The Square comes full circle
Renovation project gets heart of Syracuse
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 --
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
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
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.