A Monthly Column on Historic Structures of New York's Southern Tier
One of the most recognizable and distinctive buildings in Binghamton is located on the corner of Court and Chenango Streets. Known as the "Perry Building", it was designed by Isaac Perry in 1876. This ornate masterpiece was to be Perry's home and has been described by some as his greatest structure. Architecturally, it stands unique as this area's only cast iron building. When it was built, the technique of facing a masonry building with cast iron was not unheard of, it had been done in New York and other large cities. But this was a first for Binghamton and in fact was never to be repeated in the area. The symmetry and beauty of the Perry Building is so striking that it was featured in the 1991 movie "Liebestraum", a movie that also featured cameo appearances by a few of Perry's other works, including the "Castle" and Phelps Mansion. Although the blue color of the building with white and gold trim adds to it's distinctive appearance, Broome County Historian Gerald Smith tells us that wasn't always the case… in fact, the original color was tan with terra cotta trim.

Perry must have felt quite a sense of accomplishment as he looked out those large windows of his fourth floor residence or his offices on the third floor. A view from any window would have showcased his work… across Court Street, the Broome County Courthouse and Soldiers and Sailors Monument; looking East he would see the magnificent Phelps Bank just across Chenango Street, beyond that the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church, Sherman Phelps' Mansion, and in the distance, high on a hill overlooking the entire community, the building that launched his career as an architect, the New York State Inebriate Asylum… Binghamton's "Castle on the Hill".

Other Perry structures downtown included the First National Bank at the corner of Court and Washington Streets (since demolished), next to that and also since demolished, the luxurious Hotel Bennett and Sisson Brothers department store. Residences, besides the Phelps mansion, included the Steward Wells mansion on Main Street (now Parson's Funeral Home), and the Paige and Halbert residences, both since demolished. Some of Perry's most magnificent work can be seen in his churches, his first, the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church on Court Street (designed in 1866, and now known as the Landmark Church), was followed in 1867 by the First Congregational Church on the corner of Main and Front Street, and St. Patrick's Church on Leroy Street. All three churches are still standing although the steeples of each have long since been removed.

Born in Bennington Vermont, in 1822, Isaac Perry worked as a carpenter's apprentice to his father, Seneca Perry. Over the years the "Seneca Perry & Son" team earned a reputation for designing and building magnificent staircases. Perry directed his talents toward architecture and later joined an architectural firm in New York City. It was there that he met Joseph Edward Turner, a physician who was actively pioneering the cause for establishing this nation's first asylum for the treatment of alcoholism, the New York State Inebriate Asylum. As luck would have it, Turner needed an architect to design the building. Turner would later write, "Isaac G. Perry was introduced to me in 1855. He was then working as a carpenter and stair-builder, having had but little experience as an architect. After several conversations with him I gave him the style and dimensions of the proposed building, the division of its wards, and the dimensions of all its rooms. Under my direction Mr. Perry developed the plans of the asylum, and they were presented to the board of trustees for approval. A discussion followed as to Mr. Perry's ability and experience as an architect, the majority declaring that they did not justify the board in employing him upon a work of such magnitude, but that, if I would be responsible for mistakes made by him, they would vote to accept his plans. On these conditions Mr. Perry was appointed architect."

The rest is history. Perry relocated to Binghamton to supervise the construction of the asylum, a project that lasted several years. At the time the village of Binghamton was growing fast, and Perry was contracted to design several other buildings in the area including houses for Binghamton's Mayor Sherman Phelps and Stewart Wells, a local contractor who provided bricks and lumber for many of Perry's projects.

Perry was to become one of New York State's most famous architects. In 1883 he was selected to complete the State Capitol building in Albany, and went on to design armories, asylums, and court houses across the state.

In 1896, a spectacular fire destroyed Binghamton's Court House. Perry was chosen to design its replacement, on the same foundation as the previous court house and in the same style, but this one was to be fireproof.

Finally, in 1899 Perry retired, however he was eventually to take on one more project. In 1903 he was asked to design the entrance gates to Binghamton's Spring Forest Cemetery. The following year, shortly after completion of the gates, Isaac Perry died. His funeral cortege was to be the first to pass through the gates that he designed.

The Perry Building continued as home to McLean's Department Store for many years. After the filming of Liebestraum the building was purchased and underwent renovation. Then in July of 2005 the building was purchased by current owner Robert Allegro, LLC, who commented that tenants have now been secured for all the upper floors. He added that since purchasing the building, he has developed a great interest in the work of Isaac Perry and has now decided to donate the first floor space of the Perry Building to house a temporary exhibit of Perry's local architecture.

On First Friday, July 6, at 6:00 p.m., an exhibit entitled "Perry's Binghamton", will open in the Perry Building. The exhibit features Perry's Binghamton work, including current and vintage photographs. In addition to exterior views, recent interior photographs are included for each of Perry's buildings that are still standing. The interior photos provide rare insight into the construction of these magnificent buildings with many views that have never before been available to the public. Visitors to the exhibit will have an opportunity to see the Court House dome… from the inside, showing the elaborate metal supporting structure. They will see views of the tunnels and stone foundations below Perry's churches, the attic of the Phelps Mansion, the sub-basement of the asylum, and the 1870 signature hidden inside the Wells mansion staircase.

The exhibit will continue at the Perry Building through July and August. It will be open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays from 1:00 to 5:00, with other times to be determined.