The 2003 opening of the contemporary art museum Dia:Beacon is often credited with transforming the city of Beacon, New York from a place people fled in the 1970s and 1980s to a pilgrimage destination for artists and art-lovers from across the globe.
Dia:Beacon is housed in a former Nabisco box-printing facility, and there’s no doubt that this museum, which attracts more than 70,000 visitors annually, has brought new life to a city that had its heyday in the 19th century as a national hat-making center. On weekends, the restaurants and shops of Main Street are filled with visitors still wearing their museum admission stickers. But the revitalization of Beacon was actually well underway before the arrival of Dia.
When developer Ron Sauer arrived in Beacon in the mid-1980s, he discovered a Main Street that looked “like a war zone,” with buildings boarded up with plywood and covered in graffiti. But Sauer saw a real opportunity in Beacon, due to its proximity to New York City, location on the Hudson River, and architecture and history.
To him, part of the motivation for investing in Beacon was that “you could see that the architecture was there and there could be beautiful old buildings again.” As he sees it, “Beacon went downhill so fast, people just boarded up the fronts and walked away” and, as a result, every building had enough of the original storefront to restore it.
Sauer believes that one of the secrets of revitalizing downtowns like Beacon is “finding a few believers who are either well-versed in history or are interested in saving architecture.” After he and his wife Ronnie restored several buildings—one of which had a tree growing inside of it—more and more people became aware of his efforts and the opportunities at hand, and they too began buying and restoring properties. And not long after, more antique stores, gift shops, and businesses began to open their doors. Seeing the success of these privately funded preservation projects, the city finally made a critical investment in street lighting and trees.
Dutchess County planner John Clarke credits the transformation of Main Street to “the sweat equity” of Sauer and his wife. When people “walk down a Main Street like Beacon, it feels right,” says Clarke, “It feels like the village that their ancestors walked in, that their relatives grew up in. And you can’t underestimate that.”
Sauer got the momentum going in Beacon, and Dia helped awaken an entirely new interest in the city. Beacon became a destination: a historic city rich with architectural treasures, with a world-class art museum. And the city has a real sense of place that is continually being enhanced by new preservation-minded redevelopment projects. Work is currently being completed to convert several former mill buildings into a hotel complex, as part of the Roundhouse at Beacon Falls project.
As artist and Beacon resident Dan Weiss notes, “Whether it’s an inspiring new development like the Roundhouse property or the rehabbing of an old house, there’s a sense of pride that happens with reusing buildings that doesn’t happen when something is knocked down and built new. There’s a sense of history there.”
It is this sense of history that attracts people with innovation, energy, and determination to cities like Beacon and, in doing so, makes these places more attractive to locals and visitors alike.