The Bleecker Street block that was the subject of controversy due to the sketchy purchase/demolition arrangement crafted by former Mayor Roefaro was hastily demolished yesterday by the city. Apparently, Mayor Palmieri decided to allow his Engineering and DPW staff to assemble on a weekend to smash into obvilion yet another downtown building. It reminds me of the destruction of the Albert Hotel that was carried out in much the same way.
Back in the early 1990's, the Albert Hotel in Downtown Utica was an imposing structure. Located on the east side of Genesee St, it was attached to the north wall of the Masonic Temple. The front of the structure was a solid red brick facade trimmed with granite. It housed two basement level store fronts. One of these was the wonderous "Littlecote Hobby Shop" located in the left side shop. As a child I spent many an hour in that shop purchasing the tiny bottles of "Testers Ply" model paint and other accessories needed for my latest creation!
Upstairs was the "Christian Science Reading Room." Two pink damask chairs flanked a mohogony table with a brass reading lamp with a green toile shade in the front window overlooking Genesee St. The mise-en-scene was so inviting, I was always tempted to go in, sit in one of those chairs, grab a book and acquaint myself with the teachings of that religion! I never did, however.
Up the remaining stairs and through the towering double walnut front doors with etched glass panels was the Albert Hotel. Housed in a gargantuan renaissance revival mansion that had been converted in the post war (WW1) building boom, the Albert was a gracious and elegant residence that catered to travelers and long term residents. Its enormous rooms still boasted the rich details of the Victorian era in Utica. Carved marble mantelpieces with plate glass pier mirrors above, walnut pocket doors with fancifully etched panels and floor to ceiling, shuttered windows greeted guests looking for lodging.
By the 1990's the hotel was not in operation and the storefronts were empty. In Utica, that seems to be all the reason you need to justify demolition. Unlike other cities that use their historic buildings to spur renewal, we demolish ours. The Masonic temple decided it needed parking. The city initially rejected their plan, saying that the building was indeed important, historic, and should be preserved.
The solution? Knock it down anyway. But, do it on a Saturday, when the media is absent and downtown is deserted.
That solution was ressurected yesterday to eliminate the Bleecker St block. Sneak it through on a Saturday, when the city is unaware and maybe no one will notice. But people do notice. And, they continue to be disgusted by the apparent lack of concern over the systematic dismantleing of our city by elected officials that come and go-but leave a wake of destruction that we may never recover from.
The Bleecker St. building was actually four buildings constructed over the years, joined together as was the custom before codes and zoning laws created the open, wind swept desolation of the modern era. The original building, located in the center, was an 1840's era grange hall. In the 1870's, the front steeple-like entrance was removed and the strorefront facade added to create an expansive mercantile block. The smaller side wings, actually stand alone structures, were added later as well.
Throughout the years many notable businesses occupied the block. "Winners" ladies apparel was an early tenant that lasted for many years. In the '80's the wonderful "Serendipity,"a novelty food and gift shop occupied the small single storefront on the east. The building also housed many antiques and collectable shops over the years, providing downtown with the kind of retail tenants that every successful small city tries to nurture and preserve.
Not in Utica. When the building was sold several years ago, the tenants were removed, the building was haphazardly boarded and left to rot. And rot it did!
The original structure was the one that failed. Because of defered maintenance, with the city apparently looking the other way, the structure fell into ruin and the grange hall roof collapsed. In Utica that can mean only one thing-imminent demolition.
The huge cost of tipping fees and labor that it will eventually cost us, the taxpayers, for the demolition, could have been invested in another approach-selective demolition. Remove the original hall, preserve the store fronts and side wings, and create a courtyard where the original building stood. Grant money could be used to finance the project. In fact, the building was on the list of potential projects that the Main St. grant that was already received identified and could have helped finance.
Not in Utica. We don't follow the successful models of other cities that get it. We are still in the 1970's, when demolition was the redevelopment tool of choice. We are not even following our own Masterplan, which calls for the innovative type of projects that I have proposed here.
Utica has been at the mercy of mayoral administrations over the years that have, because of their lack of knowledge, incredible hubris, and apparent love of vacant lots, demolished much of what made our city great-it's amazing architecture. The current administration has a vision for what downtown is going to be. Unfortunately, no one knows what that vision may be. A Saturday morning demolition hints at what that vision is. The continued demolition of our city will continue, and will happen when you least expect it.
What's next? HSBC? The New Century Club? The Cathoilc Women's Club? The Charlotte St. block across from the courthouse appears to be the next group of buildings on the chopping block. When will we learn that a city is not made up of empty lots and surface parking strung between several banks and government offices? An exciting, vibrant city is made up of the kinds of businesses and occupants that the buildings we keep tearing down could hold.
But, not in Utica.
It seems that, the more things change, the more they stay the same.