A monument to Mayor Marvin is long overdue

Monday, June 21, 2004

Sean Kirst
Post-Standard Columnist

Not along ago, a question was put to Charlie Marvin by Mark Muench, one of his grown nephews:

"How come," he asked, "nobody's ever recognized Grandpa?"

Mark lives in suburban Rochester, but his question is a good one for Central New York. His "grandpa" was Charlie's father, Rolland Marvin, mayor of Syracuse from 1930 to 1941. "Rollie" led the city during the worst years of the Great Depression, one of the few historical periods that was even rougher, in a broad scale, than today's economic crisis in Syracuse.

As the years roll on, one truth is unmistakably clear:

Rollie was among the greatest mayors - arguably the greatest mayor - to ever walk up the steps of City Hall.

Mark Muench, then, has a valid point. While the names of such 20th-century mayors as Thomas Corcoran, Anthony Henninger and Bill Walsh have all gone up on prominent city buildings, Rollie Marvin's municipal tribute consists of a little street off Valley Drive named in his honor.

Charlie Marvin, 78, always thinks about his dad on Father's Day. But he doesn't dwell on the lack of a public monument. At Charlie's home in Fayetteville, he often pages through some books on Republican history in which his dad's name appears.

Beyond all else, Charlie said, his father's legacy is easy to spot in Syracuse:

Amid the Depression, Rollie helped to put together a $23.5 million deal in which two private railroads elevated the tracks that for years had cluttered downtown streets. Not only did the project beautify the city, it created jobs when they were desperately needed.

The old New York Central train station on Erie Boulevard, recently renovated to become home to Time Warner's 24-hour news station, was a result of that project. So was the New York Central bridge across South Geddes Street, whose retaining walls are now being restored by the city.

Rollie was among the local officials who aggressively courted Carrier Corp., which moved its corporate headquarters from New Jersey to Syracuse during his tenure. He was also a key figure in bringing professional baseball back to the city.

In 1934, owner Jack Corbett offered to move his Jersey City team to Syracuse - but only if the city put up a stadium. With no time for the planning or demolition needed to put the ballpark in a bustling district, Marvin managed to get Municipal Stadium - later renamed as MacArthur Stadium - built in three months on a piece of marshy land on the city's North Side.

Rollie was mayor when Pioneer Homes, one of the state's first public housing projects, was built near downtown. He was mayor for extensive improvements at several city parks, improvements done by federal laborers put to work by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "New Deal."

In other words, it is almost impossible to do anything in this city without touching Rollie's handiwork - whether you're buying a ticket for a SkyChiefs game or hiking along the old stone trails of Elmwood Park.

Yet he remains the greatest mayor whose name you've never heard.

Charlie Marvin has a theory about that. His dad's years in City Hall ended in a tangle of political hostility. At the 1940 Republican National Convention, Marvin bucked the New York delegation to choose Wendell Willkie for president over Thomas Dewey, the famed prosecutor who would become governor of New York.

That was the beginning of the political end for Marvin. Once he left office, Charlie said, local Republicans weren't itching to build a monument to this guy who walked away from New York's favorite son.

For decades after he served as mayor, Rollie turned his energy to gardening at his home on Robineau Road. "He'd be on his hands and knees planting tulips by 6 a.m.," Charlie recalled.

Rollie died in 1979. In his final years, Charlie sensed his father "was maybe a little melancholy" about a decline in the beauty of some parks and neighborhoods around the city. "It certainly wasn't as vibrant as when he was in office," the son said.

Charlie spoke of that last week, in the days leading up to Father's Day. He often pages through books on political history in which his father's name is mentioned. And every time he climbs into his car and drives into Syracuse, he sees some landmark that went up when his dad was mayor.

"That's worth far more than having your name on a building," Charlie said.

Maybe so, but let's face it: Rollie Marvin deserves more.

2004 The Post-Standard.


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