Tuesday, May 25, 2010

May 15, 1923

"One of the strangest of all strange things is the unwillingness of some people to learn anything from the lessons of experience."from a Syracuse Herald editorial, May 15, 1923

Earlier this month, Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney said she wished to revisit the possibility of renovating the Hotel Syracuse and using the downtown landmark as the convention center hotel.

The first comment in reply to Sean Kirst's related column about the topic (and as noted by NYCO in this blog's comments): "The best way to make the Hotel Syracuse the convention center's hotel, is to build an enclosed glass walkway above the sidewalk."

In other words, a skybridge!

Not that this is surprising: skybridges and convention center are more married in the Syracuse public mind than CenterState CEO, who in their single days had been promoting skybridges since the '70s.   Perhaps those who reintroduce skybridges to the conversation are not so much recycling a three-decade old proposition, but rather exploring an idea that they feel has never been pursued to its fullest potential. After all, the skybridges of the '70s connected the defunct Syracuse Mall to a parking garage, not a fully restored Hotel Syracuse to the Convention Center!

Or is "skybridge" just the answer that is most quick and convenient, the very two post-WWII buzzwords that contributed to the downfall of downtown in the first place?


As a recent Dick Case column reminds us, the Hotel Syracuse had its share of difficulties prior to and during its construction.  The hotel was not the only city project stuck in a holding pattern at the time. Along with the railroad, another particularly contentious dispute had the movers and shakers of 1920s Syracuse choosing sides.  The fight regarding the construction of Nottingham Junior High School pitted Percy Hughes, Superintendent of Syracuse schools, against two mayoral administrations, prominent citizens, and the Syracuse Herald. While all parties agreed upon the necessity of a new school for the rapidly-growing city, only Hughes and the Syracuse Board of Education advocated locating the building in Thornden Park:

When Mayor Farmer, Superintendent Hughes, City Engineer Allen, Charles W. Tooke, president of the Board of Education, and Harry J. Clark, member of the board, viewed possible sites a few weeks ago, only two presented themselves as in any way feasible. One of these was in the eastern corner of Thornden, the other on Fellows Ave. Superintendent Hughes strongly recommended the Thornden site.

Superintendent Hughes is certain that the Thornden site is the best that has been proposed. Not only is the location ideal, he says, but the fact that the land is city property will make it unnecessary for the city to make further expenditure for a site. The many paths leading through the park make the proposed location easier of access than almost any other in the city, says Mr. Hughes. (Syracuse Herald, March 31, 1921)

Mayor Farmer immediately voiced his opposition, stating "I do not believe parks should be sacrificed in this way." (Syracuse Herald, May 11, 1921). Joining Farmer in the outrage were city aldermen:

"I am against any school on a site in Thornden Parkno matter how smalland they never will get my consent," declared Alderman Cady. "You cannot make that too strong for me. There are plenty of good sites and the city can afford to buy one outside one outside the park." (Syracuse Herald, May 11, 1921)

A.E. Nettleton:
"I am not very familiar with the physical conditions of the park but from what I know I would think it better to put the school building some other place. The beauty of the park necessarily would be harmed by using part of it for such a purpose. The park was acquired in the first place, of course, for the purpose of having therein the city reservoir, and it would seem improper to use it for school purposes, as it is a public recreation ground and generally looked upon as such." (Syracuse Herald, May 11, 1921)

Salem Hyde:
"I have no particular objection to having a reservoir on the hill in Thornden park, but I see no particular reason for having the school there. The reservoir would not mar the natural beauty of the landscape, but the school certainly would. (Syracuse Herald, May 11, 1921)

Donald Dey:
"This is a sudden question and I am reluctant to come to a hasty decision. At first it seemed to me Thornden is a place for a school. After more consideration, I believe that there are more suitable sites, where equal altitude can be had. Thornden is a scene of such natural beauty that generations could not duplicate it if it once were spoiled. In its wild nature there might exist such distractions for students as to defeat the purpose of a school. Combining that with the destruction of the park, there is sufficient argument against a school there to call for a hearing." (Syracuse Herald, May 11, 1921).
A number of citizens of the community also disagreed with the proposal to locate the school in the park.

Syracuse Herald, May 12, 1921

Syracuse Herald publisher Edward H. O'Hara saw the conflict in terms of one that would come to haunt Syracuse for years to come: the quick-fix versus long-term planning solution.

The proposal to put a school in Thornden I am against. Park lands should be held inviolate forever as property of the people for their recreation. Thornden has such a dower of beauty from nature that it would be vandalism to build there. It is a heritage from the past for the future. No consideration of short-sighted economy should lead to the costly mistake of despoiling future generations of beauty that money can't buy. Other cities less fortunate than Syracuse in passing years have had to amend such mistakes by going far and paying high for parks that can never equal Thornden. (Syracuse Herald. May 11, 1921)

Mayor John Walrath, who came to office in 1922, also took a stand against building the school in Thornden Park, insisting instead that it be located on the corner of Fellows Ave and Harvard Place. Walrath made "appeals to the effect that he was 25 years ahead of his time" (Syracuse Herald, April 15, 1923), a point echoed by the Syracuse Herald editorial page:

...we are uncompromisingly opposed to the location of the new school structure in Thornden Park, for reasons that we have stated and amplified, over and over again, for the past three years.

It should be needless to explain that The Herald has not, and could not possibly have, any selfish motive in the premises. Its objection is based solely on public grounds. A park is a park, and not a school playground. In insisting that our parks should not be diverted from the well understood purposes for which they are reserved, The Herald is defending the cause of the citizenship of today and of coming generations. The more the city grows, the more precious its park possessions become. The way to preserve them is to resist uncompromisingly every attempt to encroach upon them. (Syracuse Herald editorial, May 15, 1923)

Faced with a stalemate as the city's schoolchildren population continued to grow, Superintendent Hughes and the Board of Education relented, never endorsing the Fellows Place site, but simply agreeing to turn decision over to the mayor. Upon declaring the final location for the school, Mayor Walrath again reiterated his visionary outlook:

Mayor Walrath announced today that he hoped to see ground broken for William Nottingham School in the Seventeenth Ward before July 1.

"The specifications provide that the school will be located at Fellows Avenue and Harvard Place and the contractors will bid on that basis," said the mayor.

"Our experts told us that in a few years, the Fellows Avenue-Harvard Place site would be at the center of the population needing this junior high school...the Fellows-Harvard Place site is the one to satisfy future needs; therefore, we will build for the future." (Syracuse Herald, May 17, 1923)

Little did Mayor Walrath know that 25 years after making this statement about being 25 years ahead of his time, Syracuse would be at the would be at the start of the post-WWII suburban housing boom. In the two years of the school location dispute, the city added more residents, thus requiring the school in the first place (although the city versus suburbs debate had already started, demonstrated by this side-by-side pair of advertisements):

Syracuse Herald, June 28, 1922

In the two years it took City of Syracuse to decide the location of one public housing apartment building in the late 1940s, the developers of Levittown, New York were building single family homes at a rate of thirty a day. By the time similar post-war communities sprung up outside of Syracuse, along with companion shopping centers, supermarkets, etc., city leaders who wished to "build for the future" felt as if they had to catch up with the suburbs, going so far as to declare the city center itself irrelevant for residential living:

[Executive Secretary of the Syracuse Housing Authority] Sergei N. Grimm, speaking on "The Changing Face of Syracuse," said, in part:

"In considering various possible future uses of land in the area that ought to be cleared because of its obsolescence, it is necessary to keep in mind that the completion of the arterial routes definitely proposed will open large new areas for residential development on the fringe of the existing residential suburbs. Much good land will become available for home sites within easy reach of places of employment.

There is no justification for continuing the congestion of the people now living in existing obsolete areas. In fact there is no need for a good many of them to live in the heart of the city with with so much better sections for raising families available elsewhereeither in the existing residential areas or in new developments." (Post-Standard, October 21, 1954)

Just as a park is a park, a downtown is a downtown. But by city leaders declaring their downtown essentially obsolete, any "building for the future" automatically became a mimicry of the suburbs. How could the city ever again be 25 years ahead of its time when it was already 25 years behind the model of what it aspired to be?  Thus, by the early 1960s, the Metropolitan Development Association suggested that the future of downtown might be shaped by a series of quick-fix solutions:

"Improvements in the center city need not await a master plan...there is something that can be done now," read a Business Post column on August 13 this year. The author of this column was Kenneth G. Bartlett who was graciously "guesting" for vacationing us.

The Metropolitan Development Association president called for a "Texture" programa series of "small-in-themselves" projects which he declared could cumulatively within a year sparkle the central business district with a crisp new look, pending more elaborate and major master planning.

The August 13 post was a ball of fire."

One might think the post was a ball of fire because you don't suggest redecorating the house while it is burning to the ground. But, rather, quite the opposite:

  • The Mayor saw it and he was intrigued with "little" possibilities that could add up.
  • Members of the Syracuse Society of Architects read itand the Society worked out a "Texture Program"
  • The City Planning Commission read itand paused briefly to shift their planning focus from "the forest" to a few trees.
       ("The Business Post" column by Bernard Newer, Post-Standard, October 1, 1961)

The "texture" theory, according to Bartlett, "may be defined as bit-by-bit reactions that add up to an overall on the part of an individual." (Post-Standard, August 13, 1961). Bartlett suggested "possibly identifying the location of broken sidewalks that ought to be repaired and curbs that should be replaced...more attention-getting waste containers, consideration should be given to the use of trees or hedges to beautify off-street parking areas." Of course, texture can also be created by lumping together a patchwork of projects, creating unbalance:

The Architects say extra-wide Washington Street between Salina and Warren would benefit from "interesting paved areas with benches" and a few "vision-affording trees" ("not evergreens"). And a ring of planting around the State Tower would perk things up texture-wise, it is suggested.

Another suggestion is to make the Columbus Circle pool just a bit smaller so there is more room for walkways and benches plus a dot of planting. And so it goesa tree here, a cleaned-up building there, here a bench, there a flower box." (Post-Standard, October 1, 1961).

These "interesting paved areas" here and "walkways and benches" there were not only adding "texture," but, as Bartlett himself stated, "bit by bit" altering individual parts of an "overall" landscape. Texture is an element of design, not the design itself. How do you know when to stop adding texture, if you have no vision for the finished product?

Perhaps when the texture is declared a safety hazard by the fire marshal and hauled away.

To be continued...

Coming soon:
May 15, 1974
"I don't think trees should be placed in the street."