Sunday, February 26, 2012

New Hope for Former Babcock-Shattuck House / Jewish War Veterans' Post

 Syracuse, NY. Former Babcock-Shattuck House / Jewish War Veterans' Post today (top) and ca. 1997 when building was saved from demolition.  Photos: Samuel D. Gruber.

New Hope for Former Babcock-Shattuck House / Jewish War Veterans' Post
by Samuel Gruber

Hopes are high for the development of the long-vacant former Babcock-Shattuck House, which has been listed as a local protected site since 1997 when it was saved from demolition.  After years of failed activity to shift ownership of the property from the inactive not-for-profit housing organization ENIP, which had planned an arts and cultural center in the building, the City of Syracuse took possession of the property and recently sold it to the University Neighborhood Preservation association (UNPA) which plans to develop the property for residential use.  

UNPA is a not-for-profit organization, incorporated in 1991. It's mission is to promote owner-occupancy in the Syracuse University Neighborhood immediately east of Syracuse University and the other educational and medical institutions in University Hill, and to market this neighborhood as a great place to live.

UNPA was high bidder for the property, essentially paying the city slightly more than ENIP paid for the site fourteen years ago.  An UNPA committee (on which I am serving as a community representative) has raised $600,000 for the project  through grants and loans. Building renovation will begin in late spring or summer, when the exterior will be restored.  As reported in the Post-Standard on Dec 11, 2011 (with a gallery of interior photos) prior to the city approving the sale of the building, a project for four market-rate condominium apartments has been put forward.  There is also a possibility of a single occupant use for the structure, or other residential variants.  Now that UNPA owns the building, it will make its plans known in the spring. 

I will be leading a walking tour of the neighborhood in Sunday, March 25 at 1-3 pm which will stop and discuss the history, architecture, urbanism and preservation of the building.  We will also visit the nearby deteriorating Gustav Stickley house on Columbus Avenue (tour is free and leaves from Petit Library on Victoria Place).

In 1997 when I was Chair of the Westcott Street Development Committee of the Westcott East Neighborhood Association, I researched and wrote a building history which was utilized in the designation of the building as a local protected site - effectively halting its demolition. The building was subsequently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The following is extracted from that text.

History: The house at the corner of Westcott Street and East Genesee Street, commonly known as the Jewish War Veterans' Home, was built as a private residence and first mentioned in a the city directory of 1895 as the residence and office of Dr. Archer D. Babcock (1870-1939). Babcock, who became a prominent Syracuse physician and surgeon and founding member of the staff of Crouse-Irving Hospital appears to have occupied the house until 1913. He later served in World War I achieved the rank of Lt. Colonel and returned to head the U.S. Veteran's Bureau in Syracuse.

In 1913, the house was owned by Frank M. Shattuck (1888-1959?), a member of a prominent Syracuse business family, and himself manager of the Syracuse Schrafft's confectionery stores for forty years. In 1925, the house was listed as the residence of Harry H. Elmer (1868-1933), vice-president of the Britton Corp. and treasurer and manager of Globe Malleable Iron and Steel Co. Elmer, as general manager of Haines automobile company, was known as the inventor of a heavy oil type engine which was to revolutionize automobile and tractor and design, allegedly allowing 250-300 miles to the gallon. Plans were being made to produce the engine when Elmer died in 1933, at which work stopped.

In 1930, the house was occupied by John Johnson, and from 1931-1933 it is known to have been the 16th-17th Ward Republican Club. The caretakers of the house were Mr. and Mrs. Martin, and the widowed Mrs. Martin was still living there when the building was sold in 1947 (reportedly for $6,000) to became the home of Onondaga Post No. 131 of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America (JWV). The JWV, which had previously rented space on Cedar Street, engaged in fund raising drive to collect the $30,000 needed for the rehabilitation of the building until at least 1953, when a newspaper article reported restoration work in progress. Ownership in the property belonged to the 200 East Genesee Street Corporation, which was made of JWV members, and which, according to JWV Executive committee member Seymour Block, leased the building to the JWV for $1.00 a year.

JWV was founded in March 1896 in New York City by Jewish Veterans of the Civil War. At that time the organization was called the Hebrew Union War Veterans. In Syracuse, the organization was founded in 1936, and soon became active in protests against the Nazi presence in Syracuse, picketing a Nazi Bund headquarters on East Genesee and a downtown bank which displayed Nazi symbols. The Syracuse JWV became particularly active shortly after World War II, when so many Jewish Veterans returned home.

The JWV occupied the building for more than four decades, finally selling the house and moving to new quarters in DeWitt, in the early 1990s. During that time the building served as a meeting and activity center for the JWV. The Post was an active place. In addition to bingo, which was the first Jewish bingo in the city, meetings and memorial services regularly took place. Downstairs was a members lounge, to the left was a special memorial room with the names of Syracuse area Jewish war dead, which was equipped with a small Ark and even a Torah scroll. Before erecting its own building further east, Congregation Young Israel used these facilities for religious services. On the right hand side was a room with a pool table in back. Upstairs was a big meeting room, and the caretaker's apartment.

Syracuse, NY. Babcock-Shattuck House after a new roof was put on the tower with Syracuse Neighborhood Initiative funds.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (Feb. 2006).

A few of the many prominent local figures long active at Post are attorney Morris B. Swartz (Commander 1948-49); Ephraim Shapiro, former chairman of Onondaga County Legislature (Commander, 1950); former State Assemblyman Hy Miller (Commander, 1953); Burton Lowitz, former supervisor in DeWitt (Commander, 1963); Judge Maurice Schneider (Commander 1967-68) and Jack Schultz, Town Justice in DeWitt (Commander, 1970). To these names could be added many more worthy citizens.

The JWV was always occupied by a caretaker -- Ralph Hoehrl in 1947, William Chase in 1951, John E. Dutcher in 1960, Carl Christian in 1970, Clifford H. Wicks in 1985, and Philip Rice in 1990.

Buy the late 1980s the JWV membership had drastically declined, and only a few dozen of the aging members ever came to meetings. The building was very costly to heat, and needed repairs. The Jewish institutions which had once helped define the neighborhood had all moved further east. The decision was made to sell, and to take space at the Jewish Community Center on Thompson Road, a new hub of Jewish communal activity.

The building was sold in 1989 to a buyer who proposed a group home for the disabled. This project did not happen, and the property was sold again for about $85,000. the new owner proposed opening a restaurant and to further the likelihood of commercial use, the adjacent house was demolished to allow room for parking, and a variance was granted for parking. Nothing, however, came of this plan either, and the building was forfeited to the city for failure to pay property taxes, and then was sold at public auction in June, 1996 for $19,600 to 84 Associates of Buffalo, a subsidiary (?) of Ellicott Development Co. of Buffalo, Buffalo's biggest landlord and a developer for Rite Aid Pharmacies in Syracuse. Earlier in the month (November, 1996) a permit was denied to the developers for the demolition of the building because it is listed in the 1975-76 Study of City Resources as eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places as a significant city resource. 

Syracuse, NY. Babcock-Shattuck  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (Feb. 2006).
Architecture and Urbanism: The former Babcock-Shattuck Mansion, or the Jewish War Veterans' Post 131, was one of the finest residential buildings in East Syracuse, and its intact exterior -- prominently serving as an important reminder of the prosperity that this part of the City once enjoyed. It remains a considerable source of neighborhood civic pride, despite the fact that it has been empty for the past several years. Sited on a small hill overlooking East Genesee Street at Westcott Street, it is one of the most carefully located buildings in the city in regard to vistas, both from within and without. To lose this building would deprive the East Genesee Street neighborhood of its grandest "jewel in the necklace" of grand old homes still standing, and significantly diminish the neighborhood's remaining visual appeal. Since it functions visually and symbolically as the gateway to the Westcott neighborhood business and residential district -- the demolition of this house would a tragic loss, and cause irreparable harm to the architectural and historic integrity of the neighborhood.

Built in the Queen Anne Revival style, the large wood-frame structure sits on a prominent rusticated limestone base. Its many attractive features include a spacious front porch overlooking East Genesee Street; a tower with a well-preserved conical roof and a series of arched windows on its top floor; and an a upper story Palladian window on the East Genesee facade. The rusticated base and many of the other building features relate to the adjacent contemporary house to the south on Westcott Street, creating a strong visual linkage between the two buildings.

The house is a landmark in the true sense of the word. The building is immediately known to whomever it is mentioned. Generations of residents and urban commuters are familiar with its powerful and reassuring mass and silhouette at Westcott and East Genesee. Built at a time when East Syracuse was opening up for intensive residential use, this grand house was a welcoming vision for the turn-of-the-century professional class that began to settle the area in great numbers at the time. The city atlases of 1892, 1904 and 1924 show how quickly this area (Ward 14) developed at the time, and how central a role the Babcock-Shattuck house played. In its second life as a public building, the building's uses reflect the demographic changes of the neighborhood. Serving shortly as a local Republican Club (but left vacant in the depression 1930s) the building, like much of the neighborhood took on a Jewish identity in the post World War II years. At that many Jews had moved east to the area from area of Adams and Townsend Streets. Two blocks away was the Jewish Community Center, across the street was Congregation Anshe Sfard, and Congregation Young Israel was located at 2200 East Genesee.

Built on part of a larger lot owned by W.M. Knapp, the Babcock house was designed with great sensitivity to its site, and continues to serve as a remarkable and essential visual anchor to the entire neighborhood. Set on a slight hill overlooking East Genesee and Westcott Street, the building hugs the corner of the lot, with a circular corner turret accenting the location, the turret pointing like a finger downtown along the main thoroughfare -- East Genesee. Because of the angle at which East Genesee Street approaches Westcott from the west two full sides of the building are fully visible to eastward traffic from a distance. The turret is a beacon on East Genesee beckoning traffic, while the soft curve of the tower's round plan, which rises high from ground level, serves to visually ease traffic into Westcott Street. Thus, approaching Westcott Street from the west or north, the house serves as grand and inviting introduction into an entire neighborhood rich in history and fine family homes. Indeed, several houses by the noted architect Ward Wellington Ward are just a few lots south towards Harvard Street, and the entire block of house between East Genesee and Harvard, though still somewhat dilapidated, contains dozens of fine houses without a single empty lot. The entire street, were it to be nominated, would probably qualify for National Register listing.


  1. This was as beautifully written article. It is evident that you have done extensive research on this stunning piece of Syracusian architecture. It is very exciting to see this home is going to be returned to its former glory and given a new lot in life.

  2. I read your article with great interest. During the time that John E. Dutcher was caretaker of this house I used to go and stay with him and his wife Nieta who were my aunt and uncle. I would have been 13 at the time (it seemed that I was younger). I remember very well every nook and cranny of that beautiful house. I also remember shining those huge refrigerators and stoves upstairs. The meeting room was indeed huge, and a wonderful place for a young girl to sing. There was an extensive library that interested me greatly. It's so sad to see it in such disrepair. My Aunt took such great pride in making everything so nice.