By Joseph McMahon, Environmental Studies, Class of 2024.
Looks can be deceiving. From the outside of 486 Main Street, Poughkeepsie’s historical Trolley Barn has an industrial aesthetic with large glass garage doors, showcasing a vast open space supported by pillars. Yet, the Trolley Barn subverts this aesthetic, exemplifying a multifaceted legacy of use and urbanization in Poughkeepsie, carrying the history and uplifting the voices of the community it has served. Throughout its many incarnations in the city, the Trolley Barn has continuously adapted through changing social structures, reshaping its impact on the public memory and livelihood of the residents.
A brief history of Poughkeepsie is necessary to discuss the evolving use of the Trolley Barn. Urban transportation highlights the ties between urban renewal and the Trolley Barn. The city was once the center of Hudson River fur traffic. This location, in conjunction with the proximity to the Catskill Mountains, allowed the economy to flourish through tourism and industry, which in turn encouraged urbanization and the Trolley Barn. While horses originally drew the trolleys throughout town, the owner and entrepreneur James William Hinkley soon decided to update the operations by electrifying the rails, renovating the building, and connecting more of the city on his lines.
After Hinkley’s death, the business was left to his sons. After a tragic fire, the Trolley Barn was rebuilt. Between 1874 and 1935, the Trolley Barn ran a fleet of electric and horse-powered streetcars along Main Street to the Hudson River, Vassar College, and Wappingers Falls. When the city switched to buses for public transportation, the building necessitated further renovations in line with the new service. Increasingly losing money due to the increase of automobiles and associated infrastructure, the streetcars stopped running in 1935. The private bus system lasted until around 1955, when the Hinkley family sold the barn to a local automotive parts store owner, who further renovate the building.
The Mid-Hudson bridge opened in 1930, as first bridge to cross the Hudson River north of New York City. As a result, Poughkeepsie served as a hub of car traffic heading to the Catskills and trucks from Ulster County bound for New York City. This increasing vehicular traffic encouraged the construction of arterials designed to improve the flow. Poughkeepsie suffered from urban renewal and ultimately served largely as transit point for travelers heading to other destinations, hurting the once-thriving local Poughkeepsie economy. In a sense, the arterials emphasized automotive transportation for outsiders to travel through the city as quickly as possible. The Trolley Barn then served as an automotive store, another new urban function.
Serving as places of community, cities create public memory and reflect local history. With Poughkeepsie shifting towards an automotive focus, the old Trolley Barn again shifted hands. In 1994, Alamo Transportation Services Company converted the building to a warehouse. The property shifted ownership again in 2004, when investors purchased the site. New business ventures included a restaurant and a boxing gym, but both would ultimately fail.
Between 2013 and 2015, the site piqued the interest of the businessman Roy Budnik, who had purchased another building for Fall-Kill Creative Works, formerly Mid-Hudson Heritage Center, a nonprofit focused on revitalizing the art scene and facilitating greater cultural exchange. Budnik purchased the old Trolley Barn in 2015. With the help of Fall-Kill creative works, members surveyed residents about the building’s best usage: an art space for youth of different cultures. Budnik would then offer the building to Hudson River Housing, a non-profit focused on creating safe and affordable housing. When HVH and the city secured grants for building renovations, the Trolley Barn became a focus of community effort toward an arts center in fall 2017.
With these new renovations and improvements, the Trolley Barn has continued to evolve and support the community’s needs. Allying with The Art Effect, a merger of several Poughkeepsie art-focused nonprofits, including the nearby Barrett Art Center, the Trolley Barn became a cultural center for artists and curators, exhibiting works and holding classes in the space. Their core mission was to train young leaders to catalyze the community through the arts and revitalize downtown Poughkeepsie. The Trolley Barn appeals to the power young artists can have on their community with their unique voice and perspectives. Along with the Art Effect, the organization has served over 2,000 students and provided outreach to thousands of other citizens through events, exhibitions, and their website. Initiatives such as the Youth Arts Empowerment Zone and the recent PKX festival aim to renew Main Street as an area for the arts to flourish. Poughkeepsie seeks to become a creative city occupied by talented, often historically underrepresented artists.
The Trolley Barn now funds and hosts a variety of professional artists to teach and exhibit their art, such as their guest curator program that helps redesign the site. To date, the Trolley Barn has just wrapped up its teen photography exhibition and is currently showcasing their “Quiet As It’s Kept” exhibit of “Contemporary Black art that explores the depths of Black expression, translating its complex aesthetic dialect and demonstrating that Black art is as unique as Black people.” The glass, previously described as industrial, is now an intentional display case for youth interested in art. The large open floor plan works to create, perform, and curate art. Through a history of urbanization, the Trolley Barn continues to serve the people, telling the stories of those within its walls.
489 Main St, Poughkeepsie, NY 12601
To learning more:
“Home.” Trolley Barn Gallery RSS. Accessed October 12, 2023. https://trolleybarn.org/.
“Visit the Trolley Barn Gallery.” The Art Effect, April 19, 2022. https://thearteffect.org/get-involved/visit-the-trolley-barn-gallery/.
Sucato, Sabrina. “Poughkeepsie’s Historic Trolley Barn Becomes a Downtown Art Hub.” Hudson Valley Magazine, May 16, 2023. https://hvmag.com/things-to-do/poughkeepsies-historic-trolley-barn-goes-from-horse-drawn-carriages-to-downtown-art-hub/.
Mahoney, Brian K. “The Arts Lead Poughkeepsie’s Transformation.” Chronogram Magazine, February 7, 2019. https://www.chronogram.com/hv-towns/poughtential-the-arts-lead-poughkeepsies-transformation-7452825