On a mid-summer Friday afternoon, a small group of adults, both locals and tourists, gathers at the heart of the Ithaca Commons, outside Center Ithaca.
“Skano,” a woman says in the Cayuga language as a reminder whose homeland they are standing on. She introduces herself as Christine O’Malley, today’s Downtown Ithaca Architectural Walking Tour guide and a Preservation Services Coordinator for Historic Ithaca. The free one-hour excursion covers buildings constructed in the city from the early 1800s to the early 1900s. Historic Ithaca’s Events and Community Engagement Coordinator Patricia Longoria provides the crowd with historic photos of each stop.
Amid a downtown Ithaca that is ever-developing, the tour conveys the city’s much simpler era. Participants learn about the structures that have endured as much as two centuries of use and multiple renovations, but through it all have played an important role in the downtown culture and economy —buildings that are still standing today because past Ithacans recognized their value as stalwarts of the local heritage.
O’Malley begins the tour at the boundary of the Ithaca Downtown Historic District (also a National Register Historic District), at the youngest location on the tour. Opened in 1975, the Commons was New York State’s first pedestrian mall and is still widely considered the heart of Ithaca. Before 1975, however, the Commons section of State Street was open to traffic: automobiles in the 20th century, and horse-drawn carriages and wagons in the 19th century. In the early 1800s, the Catskill Turnpike, a major east-west route, went through Ithaca’s State Street, making it a center of commerce. As a result, many storefronts were constructed in this time, and a trolley ran through the street. While the area has changed much since then, there are still trolley track markings at the intersection of State and Tioga streets.
The next stop is the nearby State Theatre, a National Register Historic Place which has hosted countless notable performers in its history. Originally constructed in 1915 as a car dealership and auto repair shop with a specialty in Studebakers, amid a national movement from vaudeville to motion pictures in the 1920s, the garage was converted into a theatre in 1928 under renowned theater architect Victor Rigaumont. Rigaumont integrated an assortment of styles, including Moorish, Renaissance Revival, and Collegiate Gothic, the last one a nod to Cornell University. The final product was a unique and intricately decorated cinema. By the 1990s, however, the theatre had been vacant for a while, and was in need of extensive restoration, prompting the City of Ithaca to condemn the building in 1997. After being bought and renovated by Historic Ithaca In 2009, the State Theatre was sold to local nonprofit State of Ithaca, Inc., and has since been renovated further with the intent of preserving and continuing the operation of such a vital piece of Ithaca.
A short walk later, O’Malley points out the Clinton House, perhaps the most iconic part of the city’s downtown architecture and another National Register Historic Place. Inspired by Boston’s Tremont House, the Clinton House opened in 1830 as a hotel to accommodate an expected growth in travel to the region following the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, as well as an upswing in land speculation. With its Greek Revival three-story portico, six towering Ionic columns, 151 rooms, and a 96-foot dining hall, the Clinton House was built to be “equaled by few and surpassed by none” in the state. What is seen today is the work of architect Clinton Vivian, who remodeled the parts damaged by a 1901 fire with Colonial Revival details, Palladian Windows, and a roof balustrade. The Clinton House reopened in 1902, and continued as a hotel until 1972. Historic Ithaca bought the building that same year, prevented it from being demolished and subject to urban renewal, and recruited volunteers to restore it. It now houses the New Roots Charter School.
Adjacent to the Clinton House is Clinton Hall, which received a National Register of Historic Places designation in 1988. (Along with the Hibbard Block, the three are the City of Ithaca’s final remaining buildings in the Greek Revival commercial style.) Built sometime between 1837 to 1851, the Clinton Hall, in contrast to the Clinton House, is much less imposing to passerby so as to not challenge the prominence of its neighbor. Instead, it is formed by brick with stone lintels, and features cast-iron storefronts, simple surfaces, and Greek motifs. A cornice is situated at the top of the building, and below it a dentil course, and five frieze windows with cast-iron grilles. During its lifetime, the Clinton Hall and its floors has been used for a variety of purposes: the first two floors were used as retail and office space when the building was built, and the third floor, with its large hall hosted public meetings, travelling stage shows, panoramic painting exhibits, a dancing academy, dances, and a theatre. In the 1930s, it was also used by black fraternal organizations as a meeting location. Following a 10-year vacancy because of a fire, the Clinton Hall encountered demolition plans in 1985, before it was, like others, bought and renovated by Historic Ithaca.
We continue our path up Cayuga Street and cross Seneca Street, where we arrive at our next stop on the tour: the DeWitt Building, a part of the DeWitt Park Historic District and a designated local and national historic district. Named after early Ithaca founder and landowner Simeon DeWitt, the building currently houses the DeWitt Mall on the lower levels, and offices and apartments above. From around 1825 to 1885, it was home to the Ithaca Academy, which during that time was the largest private preparatory school in the state. In 1875, the academy went public, and a decade later a brick building was erected at the site for the new Ithaca High School. However, in 1912, the school was wrecked by a fire, and required a new structure. In 1914, the current four-story structure was finalized, and with a Collegiate Gothic style: a brick and stone structure with features such as a crenellated parapet, towers, a Tudor arch, and gargoyles. In 1970, the Ithaca City School District sold the DeWitt Building, which was no longer in use, to local architect William Downing Jr. for $20,000, instead of agreeing to proposals to destroy the building. Downing Jr. remodeled it to fit the needs of the shops, restaurants, offices, and apartments that have occupied the building since. Walking through halls today that were once filled with students, one might notice traces of the DeWitt Building’s scholastic past, such as a faculty bathroom sign. Today, the building’s tenants include GreenStar organic market, several restaurants and local businesses.
Constructed in 1866, the Boardman House is a post-Civil War brick home with Italianate features: a single-story entry porch; tall, narrow windows; elaborated cast-iron window crowns; wide, overhanging eaves supported by decorative brackets; a low-pitched, hipped roof; and a square cupola. The building was purchased in 1884 by lawyer and judge Douglass Boardman, and his family. (Boardman was eventually appointed as the Cornell Law School’s first dean.) In 1910, they sold the Boardman House to the Ithaca Conservatory of Music, and it was used as an administration building. The conservatory, which later became Ithaca College, built a collection of buildings behind and connected to the house, and in the ensuing years neighboring DeWitt Park was frequented by music students for over half a century. After Ithaca College relocated to South Hill in 1968, Tompkins County bought the Boardman House in 1972 and promptly demolished the added buildings. In 1975, Historic Ithaca prevented the destruction of the Boardman House by the county, which argued the building was in need of thorough restoration. And in 1982, Joseph Ciaschi, who would buy the Clinton House in 1985, purchased the Boardman House and returned it to its initial grandeur.
The tour passes DeWitt Park and the Beebe-Halsey House before O’Malley fields questions from the group and the tour comes to a close. As the crowd disperses into the early evening light, and back into the hustle and bustle of Ithaca’s downtown scene, it’s very unlikely they’ll remember everything they learned in the last hour. But hopefully, even if it’s merely a fraction, they’ll know just a little more about the structures that surround them.