The Preservation League of New York State announced on March 2 that one of its “Seven to Save” buildings for 2016-17 is 421 N. Albany St., the house where Alpha Phi Alpha [APA], America’s first black fraternity, held its first social study groups in 1905.
Historical preservationists call it the “Dennis-Newton House,” after Norman Dennis, who built it around 1868, and Edward and Lula Newton, who were the property’s owners when Charles Cardoza Poindexter began inviting friends there in December 1905 for meetings of a club that evolved into APA.
APA’s “Jewels Heritage Project” would still be happy to take ownership of 421 N. Albany, according to E. Eric Elmore, chairman of the nonprofit set up by APA to preserve and commemorate its Ithaca history.
“The owner thinks he can fix it himself, and he hired an architect,” Elmore said. “He’s interested in improving it, but I think the cost component is more significant than he’s suggesting.”
The city condemned the house as unfit for human habitation in November 2012. A complaint lodged by codes inspector Mike Niechwiadowicz in city court against the property owner charges him with 11,042 counts under state property maintenance codes. The large number comes from multiplying 11 code violations by 1,194 days, between the first inspection on record of Nov. 2, 2012 and Feb. 10, 2016.
In court documents, it was noted that a building permit issued in 2003 to repair roof joists was not completed, and that neighbors to the north side of the house had complained about water pouring onto their property from the roof. Further inspections in May and August of 2015 found that significant issues had not yet been cured. A building permit was issued on Dec. 22, 2015 to the owner, who has held the property since 1982. Calls and an email to the owner were not returned.
Since the city granted a historical designation to the Dennis-Newton House last year (see “First Black Frat Gets Historical Status,” April 8, 2015), there are tax incentives available for improvements to the property. The Preservation League status comes with no funding attached, according to Elmore.
“We’re really excited, because there’s been more movement in the last couple of months than we’ve had in the last couple of decades,” Elmore said. “But we are racing against the clock with the condition of the house. We’re concerned it’s on its last leg and might not make it through another season.”
Elmore said that APA would still be happy to use the house as “a kind of annex” for the Greater Ithaca Activities Center just down the street, where fraternity members and alumni might run programs to mentor youth.
Without “something tangible in hand,” fundraising for the Jewels Heritage Project is difficult, Elmore said, because “people don’t have much of an assurance” their donations will have immediate impact. The APA nonprofit said it has a goal of $5 million to restore 421 N. Albany and to build a monument at 411 E. State St., where the fraternity was officially incorporated in 1906.
“We’re hopeful we can make major movements on both of these fronts this year,” Elmore said. “We’ve got a couple people we can go to if we need to buy the property quickly, and until that time we’re building grassroots support for the projects we have planned.”