If the film industry wasn’t already in love with the Hudson Valley, it’s about to be. With construction planned for 2020, a new production center will soon open its doors in the heart of Newburgh.
Once known as the P.S. 6 Liberty Street School, the building at 1 Liberty Street began its life in the Hudson Valley as a grammar school for students in the region. An elegant structure, it was designed by architect Frank Estabrook, a Newburgh designer who created many of the city’s most eye-catching edifices. Since closing its doors after its last class in 1980, however, it remained unoccupied for more than 30 years.
And then Thomas Burr Dodd bought it. Three years ago, the artist and developer, who splits his weeks between Brooklyn and Newburgh, fell in love with the P.S. 6 building. At the time, the space was abandoned, tired, and in need of more than a little TLC. In other words, it was exactly in Dodd’s wheelhouse.
“All my buildings I bought vacant and in really sad shape,” he admits. “I’m very attracted to detail and I fell in love with these buildings. I can’t walk by old buildings without stopping in my tracks and wanting to photograph them.”
While Liberty Street School is his current project, it is far from Dodd’s only purchase in Newburgh. He began with 244 Liberty Street down the road after latching onto the three-story brick edifice’s wraparound porch and ample natural lighting. Since then, he’s acquired two residential properties on Grand Street and another on South William Street for renovation. Through his development company RipRap LLC, which he co-owns with his wife Pearl Son-Dodd, a former designer at Ralph Lauren, he already overhauled a two-story property on Carson Avenue into artists apartments and continues to chip away at a number of historic commercial structures in town.
With such a significant presence in Newburgh’s development scene, Dodd’s self-taught renovation roots come as something of a surprise. Yet for the Savannah College of Art and Design grad, his entry into the world of breaking down and building up was a natural, albeit slightly unexpected one. When he bought his first home, an artist loft in Fort Greene that was once a horse stable built in 1888, he fell in love not just with the novelty of owning his own property, but also with the time-intensive process of restoring it to its former glory. After completing work on his own home and opening Brooklyn Fire Proof, a hybrid gallery with sound stages and workspaces in Brooklyn, he knew he found his passion in the form of historic preservation.
So, when he and his wife journeyed to Newburgh on a day trip to visit the Ann Street Gallery, Dodd couldn’t help but notice the wealth of vintage buildings in the city. Since then, he’s made it his mission to slowly but surely contribute meaningful change in the form of affordable residences, artists’ spaces, historic preservation, and jobs. In addition to revitalizing buildings in town, he also runs Navigating Newburgh, a community meeting and blog series designed to promote entrepreneurialism and home ownership in the city.
With the Liberty Street School, he embarks on his most significant entrepreneurial endeavor in Orange County to date.
Although Dodd purchased 1 Liberty Street at the end of 2016, he spent the next year and a half filling out paperwork to acquire a variance from Newburgh. Now, with his development approval in hand, he’s hard at work to restore the building to its former glory while preserving the Hudson Valley heritage housed within its walls. He’s already received approval for historic tax credits and is currently in the process of applying for grants to fund such an impactful, multi-tiered development.
“This is a new ball game for me,” Dodd, who serves as president of the Newburgh Preservation Association, admits. “I’m not that familiar with this kind of largescale project.”
If that’s the case, he’s doing an admirable job of securing funding for revitalization. In December, he won $955,000 for the estimated overall $3.1 million construction in the form of two state grants from Empire State Development. If all goes well, he and RipRap LLC will acquire enough funding to kickstart development in 2020.
As per Dodd’s vision, the Liberty Street School will become a one-stop shop for film crews in and around the Hudson Valley. Inside, the renamed P.S.6 Center for Film and Television will house three soundproofed sound stages along with space for photography, recording, shooting, and video production. The sound stages will move into the former gym on the third floor, while the classrooms on the first and second floors will transform into filming and office spaces for crews.
“One of the things that crews need is that you make their life easier,” Dodd explains. “We’ll be facilitators to make sure their productions have a home base.”
In response to the stipulations for the grants to which Dodd is applying, he plans to hire as many local, minority-, and women-owned construction businesses as possible. He will oversee the preservation and overall vision for the space, which includes prioritizing existing details like still-standing slate chalkboards. Even some of the deterioration may be preserved via encapsulation in resin to create one-of-a-kind backdrops for film crews.
While Dodd’s excitement for the project lies partly in his passion for historical preservation, it also has largely to do with his love for Newburgh as a whole. He notes that just as the development will provide jobs for locals during the construction period, its completion will draw a wealth of creative opportunity to the Hudson Valley at large.
“One of the things that’s really great about film is it creates a lot of jobs. It’s one of the industries that’s really growing right now,” he says. With P.S.6, “we’re bringing a lot of commercial activity to a corner that really needs it. This is about everybody.”
As Dodd pushes his efforts into P.S.6 through 2020, he continues to chip away on his other projects throughout Newburgh as well. Little by little, he plans to begin development on a historic, mixed-use edifice on Chambers Street and a nearly 9,000-square-foot warehouse on Clark Street.
And then there’s 326 Liberty Street, Dodd’s passion project and perhaps his greatest challenge to date. Once known as Weigand’s Tavern, the 1830s watering hole has stood the test of time despite being constructed largely of wood. It’s located next to the Old Town Cemetery and is, as Dodd affectionately declares it, “a wreck.”
“It’s been a very expensive project but it’s near and dear to my heart,” he says. Although construction has been slow-going, thanks to weather- and crime-related delays, the development he began in 2017 made significant headway when Dodd and his team got water running on the property.
“We hope to start rebuilding the basement as soon as the weather breaks,” he says, adding that he looks forward to preserving the joinery and the charming character of the tavern’s bitty rooms. If Dodd gets his way, the one-time tavern might find a new life as a gallery, a fitting full-circle turn of events for the man who found himself in Newburgh in search of that very attraction in the first place.
“Once it’s done it’s going to be great,” he says.