Poughkeepsie’s Historic Trolley Barn Becomes a Downtown Art Hub

Originally home to the city’s trolley line in the 1870s, the longstanding edifice is now a beautifully renovated multi-use space that opens its arms to the creatives of the Hudson Valley.

Photo by Sabrina Sucato

There’s a trolley barn in Poughkeepsie.

Trolley barn, you ask? The building, which was constructed in 1873 on Main Street, was once a home base for the trolley lines that provided public transportation within the city. Originally drawn by horses, the trolleys of the Poughkeepsie City Horse Railway connected the Hudson River Railroad depot with Smith Street. In 1872, a second line was added, thereby bridging the gap between the riverfront and Vassar College to the east.

As the years passed, the trolley system adapted, electrified, and ultimately discontinued use. Without its multi-wheeled occupants, the building changed hands – and functions – throughout the decades before eventually succumbing to vacancy in the early 2000s.

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Poughkeepsie Trolley Barn
Outside the Poughkeepsie Trolley Barn / Photo by Roy Budnik

The Rise of the Poughkeepsie Trolley Barn

In its heyday, the Poughkeepsie Trolley Barn was an integral hub for comings and goings in the city. With a prime location on north Main Street between Clinton and Cherry Streets, the unit functioned as an indoor parking lot for the horse-led carriages that trekked locals from one corner of the city to another. The lengthy car barn comprised a large part of the interior, while an adjoining stable and feed room offered a sheltered home for the horses.

A popular mode of transportation for locals during the period, the Poughkeepsie railways and the Trolley Barn were purchased by leading Poughkeepsie businessman James William Hinkley in 1892. Hinkley, the newspaper man behind the Poughkeepsie News Press, News Telegraph, and New York Daily Graphic, took over the Poughkeepsie City Horse Railway and extended its purview when he rebranded it as the Poughkeepsie City and Wappingers Falls Electric Railroad Company in 1894.

By that time, however, horse-drawn carriages were no longer the most efficient mode of transport. To update the trolley lines, Hinkley electrified them and added two new loops – a northern one along Parker Avenue and a southern one along Hooker Avenue – to reach a wider range of passengers. At that point, the barn had room for up to 25 trolleys, thanks to a renovation that doubled its size.

After Hinkley’s passing in 1904, the trolley operations passed to his sons. Soon after, tragedy struck when a fire sparked from inside the building’s maintenance shop in 1906. After tearing through the property, the blaze left the roof and the interior of the main building destroyed. Because the surviving walls were weakened as well, the entire property required reconstruction. The original aspects of the trolley barn that survive today date back to the 1906 development.

Poughkeepsie Trolley Barn
The back room of the Poughkeepsie Trolley Barn awaits completion. Photo by Sabrina Sucato

Automobiles and New Owners

The arrival of automobiles in the Hudson Valley signaled the end of an era for local trolley lines. After implementing a number of operational changes to cut costs, the Hinkley family made the decision to close the trolley system in 1935 in order to replace the lines with buses. Less than 20 years after that, the bus routes closed down as well.

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In 1956, the Hinkley family waved goodbye to the trolley barn so that Walter Deising could take the reins. The owner of an automobile parts store on Main Street, Deising renovated the space for the store’s use. In 1994, he passed it along to the Alamo Transportation Services Company, which converted it for dispatching and warehouse storage.

The trolley barn began its true decline in 2004, when the New York City investors who purchased it left it vacant for years. Although a fleeting attempt was made to convert the space into a restaurant and boxing gym, it soon failed, leaving the downtown edifice to slowly wear away in the heart of the city.

Poughkeepsie Trolley Barn Poughkeepsie Trolley Barn
Left to right: the back of the Trolley Barn; the mezzanine overlooking the front room / Photos by Sabrina Sucato

New Life in Poughkeepsie

Then Roy Budnik arrived. A longtime Poughkeepsie resident, Budnik first came across the space in 2013 when he purchased the building next door for Mid-Hudson Heritage Center, a Poughkeepsie-based arts organization now known as Fall Kill Creative Works. As he parked his car on the way to the center’s ceramics studio, he couldn’t help but notice that the trolley barn was empty, time-ravaged, and perpetually for sale.

“I could see the benefit to enlarging the arts and culture offering in the city,” he says. “And, we could use the parking lot.”

After a detailed inspection of the history and layout of the space, Budnik purchased the Poughkeepsie Trolley Barn in 2015. Immediately afterward, he set about clearing the parking lot and opening it up for use by the ceramics studio. When it came to settling on a role for the building itself, however, he wanted to hear the community’s feedback first. To do so, he and the Mid-Hudson Heritage Center hosted a series of vision sessions that were open to locals, then collected 300 surveys off the street. Based upon the information obtained, the group determined that converting the edifice into an art center was the way to go.

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“I wanted to fill the front with glass so it was attractive to people outside and so it honored the history of the building,” Budnik explains, adding that the indoor-outdoor feel was a critical factor in determining the barn’s role within the city. With its central downtown location, the edifice sees a frequent stream of passing cars, not to mention a significant amount of foot traffic along Main Street itself.

Poughkeepsie Trolley Barn
The Art Effect welcomed the Poughkeepsie community for a show at the Trolley Barn in January. Photo by Sabrina Sucato

As the primary business owner, Budnik knew he would not be able to obtain the grant funds the barn required for successful renovation. So he offered the building to Hudson River Housing for the grand old fee of $1, a charge he later waived. Hudson River Housing accepted the deal and, soon after, the City of Poughkeepsie secured a $1,000,000 grant for the renovation of vacant and dilapidated buildings.

And thus the work began. Under the expert eye of Charles Liscom, of Liscom, McCormack, and VanVoorhis, the Trolley Barn entered into a total overhaul period beginning in fall 2017. After gutting and renovating the interior of the front sector and upper apartment of the edifice, the barn opened to the community on January 1, 2019.

A deceptively large location on Main Street, the Trolley Barn sits on approximately two-thirds of an acre. The interior consists of two main segments: the actual trolley barn in the back of the building, which totals about 9,500 square feet, and the front room, which claims 3,700 square feet. Above the front room, a small upper level that is currently fitted as a livable apartment sits at 1,400 square feet. As it currently stands, the front part of the building, including the main room, a mezzanine, and the apartment, is complete and in use, with the larger barn segment slated for future development.

Poughkeepsie Trolley Barn is an arts hub in the city. Photo by Roy Budnik

The Future of the Trolley Barn

The Trolley Barn may be less than a year old, but it’s already a hub for the Poughkeepsie community at large. Since the space’s inaugural event, a Teen Visions art exhibit with The Art Effect, the barn has welcomed Vassar College for its annual Modfest programming and Dutchess Outreach for free food distribution in the winter months. It’s also been a destination for a number of private groups, including birthday parties, lectures, nonprofit meetings, and even a wedding reception.

“It’s become something of a landmark,” Budnik observes. “People are talking about the Trolley Barn.

They are, indeed. Thanks to its close relationship with the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory and Fall Kill Clay Works (formerly Art Centro) next door, the Trolley Barn is part of the transformative wave that’s rushing across the city. While Fall Kill Creative Works helms the makerspaces in the region – its clay studio is at 485 Main Street, the print works are on the second floor of the Underwear Factory at 8 North Cherry Street, and Story Works resides in the Historic Glebe House at 635 Main Street – its collaboration with Hudson River Housing allows for the upcoming creation of the Fall Kill Textile Works in the Trolley Barn. It also incentivizes the extended community to make use of the interior on a long-term basis.

“We have four different dance groups and some theater groups interested in being located there,” Budnik shares. At the moment, he, Fall Kill Creative Works, and Hudson River Housing are in the process of selecting groups for permanent residency. At the same time, they continue to work to secure funding for a build-out of the back room and the basement area, which Budnik mentions could become a theater.

As far as he’s concerned, however, Poughkeepsie is officially on the up and up.

“My work is finished,” he happily declares. “When I first started back in 2010 with Mid-Hudson Heritage Center, I wanted to promote arts and culture for the community. There are now a lot of other galleries opening. The ball is rolling.”

Related: Poughkeepsie’s Abandoned Psychiatric Hospital Is Turning Into a Gargantuan Live-Work-Play Community

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