Wednesday, August 5, 2009

August 2, 1956

"To have such things would be identical with a woman buying a beautiful, expensive dress and then proceeding, very methodically and deliberately, to daub it all over with ink, or to slit it up the back. There are many such cases in Syracuse which the new Park commission will find it advantageous to alter." -- Syracuse Herald, July 27, 1906

City beautification, as it turned out, could be an ugly business. Parks were acres (and acres) of lush green space in an otherwise chaotic, crowded city. Like rare gems, it wasn't enough to merely appreciate their existence. Everyone wanted a piece of them, and they became an unlikely battleground for a variety of issues, such as class:

At a meeting of the board of directors of the Syracuse Associated Charities held March 28, 1906, it was voted...that it was the sentiment of the Board of Directors that the Park Commission, when created, should aim not so much at the development of an outlying boulevard and park reserve system, which would be enjoyed chiefly by the well-to-do, as at the establishment of playgrounds in the crowded sections of the city where they could be utilized by the poorest people, who stand most in need of park facilities. (Syracuse Herald, August 10, 1906)

Gender (or, perhaps more appropriately, Not In My Backyard):

H. I. Seddon, a property owner near Kirk Park, believes that the commission has a wrong idea of what is demanded. He would have pretty walks and flowers and shrubbery and benches, and make no provision for sport for men and boys. In his letter to Mayor Schoeneck, he writes:

"I am intensely interested [in Kirk Park], as I happen to own the house immediately at the entrance of the park, that is, corner of Midland and Kirk avenues...Now, as far as the writer has been able to glean from the opinions of the neighboring residents of Kirk Park, which, of course, includes the writer's own opinion, a laid-out park is desired where mothers with babies and little girls may have a safe place for outings and recreation, meaning by that, pretty walks with flowers and shrubbery, comfortable benches, etc. Such a park in that section of the city is very much needed for the benefit of women and little children. What use would a racetrack or public playground be to them? It would mean a raising of dust and constant danger... (Syracuse Herald, February 1, 1910)


It is now suggested that the city should assume the expense of such supervision next summer at other playgrounds in the city. One thousand dollars is the sum mentioned by the leaders of the is not a large sum to pay for the results which the playground people hold up to view, the wholesome happiness of thousands of children and the saving of boys from crime...(Post-Standard editorial, November 1, 1910)

And, most of all, Politics:

A fight which threatens to lose David Campbell his position as superintendent of parks and which has upset the city government has resulted over the determination of Mayor Will and Commissioner of Public Works Van Wagner to cut openings in the wire fence surrounding Schiller Park near Grumbach Avenue.

Superintendent Campbell put the fence up a short time ago. Men employed by Commissioner Van Wagner cut the two openings in the wire Monday morning. Superintendent Campbell sent a squad of ten men to the spot today and they built a new fence. Mr. Campbell says that as fast as they tear down the fence he'll rebuild it if he has to employ a thousand men...

One of Mayor Will's arguments in favor of the openings was that boys using the park changed their clothes over the store near which one of the openings was to be located, and that the boys should have easy access to the grounds. Mr. Campbell said that if the city could not provide a place in the park grounds for the boys then the city should be ashamed of itself. (Syracuse Herald, November 6, 1914)
Apparently, the Valley Theater wasn't only place for outdoor entertainment back then.

When the Parks Commission was created in 1906, it was set up as independent of the mayoral administration, with the intent that it could complete the park and boulevard plan over a 10-20 year period, and not have to worry about being removed with every new election. In short, see a project through. While this seems logical, the Commission had absolute authority over the "development of parks, squares, parkways and playgrounds"--in essence, the design of the city, with no oversight from the city administration:

An agitation has been started for the abolition of the park commission at the next session of the is charged that there is a duplication of functions between the park commissioner and department of parks. The theory of the creation of the commission was that it would remove from the administration responsibility and blame for park matters. But it has proved that the administration is held responsible for what the commission does and yet has absolutely no power over the commission's activities. (Syracuse Herald, October 30, 1921)

Further complicating matters was that the responsibilities of the parks was split between different departments and job titles. Initially, the independent Park Commission made decisions regarding park development and permanent improvements of existing parks, while the Park Bureau (headed by the Superintendent of Parks), operating under the Department of Public Works, supervised construction and maintenance issues. In 1917, Mayor Walter Stone, an original member of the Park Commission, reorganized the structure somewhat, by abolishing the Park Bureau, and delegating its duties to a Commissioner of Parks, who would serve under the Mayor. Therefore, the Superintendent/Commissioner would in effect be reporting to two separate entities: the Park Commission and the City Government:

According to Mr. Campbell and other city officials, the trouble [with the Schiller Park fence situation] has resulted from the fact that Mr. Campbell is working both for the Park Commission and for the Bureau of Parks which Commissioner [of Public Works] Wagner heads. As superintendent of parks he receives $1,250 a year from the city and as expert for the commission he receives an additional $1,250. As expert for the Commission he is in charge of planning and carrying out all park plans and as superintendent of parks he cares for the parks after they have been completed...

"I've been here for 12 years now and my authority was never been questioned before," said Mr. Campbell. He said no man could work for two masters and that members of the Park Commission and Bureau of Parks ought to get together and find out what they wanted done. (Syracuse Herald, November 6, 1914)
In New York City, Robert Moses used a similar predicament to leverage his way to becoming one of the most powerful figures in New York State history, transforming the physical landscape of New York City (for better or worse) throughout the first half of the 20th century. In Syracuse, Campbell never took full advantage of this potential power (for better or worse), and park development languished for several years as each successive mayoral administration butted heads with the Park Commission/Parks Department:

The Common Council adopted a bond issue ordinance in October, 1919, during the last months of the administration of Walter Stone, former mayor [and original Park Commission member]. Among other things, $25,000 was supplied for buying certain properties in Onondaga Park...These properties were surrounded by the park lands and the buildings constituted an eyesore, destroying the whole park effect.

Two years have elapsed. The Herald's investigation shows that not only have the properties in question not been acquired, but Mayor Harry H. Farmer, who retires this year, has now reached the arbitrary conclusion that by refusing to remove the buildings in question he has helped to solve the local housing problem.

"The buildings will never be removed while I am mayor," he said, when he was informed that the city has now wasted two years in the purchase of seven or eight pieces of property... The Park Commission would ordinarily go ahead, but while David Campbell, superintendent, did not say so, it is evident that Mayor Farmer...has taken the commission by surprise.

Theoretically, the Park Commission is independent of the Mayor. But practically, the commission would not go ahead over his veto. (Syracuse Herald, October 12, 1921)
The city's next mayor, John Walrath, ran on a campaign platform promising "to abolish departments where there is a conflict of functions" (December 18, 1921). Within a year of taking office, the Park Commission and Park Bureau had been eliminated (like the establishment of the Commission, the process had to go through Albany), and created the Planning, Parks and Recreation Commission, consisting of the city's Corporation Counsel (Frank J. Cregg), Commissioner of Public Safety, City Engineer, and three additional appointees (including president of Muench-Kreuzer Candle Company, Alexis M. Muench). Not only were the parks no longer being developed under an independent group and plan, but Walrath openly discussed his adoption of "a policy of having his appointees in power on various commission in the city government as means of securing cooperation." (Syracuse Herald, April 17, 1922)

Meanwhile, the loss of power did little to affect the success of original members of the Park Commission, who expanded their fortunes during the 1920s housing boom in Syracuse. Emil M. Kotz went back to his furniture business on North Salina Street; his son Emil F. Kotz built houses in the brand new subdivision Bradford Hills (September 30, 1928). James Pennock also became a realtor in the East Genesee street area, selling lots on Allen Street before passing in 1929 at the age of 87. And Mayor Alan Fobes, who had sold his family mansion to Ada and Frederick Hazard in 1907, took a job as an insurance salesman and lived with his wife and children on Teall Ave until he died of pneumonia on January 5, 1944. A rather unceremonious news article about his death summed up his mayoral career in four sentences:

As mayor, Mr. Fobes had great popularity and his election to successive terms by large majorities was testimony to the people's confidence in him. He was successful in reducing the city debt and brought about several improvements and reform in city government. His administrations were noted as business administration. While mayor, Mr. Fobes developed Burnet Park to its present beauty. (Syracuse Herald Journal, January 5, 1944)

Though there are several other paragraphs in the article discussing his post-mayor titles and honors (including Vice-President of Syracuse Savings Bank, member of Onondaga Orphans Home Board, and director of Oakwood Cemetery Association), the absolute lack of detail regarding the "improvements and reform" in the city (as well as no mention of the development of the many other city parks that occurred during his administration) may be indicative of the new year that had dawned in Syracuse. Tales of 1900s-era mayoral accomplishments must have seemed positively quaint to a city that was on the cusp of declaring itself the center of the electronics industry:

Announcement that General Electric's big new electronic plant--Electronics Park, it will be called--is to be located just north of Syracuse, near Liverpool, is a major development from the standpoint of the postwar progress and prosperity of this community.

It seems safe to predict that Electronics Park will become the center of electronics research, invention and production in the United States. That undoubtedly means that it will become the world center in a new field whose potential possibilities are inconceivably vast. (Syracuse Herald Journal editorial, August 25, 1944)
To them, the Syracuse Fobes had shaped was a "rickety" relic becoming quickly outdated, with residents and businesses alike making a push towards the "modern":

Sergei N. Grimm, secretary to the [City Planning] Commission, pointed out..."it is an interesting matter for speculation as to whether these small businesses and machine shops which have crawled out of rickety downtown 'holes in the wall' to locate in more modern commercial establishments, vacated by folding automobile businesses and others, will ever be satisfied to go back to their old quarters after the war is over." (Syracuse Herald Journal, May 6, 1943)
Nowhere was this more true than James Street:

The rambling homes, surrounded by acres of lawn, are of another era. People today don't go in for big, ornate mansions; they can't afford to build or maintain them...Young couples today are seeking out the suburbs for homes; they don't want 'Dad's' big place. Cars today bring the suburbs closer to downtown than the horse and buggy did from upper James Street. (Post-Standard, September 21, 1952)

So perhaps it was only fitting that a decisive zoning battle for James Street eventually centered on 989 James Street, the former mansion of the Fobes family. And the city officials who would make this crucial decision were members of a modified Park Commission.


Throughout the '30s, zoning requests for James Street were routinely brought to the Planning, Parks and Recreation Commission, seeking changes from Residential to Business Status. A commission that had been formed a decade earlier by Mayor Walrath to consolidate park development power under his mayoral reign were now deciding whether a gas station should be allowed to open at the corner of James and Catherine Streets (Syracuse Herald, April 3, 1934), or a sanatorium and convalescent home at 1010 James Street (Syracuse Herald Journal, May 6, 1940). James Street residents came to these public Commission meetings in full force to oppose the rezoning requests, including Emil F. Kotz, who protested the construction of a gas station on James Street between Grant Boulevard and North Avenue (Syracuse Herald, July 2, 1936). The board turned down early requests, but businesses persisted in their fight, including Leo and Edward Eagan, who fought the decision against a James & Catherine Street gas station for four years through a series of court appeals (and eventually won). After a while-- given the determination of developers like Eagan--the board started to give some thought to Eagan's argument that "the growth of the city is making James Street more and more a natural business street," (Syracuse Herald, September 6, 1935). In 1938, the Planning, Parks and Recreation Commission underwent another structural reorganization and became the City Planning Commission, which became populated with members such as Alexis Muench (appointed to the original Planning, Parks and Recreation Commission in 1922), George W. Cregg (whose father was also an original member of the Planning, Parks and Recreation committee in 1922 as Corporation Counsel) and Paul Hueber (who designed several homes in Sedgwick Farms).

In April 1950, the Leavenworth Mansion at 607 James Street was the first grand James Street home to be sold (by Lucy Van Duyn, a surviving member of the Leavenworth family) to a developer (Jackson M. Potter) in order to be razed and turned into a "high class apartment house." (Post Standard, April 20, 1950). The idea of replacing mansions with apartment buildings had been discussed since 1941, when the city completed its own study of James Street:

Conclusions then were that the best thing would be for some developer to buy up many of the deteriorating homes and build garden-type apartments, with lawns and general appearance to equal the 'texture' of the street. Planners also thought that developments of small homes might be promoted...However, the home owners didn't go for it; people thought it "far-fetched" and they just wanted to be "left alone," Mr. [Sergei] Grimm [said]. (Post Standard, September 21, 1952)

When the actual zoning change request by Jackson M. Potter, Inc. came before the City Planning Commission in July 1950 (asking to change from Residential B to Residential C), "no opposition to the change was voiced at the hearing in the common council chambers that preceded the commission's vote." (Post Standard, July 12, 1950). Although the Post-Standard seemed to hope there might be some sense of seller's remorse on behalf of the Syracuse people

If the 2000 persons who roamed through the old Gen. Elias W. Leavenworth mansion at 607 James Street could have displayed the same interest a few months back as they did yesterday, then the remains of one of the last of Syracuse's historical landmarks yesterday might not have been picked over, inspected closely, fondled gingerly by those prideful of their city's past or disdained by a handful seeking just practical usage of the old items. (Post-Standard, May 16, 1950)

the city planning commission continued to rezone James Street block by block. And in August 1956, 989 James Street - the former Fobes family mansion- was sold by Myron Melvin to Malcolm Sutton for $100,000. Sutton bought the property for the purpose of building an "ultra-modern luxury type apartment house for the higher income group," with an expected construction cost of $2 million dollars. (Syracuse Herald Journal, August 2, 1956) Skyline Apartments had already been built under a similar premise four years earlier, but the Sutton apartments promised to be "one of only four like it built in this country...three [others] have been built, one in New York City, one in Chicago and one in Los Angeles." (Post-Standard, August 13, 1959) The Syracuse Board of Zoning Appeals, seizing the opportunity to be four-of-a-kind rather than one-of-a-kind, "granted [the developers] all that they asked as far as altering density, height and marquee requirements" for the apartment building (Post Standard, August 13, 1959) More specifically, the zoning board approved the following:

  • apartment house with density of 810 sq. ft. for 2 bedroom apt and 510 sq. ft. for 1 bedroom apt (previous zoning had required 900 sq. ft. for 2 bedroom and 600 sq. ft. for 1 bedroom)
  • height of building at 95 1/2 feet (previous zoning would have required an entire story to be eliminated, and apartment building financing only supported by a provision for 115 apartments). This made the building the highest point in Syracuse at the time.
  • marquee to extend "30 feet in the front yard as a protection against elements for tenants and guests" (previous zoning allowed 15 feet)

The zoning for the construction of the apartment building itself had been approved eight months earlier, when the City Planning Commission established a new office district zone on James Street, "covering a six block area roughly between N. Townsend St. and DeWitt St. and Sedgwick St" on the basis of a study done by a "Planning Advisory Commission," headed by Syracuse University Landscape Architecture Professor Noreda A. Rotunno (Post-Standard, January 21, 1959). If you're wondering how a Landscape Architect could not only condone but endorse the wholesale destruction of historic landmarks, it is important to note that during the same time, Professor Rotunno was redesigning the SU campus to accommodate for post-WW II growth:

Old gave way to new without sentimentality; the Old Gymnasium, which had been moved in 1928 to a site between Steele Hall and Archbold Stadium to accommodate the construction of Hendricks Chapel, was subsequently demolished in 1965 to make way for a new Physics Building...The campus' physical expansion coincided with the heyday of urban renewal in the City of Syracuse...This process reached its apogee in 1966 with the unveiling of a University Hill General Neighborhood Renewal Plan, authored by Professor Rotunno. Conceived in the modernist spirit of contemporaneous New York State developments such as Albany's SUNY campus and that city's Empire State Plaza, the plan proposed an expanded series of quadrangles, set into a landscape radically remade to accommodate the automobile.

Imperial Gardens opened in November 1960, complete with a special 12 page supplement in the Post-Standard (Nov 13, 1960). Surely the area had some VIPs working in the neighborhood that would appreciate the "new building [which] substitutes 115 modern, high-rise apartments with the latest in conveniences and services for the century-old James Street mansion which, however
striking, represented on older way of living," considering that in 1963, WHEN (later WTVH) TV opened their new studio across the street, which happened to be the site of the former James Pennock mansion (the house had been converted into apartments in the '40s, and burned in a suspicious fire in 1960). Yet perhaps they wanted to stand up and tell 'em they were from Syracuse rather than "a four-room apartment...done in tones of avocado, melon and electric blue...blend[ing] modern with some Far Eastern features." (Post Standard, November 13, 1960)


[Imperial Gardens] will bring an approximate total of 275 or 300 residents closer to our downtown area and thus bring that many more shoppers to our downtown merchants...

Now, if other builders would erect similar apartment buildings in the southern, eastern and western parts of Syracuse as close to the downtown area as feasible, this would be a great boon to our fine stores on Salina, Warren and other adjacent streets... It would not only be good for the health of the people to walk downtown, but it would eliminate a lot of traffic, as the people would not have to bring their cars down.

Let's hope some far sighted builders will do just this in the near future.

-An Observer, Post-Standard letter-to-the-editor, March 6, 1961

As a car-free advocate in 2009, there is something appealing about an apartment building within walking distance of an active downtown. Yet in 1959, Syracusans had already demonstrated their affinity for the suburbs, or at the very least, houses. For $285/month (Imperial Gardens 2-bedroom rent in 1961), Imperial Gardens' ads promised "luxury that can be yours at less than owning your own home." (Post-Standard, July 17, 1961). Not only is that claim somewhat debatable (the real estate ads at the time seem to put houses within reach at that price), but people wanted to own their own home. Syracuse (and the country) had just gone through the largest period of housing growth in history. Certainly many people have lived at Imperial Gardens over the years, but when the Syracuse zoning board so readily approved the sale and razing of the Fobes Mansion, did they give any thought to the necessity of a 12 story "ultra-modern" apartment building? Or did it just sound really cool to them at the time?

I have read comments on about how Destiny would succeed if it had followed its original design plans, which would make it similar to the West Edmonton mall, whose features include:

  • waterpark
  • indoor lake
  • ice rink
  • miniature golf
  • skate park
  • petting zoo
  • stores in an area designed to look like a European streetscape

As opposed to what they got stuck with, whose features include:

  • Public pools in eight city parks
  • The Finger Lakes, Lake Ontario, and (for what it's worth) Onondaga Lake
  • The Clinton Square ice rink
  • Burnet Park golf course
  • Onondaga Lake Skate Park
  • Burnet Park Zoo
  • Downtown Syracuse

And that "really cool" mall that turned out to be one more ugly concrete addition to the city of Syracuse.


At least once a month, it seems, the Post-Standard features a letter to the editor about the post-WWII days of Syracuse, along with stated wishes--no matter how unrealistic--that we could bring about that Syracuse again. What is conveniently forgotten is that while downtown Syracuse was certainly vibrant in the '40s and '50s, it was also essentially on the road to ruin: ripping up trolley tracks, rezoning James Street, placing its entire future in those bustling department stores and related retail.

Meanwhile, historical lessons of turn-of-the-century Syracuse are reduced to architectural studies or charming photos of petticoats and pince-nez. The city of Syracuse website "mayors of Syracuse" section only lists leaders through 1870. While this appears to be because of a programming error, the fact that it exists for months? years? without correction shows not only the continuing lack of effort put into its website, but a stunning lack of concern for this mayoral history in the first place. And yet if we are to look at history for some guidance in reshaping Syracuse today, wouldn't it make the most sense to look towards the buildings and landmarks that have remained--for the most part--physically unchanged for over 100 years, and the leaders who made them possible in the first place? These early leaders concentrated on beautifying the basics: parks, roads, schools. The building blocks of a city.