P O U G H K E E P S I E
POUGHKEEPSIE is a small city on the Hudson approximately 75 miles north of New York City. Perhaps best known as home to Vassar College, it was once the focus of international attention as host of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association's annual regatta, which was held in Poughkeepsie for more than 50 years. In 1950, the regatta moved to Marietta, Ohio.
THE IRA Regatta was just one of Poughkeepsie's many little claims to fame. During the American Revolution it was New York's state capital. In addition to Vassar, it is also home to Marist College, and to the Culinary Institute of America (actually just across the border in Hyde Park). Franklin Roosevelt's father, James, a long-time resident of Poughkeepsie before he moved to neighboring Hyde Park, was nicknamed "Poughkeepsie Jimmy."
POUGHKEEPSIE was also home for a brief period early in this century to a FIAT factory. FIAT is known today as the monolithic Italian equivalent to General Motors. Around 1909, a few years after the Maxwell plant opened at Tarrytown, the company built an automobile factory at Poughkeepsie. After FIAT left, around ten years later, Western Publishing moved into the plant. In the 1930's, the buildings were expanded and the plant's attractive brick walls were stuccoed-over and redone in an art-deco motif.
WESTERN PUBLISHING left in the 1980's. Following a brief stint as the "Mid Hudson Business Park" and then of use by Marist College, the building was abandoned. Several years of limbo were followed by a proposal to level the plant and in its place open Dutchess County's second Wal-Mart.
PROTESTS were answered by the the project chairman's proclamation that the former FIAT plant was "just another factory behind that nice facade." Demolition began on the newer additions, but was suddenly halted before it reached the historic part of the structure.
I PHOTOGRAPHED the old building on a late August afternoon in 1998. The stay of execution was then in its second year, and it seemed as though the old place might evade destruction after all. But when I next drove down US 9, the FIAT factory had been reduced to several large piles of rubble. The site now boasts a Staples office supply store modeled in the image of its predecessor, a Home Depot, Starbuck's, McDonald's, and with lots of space still unoccupied, there's room for more.
PERHAPS Poughkeepsie's greatest building is the old Luckey Platt department store. Like many old department stores, Luckey's is a complex of several buildings put up as the store expanded over the years. Most prominent is a five-story classically-inspired building on the corner of Main and Academy streets.
LUCKEY'S was in every sense a Poughkeepsie institution. But when the malls opened, the store's business waned. In a desperate attempt to draw shoppers downtown, the city leveled hundreds of nearby buildings to create parking lots, and two blocks of Main Street were closed to traffic and turned into the "Main Mall."
Luckey's closed anyway around 1980, as did many other businesses on Main Street. In the early 1990s, when space was running short at the Dutchess County courthouse a block away, the county briefly considered rehabilitating the former department store for court space. Although a proposed renovation of Luckey's would have cost significantly less, the Legislature opted to tear-down occupied buildings a block away and build a new facility, costing more tax money, displacing businesses that contributed to the tax roles, and leaving empty the huge old store on Main Street.
In 1998 the city of Poughkeepsie ordered Luckey's owners to re-roof the building in order to protect its rapidly-deteriorating interior. Snow-fencing was erected on the sidewalk surrounding the store. Today the building still sits, rotting away, inching closer every minute to the wrecking ball. Windows on upper floors have been left open to the elements, as if to invite a predictable end. If demolition does come it will probably do so at the expense of the cash-strapped city. It's a predictable, if ugly, cycle.
UPDATE: After several proposals came and went, a Queens, NY developer purchased the Luckey Platt buildings in 2004 and began major reconstruction work. The former department store will house commercial space at street level and residential space above. Though extensively rebuilt, the buildings retain their historic facades.
© T.E. Rinaldi, 2006