Created By: Ithaca Heritage
The West End Mural was designed and painted by local artist Mary Beth Ihnken in 2004 with assistance from Bill Benson. The mural was a request of the Alternatives Federal Credit Union to brighten up their drive thru lanes, and was partially funded by a Community Arts Partnership grant.
The design was developed after three weeks of research at The History Center in Tompkins County. The mural depicts Ithaca’s West End in the early 1900s, highlighting many of the businesses and industries in the community. Ihnken's research revealed that Ithaca's West End was a hub of local industry and transportation; the train station and the old airport (now the Hangar Theatre) were there, and ferries and boats departed from the ports in the Cayuga Lake Inlet, travelling north to the Erie Canal. The mural includes nearly all these modes of transportation: an airplane, a train, automobiles, a horse-drawn carriage, and boats. The mural was used in the Alternatives 2004 Annual Report, garnering the credit union two awards from the 2006 Credit Union National Association Marketing Council’s Marketing & Business Development Conference in Florida (first place National Diamond Award for Annual Reports and Best Use of Art Award).
At the top left of the mural is the “Tommy” plane, a nickname for the Thomas-Morse S-4 Scout bi-plane developed for WWI pilots. Thomas-Morse Scouts were designed and built in Ithaca at the Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation in the 1910s. The Thomas-Morse factory still stands today on Brindley Street, although it hasn’t produced aircraft for many decades. Tommys were built as WWI pursuit trainers, which most American pilots trained on at bases throughout the U.S. before flying in Europe. Of the approximately 600 planes built before WWI ended, less than 14 of these planes exist today. One surviving Tommy was donated to the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation (IAHF) in 2009 by Dr. William Thibault of Newport Beach, CA. Over the next fourteen years, this Tommy was lovingly and painstakingly restored to authentic factory condition by IAHF volunteers. Tommy was flown for its 100th anniversary on September 29, 2018, at the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport, soaring over the same skies it was built under 100 years before. This Tommy is now on permanent loan from IAHF and displayed at The History Center in Tompkins County on the Ithaca Commons.
In the mural, the former airport (and one-time storage hangar for the Tommy planes) can be seen sitting alone among the trees near the water’s edge, just below and barely to the right of the Tommy plane. The Ithaca Municipal Airport, as it was known while at its home on the west shore of Cayuga Lake, was built in 1912, with only one hangar and airstrip. It was a prime location for testing many of the planes that were produced here in Ithaca, with the Thomas-Morse Scouts being the most famous of them. In 1934, the airport was expanded as a project of the Civil Works Administration, and thousands of pilots trained there during WWII. However, with commercial aviation increasing, business at this diminutive airport began to decline, especially after Cornell built an airport on the East Hill in 1948. In 1966, the municipal airport closed and became a storage facility for the city, but in the following years, the Center for the Arts at Ithaca (CAI) had set its sights on the building and location as a possible theatre venue. After decades of renovations and fundraising, the facility finally opened as a year-round performance venue in 2010, known as the Hangar Theatre. As the organization states, “the Hangar Theatre can continue to serve as a place where imagination and spirits take flight.”
Located at the front left of the mural you can see the red Stanford-Crowell Company building, which was located at 1001 West Seneca St. on the corner of Brindley St. and West Seneca. The building is now known as the Signworks Building, and as of 2020 is home to Worldwide Books. Stanford-Crowell was a sign manufacturer in the 19th century, with customers across the United States, with the distinction of being one of the largest sign novelty factories in the country. The business was originally founded in 1879 by O. R. Stanford. After partnering with W. H. Crowell, the business was incorporated in 1906. The company was known for several of its unique processes which made sign-making a more efficient and profitable undertaking. According to an article in the Ithaca Journal published on August 11, 1926, “G. K. Loveless, superintendent of the plant, is the inventor of a new and distinct process in the making of felt banners and pennants. This is known as the screen process. It consists of putting letters of white lead on felt, rather than sewing on letters of superimposed felt as was formerly done. The layer of white lead is laid on the felt through a fine-screened stencil.” Another process that was unique to Stanford-Crowell was that of waterproofing cardboard. This was achieved by using pure wood pulp, then dipping it in a solution of oil and paint. In 1930, the company purchased the Lock-Fold Paper Box Company, which moved its entire operation to this location in Ithaca.
Ithaca was a bustling community in the early twentieth century, and it was correspondingly a hub for transportation of goods and supplies. This was made possible by Ithaca’s access to the Erie Canal through Cayuga Lake, which opened up the potential for revenues from freight and shipping. Ithaca had not just one railroad station, but two in the West End. At 701 West Seneca Street, the railroad station for the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western (DL&W) was built in 1912. This station served as a stop on a line from Ithaca to Owego. By the late 1930s, however, both the DL&W and the LV passenger trains began to dwindle, as automobiles and the construction of highway systems replaced the practicality of railroads. In 1942, DL&W discontinued passenger service. The station building served as the Ithaca Bus Depot for regional bus traffic from the 1990s on until the bus station relocated to downtown Ithaca in 2019.
The train running alongside the Stanford-Crowell building represents the Lehigh Valley Railroad. The Lehigh Valley Railroad (LV) was established in 1847 as the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill and Susquehanna Railroad, but in 1853, the name was changed to Lehigh Valley Railroad. The original route was from New York City to Buffalo, primarily to haul coal and other wares, but it included passenger services as well. The route was often referred to as 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). Up two blocks and on the opposite side of the street from the Signworks, at 806 West Buffalo Street, is the Lehigh Valley Railroad Station, built in 1898. The passenger station and freight station were designed by local architect A. B. Wood. This station was a stop for the Black Diamond, Maple Leaf, and Star trains. During the 1920s and 1930s, LV offered specials for Cornell students and parents by providing “observation trains,” which were flatbed cars equipped with bleachers. These would park or move slowly along the side of the lake so the spectators could observe Cornell crew races in the inlet canal. 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 departing two years later. The route is still operational for cargo transport, and the occasional passing train will block traffic in Ithaca’s West End even today.
In the mural, the block between the Signworks building and the LV Railroad Station depicts the Dixon and Robinson lumber yard. The large white building in that block is the Lehigh Valley Hotel at 801 W. Buffalo St. The building was also home to the Lehigh Valley House restaurant. The restaurant had opened in 1897 and was operational for over 100 years, closing in 2010. At the time it was the oldest restaurant in town, serving train passengers, hotel guests, and locals for 113 years.
In the foreground of the mural, you can see a horse-drawn fire engine about to cross a bridge. It appears to have come from the Sprague Steamer & Hose Company No. 6. The Sprague Steamer & Hose Company was one of several fire companies of the Ithaca Fire Department, first incorporated in 1871, although its existence long preceded that date. In fact, the city’s first fire engine was purchased in 1823. Following the incorporation of the fire department, the Sprague Steamer Company No. 6 was organized on October 1, 1872, and incorporated in December, 1915. It was located in a two-story brick building at 624 West State Street, near Fulton Street.
The white building on the corner, next to the Sprague Steamer Company, is the St. John’s Hotel. The business was short-lived and was sold in the early 1900s. It is now the location of the Alternatives Federal Credit Union (in whose parking lot you’re in if you can see the mural!).
Although few of the other buildings in the mural include the names of the businesses, it is apparent that the many factories, businesses, and stations that occupied the West End in the early 1900s were prominent features of the city, as they are today. The mural itself is painted on the side of the Bangs Ambulance Operations building, at 626 West Seneca Street. Bangs was also a part of the West End District, and it has been an important part of Ithaca’s history, dating back to 1945. Although the Bangs building is not included in the mural, it is appropriate that the mural is painted on a building of historical significance. The ambulance service began three years after the Bangs Funeral Home was opened by John Bangs in 1942. His wife Rita, a nurse, recognized the need for pre-hospital care in emergency situations, so they began using the hearses from the funeral home to transport patients to the hospital, with Rita administering medical treatment en route. This early intervention proved to be beneficial in patient outcomes, and Bangs Ambulance remains a mainstay of the community over 75 years later.
The artist also included the McGraw Clock Tower in the upper right-hand portion of the mural. Cornell University's McGraw Clock Tower, located in the center of the Cornell campus and adjacent to Uris Library, was built in 1891 and named for Jennie McGraw, Ezra Cornell's close family friend. The 173-foot clock tower was originally a library and now houses the Cornell Chimes, a 21-bell set of chimes played daily by chimesmasters. The bells first rang at the Cornell's opening ceremonies on October 7, 1868, and have since played three concerts daily during the school year with a reduced schedule during the summer and semester breaks, making it one of the largest and most frequently played chimes sets in the world. Every morning concert since 1869 has begun with the "Cornell Changes" (affectionately known as the "Jennie McGraw Rag"). The Cornell "Alma Mater" is played at the midday concert, and the "Cornell Evening Song" comes at the end of the evening concert.
If you are interested in finding out more about the buildings depicted in this mural, or about any structure that existed in the early 1900s in Ithaca, please go to historyforge.net. There you will find interactive maps of Ithaca dating back to the 1870s.
This point of interest is part of the tour: History & Art - Driving Tour of Tompkins County
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