A Monthly Column on Historic Structures of New York's Southern Tier
A Plan that just may Save Binghamton's Castle

On September 20, SUNY Upstate Medical University announced its vision for growth. Released as an "Initiative", the strategic plan describes twenty projects with an estimated total cost of $510 million. Number ten on the list is titled "Binghamton Castle". The project is described as follows: "Renovate the historic 'Castle on the Hill' to be a home to our clinical campus activities; including the training of 80 third and fourth-year medical students, and as the site of our Physician Assistant degree program, which plans to accept its first students in 2009." The Initiative provides an estimated cost for the project of $20 million. The Castle renovation is in addition to another project on the list, a $1.5 million renovation of the Keeler Building, also located on the Greater Binghamton Health Center campus.

Last March SUNY Upstate's President, Dr. David R. Smith, disclosed to me his interest in the Castle. Soon after that he toured the building and subsequently the university announced plans to conduct a survey of the facility to determine costs associated with renovation of the building. In July, the architectural firm John G. Waite Associates, was selected to perform the survey and recently their team conducted a preliminary tour of the site. I spoke with Dr. Smith on September 20 and he commented that the survey is likely to take a couple months. "We want them to do a thorough survey. We need a good understanding of the structural condition of the building to determine as accurately as possible the costs involved in renovation", he said. Smith went on to say, "We included a $20 million 'placeholder' in the initiative as an estimate, but will have a better idea when the survey is complete."

Upstate Medical University serves seventeen counties in central New York, stretching from the northern to southern borders of the state. Included in our region are Broome, Tioga, Chemung, Tompkins, Chenango and Otsego Counties. Dr. Smith stated, "The Initiative is our response to what I call a 'collision of realities'. From Canada to Pennsylvania there is a serious shortage of health professionals. At the same time, there is a continuous increase in health problems. We need to respond to the situation with a sense of urgency." He went on to say, "The initiative outlines regional responses, in Syracuse, and Binghamton, as well as the Finger Lakes area."

Dr. Smith commented that he has met with Assemblymember Donna Lupardo, Senator Thomas Libous, and Congressman Maurice Hinchey to discuss Upstate's intentions to renovate and use Binghamton's Castle. "They were all very favorable on the issue", he said, and added, "we are also envisioning further collaboration with Binghamton University and Broome Community College."

What's the next step? "After the engineering survey we'll refine the estimates. Hopefully by next summer we will have a decision.", Smith said.

This comes as great news, and frankly, it's about time! For years the situation with Binghamton's historic Castle has been at a standstill, while other abandoned asylums around the state have been renovated and saved.

For example, Utica's "Old Main", built in 1843, was the very first of New York's asylums for the insane. Until two years ago it stood in extremely poor condition, but in 2005 the state undertook a project to renovate the building and use it as a medical records repository and museum. As of this date, renovation of the first floor is nearly complete. The effort has been a true success story.

Willard is a sprawling complex of buildings located in Ovid on a hill overlooking Seneca Lake. Grandview, the oldest building on the campus was built in 1859 as the original New York State Agricultural University (the precursor to Cornell University.) After the Civil War the building was converted into an asylum. Several years ago Grandview and many of the other buildings in the complex were renovated and are currently in use by the State Department of Corrections. The renovation and reuse of this facility is another success story.

Buffalo's asylum is an enormous twin-towered complex designed by the famous architect H.H.Richardson. Structurally the buildings appear to be in very poor condition; in some areas floors and brick walls are collapsing. However, two years ago New York State allocated $80 million to renovate the facility for use as a museum showcasing the historic architecture of Western New York. Late last year renovation began - one more triumph for preservation and the community.

How does Binghamton's situation compare? Historically: Our Castle was the very first Inebriate Asylum in the country, some say, in the world. Architecturally: It was designed by one of New York's leading architects, Isaac Gale Perry. Current Condition: Due to the foresight of its owner, the state Office of Mental Health, the abandoned building has continued to be heated through the winter months. As a result, structurally it seems to be in very good condition. There are no collapsing floors, the basement and sub-basement are dry, the windows for the most part are in excellent condition including the spectacular stained glass windows on the second floor. The original woodwork and the magnificent dual staircase designed by Perry, are as impressive now as the day they were constructed. In comparing the condition of the Castle to that of the other asylums, there IS no comparison.

Of the four, Binghamton's Castle would seem to be the most desirable and by far the most cost-effective to save. However, while other historic asylums undergo extensive renovation, Binghamton's Castle has been left far behind. Since it was closed in 1993 there has been a very real concern of "demolition by neglect", and only recently have interested parties come forward with proposals for reuse. Unfortunately, those proposals have not been considered due to a bureaucratic stalemate. Until now...

After fourteen years, the Castle may be saved! An impressive proposal is in the works that would seem to be a perfect fit for Upstate University, the Greater Binghamton Health Center, and most importantly, the community. So far it appears our legislators and the owner of the building agree.