Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center

9-12 Vassar Street, Poughkeepsie

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

Vassar Home for Aged Men, 1971 (Photo by Leonard Opdycke)

When the Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center opened as an artistic and community hub in the late 1970s, the site already had a long history of providing space for cultural and philanthropic efforts in Poughkeepsie. Divided between two buildings, 9 Vassar Street and 12 Vassar Street, the center’s history is deeply intertwined with the impact of Mathew Vassar—the founder of Vassar College—and his family. The gothic brick building, now called 9 Vassar Street, is the former site of the Vassar Home For Aged Men. Opened by Mathew Vassar’s nephews in 1881, John Guy Vassar and Mathew Vassar Jr., the home initially only catered to Protestant men from Poughkeepsie. The Vassars had owned the estate as their family home since the 17th century. It served as Mathew Vassar’s estate until he died in 1868 when the property acquired a new purpose.

Given its connection to a prominent Poughkeepsie family, local preservationists proposed in October that the Home be listed in the National Trust for Historic Preservation. However, three members of the Board of Trustees tried to withdraw the Home’s nomination. In March 1972, the three men sent a letter expressing worry that the status of this building would limit their power as a non-profit, diminish their property rights, and prevent them from participating in Urban Renewal projects. Their attempted resignation was rejected due to The Home’s location in the Mill Street-North Clover Street Historic District, which had already been listed on the National Register of Historic Places earlier that year. At the time, there was an effort to use historical preservation to fight the encroaching of urban renewal projects. Still, in the case of The Vassar Home for Aged Men, they felt misled by what the protection would mean for them and how their organization functioned.  In 1974, the Home merged with the nearby Old Ladies Home, fully vacating the premises in 1975 with the creation of the Vassar-Warner Home, which currently serves elderly of all genders without any religious restrictions.

9 Vassar Street, Cunneen-Hackett Website

Brothers Institute was completed by 1882 on the grounds of the Vassar Brewery which had been destroyed in an 1811 fire. With a focus on literature, arts, and science, the original goal of the John Guy and Mathew Vassar Junior was to provide space for the Poughkeepsie Literary Club and Poughkeepsie Society of Natural Sciences. Complete with museums, an auditorium, and a library, the Institute hosted a long-standing lecture series, local organization meetings and community theater productions. Like the Home for Aged Men, the Institute was also entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 over fear that Urban Renewal, which planned to demolish the area, would prevent the Institute from providing its services to the community. The area surrounding that section of Vassar Street was planned to be redeveloped for public housing, but while that plan came to fruition for some neighboring districts, the Institute and Home were protected because of their preservation status. The brick building is Victorian-style and was designed by J.A. Wood, who was also the architect of the nearby Bardavon theater.

Unfortunately, as the years went on, interest in public lectures waned, and the building itself fell somewhat into disrepair due to outdated facilities and appliances. When the property was sold to the Cunneen-Hackett Center in 1977, the organization took advantage of the pre-existing blueprint to revitalize its original purpose and continued using the auditorium, studios, and gallery spaces.

Sketch of the Vassar Institute, 1880s, sketch from the National Register of Historic Places

The recognition of both buildings as historically significant gestures to the impact of the Vassar family on the city of Poughkeepsie beyond the college, particularly through the philanthropic efforts of Mathew Vassar’s nephews. However, the Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center filled that role by continuing to provide support for local arts and culture. In the 1990s, the center provided free studio space for Hudson Valley artists and non-profits by using ticket sales to support the organization. Unfortunately, in 2003 the organization faced potential closure as the departure of one renting organization, Scenic Hudson, left them scrambling for the funds.

It seems the center has had to balance its mission of being solely an arts center with financial demands. Every year they hold a magnolia party to raise funds, honoring the flowering tree on the property that allegedly adorned Abraham Lincoln’s coffin. Notably, in 2011, the buildings were even investigated by a paranormal YouTube series, “Ghost Detectives,” due to reports of supernatural apparitions. Today, the organization houses several artists and has officers of counselors and other businesses. They host events ranging from open studios to children’s theater to candidate forums, often collaborating with other organizations. According to its mission statement, Cunnenn-Hackett functions not only to provide the arts for the community but also to steward the preservation of the two buildings it inhabits.

The Vassar brothers instituted numerous social organizations beyond the Home and the Institute, but one can view the Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center as continuing their legacy of providing art, culture, and community to the people of Poughkeepsie. As the downtown area evolved over the years and was even threatened with demolition, 9 and 12 Vassar Street have continued to provide support for the arts and civic projects. While there has been a discussion of Poughkeepsie’s potential to be the next Beacon or Kingston in terms of being a mecca for the arts, the Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center has fostered a strong local arts scene for almost half a century.

Getting there:

The Arts Center is a 10-minute walk from the Poughkeepsie Train station or a short walk from the Main Street E & Columbus Drive bus stop served by the D, A, and E lines.

To learn more:

National Register of Historic Places. “Vassar Institute.” National Parks Service, listed January 20, 1972.

National Register of Historic Places. “Vassar Home for Aged Men.” National Park Service, listed April 13, 1972.

History | Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center,” accessed October 29, 2023.

“A Distinguished History.” Vassar Warner Home, accessed November 1, 2023.

Miscellany News and Poughkeepsie Journal Archives.

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