Thursday, February 28, 2013

Another Plan for Mizpah Tower

Syracuse, NY . Mizpah Tower.  The building boldly holds the corner of an important intersection. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2011.

 Syracuse, NY. Mizpah Tower in the 1920s from monograph on work of Gordon Wright.

Another Plan for Mizpah Tower
by Samuel D. Gruber 

According to the Post-Standard, Downtown's Mizpah Towers may soon be seized by the city for back taxes, then sold to a new owner for development.  The future of the historic building at the corner of West Jefferson and Montgomery Streets has been uncertain for years, as various projects have been floated and failed.   You can read about some of these at Syracusethenandnow. 

The Gothic style building was designed by local architect Gordon Wright and opened in 1914.  It served as a church until 1988 and has been vacant for most of the time since.  The building is covered with a tile skin and has notable stained glass windows on the lower floors - some of these were stolen after the building was closed. Pinnacles and other architectural features at the roof level have been removed for safety.  Mizpah's location and massing is somewhat better than its somewhat brittle Gothic design.  Combined, the tall building and its even taller corner tower boldly mark the intersection and nicely complements the other monumental public buildings around Columbus Circle.  

Syracuse, NY . Mizpah Tower.  The building boldly holds the corner of an important intersection. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2011

Syracuse lawyer Thomas Cerio has offered the city $30,000 for the building which will cost millions to adapt for new use.  Cerio wants to redevelop the first two floors as commercial space, the upper floors into apartments, and the top floor for his personal residence.  

The building is remarkable for its once-magnificent auditorium on the ground floor that served as the sanctuary for the Baptist Church, but has also been eyed for decades as a potential performance space. You can see beautiful pictures by David Bridges and more the building history here.


Syracuse, NY. Mizpah Tower sanctuary/auditorium in the 1920s from monograph on work of Gordon Wright.

According to Tim Knauss of the Post-Standard:
The current owner, Syracuse Bangkok LLC, of Bellevue, Wash., [which] owes more than $115,000 in taxes and interest dating back to 2008. If Syracuse Bangkok sought to block a sale to Cerio, the company could pay part of the delinquent taxes any time before the city seizes it.  The property is assessed for $550,000, but developers who have looked at the interior say it needs millions in repairs and renovations. Cerio has said he is prepared to spend millions, Ashkin said.

The vacant, Gothic-style building at Montgomery and Jefferson streets, erected in 1914, has deteriorated since its Baptist congregation sold it in 1988 and moved to the suburbs. Two groups of developers have tried and failed since then to undertake renovations.
The city seized the Mizpah for back taxes in 1998, anticipating a public "Avenue of the Arts" that never materialized. In 2005, the city sold it for $27,500 to Syracuse Bangkok.  Read the full story here.

 Syracuse, NY. Jefferson Street facade of Mizpah Tower. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2011.

The revitalization of this building (using Historic Preservation tax credits) would be a major shot in the arm for this part of Downtown.  Who knows?  First the Mizpah, then the Hotel Syracuse?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Why Save Urban Churches?

 First Presbyterian Church in Syracuse
Syracuse, NY. Former First Presbyterian Church.  Photo: Bruce HarveyThe large window behind the altar is a version of the great Tiffany Te Deum window (the firm made several), a drawing of which was recently on view at the Tiffany exhibit at MOBIA in New York.

Why Save Urban Churches?

Last month I was interviewed  (on a very cold morning) by Tim Knauss of the Post-Standard about why we should care if old churches and synagogues still stand in our community.  We met outside First Presbyterian Church - one of the grandest of Syracuse's establishment Gothic churches, and one that closed last year but is renting its premises to another congregation. Here is a video of part of the interview in which I lay out some reasons why religious buildings matter - and matter a lot.

Tim has written an article for the paper, too, and in a separate piece reviews the continuing saga of the lost windows of South Presbyterian Church, and how that structure is now more in peril than ever before. 

To see color pictures of many of the tremendous stained glass windows in First Presbyterian click here.

Restore the South Salina Rite Aid Facade?

Restore the South Salina Street RiteAid Facade?
by Samuel D. Gruber

Syracuse Post-Standard columnist Sean Kirst reported today on the possibility of upcoming restoration work on the Art Deco facade of the downtown Rite Aid (formerly Woolworth's) at South Salina and Jefferson Street.  The building is on one of the most important corners of the city - and it has one of the most representative commercial Art Deco facades in the region.

I wrote about this tile facade last year and urged the stripping off of the ugly metal additions.  While I don't really think anyone is listening to me - I'm glad others are having the same thoughts and seeing opportunities where storm damage present them.

Apparently the city and rite aid are having constructive - or should I say "restorative" discussions.

Here are some excepts from Sean's piece:
The clock and much of the facade were covered up by a bland metal sign after Rite Aid bought the building in 1979. When the wind blew off that covering in 1997, revealing a clock frozen at 1:06 p.m., pedestrians were delighted but Rite Aid quickly put the sign back up.
The wind returned a few weeks ago, dragging down another chunk of that sign. City officials, seeing an opportunity, contacted Rite Aid about the chance for a permanent exterior restoration.

“They’ve responded very favorably,” said Ben Walsh, the city’s deputy commissioner for business development. A connection between the city and the company had already been established, Walsh said, thanks to the “Bank Alley” project and other nearby improvements.

Walsh recalled how the first reaction at City Hall to news of the sign coming down was a concern that someone could have been hurt. Once downtown advocates knew there'd been no injuries, they chuckled quietly at the idea that even God wanted to see the original facade restored.
 Click here for the entire article - and pictures.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Schedule of New (Spring 2013) Westcott Sunday Walking Tours

 Syracuse, NY. 200 Scottholm Blvd.  Photo Samuel D. Gruber 2012

Schedule of New (Spring 2013) Westcott Sundays Walking Tours

I am happy to post the schedule for four upcoming (free!) walking tours of Syracuse's Eastside in areas that are part of the greater Westcott Neighborhood.  This spring I'll repeat the tour of Scottholm given last fall, and offer three entirely new tours.

As always, these tours are the result of research and discovery - in progress - and that means a "repeat" tour may be substantially different than a previous version.  I also rely on information and stories from longtime neighborhood residents and property owners - as well as those raised in the neighborhood who have moved away.  If you have information about your house or the neighborhood in general that you would like to share, please let me know.

Syracuse, NY 623 Euclid Ave. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012

Here are new tours:

Architectural and History Walking Tours 
with architectural historian Sam Gruber

March 24: Scottholm: Syracuse's Newest Historic District (reprise, no rain date)
Start point: E. Genesee St. & Scottholm Blvd.

April 7: West of Westcott: Euclid & Clarendon Aves. and Adjoining Streets (raindate April 14) Start point: Westcott Community Center (Westcott St. and Euclid Ave.)

April 28: Architecture & Landscape: The Berkeley Park Historic District (raindate, May 5) Start point: Ed Smith School (Broad St. & Lancaster Ave.)

June 1 (Saturday): Westcott's England: Westminster, Buckingham, Kensington & Lancaster Neighborhood (raindate June 2)  NB this is a Saturday tour.

Start point: Westcott Community Center (Westcott St. and Euclid Ave.)

 Syracuse, NY Maryland Ave. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012

All tours are free of charge and begin at 1:00 pm and last approximately 2 hours. For more info contact WeNA at or 440-9341

Sponsored by the Westcott Neighborhood Association (WeNA) with financial support from
University Neighborhood Service Agreement Advisory Committee (UNSAAC)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Next House to Save: The Northside's Murray House on Danforth Street

Syracuse, NY.  Murray House.  406 Danforth St.  Decorative Detail. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2009

Next House to Save: The Northside's Catherine Murray House on Danforth Street?
by Samuel D. Gruber

Now that work is finally beginning on the Babcock-Shattuck house on the Eastside, we can begin to think about the NEXT great Syracuse house to save.  At the top of anyone's list would be the Murray House on Danforth Street on the Northside, still standing stately - though dilapidated - across the from Grosso (formerly Bennett) Park.  Dick Case wrote about the house last year in an article about the city's vacant properties.

According to Dick:
"... the house was built about ...1849-1850. It remains one of the grandest houses in the neighborhood, despite the fact it’s been empty for years. We’re told the house was built for James Noxon, a prominent Syracusan who was elected to the state Senate twice. Perhaps the house is best known as the home of the Murrays, a well-known local couple, Catherine and Michael, who were wealthy salt-makers during the years Syracuse was the “salt city.” Michael was a big-time salt manufacturer. He died in 1866, only two years after the Murrays bought the home. Catherine Murray inherited an extensive estate, most of it salt holdings, which she managed successfully. When she died in 1908, she was called one of Syracuse’s wealthiest women, one of the few of her sex ever to run a major salt-manufacturer in this town." 
Catherine Murray was just one of many strong and successful women active in Syracuse and Central New York at the turn of the 20th-Century.  Some of these other women are already remembered by well-preserved monuments and buildings.  The Harriet Tubman House in Auburn has been the scene on continuing restoration and educational workThe Harriet May Mills house at 1074 West Genesee Street was saved from the wrecking ball a dozen years ago, and the Matilda Jocelyn Gage House in Fayetteville has also been restored. Many monuments created by Syracuse-born sculptor Gail Sherman Corbett adorn the city, including the Kirkpatrick Monument at Washington Square, not far form the Murray House.

The house was in relatively good condition within recent memory.  Here is a view from the files of the Preservation Association of New York taken in 1987.

Syracuse, NY. Catherine Murray House, 406 Danforth Street.  Photo: PACNY 1987.

 This is what the house looks like today  - or even worse - since this picture was taken a few years ago.

Syracuse, NY. Catherine Murray House, 406 Danforth Street. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2009.

According to Dick Case, the owner of the Murray Home last year was listed in Syracuse tax assessment records as Crystal Flowers and Surprises. Water bills as mailed to Myra Ortiz of Yonkers.  Apparently taxes on the house have not been paid since 2008.  I hope that this property is an early candidate for recovery and restoration by the newly formed city Land Bank - it was not included in the first list of 200 properties for which notices were sent in November 2012.  I have never been inside the house but I have heard reports that it is gutted.  If so, the house can still be adaptively reused for apartments, offices, a youth hostel, or many other functions - and the exterior preserved.

The Murray House is a fine example of  the Italianate style popular in the mid-19th century throughout Central New York, but especially amongst the North Side "Salt Barons"  and others of the newly wealthy manufacturing and merchant class. This a large example of the Italianate style and boasts most of its signature features, including a near-square plan for the main building block, an ample and publicly visible front porch, a rooftop cupola, wide eaves with prominent brackets, and tall windows with - in this case - decorative hoods. There is a substantial rear section to the building that was probably added (I'd have to look for closely to be sure), but it was certainly in place when the house is shown in plan in the 1892 city atlas. The rear wing would have housed the kitchen and other service areas and probably rooms upstairs for live-in servants.  A two-story balcony, facing North Salina Street would have been used for airing clothing and bedding and other household chores.

Syracuse, NY. Detail of 1892 City atlas showing the Murray House set within its original half-block lo (lower left)t.  Unfortunately, the side that bordered North Salina street is now occupied by an ugly Wilson Farms convenience store and gas station.  Still, this can be screened form the house in any reuse scheme. 
Syracuse, NY. Catherine Murray House, 406 Danforth Street. View showing rear wind and porches. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2009.

Syracuse, NY. Catherine Murray House, 406 Danforth Street. Front porch. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2009.

Syracuse, NY. Catherine Murray House, 406 Danforth Street. Damaged eaves. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2009.

Syracuse, NY. Catherine Murray House, 406 Danforth Street. Cupola. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2009.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Public Art: Mestrovic and Job in Paris and Syracuse

Paris, France. Job  by Ivan Mestoric (1945) on view at the Musee Rodin.  Supplicant Persephone (1945) can be seen standing in the court in the bottom image.  All photos: Samuel D. Gruber 2013

Public Art: Mestrovic and Job in Paris and Syracuse

by Samuel D. Gruber 

[n.b. I'm cross-posting this from my blog Public Art & Memory since it has a Syracuse connection]

Visiting the Musee Rodin in  Paris a few weeks ago brought me face to face with an old friend - Ivan Mestrovic's agonized bronze statue of a crouching, suffering Job.  The work, completed in 1945 in Rome finalized a vision of Job that Mestrovic first conceived when in a fascist prison in Croatia in 1941.  Both Job and a companion piece of a Supplicant Persephone were exhibited at Mestrovic's one-man exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1947 (the first such show the Met had ever mounted for a living artist).  Today, the works face each other across a small courtyard at Syracuse University, where I pass them almost every day.  Both these works are presided over by a larger relief of Moses, a bronze made in 1990 from Mestrovic's plaster version designed for the un-built monument to the Six Million designed by architect Erich Mendelsohn, which was planned for Riverside Park in New York City but never built (more on that work in a future post).

Syracuse, NY. Job by Ivan Mestrovic (1945) in the Shaffer Sculpture Court outside of Bowne Hall. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012.

Versions of Job and Persephone from the Ivan Meštrović Museums in Croatia were both installed in the Court of Honor at the Musee Rodin, as part of small but powerful exhibition of Mestrovic's work  coinciding with festival Croatie, la voici

Syracuse, NY. Supplicant Persephone by Ivan Mestrovic (1945) in the Shaffer Sculpture Court outside of Bowne Hall. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012. 

In Syracuse these works are among the very best figurative sculptures in a city that boasts an impressive collection of public bronzes. I teach these works in my Holocaust, Memory and the Visual Arts class.  In Paris, however, despite that fact that I was in the midst of exploring the city's commemorative landscape, these works took on - in the context of Rodin's work - a different, but related, meaning.  The anguish expressed by both figures was still powerful, but due to their museum siting it was dissipated.

On the other hand, since the works were in only a stone's throw from Rodin's great group of suffering figures, the Burghers of Calais (Les Bourgeois de Calais), and also of bronzes of all the constituent figures in the that work (the work has been cast twelve times in all, and can be seen in various configurations in different cities), the line from Rodin to Mestrovic was very clear.  The mix of defeat, anguish, anxiety in the posture and gestures of the Burghers of Calais figures, laid over expressions of nobility, made this an exceptional public monument when it was unveiled in 1889 and still today. As with Mestrovic's Job, Rodin's work has inspired any number of subsequent commemorative depictions of victims - especially Holocaust victims.

Paris, France. Musee Rodin.  The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber 2013.

Both the preliminary designs for Job and Persephone express Mestrovic's personal anguish as a prisoner in 1941, when he expected death at the hand of Italian Fascists.  His political stances from the First Wold War period (in defiance of both Austria and Italy) and his refusal in the mid-1930s to accept a Nazi invitation to exhibit his work in Berlin, which Hitler himself would open, made him a persona non grata in occupied Yugoslavia.  Subsequently, these works as executed in bronze have been accepted as larger expressions of pain, remorse and despair in the wake of all the destitution in Europe brought about in World War II.   Mestrovic's first wife Ruza was Jewish and she died in Zagreb in 1942 and at least 30 members of her extended family also died in the Holocaust.  But Mestrovic knew many people - Jews and Christians - in artistic, political and others circles who suffered and died in the war.

Not surprisingly, Mestrovic was not the only artist of the time to use Job as a symbol of the suffering during the war.  Coincidentally, probably the best known painting of the theme, Francis Gruber's Job of 1944 from the Tate Galley in London, is also on view in Paris in the important - though rambling - exhibition L'Art en Guerre: France 1938-1947 on view at the Musée d’Art Moderne (through February 17, 2013).  Gruber (no relation to me) painted his Job for the Salon d'Automne (the so-called Salon of the Liberation) of 1944,  just after the  Liberation of Paris.   Gruber's Job is a naked, forlorn and vulnerable man seated on a stool by a broken gate or fence.  According to the Tate online catalogue "Gruber painted this picture ... to symbolise the oppressed  peoples who, like Job, had undergone a great ordeal of suffering. The  inscription on the paper at which the figure is looking reads:  'Maintenant encore, ma plainte est une révolte, et pourtant ma main  comprime mes soupirs'. This is taken from The Book of Job, 23.11"   This Job is essentially passive - there is none of the animal anguish Mestrovic brings to the subject. 

It is significant that Gruber and Mestrovic both chose the figure of Job to channel their fears and faith about World War II and its aftermath.  For Jews and Christians alike, Job was the Biblical figure who embodied universalism.  Rabbis debated who he was, when he lived of if he was real at all.  Many saw him as the archetype Righteous Gentile, others a fictional device for teaching the love and fear of God.   Still, both Jews and Gentiles took him for their own, and his suffering represents the suffering (and hope) of all.  For Christian artists especially Job was an appropriate subject, that could linked to Jewish tradition (and contemporary suffering), but could also be interpreted in many other ways.

Job by Francis Gruber (1912-1948). Tate Museum, London. Photo: Courtesy of the Tate Museum

How did Job and Persephone get to Syracuse?  Mestrovic was born in Croatia in 1883 but by the 1920s he was very popular in the United States, where he had a successful exhibition at Brooklyn Museum in New York in 1924, which led to his commission for giant Indians (Bowman and Spearman) in Chicago,  installed in Grant Park in 1928.  In 1947 Syracuse University Chancellor William P. Tolley arranged for Mestrovic to come and teach at Syracuse University, where he stayed until 1955 before moving on to Notre Dame, where he taught until his death in 1962.  He brought many of his recent and in progress works to Syracuse, where he worked on them, and trained a generation of young sculptors. You can read about Mestrovic at Syracuse here, and in a longer article by David Tatum here.  Notre Dame hold a large collection of Mestrovic papers, the finding aid is here.

Syracuse, NY. Shaffer Sculpture Court, Syracuse University. Job and Supplicant Persephone by Ivan Mestrovic. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber 2012