Why One Couple Took a Chance on a Decrepit Building in Newburgh, New York
From our interview with Cian Hamill and Mian Ye:
Cian: When Mian and I started dating about four years ago, we connected over many things—yes, our names do rhyme—but our shared professional background was also one of them. I’m originally from Dublin, Ireland, and since I moved to New York about 11 years ago, I’ve worked in the real estate development world, typically on large-scale urban infill projects.
Mian: I’m originally from the Washington, D.C., area and I’ve been in New York for over 13 years. I run my own architectural design studio in Manhattan.
Cian: We really wanted to do a project together, and also to find a weekend escape outside of New York City. We knew we wanted to be somewhere in the Hudson Valley, so we started our search all the way north, in the town of Hudson, New York, and worked our way down the river. We were really intrigued by Newburgh. It has an incredible variety of architectural styles within a very small footprint—Federal style, Greek Revival, Italianate, Carpenter Gothic, Queen Anne, High Victorian, Second Empire—and we love that. It’s like a movie set.
Mian: Newburgh City has a very strict policy and guidance on historic architecture in the East End Historic District—specifying how you repoint the brick and the process for removing exterior paint, even approving paint colors for the exterior cornice. There’s a very strong sense of revival in the city and an excitement about bringing these buildings back to life.
A lot of the houses are dilapidated and haven’t been restored, but that means they’ve been frozen in time. We purchased this property at an auction, and we weren’t able to get inside until afterward.
Cian: It was immediately apparent that the building was not habitable. It had been badly vandalized. There was no plumbing, no electrical. We were relieved to find that there were four intact floors, but it was in very poor condition. You could make out raccoon footprints on the banisters. It’s probably a good thing we didn’t see the condition of the house before we bid on it.
We wanted to find out who the original architect was, but unfortunately that seems to be lost to history. We do know that it was built in the late 1890s.
Mian: Based on our investigation, it seems like it was built as four individual apartments. Much of the original stair was intact, and because of that you could tell that it was divided into multiple units. It looked like it was renovated in the 1970s—you could see these old linoleum floors and popcorn ceilings—but it hadn’t been restored or updated since then.
Cian: We were pleased to discover that it was already divided into four apartments. At that point we knew we would keep one for ourselves and rent [out] the other three. The one major change we made to the floor plans was relocating the kitchens next to the living room. We moved the bedrooms to the rear, with the kitchen and dining room next to the living room. We felt that would really improve the flow of the apartments.
Our guiding principle was to restore as many of the historical details as we could find. And where historical details couldn’t be found, we wanted to replicate them as accurately as we could afford to. We worked with an excellent local contractor named A.J. Dederick, who grew up in Newburgh. He’s intimately familiar with the architecture and history of the city, and he was able to make recommendations as to what was cost-efficient and also historically accurate.
Mian: Originally, we contemplated building out an archway between the kitchen and living room in each unit, which was a common architectural detail of that era, but because of budget constraints, we would have been satisfied with a simple square opening. To our surprise, when we removed that part of the wall in one apartment, we exposed an original archway from the late 1890s. Segments of the old wallpaper were still intact under the drywall. It was very exciting to see.
Sadly, none of the original hardwood floors survived under the linoleum; we installed an engineered French oak flooring. But we did find original tin ceilings on two levels. The third-floor ceiling was in relatively good condition, minus some wear and tear. The tin ceiling below that was in very poor condition, but we were able to restore it to almost brand new.
Other historical details we were able to save include the original staircase, original interior trim work—door surrounds, window surrounds, baseboards, and really beautiful cornices and crown moldings. There were also a couple of ceiling medallions that were still in place, one of which is in the hallway as you enter the front door.
A lot of the original stair spindles were missing, and the newel post in the lobby was just an eight-by-eight wooden post. There’s an amazing architectural salvage store in Newburgh called Hudson Valley House Parts, where we were able to find a replacement newel post from the same era. We also replaced the single entry door that had been there for decades with a salvaged double door from 1910 that we stripped and painted.
Parts of the exterior cornice were rotting or missing, but we were able to completely restore it. Stripping and repointing the brick was a very large undertaking, but we thought that the exposed brick was beautiful and also probably what the original architect intended, and that was important to us.
Cian: One of the proudest aspects of the project for both of us was bringing the building back to life and restoring it to its former glory. This was our first project together, and we really wanted to combine our skill sets and our experience to do something special. We went into this not with a clear delineation of roles, but with a desire to each learn more about what the other does. It was important for us to include each other in every decision.
Mian was exposed to the development and financing side of things, while I got more familiar with the design-and-architecture aspect. We joke now that it’s a wonder our relationship survived during this process—especially with so much of it happening during a pandemic—but I think we actually grew closer.
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