Created By: The History Center in Tompkins County
What are the forces that influence the particular built environment we inherit?
This is a 1935 photograph of the Ithaca Hotel that was demolished in 1966 as part of Ithaca's "Urban Renewal" efforts. These efforts sought to revitalize a downtown area that was in decline as more and more Ithacans embraced the mobility of the automobile, moved to the suburbs and spent less time in the parts of the city that were better suited to walking than driving. Many of Ithaca's Urban Renewal Projects involved the removal of historic buildings to make room for parking automobiles or to make room for the construction of facilities that it was thought would attract commerce. The economic incentives offered by the national Urban Renewal program (a 4 to 1 match of local funds) were irresistible to a city trying to bring life back into the downtown area.
The current structure at this site (housing Madeline's and the Finger Lakes School of Massage in 2017) was built to be the site of the “new” Rothschild's Department store. This business moved to its new location from an earlier historic building which was also demolished as a part of Urban Renewal, the Wilgus Opera House, which stood roughly where Center Ithaca stands today. Many Ithacans were heartbroken and outraged by the loss of so many historic buildings and an organization called Historic Ithaca and Tompkins County, Inc was formed in 1966 when the Ithaca Hotel came into the spotlight as the next target for demolition. While they were unable to save the Ithaca Hotel, the group, now known simply as Historic Ithaca, has rescued numerous other historic buildings.
And whose history are we telling?
The southwest corner of State and Aurora Streets was, for many years, the site of the Ithaca Hotel. Before the pictured brick structure was built, a wooden hotel stood at this same location. George Johnson, the first African American to serve on a jury in Ithaca, had a barber shop in this earlier hotel. He currently has a bridge named after him in Ithaca's Southside neighborhood. George Johnson personally assisted at least 114 former slaves northward to freedom along an Underground Railroad route that passed through Ithaca. When the wooden hotel burned in 1871, he moved to Albany where he worked as a doorman at the state senate for a few years before returning to Ithaca and opening another barber shop further west on State Street, along what is now The Commons. The brick Ithaca Hotel of the photograph was built in 1872 and became somewhat of an elegant hotel where someone like silent film star Pearl White preferred to stay when she was shooting a film during Ithaca's heyday of silent film-making. One has to wonder if George Johnson was welcome in this new Ithaca Hotel, which also served as a local center of entertainment.
Photo from Ithaca and its Past: the History and Architecture of Downtown by Daniel R. Snodderly,1982, Ithaca, NY : DeWitt Historical Society of Tompkins County (The History Center)
Historic Ithaca currently houses its offices, a library and an architectural salvage store in a historic building on the corner of Plain and Center streets, in Ithaca's Southside neighborhood.
This point of interest is part of the tour: Nature and Culture of Downtown Ithaca - Visual Aids