A Monthly Column on Historic Structures of New York's Southern Tier
For BROOME the Bell Tolls
a Project to Document the Churches of Broome County

Lisle Congregational Church Bell

Lifting up a trap door at the top of the ladder brings a rush of cold air. It's freezing on the other side of that panel. Not just freezing - but dark, and more than a little scary. Wind howls as the snow blows in through gaps in the nearly two hundred year old wood siding… gaps that thankfully provide at least a little light for the climb. Crooked wooden steps lead up into the dark tower, then it's a squeeze through another opening before continuing on to the next level. A quick scan with the flashlight reveals massive 10x12 inch beams and rafters, held in place by wooden pegs.

Climbing up into the tower, any fear of heights, frostbite, or lurking critters simply fades away on looking up… there, straight overhead, visible by flashlight through gaps in the planks two floors above, is the jewel - a half-ton cast copper-ingot bell.

It was 1797 when sixteen of this area's original settlers formed the Congregational Church at Lisle, New York, which at that time was the most populous community in Broome County.

Originally the congregation met in a log schoolhouse - it would be another 25 years before the church building that stands today was erected. Constructed in 1822 on the banks of the Tioughnioga River, twenty miles north of Binghamton, it was one of the first churches built west of the Catskills, and today the building is claimed by many to be the oldest remaining church in Broome County.

But the bell in that tower has been silent for over thirty years. In the 1970's, after years of declining membership and an eventual merger with a local Methodist Church, the building was closed and abandoned.

Today it's a familiar story. Over recent months there have been frequent news articles on the fate of Broome County's religious structures. A growing number of churches, not just in this area but throughout America, are facing very difficult choices. Church membership is declining, pastors are becoming scarce, and congregations are merging. As a result, churches are closing, century-old structures with rich histories stand abandoned, many have been demolished and others soon will be.

Locally, First Baptist Church of Johnson City has been sold, reportedly to be razed and replaced by a parking lot. A sign in front of the vacant West Colesville Baptist Church once used to announce upcoming sermons, now proclaims a realtor's message: "Your Prayers are answered, church /house for sale." At last report St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Johnson City is for sale, as are several others in the area.

The once magnificent chapel of the historic North Presbyterian Church on Chenango Street in Binghamton is empty, unheated, and deteriorating.

Some church buildings have found new life but let's face it, church design by nature is unique, and coming up with adaptive reuse for many of these buildings can be difficult. There are some success stories - after closing in the 1970's, the Lisle church above sat vacant for years until being purchased by a local architect. Since that time it has served as a residence, and currently this picturesque yellow country church is the home and gallery of artist Ellen Valentino. "It's perfect, just what I was looking for," said Valentino.

That may be an exception. As one local preservationist commented on the fate of these structures, "we can't convert them all into museums."

Broome County Historian Gerald R. Smith is concerned, and together with the Broome County Historical Society, they have launched a major program to document and photograph every religious structure in Broome county. "Our churches are changing fast," said Smith, who feels an urgency to document each structure before it's too late.

Historian Smith, Historical Society board member Dolores Elliot and President, David Dixon, started talking about a need for the survey early last year. "A similar study was attempted 50 years ago" Smith said, "but a complete survey of churches has never been done."

"The project is an inventory of religious structures, not necessarily churches" said Smith. "It is not about religions or types of churches, but simply about the buildings." Every religious structure is being covered in the study, endangered or not, regardless of the type of religion associated with it, and whether or not the building still serves in a religious capacity. Smith adds, "Traditional churches that have been converted to residences are included in the study, as are residences that provide religious services."

"This is a big project" said Smith, adding, "The Broome County Council of Churches has a list of 210 structures, but there are probably many more than that." Over 300 are listed in the phone directory.

How is the survey being done? Local town and village historians are contacting the owners and/or historians of each religious structure in their area, recording basic information and requesting copies of any printed information that may already exist. Current photographs are being taken of the interior and exterior of each structure.

The Preservation Association of the Southern Tier (PAST), has joined the effort and will help gather data on approximately 70 structures within the City of Binghamton.

Then what? All data and images are being logged into a computer database, said Smith, who envisions many uses for the data, including historical, religious and architectural research projects.

In addition to a searchable database, a publication and website will likely result from the study. "This is a huge, multi-year project that will be continually updated" said Smith. The immediate goal is to collect data, with highest priority going to the endangered structures.

Broome County has an incredible wealth of religious structures. But changes are happening fast, many of the buildings and the memories they hold are in jeopardy of being lost forever. The headline of this column is an irresistible reference to a writing by John Donne. In it, he comments on the influence of a church on its community: "all that she does, belongs to all." Now, thanks to the foresight and efforts of a few, the histories and images of these Broome County treasures will be available for future generations - because they truly belong to all.

Preservation Updates

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the New York State Inebriate Asylum, the "Castle on the Hill." In 1858, Joseph Edward Turner, founder of the Inebriate Asylum, was living in New York City. In April of that year Turner was invited to Binghamton to consider it as a site for the institution. The rest, as they say, is history.

On September 24, 1858, an historic ceremony took place at the construction site of the new asylum in Binghamton to commemorate the laying of the cornerstone. From April until the September ceremony, Turner and his young architect Isaac Perry made many trips to this area. Luckily for us, Turner kept a diary - and even luckier, the Broome County Historical Society actually has Turner's original diary!

Each month leading up to the September 24th anniversary, this column will include excerpts from Turner's 150 year old diary. Following are entries for April, 1858.

Turner's Diary - Courtesy of Broome County Historical Society

  • April 12: Left for Binghamton at 6 AM. Arrived at 6 PM. Met Judge Balcom.
  • April 13: Visited several sites. The citizens of Binghamton had a meeting on the subject of a site for the asylum.
  • April 14: Rode around with a committee appointed by the citizens of Binghamton to look for a site for the institution.
  • April 15: The citizens of Binghamton had another meeting upon the subject of a site.
  • April 16: Rode about Binghamton with committee. Spent evening with Judge Balcom.
  • April 20: Binghamton. Held meeting at the hotel.
  • April 21: Rode about with Mr. Phelps. Took tea at Mr. Dickenson and spent the evening.
  • April 22: Took dinner at Mr. Hitchcock. Took tea at Mr. Halls. Held meeting at the hotel.
  • April 23: Arrived home at 8 P.M. Expenses to Binghamton and back 12.00.
  • April 28: Left for Binghamton with Mayor Lambert.
  • April 29: Arrived at Binghamton. Visited different sites with the committee.

  • HOME