Tompkins Center for History & Culture Mural

History & Art in Downtown Ithaca

Tompkins Center for History & Culture Mural

Ithaca, New York 14850, United States

Created By: Ithaca Heritage


Look above the Tompkins Center for History & Culture (TCHC) for this mural, completed in 2019 in just under two weeks by local artist Mary Beth Ihnken. The design was born from the logo and brand design developed by Todd Edmonds of Iron Design for the Tompkins Center for History & Culture, a collaborative community space which first opened to the public in June of 2019. Artist Mary Beth Ihnken agreed to take on the challenge of painting Todd’s vision on the side of the brick building, with support from the Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County, a TCHC building partner.

Todd Edmonds designed the TCHC logo and mural as an abstract representation of Tompkins County and the central location of the new TCHC building in the heart of Downtown Ithaca. In his words, the radiating lines suggest “connections to the edge of the county, and the far corners of the globe. These lines are dashed and fragmented to convey how connections change and grow throughout time. These ‘dots’ also represent the pulse of life in Tompkins County, sent out, and returning inward to the County center."

The blue sections of the mural refer to the many lakes, rivers, creeks, gorges, and streams that define the landscape of Tompkins County. The Finger Lakes consist of 11 long, narrow, roughly parallel lakes, oriented north-south and resembling fingers on a pair of outstretched hands. These lakes were formed over the last two million years by glacial carving of old stream valleys. As the most recent glaciers melted around 10,000 years ago, they left behind a landscape of long lakes and high ridges. Ithaca is located at the southernmost end of Cayuga Lake, the longest and second-deepest of the Finger Lakes. Cayuga is 38.1 miles (61.3 kilometers) long and 435 feet (133 meters, or 53 feet/16 meters below sea level) deep at its deepest spot. Cayuga Lake draws its name from the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ' Nation, whose name has been mispronounced as "Cayuga" for generations. Gayogo̱hó:nǫ' translates to “People of the Great Swamp,” and their nation was one of the five original nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy founded over 1,000 years ago. The Gayogo̱hó:nǫ' called the lake “Tiohero,” which translates to “lake of flags or rushes” or “lake of the marsh,” highlighting the extensive wetlands at both the North and South ends of the lake. Creeks flowing into the lakes since their formation have carved out lovely narrow gorges and created spectacular waterfalls. There is no formal definition of how far water must “fall” to be called a waterfall, but rough estimates suggest that Tompkins County has anywhere from 150-500+ waterfalls within the county limits. No matter where you go, you’re likely to find some "gorges" water nearby.

The lines with cross ties near the top of the mural are “Transportation tracks: These lines represent the deep history Tompkins County has to transportation, specifically rail lines, yet another connection to the greater world.” Ithaca was quite a bustling community in the late 19th and early 20th century, and it was correspondingly a hub for transportation of goods and supplies. The Lehigh Valley Railroad (LV) was established in 1847. It’s original route was from New York City to Buffalo, primarily to haul coal and other wares, but also included passenger services. The route was often called the Route of the Black Diamond, in reference to its common cargo of anthracite (locals may be familiar with the Black Diamond hiking trail which also claims its name from our local railroad history). The passenger station was operational until 1961, but due to scheduling changes and budget cuts over the previous decade, it largely fell out of service, and the last Black Diamond train left Ithaca on May 11, 1959, with the final passenger train for Ithaca departing on a different route only two years later. The railroad is still operational for cargo transport, and the occasional passing train will block traffic in Ithaca’s West End even today.

The peach-colored section in the top right quadrant represents “Radiating knowledge: Collection of knowledge and history radiating out of the ‘Center’ to the world.” Tompkins County is home to three schools of higher education: Cornell University (established 1865), Ithaca College (established 1892), and Tompkins Cortland Community College (established 1968). These three campuses bring tens of thousands of students and visitors to the community each year, as well as world-class lecturers, educators, performances, and research. The identity and culture of Tompkins County is highly intertwined with the lasting and continuing legacies of these schools.

The curlicue design in the bottom portion of the mural represents “Community pathways: These intersecting and overlapping pathways represent the interconnections the community has in daily life that make up the events that form history. These also have an urban ‘roadway’ aesthetic.” TCHC is a unique collaborative building and enterprise. First established in 2019, the building houses exhibit space and the offices of 12 local organizations, providing a shared public community center in the heart of the City of Ithaca for explorations into the arts, history, culture, and rich heritage of the region. Learn more at


This point of interest is part of the tour: History & Art in Downtown Ithaca


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