The last of four Riverside mansions is alive and well, and open to the public.
In 1890 many of Binghamton's wealthiest families lived in palatial mansions just west of the Chenango River on Riverside Drive. At that time four mansions lined the south side of the drive. The first was the residence of prominent industrialist Robert Rose, to the west were the homes of his brother Edward and Willis Sharpe Kilmer. The fourth residence, the one with bronze gargoyle lamps by the front door, was that of Jonas M. Kilmer, father of Willis and president of the Kilmer Swamp Root Company.
Three of the mansions are long gone, but thank God (literally,) Jonas Kilmer's Mansion was spared when it was purchased in 1950 by Temple Concord for use as a synagogue.
Shortly after the Kilmer estate was sold the Willis Kilmer and Edward Rose mansions were leveled and replaced by an apartment complex. The remaining Rose Mansion was demolished in 1980, this despite its designation as a National Historic Landmark and against strong opposition by the Binghamton community. A vacant overgrown lot is all that remains.
The Kilmer mansions were designed by noted Binghamton architect C. Edward Vosbury. Born in Windsor, New York, Vosbury moved to Binghamton and designed residences for many of this area's wealthiest families. His designs are typically large and elaborate, sparing no expense on interior finish and detail. Other surviving examples of Vosbury's work locally are the Roberson Mansion on Front Street and the Binghamton and former Johnson City High Schools.
A large, two and a half story stone structure, the Jonas Kilmer Mansion is distinctive with its variety of gables, turrets, balconies and towers. Constructed in 1898, the cost to build and furnish the residence was reported at the time to be one million dollars.
Jonas came to Binghamton in 1881, invited by his brother Sylvester Andral Kilmer to run the patent medicine cure-all business that he founded. Jonas eventually bought Andral's share of the business and put his son, Willis Sharpe Kilmer, in charge of advertising. Sales picked up dramatically, the business experienced rapid growth, and the Kilmer family prospered.
At one point the Kilmer estate extended south to the Susquehanna river, and about one mile to the west of the mansions.
Following the purchase by Temple Concord the surviving mansion served as a synagogue, with services being held in what had been the ballroom on the third floor. By 1964 the congregation had outgrown the building and that year a new synagogue was built adjacent to the mansion. The two buildings were connected via the mansion's arched carriage porch located on the west side of the residence, an architectural feature known as "porte-cochere." In spite of the contemporary-style stone and glass addition, the structure and design integrity of the original porte-cochere was not compromised.
With the addition of a new synagogue the mansion has continued to be used for religious classes and social events. It houses the Temple library and archives, and since 1996 has served as "Hanukkah House Museum," open to the public through December with displays of religious artwork and artifacts.
Temple Concord vice president Neisen Luks commented: "We also sponsor periodic public concerts and art shows in the mansion, and depending upon availability it may be rented for special occasions."
Luks went on to say that a mansion committee is considering other uses for the building, such as a permanent Jewish museum, a multi cultural resource center, an art museum, and a community wide cultural center among others.
Today the 110-year old structure has changed little from its original design. Although the grand ballroom on the third floor has been partitioned into classrooms, the basic structure of the room was not altered. As listed on the National Register of Historic Places, "the Jonas Kilmer residence retains an exceptionally high level of integrity both inside and out, with almost all of its historic plan, finishes, and decoration intact."
The building appears to be in great shape, but there is work to be done. "Structurally the building is in good condition," said Luks, however the roof needs to be replaced and a new heating and air conditioning system is needed. As a community resource, Luks hopes that local foundations and grant organizations will help fund necessary repairs.
Inside, wood paneling, exposed beam ceilings, inlaid hardwood floors, marble fireplaces and decorative plasterwork are found throughout. A grand staircase dominates the west end of the main hall. Painted on the ceiling of the front parlor, a nineteenth-century oval mural is as spectacular today as it must have been when Jonas Kilmer entertained guests.
Wooden racks once loaded with kegs and bottles still line the curved stone walls of the wine cellar. Up in the attic a massive mechanical contraption suspends an antique Otis elevator that hasn't moved in decades.
From the outside a "Green Man" can be found below a window on the front of the mansion. Surrounding the base of the structure an assortment of lions and sea creatures serve as gargoyles, still directing rain water away from the walls. Well hidden in a small nook up under the eaves, a majestic gargoyle stands guard. With the body of a lion, a dragon head and wings, this menacing creature is so well concealed that building manager Ken Jones worked at the mansion for years before he noticed it.
The two bronze light fixtures were never recovered, but a little-known fact is that they were part of a set of three figures. The third piece, a free standing hundred-pound bronze light fixture with matching winged dragon and a large leaded-glass globe, was removed from the front entrance immediately after the theft. For the last 12 years it has been stored in the basement. That is, until now. Last week the surviving bronze fixture was resurrected and is now proudly on display in the grand hall.
A tour of the Hanukkah House Museum this Holiday season has something for everyone. For many it is a chance to see collections of icons and artifacts associated with their faith, others can get a glimpse into the rich history and symbolism of Judaic culture, and for all, it is an opportunity to step back in time and explore one of the more spectacular Treasures of the Tier.
Hanukkah House Museum at 9 Riverside Drive, is open for tours every day this month through December 27, from 12:00 to approximately 4:00. For more information or to schedule group tours, call 607-723-7355.