by Shannon Butler
This week in our Local History Blog we are continuing in a series of articles that will look at buildings that once stood in Poughkeepsie. Today we are going to take a look at two buildings that were located in separate parts of the city but were connected by name, the Eastman Business College and the Eastman Mansion. There are most likely very few people still living who would remember the former but the latter was still standing as late as the 1960s.
Poughkeepsie was known for being the place to receive a fine education in the early 20th century. There were several schools in the area that focused on everything from liberal arts, to nursing, and in the case of the Eastman College, business. Harvey G. Eastman had been an educator all of his life. Beginning in his home county of Oneida, making his way out west in the years before the Civil War, and then coming back to New York in 1859 to begin a small business school here in Poughkeepsie. The story goes, that Eastman began with one student and rented a small room for 75 cents a week. A year later, he had more students and moved to a congregational church at Mill and Vassar Street. The school was soon bursting with students and the catalog for classes was also expanding. Harvey began buying up other buildings around the city to add more classrooms to the school. The rules, as Eastman put it, were simple, “Don’t drink, don’t chew (meaning tobacco), don’t smoke, don’t swear, don’t deceive, and don’t read novels” (that last one is amusing).
There were classes on things like writing skills, banking, bookkeeping, and insurance just to name a few. They even had a baseball team and a brass band. Eastman was energetic and magnetic and his advertising of the school attracted students from all over the world. By the late 1860s, he was a wealthy man. He purchased a house and 27 acres of land along the corner of Market and Montgomery Streets where he spent an additional $200,000 to improve the land and the house. He also built 10 large townhouses on the south end of his park, now known as Eastman Terrace (he had planned to build 24 but the first 10 proved too difficult to sell). He gave the city the famous Soldiers Fountain which is located right near the entrance of his home and park. By 1871, Eastman found time to serve as the Mayor of Poughkeepsie until 1874, and during that time, he introduced proper lighting and better water systems to the city. He was also the one who envisioned the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge. Sadly, part way into serving another term as Mayor, on July 15th 1878, Eastman died rather suddenly in Denver Colorado, while trying to recover from tuberculosis; he was only 45 years old. His last words, which can be found on his headstone at the Poughkeepsie Rural cemetery were, “I have so tried to live as to do no man an injustice.”
His brother-in-law, Mr. Ezra White took over the school for a while before Professor Clement Gaines took over in the 1880s (he also married Eastman’s widow, Mary Minerva Eastman) and the school would continue to grow. In 1883, the school on the corner of Mill and Washington streets was constructed, and that is the one seen in every postcard for the school. During its height, the school had nearly 2000 students between its main campus in Poughkeepsie, and another in New York City. The school had its own bank, insurance company, and printed its own money to be used within the school. By 1911, over 50,000 men and women (who were allowed entry by the turn of the 20th century) had graduated. Sadly, by the great depression, the school was suffering. The Poughkeepsie campus had been all but abandoned by 1930 and the New York campus shut down in June of 1933. It was decided that the old college building in Poughkeepsie should be demolished which took place in 1932. All that remains are the images and scattered books and papers left behind by former students.
As for Eastman’s mansion, in its day, it received attention as a fine example of an Italian Villa in America, and had “several charming rooms, a picture gallery, and a grand salon which can be made very stately in effect when the owner chooses.” The house appears to have served as a school briefly before being turned into the Public Works Building for the city. Sadly, it suffered a fire, and eventually the Public works had outgrown the space. The house was torn down in the 1960s to make way for the YMCA that now sits in its place and is likewise rotting away. The row of buildings known as Eastman Terrace (which almost destroyed Eastman financially) still stand to this day, looking over what’s left of the grand park that Eastman left for us to enjoy.
For more information on the Eastman College, feel free to email us here in the Local History Room!