by Shannon Butler

There is no escaping the fact that the streets of Poughkeepsie have changed over the past century, especially in the areas encircled by the arterial. Main and Market streets have lost some of their character and also gained new perspectives (for better or worse). In some cases, older buildings come back to life in the form of inspiration for newer buildings, as is the case with our focus for this week, the old County Court House.

Built in 1809, the court house that we are referring to was not the first in the area. The first one was built in 1720 and would go on to host the state’s committee for ratifying the Constitution. When that building burned down in 1806, this court house on the southwest corner of Main and Market Streets was built. In the process of building a new court house, it was decided that part of the walls of the earlier building could be incorporated as well as the two dungeons in the basement. Sheriff John Forbus wrote in 1806 “the walls being uninjured will be fully competent to rebuild upon. This will save the county at least from five to six thousand dollars.” One can see the old stone walls in the photograph of the dungeon to the right. Another interesting aspect of the basement was that a young Matthew Vassar (who went on to form Vassar College) operated a brewery and oyster bar there, perfect for hungry lawyers who needed a bite between cases.

Just south of the courthouse was where the lawyers could easily be found if one needed a proper representative. A row of buildings known as Lawyer’s Row was the central hub for all your needs to make a proper defense in court, including some top notch lawyers and a hair salon to get cleaned up before trial. This row of buildings was demolished in 1885 and is now the site of the Dutchess County Office building. The court house itself served its purpose however by the 20th century it was time for a bigger and more modernized space. In 1903 local architect William J. Beardsley designed the newer Classical Revival style courthouse that now stands. The building has since been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The old court house has not been forgotten however, thanks in part to 32nd President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who you’ll remember from a previous blog post was a true history nerd). Roosevelt found a way to pay tribute to the old building when Poughkeepsie needed a new post office. He and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau decided that the Poughkeepsie Post Office should be designed in the Dutch style, built of fieldstone, and resemble the old court house. You can see the Palladian style windows and the center cupola on the roof look very similar to the old court house. Architect Eric Kebbon began working on the plans but altered them to build the structure using granite which FDR turned down, he wanted stone. After the president laid the cornerstone in 1937 it took 500 workers two years to complete the 63,000-square foot building (much larger than the old court house had been). Today, the Post Office is a piece of history in itself, in more ways than one.