As the east side of West Street across from Warden Heights is being transformed into a giant building site, many Newburghers have been sharing their memories of what once occupied “the woods.” The acres behind today’s Newburgh Free Academy have been explored through the centuries by hunters and foragers, by potential builders and land developers, by children stalking out adventures, and by patients trying to recover from tuberculosis.
This high ground was known by the long-forgotten name of Limestone Hill and for obvious reasons. West Newburgh has a natural limestone shelf that runs along West Street from South Street all the way to Route 84. The Newburgh/Route 9W exit to and from Route 84 is blasted through that same limestone as is evident when one takes that turn. There is a spring-fed pond on Limestone Hill (up beyond the crest of North Plank Road extension) and it once fed the Highland Brewing Company run by Charles Leicht. That long closed brick brewery can still be seen beside Kol Yisrael off North Street. Water filtered through limestone was fresh and clear and made an excellent beer.
The land along West Street north of South Street was an undeveloped woodland through the 19th century. County Historian, Johanna Yaun, just shared on Instagram the little-known fact that plans were drawn up in the 1850’s for a beautiful home to be built on that high ground. A New York City resident, Mr. Walker Fowler, had commissioned Newburgh architect Calvert Vaux to design a home for him up in the fresh air on the top of Limestone Hill. It would have included an observatory tower to look out at the Hudson Valley. But It was never built and the architect believed that his client was thinking of finding a more coveted building site closer to the river. The unbuilt house plan can be found as “Design #15” in the classic 1857 book by Mr. Vaux, Villa and Cottage Architecture.
Limestone Hill remained a woodland until the beginning of the 20th century when it was purchased by Benjamin B. Odell (owner of the Newburgh trolley system and once Governor of New York) and developed in 1910 into a hospital for tuberculosis patients. His son Arthur died of TB and he invested in a local treatment center in Arthur’s memory. It was called Odell Memorial Sanitorium and the streets that make up today’s Warden Heights neighborhood carry the names forward: Odell Street and Memorial Drive. Tuberculosis was so virulent then that Benjamin Odell had a tent colony built immediately so local patients had a temporary facility to begin treatment. The sanitorium was deliberately built on high ground so treatment could include lots of time out on screened porches in fresh air, the best-known treatment at the time for healing damaged lungs. Odell Sanitorium consisted of two patient buildings, a doctor’s house, office and other utility buildings.
The one patient residence - the Incipient Pavilion - remained in operation beyond its use as a hospital. It became a radiology clinic where Newburghers were sent for chest X-rays through the 1960s. East and below Odell Sanitorium on the flatter land along Fullerton Avenue was the Comfort Dairy Farm. The Newburgh School District bought the Comfort Farm in 1925 to begin construction of its new high school, today’s NFA.
In recent decades, the portion of the old woods along Gidney Avenue at the intersection of West Street was graded and a big soccer field was constructed. Up along the top of the hill, one old Odell Sanitorium building remained on the property and was, until this recent project began, used for storage by the Newburgh school district which had bought up the rest of the woods for future growth. In the early 1970s there were serious plans to move the Newburgh Free Library from its overcrowded 1876 brick building at 100 Grand Street to a big new library to be built in the woods of West Street. The current library was designed and built instead.
The woods remained as a vista to watch out the windows while daydreaming in high school classes and as a botany and ecology lab for students under the direction of biology teacher, Roland Barrett.
This month, the Newburgh Enlarged City School District has begun clearing Limestone Hill for the construction of a new Career and Technical Education Academy. Having such a vocational school was a promise made through the years for Newburgh students who wanted the types of programs offered by BOCES. Now they will be educated for technical careers with all the right classes and internship experiences to enter trades right from high school.