A Monthly Column on Historic Structures of New York's Southern Tier
Binghamton's Castle... New Potential for Adaptive Reuse

Next year the New York State Inebriate Asylum, Binghamton's "Castle on the Hill", celebrates its 150th anniversary. Designed in 1858 by one of New York State's most famous architects, Isaac Perry, the facility played an historic and pioneering role in the treatment of substance abuse and later provided mental health care for over one hundred years. Abandoned since 1993, and now an endangered historic landmark, an encouraging new development is in the works: SUNY Upstate Medical University of Syracuse has expressed an interest in the building for its Binghamton Clinical Campus. Recently I had an opportunity to speak with Dr. David R. Smith, President of Upstate Medical University about his interest in the Castle.

The Binghamton Clinical Campus currently has a presence at the Greater Binghamton Health Center. Dr. Smith stated that the clinical campus "is part of the SUNY Health Sciences Center and is important to the academic mission of the center. There are currently 50-60 students at the Binghamton Campus, which includes a Family Medicine Residency." Smith added: "Our mission is to continue to expand in Binghamton, to look at collaboration with SUNY Binghamton and other area colleges, and to develop a mini-Health Sciences Center in the area. We may also establish a Physician's Assistance program, with the primary site located in Binghamton."

While visiting the clinical campus, Smith became aware of the Castle, originally known as the New York State Inebriate Asylum. Not unfamiliar with historic preservation and adaptive reuse of buildings, Smith had some experience with the reuse of two former tuberculosis sanitariums while he served as Commissioner of Health for the State of Texas. In describing his plans for the Castle, Smith stated "Our goal is to create a permanent home in Binghamton with capability for future growth. Initially we may not require use of the entire building and would consider sharing the space with other health-related organizations. We're in the very preliminary stages and at this point we have not yet met with engineers to determine square footage and layout of the building."

Recently Smith and his team toured the facility, following the tour he planned to work with engineers, develop a business plan, and determine what costs are involved in renovating the building. Smith commented: "We will be meeting with Binghamton's historic preservationists, working closely with the Binghamton community and our State Assembly and Senate, and determining what types of support are available on the state and federal level." Smith added that he is very sympathetic to the need for historic preservation.

How soon could they move in? "Provided all goes well, I would guess one year to fifteen months… that timeline may be a bit ambitious", Smith commented, adding: "Let me say that this plan is as much about the facility as it is working with the Binghamton Community. It's not just about the building, but about the broad vision of what a health sciences center needs to be today."

Binghamton's Castle is one of the most historic and architecturally significant landmarks in the Southern Tier… it is also one of the most endangered. Situated on the campus of an operating health center, coming up with an appropriate plan for its reuse consistent with the interests of the Greater Binghamton Health Center, the Preservationists, and the Community, is quite a challenge. So much so, that since it was abandoned fourteen years ago, only one other serious plan for adaptive reuse has surfaced. That plan reportedly considered by some not to be an appropriate fit, has been stalled for two years with no end in sight.

It would seem that Dr. Smith's plan of reuse as a Health Sciences Center fills the bill… a plan that complements the Greater Binghamton Health Center, a plan that respects the concept of historic preservation, a plan that would appear to be of great economic and cultural benefit to the entire community.

One hundred and fifty years ago this community bought into a bold vision, donated land, provided materials and manpower, and built a magnificent structure. This building exists as a result of overwhelming public interest and the incredible foresight of our community. More recently a similar display of public sentiment and foresight has kept the fate of this treasure in the news, and a continued effort could now help move the process of preserving this building forward. Sending letters and email to our elected officials at the city, county and state level, can make a difference.

A century and a half after laying the cornerstone of the Castle, our community has an opportunity that may never come again… an opportunity to stop the "Demolition by Neglect" that sealed the fate of so many other buildings on the state hospital campus, an opportunity to once again buy into a vision, that of "Preservation by Involvement". In that way, just possibly next September on the 150th anniversary of our Castle, the Binghamton community will have a REAL reason to celebrate!

This article is one of a series presented during the month of May, in recognition of National Preservation Month. Be sure to see the exhibit, "Preservation and You", featuring current efforts in the preservation of landmarks of Broome County. The display continues through the month of May at the history center in the Broome County Public Library, and features a lecture each Tuesday starting at 6pm as follows: May 8, "Castle on the Hill... Preservation by Involvement", Roger Luther, nysAsylum.com; May 15: "Preservation and Politics", John Lewis, Preservation Association of the Southern Tier ; May 22: "Preserving the Past... Honoring the Future", Naima Kradjian, Goodwill Theatre; May 29: "Binghamton Lost... and Not Found", Gerald Smith, Broome County Historian. The exhibit is sponsored by the Southern New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in celebration of its national organization's 150th anniversary, and is being presented in collaboration with the Preservation Association of the Southern Tier (PAST).