Downtown landmark decaying, dismaying

August 13, 2002

Dick Case, Post-Standard Columnist

It happens too often not to be an embarrassment for our town.

Strangers wandering downtown look at the building at Montgomery and East Jefferson streets. Old First Baptist Church and its Mizpah Towers are vacant and forlorn.

Boards cover 43 spaces where stained-glass windows used to be. Now and again, the sidewalk's roped; pieces of the cornice are dropping. Inside, well, one recent visitor called the look "appalling."

The city's stuck with a huge, white national landmark that decays before our eyes.

Greg Daily, a senior curator at the Onondaga Historical Association, a neighbor on Montgomery Street, tells me he hears the question from visitors: What's up at the corner?

"I recall one man from San Francisco who asked me, 'What's that beautiful building down there?' When I told him, and explained the situation, he was flabbergasted that something so beautiful was empty and unused."

Flabbergasted covers it.

Here's the situation: The church was dedicated on Columbus (aka St. Mary's) Circle in 1914. Its unusual design, by Syracusan Gordon Wright, included a hotel (the "inn beautiful") that opened a year later and a restaurant, added in the 1920s. Thus, the Mizpah Towers.

The Baptists left Syracuse for Southwood in 1988, selling the landmark to a developer and the organ to a Chicago theater (it's now in a Jacksonville, Fla., concert hall).

The developer's scheme for a performing arts center in the old church never really happened. The city took it for taxes in March 1998; that July, thieves removed 43 of the church's stained-glass windows. The crime remains an unsolved mystery.

Officially, the landmark's "mothballed" by the city. An architect's under contract to check it now and again. There have been occasional structure safety alerts but no prospects of saving this piece of Syracuse the only way we know how: a new use.

Bart Feinberg, the city's economic development director, admits the building is not in good shape and "isn't getting any better. We do periodic walk-throughs, but nobody's shown an interest in using it at this point."

Not that some citizens haven't tried. The church-hotel had been included in the infamous "Avenue of the Arts" project, which went belly up four years ago. Recently, a modest "cultural corridor" program for the Montgomery Street neighborhood has been put on the table, but I'm told the players show only lukewarm enthusiasm for the concept.

The landmark has been mentioned at cultural corridor meetings as a possible home for visual and performing artists and their studios, but where's the beef?

Still, Bart Feinberg's saying, "It would be a great asset to the city to have it revitalized."

2002 The Post-Standard.

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