America’s first black fraternity got its start in Ithaca at Cornell. Now, the house where the Alpha Phi Alpha “social study club” held its first meetings is officially a city landmark.
In April 2015 Common Council voted unanimously to give the “Dennis-Newton House” at 421 N. Albany St. historic landmark status. Edward and Lula Newton owned the house—built by Norman Dennis around 1868—in autumn 1905 when their tenant C.C. Poindexter started gathering friends there for the literary and social study club that became Alpha Phi Alpha.
APA project chairman E. Eric Elmore said the fraternity started the Jewels Heritage Project to preserve 421 N. Albany St. and another property in Ithaca with historic significance to fraternity. At present the Dennis-Newton is condemned by the city and has been empty for a number of years. Still standing, though, is better than no building at all, which is the case at 411 E. State St., where the Jewels project is working to construct a monument replicating the facade of the Singleton home and store, where APA officially became a fraternity in 1906. The site is immediately uphill from the Gateway Commons; on the foundation remains.
“Our lesson was learned at 411 State, and 421 Albany is still standing,” Elmore said. “We’d love to get it restored so it’s not threatened with being torn down or getting damaged by the weather.”
APA does not own 421 N. Albany St., but “if the owner were so inclined to sell it to us, we would love to renovate it and restore it,” Elmore said. “It’s really on a glass leg right now, especially after this especially severe winter. Right now in its current state as condemned, I don’t think the neighbors would mind [if APA buys the house]. In its current aesthetic it’s breaking down the property values around it.”
Now that the Dennis-Newton House is designated as historic by the city, the property owner cannot allow deterioration to go on to such an extent that demolishing the landmark is necessary, according to city historic preservation planner Bryan McCracken. The stick the city holds to prevent that sort of deterioration is just about the same as with any average property: the building division inspects a property and cites it, if necessary.
The carrots for a property owner to improve a historic property are financially significant. The city can offer property tax abatements for owners who make improvements on a landmark and improve the assessment value in the process. Though historic landmark status is focused on exterior appearances, 421 N. Albany certainly would qualify for those improvement incentives on work inside and out under the provision that any property vacant for two years or more is eligible.
Furthermore, according to McCracken, property owners can qualify for 20-percent income-tax credits from the state and federal government for a “certified rehabilitation of a historic property.”
Whether the owner decides to sell or work with APA to improve the Dennis-Newton House, Elmore and his fraternity brothers are hopeful that the building can be of use to the community. Elmore says that APA has talked with the Greater Ithaca Activities Center about using 421 N. Albany St. as a place to run the GIAC program for disadvantaged boys, and other programs are in play once renovations are made. GIAC is only a block away on West Court Street.
“We don’t want it to be just gathering cobwebs and dust,” Elmore said of the house. “We wouldn’t look to reinvent the wheel for something to do with it. We’re looking to partnerships with the community.” §