When discussing historic preservation, the idea of “community” comes up frequently.
“Historic preservation is a great way to bring people together and see what their community is and has been,” said Kristin Olson of Historic Ithaca.
“It's saying, 'We care about this place. We don't want strip malls here, running up through it and up and around it,'” said Vicky Romanoff, founder of historic preservation firm V. Romanoff and Associates.
It's also about “the city,” said Sarah Adams, partner at V. Romanoff. “And the scale of buildings.”
And, apparently, about wanting it “nice.”
The Legacy of Joe Ciaschi
“That was the word he used,” said Terry Ciaschi, Joe Ciaschi's oldest son.
Certainly many in Ithaca can't think about historic preservation without thinking about Joe Ciaschi, who passed away in 2011. He left a legacy of beautifully-restored buildings in Ithaca, including The Station restaurant, Clinton Hall, Clinton House, Boardman House, and the State Theatre. Most of those projects were in partnership with Adams and Romanoff, who became great friends of Ciaschi.
“He just simply wanted to do it well. That was just sort of his integrity, as a human being,” Adams said.
“Nice” became his trademark. Romanoff described a trip they took to New York to get a variance for a building project. Joe took Romanoff and Sarah to the “most expensive restaurant in New York,” ordered the most expensive appetizer on the menu, and told the waiter he wanted it “nice”.
“It comes out, after 15 or 20 minutes, and he looks at it and says, 'That's not nice. Send it back,'” Romanoff said. “Nobody knew what he meant. They all said, 'Who is this upstate hick?' It comes out, everything was neatly rolled, tidy, and he said, 'That's nice'. See, it was in his bones. Developers usually say, 'What's the quickest, cheapest way I can make the most money?'”
Joe, however, was different.
Ciaschi was born in Ithaca, the son of Italian immigrants.
“He was just sort of a driven guy ever since we can remember,” said Terry Ciaschi. “He was the same way in high school, even at his job. He worked for New York Electric and Gas for years, and he was only going to go so far with his education. And he said, 'Well, that's not good enough.' So he actually quit, borrowed some money, and started his first business.”
That first business was a small restaurant called Bishop's, today Paradise Cafe, on Route 96. Ciaschi bought the place in 1959, with the help of his brother-in-law Rudolph Saccucci. A year later, Ciaschi decided to buy the Villa restaurant on 3rd and Madison streets. Ciaschi, his wife, and their six children packed into the four-bedroom apartment above the restaurant.
Joe Ciaschi ran The Villa for 10 years. After he left, it was home to many other successful restaurants, including Tres Stella, operated by Romanoff and Adams.
“A number of things about it were still Joe,” Adams said.
Following the Villa, in 1966, Ciaschi purchased an old train station on the West End. It would later become the Station restaurant, the most successful of Ciaschi's restaurants.
“Nobody had seen anything like that, a train station transformed,” said Terry Ciaschi. “He was basically a guy that was ahead of his time.”
When he bought it, Ciaschi had little idea that historic preservation existed.
“I just did [the restoration] as I thought it should be done,” he said in an interview before his death. “I guess I made the right moves.”
These moves certainly impressed Romanoff and Adams, who would work with Ciaschi on future projects.
“I'll give you a little example about Joe and the Station. When he finished with the Station, he not only finished with the station, he bought a clock that was identical to the one that was there that had disappeared,” Romanoff said. “He set the time when the last train left from Ithaca to New York City. He then laid the train tracks and brought those train cars in. His china, when he opened, had that clock on it with that time showing.”
“He had the waiters dressed in the old Lehigh Valley waiter coats,” Adams added. “He was just a stickler for details. He just liked details.”
Another family operation, the Station restaurant was open for 40 years.
Terry Ciaschi attributed its success to his father's appreciation for these historical details.
“What made The Station so popular was that people could see the history,” he said. “I mean there's old stories. People coming to school, going back to school — to the military, to the war, they're at the train station.”
But what could have made such a talented entrepreneur and businessman interested in preserving old buildings when it would have been far more cost effective to start from scratch?
“Absolutely would have made more sense to build something new! It cost him a lot more money to rehab some of these places,” Terry Ciaschi said. “It was just... he was here from day one with his family, walked by these places, went in them... by the time he was in his 30's and 40's, seen what was happening, these things meant something to him. He didn't want everything he knew in his life to be gone. He really ended up loving these buildings. In a lot of ways the money didn't matter to him.”
“He was Italian,” Adams said. “He had this sort of Italian 'spaccone' attitude—I made it, I'm going to spend it.”
Partners in Preservation
This attitude was the perfect match for Romanoff and Adams' vision. All “strong characters,” according to Terry Ciaschi, all detail-oriented, they came together first in Ithaca's effort to save the historic Boardman House.
“He was watching what we were doing, and he liked what we were doing, and I was watching what he was doing with the Station, and I liked what he was doing,” said Romanoff. “So then when the Boardman House issue arose, that somebody had to buy it to actually save it, we kind of joined forces.”
Boardman House was the straw that broke the camel's back for Ithaca's historic preservation community. Built in the 1867, Boardman House was the home of Judge Douglass Boardman, a state Supreme Court Justice and later the first dean of Cornell's law school, and later the home of the Ithaca Conservatory and a building owned by Ithaca College. The house features impressive wood doors and bannisters, arched entrance ways, and even a cupola on top.
During the 1960s, urban renewal encouraged the demolition of thousands of historic buildings, with the hope that modern buildings would encourage downtown development. Many in Ithaca were less than thrilled, however, when famous structures like City Hall were replaced with parking lots or modern architecture.
The county purchased Boardman House in 1968, but could not find the funds for its repair. By 1971, it was slated for demolition.
That summer, Romanoff and Adams began a campaign to save the House that raised more than 6,000 signatures. This effort saved Boardman House for a little while; yet plans to turn the building into a planetarium and several other ideas failed to gain enough funding, despite public support. As demolition loomed, Romanoff and Adams convinced Ciaschi to buy the property. With Romanoff and Adams as consultants, Ciaschi financed the restoration of Boardman House. The same details that characterized The Station restaurant went into Boardman House, including period light fixtures, gold leaf above the front door, and Romanoff's hand moulding.
Their effort, along with the support of the Ithaca community, has been credited with saving Boardman House, and set a precedent for future historic restoration projects in Ithaca. Ciaschi's interest in restoring older buildings and financial assets were a necessary part of the movement's success.
“He was proud, when we were all finished with it. He said, 'That's looking pretty good.' He was never too gushing,” Romanoff said.
Working together to restore Boardman House was the start of a long partnership between Romanoff, Adams, and Ciaschi. The trio is responsible for the restoration of Clinton House, Clinton Hall, the Farmers and Shippers Hotel, the Lehigh Valley Hotel, and several other well-known Ithaca historic landmarks.
Clinton Hall was one of their bigger accomplishments. As with Boardman House, V. Romanoff and Associates masterminded the restoration, which was overseen and largely financed by Ciaschi.
The 1850s building, named for 1820s New York Sen. DeWitt Clinton, housed saloons and other businesses as well as serving as Ithaca's first theater. However, after a 1975 fire, the building was considered a health hazard.
“At one point the city had to put up netting because pieces of the building could fall down and hit people on the street,” Romanoff said.
Vandals had stripped the building of any valuable historic relics; the structure had been compromised as well. However, Romanoff and Historic Ithaca raised $4,500 to stabilize the building and delay demolition. The building remained in limbo until 1987, when Ciaschi bought the building for $120,000.
Under Romanoff and Adam's direction again, the building was restored. In this case, the outside was restored while the inside was converted into modern offices. Just one of the many structural innovations involved connecting the outer brick structure to an inner steel support system with cables, which allowed the bricks to swell or shrink while maintaining the building's integrity.
While the restoration was successful, the project went thousands of dollars over-budget.
“Vicky was also very particular about keeping what was there,” Terry Ciaschi said. “Even if you could replace something that looked exactly like it but was newer, she wanted to keep what was there and maybe even it cost more to restore it.”
These small details are Romanoff and Adams' passion, and have helped their buildings win dozens of awards for preservation. However, the project illustrates a truth that anyone who has tried to renovate or restore an old building knows: Restoration can be costly, in terms of both time and money. In many cases, historically preserved buildings can earn a tax abatement, but must adhere to strict requirements to maintain the details and character of the original structure.
“He did not take the tax abatement on that one,” Romanoff said, “Because the information was that he'd have to write a book to get the $20,000 tax abatement, and he said, 'I don't have time for that... He was sorry about [Clinton Hall]. Always said it cost too much. For three weeks he didn't talk to me.'”
“It was mostly they [Ciaschi and Romanoff] loved each other, but they had their battles about how to get things done, and cost, and everything,” Terry Ciaschi said. “But they always came to a conclusion and they were both always happy with the result.”
Clinton Hall, and Clinton House next door, are both restored and are now considered historic landmarks. Local businesses, including a school, a barber shop, and a restaurant have filled the once-vacant halls.
“Downtowns now have been revitalized, in part due to historic preservation,” Olson said. “You have the space that's conducive to small businesses, to entrepreneurship.”
These historic buildings have given a historic character to downtown Ithaca, and stand as a testament to community involvement.
“He [Joe] made a difference in Ithaca — he preserved things that wouldn't be here anymore. There's probably four or five buildings that would have been torn down and something else in their place if it wasn't for him,” Terry Ciaschi said. “His legacy is all of those things.”
“When Historic Ithaca was founded, it was like the battle to save these big, important downtown buildings,” said Olson. “Not that that battle is ever really over, but we do have protections in place now.”
Today, there are different challenges. An important one is communicating historic preservation's place in the present.
“We're still committed to education and advocacy, and that's still the core of our mission, but now we're very interested in sustainability,” Olson said. “Historic preservation is a cornerstone of that.”
To encourage local preservation, Historic Ithaca holds workshops and gives out numerous awards every year to homeowners and businesses.
Ideas on how to manage city sprawl and encourage Ithaca's character and development are numerous, however, and changes are contentious. The City of Ithaca's recent decision to allow a height increase for buildings on the Commons revealed a wide spectrum of opinions.
For Romanoff and Adams, the decision was a bad sign.
“I think historic preservation — at least around here — has gone into a completely dormant state,” Adams said.
“Maybe those walking tours should be on stilts!” Romanoff added. “But we're a little bit bitter, don't mind us. We've been in it too long not too feel that way.”
In November 2011, Joe Ciaschi passed away at age 79. In 2012, the Historic Ithaca board established the Joe O. Ciaschi Preservation Excellence Award. The first award was given to Romanoff and Adams, for their total portfolio of work, in May.
“They are one of a few names out there that immediately come to mind in preservation in Ithaca, but the fact that they worked on so many of these projects with Joe made it really special,” Olson said.
The award also honors Joe's contribution to historic preservation in Ithaca.
“I think a lot of it was about community. He didn't blow his own horn, even though he was doing great stuff, great work,” Terry Ciaschi said. “It wasn't a big deal to him. He was a success. Everyone he cared about was.”
“We did so many projects with Joe,” Romanoff said. “I think he had a big impact on us, and vice versa.”