A Monthly Column on Historic Structures of New York's Southern Tier
The Alms House
An Endangered Landmark... Again

"The fate of the Alms House - A public meeting June 28th, 7:30 P.M. The Alms House is in jeopardy. It is the last remaining building of the Broome County Poor Farm and is eligible for listing on the New York State and National registers of Historic Places. The Alms House is an historically significant building, but is slated to be demolished by Broome Community College. Please show your support by attending this meeting and finding out what YOU can do to help see this building used by our community instead of being thrown away."

Before marking your calendar, you should know that the above notice was sent out eight years ago! In fact, demolition of the Alms House was first proposed twenty-one years prior to that, in 1978, which resulted in a heated two-year campaign to save the building. Public sentiment ultimately prevailed, the building was reconditioned and used for classroom and office space until finally being abandoned in 1998. Just one year earlier an architectural survey was conducted which concluded that the structure was sound and could readily be adaptively reused for any number of purposes without requiring extensive repair, however in 1999 the college again announced that the building would be demolished unless a non-profit organization compatible with the college's mission was to come forward with a plan for reuse.

As it turns out, two public meetings took place in the Spring and Summer of 1999. A petition was generated with a list of signatures and subsequently a plan for adaptive reuse of the building was proposed by a non-profit organization, the Fine Arts Society of the Southern Tier (FASST). Although BCC's board of directors rejected the plan due to "changing conditions at the college and the need for more parking space", the fate of the Alms House had such high-visibility and public sentiment was so strong, the county ultimately refused to grant funds for the demolition. The Alms House was once again saved… until the next time.

Seven years later, in April of this year BCC issued a press release stating "Over the course of the last several decades there has been a great deal of discussion and debate as to what to do with the Alms House. The College's Master Plan currently calls for demolition because (of) the condition of the building. We are at the point where immediate action is needed. This notice is the last opportunity for any and all parties to express an interest to not only save the building, but provide the necessary funding to rehabilitate and identify a use that is compatible with College needs." Expressions of interest must be submitted by June 29, 2007.

Built in 1870, what we know as the Alms House was the administration building of Broome County's Poor Farm, an institution established in 1830 to house the indigent, handicapped, aged, widows, orphans, unwed mothers, "illegitimate" children, and pauper immigrants of our community. It was built at a time in this country's history when attitudes toward the less fortunate were changing… a time of humanitarian reform that would also establish asylums to care for the mentally ill and, of historical significance to this area, the inebriates of our society. Built on 130 acres of land, the Poor Farm would expand into a complex of seventeen buildings. By 1868 the patient population would exceed 1500 and it would continue to grow. In the 1930's, as social attitudes and policies changed, population at the farm started to decline. The 1950's brought the addition of a county jail to the campus, and by the late 1960's, due to a combination of dwindling population and expansion requirements by Broome Community College, the Poor Farm was closed.

The situation we face today is fundamentally no different than that of 1978… an historic, architecturally significant building is abandoned and deteriorating. There are strong arguments, on one side to demolish the building, on the other side to save it. There have been several suggestions for reuse that would seem compatible with college needs, such as: Administration offices, book store and coffeehouse, faculty offices, campus art galleries, classrooms/offices associated with the adjoining science building, president's residence, etc. It goes without saying that BCC is a valued asset to this community, but consider this… right at the main entrance to the campus stands a true historic landmark, a rare surviving example of Gothic/Second Empire style architecture, a testament to this community's altruistic attitudes toward social welfare in the nineteenth century. Rather than demolish the one aspect of the campus that separates it from any number of nondescript community colleges, why not capitalize on it? Make the building a focal point for the college, put its image on college letterhead and brochures. Use it to differentiate Broome County's educational treasure from the crowd of cookie-cutter community colleges around the state. What could be more "compatible with College needs"?

This is the last of a series of articles that have appeared over a six-week period, in conjunction with Preservation Month, and an exhibit at the Broome County Public Library. Through the articles and the exhibit we have seen that preservation and adaptive reuse of historic buildings makes economic and environmental sense when compared to demolition and new construction. Of course a value cannot be placed on the historic significance of a building… the pride, cultural heritage and "sense of place" it provides to our community, and the deep meaning it holds for relatives of those who lived, worked, and died there. We have seen historic and architectural treasures that have been lost forever… the Arlington Hotel and Farmers' Bank; those that have been saved, the Harvey Justice and Kilmer Buildings; and those in jeopardy of being lost, the Inebriate Asylum, Stone Opera House and now the Alms House.

We have also seen that an individual CAN make a difference. Decisions are being made right now on the fate of this historic building, and those decisions are not just influenced, but driven by public opinion. Public opinion saved this building in 1980, public opinion saved it in 1999, and public opinion can save it now. How? By writing letters and sending email to County legislators, BCC and the Press. If you're reading this on-line it's even easier, just voice an opinion by adding a comment following this article then check back periodically to respond to other reader feedback. Simply put, preservation is a matter of priorities… and public opinion sets priorities.

The theme of this series of articles has been "PRESERVATION and YOU". If ever there was a landmark deserving to be saved, it is the Broome County Alms House… and if ever there was a time for the community to be heard, it is NOW.