway at the time. As noted in the National Register, “The area stands like an oasis in the midst of land which has been cleared for arterials or housing projects: all sides have been razed. At least half of Union Street itself has been severed and wiped out for the North-South Arterial and the Riverview Urban Renewal project. The entire area is visible from the Mid-Hudson Bridge and the Hudson River itself and stands parallel to the arterial highway, but elevated well above it.” Fortunately, community “grassroots” organizing, particularly by local women, prevailed in efforts for the Poughkeepsie Urban Renewal Agency (PURA) to change course from demolition to rehabilitation of the neighborhood.

 As one of the oldest parts of the city, the district’s proximity to both the waterfront and the downtown area established it as a hub for freight shipping and commerce. Union Store Road, now Jefferson Road, which opened in 1767, was one of the first in the city and many of the first settlements appeared along it. The Union Store itself is visible on maps, which predates the incorporation of Poughkeepsie as a village. In the 1830s, the area experienced a major shift when a landowner, Ebenezer Badger, divided up his properties along Union and Main Streets into lots not designated for residential use. Suddenly an area of a few homesteads inhabited by agricultural workers was transformed into a community with a jail, offices, and businesses occupied by various tradesmen. Later in the mid-19th century, Union Street experienced a huge population boom from European immigrants, mostly from Germany, who established new businesses and local churches.

Map of the district (Source: Dutchess County Historical Society).

Throughout the nineteenth century, Union Street remained a thriving working-class neighborhood with a population of both immigrants and non-immigrant residents, most of whom worked in the area. A 1912 article from the Vassar Miscellany notes German, Jewish, Italian, Dutch, and Irish establishments. However, the turn of the century again changed the landscape of Union Street. The popularization of cars made many of the local businesses obsolete, particularly the grocery stores and shoemakers. Many of the German churches that emerged in the 1850s saw a decrease in membership as second and third-generation residents joined English-speaking congregations. Lastly, establishing the Mid-Hudson Bridge greatly increased traffic through the district via Church Street, drastically shifting the local environment from a quiet residential spot to a major thoroughfare.

As Urban Renewal began in the 1960s, the Union Street district was one of several areas that the Poughkeepsie Urban Renewal Agency (PURA) designated as “dilapidated” and a “physical slum,” given the houses’ aging paint jobs, worn porches, and out-of-date plumbing. Several neighborhoods around Union Street had already been razed or redeveloped as new arterials and housing projects. Many residents believed that the agency misrepresented the quality of the homes and they pushed back against plans for demolition. The tight-knit community distrusted PURA’s assessment and ability to rehouse residents after past failures to do so adequately. In opposition to PURA’s demolition efforts, the Dutchess County Landmarks Association proposed rehabilitation, deeming over two-thirds of the homes suitable for restoration. Throughout 1971, the Landmarks Association, the Queen City Model Cities Committee, and the Union Street Citizen’s Advisory Group advocated an alternative to demolition by reinforcing the area’s historical significance through community meetings and archival research. Union Street District’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 was not based on the architectural distinction of each of the 122 buildings but on how the neighborhood acted as an intact example of a 19th-century neighborhood.

140 Union Street Exterior (Source: Fallkill Properties)

This effort to preserve the district was largely spearheaded by Landmarks members Stephanie Mauri and Jeanne Opdycke, along with community members Carolyn Merte and Eleanor Massa. The parties agreed to shift PURA’s approach from demolition to rehabilitation, which is mainly concerned with facades. This also involved rebuilding streets and putting in street lamps. One program was to grant homeowners loans with the promise to rehabilitate their homes and bring them up to code. However, the allocation of this money exposed a disparity between primarily white neighborhoods receiving a majority of these rehabilitation funds and a trend of historically designated spaces in the city not acknowledging the city’s Black history.

140 Union Street Exterior (Source: Fallkill Properties).

Another change in historic preservation National Register was the transformation of single-family homes into multi-unit apartments as developers took advantage of federal funds allocated for multi-family homes. Attorney Burt Gold bought numerous houses, which he started restoring with architect Steve Tinkelman architecture. As a result, the new Union Street received awards for the beautiful restoration job during the 1970s and 1980s. However, a  Poughkeepsie Journal article in 1984 noted that many long-time residents had issues with the changing neighborhood, which now catered to young professionals with some of the highest rents in the city. Several interviewees noted that they no longer felt the same, family-oriented community with their neighbors because of the division of the single-family homes.

Today, the Federal- and Victorian-style facades are still visible and, just like in the nineteenth century, there are still several churches, breweries and German and Italian establishments within the 8-block radius. The housing appears to be a mix of apartments, duplexes, and single-family homes. Recently, new luxury apartments took over a former school building, as part of a massive push for more apartment units in Poughkeepsie. The property originally was purchased by the Fallkill Properties company, who were major developers purchasing buildings in the 1970s of what they referred to as the “development and reinvigoration” of the area. The available units on their website from the Union Street district all have historic façades but have had the interior refurbished with modern design and appliances. Union Street set a precedent for using historic preservation to prevent urban renewal leading to the designation of several more Poughkeepsie historic districts. The 1971 effort is a wonderful example of how a neighborhood joined together to change the city’s course from demolition to rehabilitation.  Still, the area’s evolution begs the question:  did the historical status ultimately serve the interests of local people? And what kind of history is deemed worthy of preservation?

140 Union Street Interior (Source: Fallkill Properties).

Getting there:

Enclosed on two sides by expressway arterials, Union Street is not the easiest place to access. There are several options for bus stops that could be situated near the district. The area is also just a little over a 10-minute walk from the Poughkeepsie Train Station. 

To learn more:

Adriance Memorial Library, Local History Room, Union Street Archives.

Bukmel, Bill. “Accord Is Reached On Union Street Area.” Poughkeepsie Journal, September 2, 1971.

Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, Preservation (GSAPP), “Preservation as a Tool for Social Inclusion in Poughkeepsie, Digital Publishing – Issuu, October 19, 2020.

DeFillippo, Robert. “Old-Timers Question Cost of Facelift.” Poughkeepsie Journal, April 29, 1984.

“Dutchess County Historical Society Yearbook Vol 072 1987 by DCHS | NY – Issuu,” March 28, 2022.

HMdb.org, “Union Street Historic Neighborhood: Community-Driven Urban Renewal on a Human Scale,” The Historical Marker Data Base, accessed September 24, 2023.

National Register of Historic Places. Union Street Historic District. U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, December 9, 1971.

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