The Square comes full circle

Renovation project gets heart of Syracuse beating again.

Sunday, September 2, 2001

By Sarah Layden

After nearly a century, ice skaters again will fill Clinton Square. Onondaga Historical Association photographs from the early 1900s show skaters twirling on the frozen canal by the square in the heart of Syracuse. The canal has been filled since 1925, but no matter: The renovated square, dedicated today, has a reflecting pool to be used for ice skating in the winter.

"There was a big emphasis in the early meetings about (renovating) the square to have a sense of the canal," said Dennis Connors, curator of history for the Onondaga Historical Association.

"Clinton Square has been there a long time, and there's never been an opportunity for a lot of public input on how to use it. This time, there's a sense from the community as to what they wanted."

As the latest Clinton Square renovation wraps up, a look back reveals many makeovers for the patch of land alongside what once was the Erie Canal. Syracuse's leaders change with the years, but their visions to revamp the square -- Syracuse's historical center -- remain constant.

The Erie Canal helped create Clinton Square. As it sliced through what is now downtown Syracuse, the canal divided the city and parceled off the piece of land that became the square.

For decades, the square's central location made it Syracuse's social and commercial hub -- a busy spot where boats loaded with wares for the growing city docked and people gathered.

Erie Boulevard, that major east-west thoroughfare of fast-food restaurants, strip malls and retail chains, was once the Erie Canal.

The square is named for Gov. DeWitt Clinton, who initiated the construction of the Erie Canal, "Clinton's ditch" in the early 1800s. Digging began on the Onondaga County stretch of the canal in 1817, and the canal was completed in 1825. The waterway helped establish Syracuse as a city in the nearly 100 years it was used as a link between Albany and Buffalo.

The canal and the city's salt trade gave Syracuse its fame in colonial times and brought boatloads of immigrants here. Canal folklore tells of a steersman who transported a group of Italians to Syracuse in the canal's early days. They were starved for fresh meat, so they jumped to shore whenever they spotted a woodchuck. One mistook a skunk for a black-and-white woodchuck and was sprayed. He proclaimed it the best woodchuck he'd ever eaten, though none of his mules would reboard the boat because of the pungent odor of skunk.

A visit from a New York City newspaper editor in 1820 prompted an unfavorable description of the city. "It would make an owl weep to fly over it!" he said. He described the "miserable" tavern where he lodged for a night, "filled with a group of about as rough-looking specimens of humanity as I had ever seen." He saw a grouping of houses on marshy ground, "surrounded by trees and entangled thickets... a very uninviting scene."

When the editor returned 20 years later, he said the change in the city was enchanting -- "massive buildings in all directions... extended and well-built streets, thronged with people full of life and activity... the canal basins crowded with boats (loading and unloading) at the lofty stone warehouses upon the wharves."

A prominent Clinton Square feature today is the Jerry Rescue monument. It marks the freeing of a young slave, who was recaptured in Syracuse in 1851 after escaping slavery in the South. The Clinton Square building from which he was rescued became known as the "Jerry Rescue Building" and retained that name even after it burned down and a new building was constructed in its place.

In the late 1800s, several buildings on Clinton Square burned; one, the Wieting Building, on the square's south side reportedly caught fire in 1856, 1881 and 1896.

In 1910, crowds packed Clinton Square for the dedication of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, which honors the 12,000 from Onondaga County who fought in the Civil War. Some people observed the ceremony from the roofs and windows of nearby buildings when the street grew too packed with crowds.

The canal was used into the early 1920s, and for many years Clinton Square served as a dock for canal boats, a marketplace and later, when the canal was filled in 1925, as a parking lot.

In the late 1950s, the monument and its statues required a powerful cleaning after serving as a pigeon roost. Recently, the statues were shipped to Maryland for cleaning. The monument wore a black curtain on its east and west sides to conceal the work until today's unveiling.

Fountains constructed, but no skyscrapers

Clinton Square was made over a handful of times in the 20th century. In 1937, the Depression-era public works system made landscaping plans. In the 1960s, city planners envisioned the spot as it might appear in 1980: In the drawings, a skyscraper -- by Syracuse standards -- casts a shadow along the east end of the square; the monument, the historic Gridley Building and adjacent bank buildings, remain untouched. A skyscraper has yet to appear on Clinton Square.

In 1981, another renovation project was completed. When the square was rededicated that year, it sported pyramid-shaped cascading fountains that contained original Erie Canal brick. During that project, part of the original canal wall was taken down. In the current project, those fountains were replaced, and part of the original canal wall eventually will be exposed.

After the swampland of Syracuse was transformed into dirt paths and eventually concrete, modern landscapers tried to recreate in the square a natural feel in an urban setting. But the vegetation usually didn't last long. Pine trees planted in Clinton Square in the 1950s were cut down in 1979 to prepare for a makeover. In October 2000, the square's trees were felled for the latest renovations.

City hopes to bring more concerts, festivals

Plans to rework the square's layout have cropped up with regularity. In the last 50 years, people have suggested recessing the park, raising the park or blocking off Erie Boulevard -- as the new Clinton Square project does -- to make the green space larger and more open to people. In recent years, crowds flocked to the square for concerts like the M & T Jazz Fest, and the city hopes to used the space for more concerts and festivals. The Onondaga Historical Association Museum displays some of the versions of Clinton Square and other Syracuse landmarks in its "Dreams and Schemes" exhibit.

Connors would like to see the square's history publicly explained with the use of signs or kiosks there. It presents an opportunity to educate and draw people back downtown, he said.

"There have been two generations now who have grown up in the suburbs," he said. "They have not really had the city or downtown as one of their experiences. If they come down for ice skating or festivals, it's a wonderful opportunity to educate people and also enrich the experience of being in Clinton Square."

Opportunities are lacking for casual interaction, Connors said. In its heyday, the square was teeming with people, commerce, and the traffic of boats on the Erie Canal. Now, the traffic comes from cars, and no public buildings border Clinton Square.

That's where nearby Hanover Square, a historic district with shops and restaurants, comes into play.

"If the two spaces work together, one will help the other," Connors said. "That was missing in earlier plans.

"If people are able to think creatively, it will make this a lively, creative place," he said.

It won't be the first time.

2001 The Syracuse Newspapers.


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