Sunday, November 20, 2011

Recycling T. Aaron Levy Middle School / Central Tech

Recycling T. Aaron Levy Middle School / Central Tech
by Samuel D. Gruber (all photos copyright Samuel D. Gruber)

When most people think about saving old Syracuse schools, it is Blodgett and the former Central High School that most likely come to mind. PACNY and OHA sponsored a discussion on the fates of these buildings last year.

Much closer to (my) home is the former T. Aaron Levy Middle School on Harvard Place between Fellows and Westmorland Avenues. Built in 1924 as the William Nottingham Junior High School (soon after High School), the building is now serving as the temporary home of the Institute of Technology. As far as I know, plans are still on the books for the Institute to return downtown to new wing adjacent to the old Central High School (Central Tech). That will leave the Harvard Place building empty.

My solution - first thought of last year by my daughter when Nottingham High School senior - is to move the local Food Coop (Syracuse Real Food Cooperative, Inc.) to the school, and develop the school building in a public-private partnership. The ground floor would allow an expanded store, and the upper floors would make fine apartments - or perhaps one wing could be apartments and the other studios.

The Food Coop, now located a ten minute walk away on 618 Kensington Ave., had its plans to expand in the former Hematology / Oncology Center (previously Young Israel Synagogue) on Fellows at East Genesee scotched by neighbors worried about the increase in traffic - by delivery trucks and shoppers. I also thought the price that the Coop was going to pay for the property was rather steep, too, considering that they would have remodel, and then their members would be stuck paying the bill for a long time.

Moving the Food Coop to the former Nottingham/Levy would be a much better solution. The ground floors are already large and airy, there is an adequate parking and loading docks, and the neighbors have experienced students for decades - so how could they possibly complain about MORE noise and litter. Since the city already owns the school, they could lease the space to the COOP, provided the COOP paid for renovations. The money then planned for a purchase price could go right into developing the new store. There is a kitchen too, to encourage a catering business.

If the COOP just needed to use the cafeteria space, other ground floor spaces for might be leased to other tenants. Imagine a bakery on the premises and the smell of fresh bread in the neighborhood. Perhaps the gymnasium could be preserved for community use. or leased out for recreation purpose, perhaps through the Westcott Community Center. The playing field could remain green space for organized sports - or it could be landscaped as a recreational park.

The City should be able to recoup costs for insurance and maintenance, and some repair, through partnering with a private developer who could develop the second and third floors for residential or studio use. There are already several former schools on the Eastside that have been very effectively turned into housing, and one look at the example of the Delevan Center downtown for effective conversion to studios.

Over the past year I've begun to talk to a number of people in the neighborhood casually about this idea - and they seem to like it. The next step is to for neighbors brainstorm with school and city officials, and some experienced developers and architects.

I really think this can be done. What do you think?

A Little History

In the early 20th century the City of Syracuse was expanding rapidly, and the influx off immigrants put a strain on the school system. Building new schools was one of the big political issues of the day (sound familiar?). Under Mayor Walrath a massive building program began, but the mayor and School Board (under Superintendent Percy Hughes) argued about the number, size, and placement of new schools (sound familiar?). The Herald reported on May 18, 1923 that the city finally decided on the Fellows Avenue site for the William Nottingham Junior High School, after protests of plans to build the school within Thornden Park, off south Beech. Mayor Walrath battled Hughes over which plan to use for the building - Walrath pushed for a plan by Gordon Wright employed in the 19th Ward, which was less expensive and housed more students. Hughes and board held out successfully for a plan by Albert Brockway, first for the Thornden site, and then settling for Fellows Avenue. The school opened in September 1924 (see Syracuse Herald, Sunday, September 07, 1924). By the end of the decade is was renamed William Nottingham High School.

In 1953 the district opened a new high school on Meadowbrook at East Genesee, the first new school built since 1930, and transferred the Nottingham name. The old school was renamed the T. Aaron Levy Junior High School, later changed to T Aaron Levy Middle School, a name it retained until 2009, when Levy was disbanded, with 7th and 8th graders attending other schools, and the school became the temporary home of Central Tech. T. Aaron Levy had served on the School Board in the early part of the century. He was reformer, and worked hard to united different ethnic and religious groups in the city into a civic community. Levy advised the Roosevelt administration and was instrumental in Pioneer Homes being erected as one the first public housing projects in the United States. Levy was also Jewish, a member of Temple Society of Concord. That probably counted for a lot in the school naming, since the population of the neighborhood in the 1950s was significantly Jewish, and Concord's Rabbi Benjamin Friedman lived just up the street. Friedman also participated in the dedication of the new Nottingham on October 19, 1953.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

More Terracotta: Rite Aid (Former Woolworth's) on South Salina Could be Beautiful

Syracuse, NY. Former Woolworth's Store (photo: Samuel D. Gruber, 2011)
Syracuse, NY. Old postcard view of South Salina Street with
Woolworth's on the left.

More Terracotta: Rite Aid (Former Woolworth's) on South Salina Could be Beautiful

After posting about the Byrne Square Building, I've been asked about other terracotta buildings in Syracuse. There are several, but the best known, but also most forlorn, is the 70-year-old former F. W. Woolworth's store, built in 1941 at South Salina and East Fayette Streets, where it replaced an earlier Woolworth store. The store closed in 1979 and was sold to the Rite Aid Drugstore chain, which still occupies the structure.

Much of the terracotta skin of the building remains visible, and some of the molded terracotta decoration. More of the facade and original trademark clock may still survive beneath the wraparound Rite Aid sign. The building was included in the recently (October 2009) designated South Salina Street Downtown Historic District. Listing, however, has not yet brought any change to the facade, though it may encourage repair and replacement of elements the next time the property changes hands.

The architecture of Woolworth's was all about the skin. Inside, was a large space (created by the steel frame construction) that allowed changing displays. Still, a lot more care went into the decor of the 1940s five and dime - with its display counters and long soda fountain - then we'll ever see in any new Family Dollar or other contemporary drug or discount store. Perhaps the best way to experience that old-style interior now is to watch The Best Years of Our Lives for the scenes where Dana Andrews is working as a soda jerk. Those long counters with stools on poles are now cultural icons, still replicated for new style diners and hamburger joints. They were also battlegrounds in a changing society - the scenes of sit-ins during the civil rights movement. The students who sat-in at the Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina turned drugstore design into social action, and led to the desegregation of the Woolworth's counter.

By comparing the old postcard with the recent view, you can see how much more appealing the old street level storefront windows were. They were scaled to the passing pedestrian, and decorated to lure the passersby to stop, stare and then enter the store.

The Art Deco facade of Woolworth's was considered stylish and jazzy when it was built. In the 1940s, just before America went to war, the country was beginning to build again, and for the most part what was "modern" just picked up where building had stopped with the Great Depression (think State Tower Building). Woolworth's had fared better than most companies in the Depression. Woolworth's sold things people needed - at an affordable price.

The new Syracuse Woolworth's store opened on January 29, 1942, less than two months after the United States entered World War II. Commercial construction was again mostly halted as the country directed resources to the war effort. When building resumed after 1945 a new form of modernism was ascendant - linked more closely to the functional industrial architecture of the interwar years as than the flashy glamor of Art Deco and Art Moderne.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Exhibition: Onondaga County Landmarks Opens Tonight

Exhibition: Onondaga County Landmarks Opens Tonight

OHA is opening two new exhibits tonight (Friday, November 18) dealing with historic architecture. The first is entitled "The Landmarks of New York." This is a traveling exhibit of 90 framed photographs of official New York City Landmarks, curated by Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel. The opening event will be this Friday from 4 to 7 pm and also feature the curator signing copies of her new book of the same title, which is a complete compendium of NYC's designated landmarks and historic districts.

Accompanying the New York City photo exhibit, OHA has installed a supplementary exhibit featuring 20 framed photographs of "Onondaga County Landmarks." It is a more subjective exhibition, not driven by municipal landmark status, as is the NYC exhibition. However, the local photos and buildings are every bit as interesting.

The exhibits will be up until January 31, 2012. Make a point to stop by the OHA and see if one of your favorite buildings made the Landmarks of Onondaga County show.

Meadowbrook Modernism, a Closer Look

Syracuse, NY. 1920s (?) Tudor-style apartment building at Meadowbrook Drive and Brookford Rd.

Syracuse, NY. 1960s (?) apartment buildings on Meadowbrook Drive betwen Brookford and Hurlburt Roads.

Meadowbrook Modernism, a Closer Look
by Samuel D. Gruber (photos: Samuel D. Gruber (Nov 2011)

Both my children attended Nottingham High School, so I've been driving up and down Meadowbrook Drive for years. Sometimes I've walked and biked the miles or so between the school and my house, but it wasn't until last week when I was out looking at bird houses that I really stopped to look at the row of modern style apartment buildings that line the north side of of Meadowbrook between Brookford and Hurlburt Roads. As one moves east there is an interesting progression form 1920s apartment design (Tudor-style) to the modular, rectilinear and flat-roofed style of the 1960s.

True, this Meadowbrook modernism is not Miesian in its purity or its transparency. Laid-up flagstone entrances give a semblance of rugged country contextualism, and in the largest building the tri-partite facade treatment harks back to Deco design of the 1930s. Still, for Syracuse, these buildings are decidely non-traditional. And given the sad fate of many modern buildings in the region, these examples have held up extremely well, and still contribute positively to the neighborhood.

If anyone knows the genesis of these buildings, please let me know.

Modern in Syracuse has gotten a bad name - and many extremely ugly, leaky, poorly lit and badly arranged examples certainly deserve the savaging they have received - and often the wrecking ball, too. The list is too long to recite. It is good, whoever, to remember that modern design, when simply done, can be practical and effective. It was criminal to demolish fine buildings on James Street to erect ugly boxes - many of which are now underutilized. On Meadowbrook, however where the development was new, these modern-style buildings sit lightly on the landscape and decidedly support the very nature of Meadowbrook - a transitional space from suburban to urban settlement.
The row of buildings from the 1960s still holds up very well - good proportions, nice details, and they keep a clean street line enhancing the urban pedestrian experience while maintaining the area's airy and open suburban feel. From Meadowbrook these buildings provide the security of a containment wall, but one can still see the tops of trees overhead.

This type of design is so much better than what was produced after the 1970s, when new buildings were set further back from the street, surrounded by lots of parking a big useless lawns, isolated with the "industrial park" look. Pedestrians were not just discouraged - they were disparaged; even forbidden.

Anyone who has traveled in Europe knows that modernism and good urbanism - even something smacking of "new urbanism" - are not antithetical. In fact, the smoothness and regularity of mass and line, when not overdone or overblown, can enhance an urban experience - something true since the ancient insulae and Renaissance palazzi of Italian cities. Maintaining the street line, and especially the corner, is very important. Fortunately, we are coming around to this view again. The new downtown buildings in the Armory Square area demonstrate this (the Center of Excellence - though a striking, even sculptural form remarkable in may ways; does not). We need to extend good urbanism further into neighborhoods.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Byrne Square Building: One We Should Care About

Byrne Square Building: One We Should Care About
by Samuel D. Gruber

Not everyone is happy that the new Creekwalk jogs away from the creek so soon after leaving Armory Square. I'm guessing there was just no way to overcome security concerns at National grid to allow the Creekwalk to traverse NatGrid property, right under the building addition.

One great outcome, however, is the upsurge in pedestrian traffic past two of my favorite buildings. One is obviously the National Grid (formerly Niagara Mohawk) building itself. And then there is the Byrne Square Building at 300 West Genesee Street at the corner of Willow Street, the little terracotta clad jewelbox of a building, which has hardly gotten the recognition it deserves. Now 91 years old, it certainly merits protected landmark status - in its own right, not just for being close to Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.

The Byrne Square building is anything but square - its has a triangular plan, making it one of the city's many "flatiron" buildings - those wedge-shaped structures that have gone up at intersections when the city grid meets older streets, that then slice the orthogonal plan diagonally. Nor is the building named for Byrne Dairy, as claimed on the Yestercuse website.

The building was erected by Mathew V. Byrne, Syracuse representative of the Miller Rubber company (of Akron, Ohio). According to the Syracuse Herald of June 13, 1920 Byrne spent $100,000 on the "terracotta business block."

A year later (June 12, 1921) Byrne took out an ad in the Herald exclaiming "Four years ago Miller Tires were practically unknown in this section. today 65% of the tires sold in Syracuse are Millers. Four years ago we had the smallest service station in the City of Syracuse. Today we have one of the finest service stations in the entire country." A photo of the building in the Herald of June 8, 1923 a sign for Miller Rubber Co, M. J. Byrne on the frieze (now covered in black) above the first floor to the right of the doorway. The accompaning ad explains that Syracuse Grocers, Inc. have leased the entire second floor of the Byrne Square Building and have a few offices to rent. Today Arthur Murray Dance Studios occupies the old tire showroom and service station, remarkable for its large plate glass windows.

Terracotta was a popular material for cladding all sorts of buildings in the late 19th century and first quarter of the 20th century. sometimes it was used only as decorative trim - since it was relatively cheap to mold a repeating decorative detail or pattern. In New York City it was famously used for the Woolworth Tower (1911), which is clad in about 400,000 glazed white terracotta tiles. Nearly as tall is the Smith Tower in Seattle (1914), financed by Syracuse industrialist Lyman Cornelius Smith and designed by Syracuse architects Gaggin & Gaggin. One problem of using a terracotta skin on a large surface, however, is that the expansion and contraction rates of the metal frame and the terracotta tiles is different. In many cases decades of stress has damaged the tiles causing failure - or expensive repair.

By the 1920s glazed white terracotta was a favorite material for automobile showrooms and gas stations. The tiles looked sleek and modern, and they were easy to clean. Since these buildings are mostly steel frame, the terracotta clad thin walls could allow large windows - like those preferred for auto showroom.

Besides the Byrne Square Building, Syracuse doesn't have many terracotta buildings left.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Other Creekwalk: Meadowbrook and its Birdhouses

The Other Creekwalk: Meadowbrook and its Birdhouses
by Samuel D. Gruber (all photos copyright Samuel D. Gruber)

Today we walked part of Syracuse's other Creekwalk - Meadowbrook Drive - and saw the many new birdhouses that have been designed, built and erected by unnamed neighbors (the guy in the white house with the red door). If anyone can give me more information, I'd like to acknowledge this local talent.

The Syracuse Garden Club has worked their magic to plant flower beds where there was previous hard packed grass at the ends of the medians, where street cross over the brook - really a collect that drains excess water form the neighborhood. It is in these beds that the birdhouses have been built. Some are fanciful houses, and the one near St. Alban's church is a church with steeple - something St. Alban's lacks. The aforesaid owner of the white house with red door has made a miniature version for the birds. The most recent addition is an airplane. The birds don't care what model - since they can already fly.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A City Success: Syracuse Creekwalk Opens

A City Success: Syracuse Creekwalk Opens
by Samuel D. Gruber (all photos copyright Samuel D. Gruber)

Its been about 20 years in the making, but a continuous Creekwalk route from Armory Square to Onondaga Lake opened two weeks ago to the relief and delight of area residents - eager to take advantage of this new urban walking a bike route while the beautiful fall weather is still with us.

My wife and I walked it last Saturday - and here are some photos:

click image for larger format slide show

While this does not put Syracuse on par with cities like Philadelphia (Fairmount Park with all sorts of walks and trails), Washington (Rock Creek Park) or New York (Riverside Park and now the extraordinary new High Line), it does link us to cities like San Antonio and Milwaukee that have used downtown waterways to provide a new urban look and a new pedestrian experience. While we have many fine walking trails in the region, there just is nothing else like the Creekwalk in the city. I can see that it will be a great resource for residents, but will also attract many outsiders because of the great variety of the route. Tired of Onondaga Park? Come try the Creekwalk. There is good dose of nature, but there is also a fine mix of old and new buildings, often seen from unusual and unexpected angles. Kids and adults will enjoy the new Dragon sculpture by Armory Square, but look to at the attractive 1991 mural by sculptor William Severson - blasted into the Allen Building's brick about halfway along the trail.

It is great to see a project completed in Syracuse - where vision becomes reality. All who struggled to get this project done are to be commended. As a case study - I'd love to have someone in the know outline all the phases of the project, and where the funds have come from. Who has paid for this? City operations budgets, funded by taxpayer dollars? Special fees or PILOT funds? Was there county, state and federal money? Private sponsorship?

This is just Phase I of an ambitious (and still unfunded) project that will bring the walk all the way south to Kirk Park. In the spirit of the great WPA-sponsored public works projects that brought us much of our modern (local, state and national) park systems, this would be a great use of (more!) stimulus money. Rather than extend our infrastructure with more incursion into rural areas we need to invest in our existing settled communities and upgrade and improve our urban infrastructure. That is the best recipe for jobs creation where they are most needed, and the stimulation of green sustainable economic and civic growth for the 21st century.