A Monthly Column on Historic Structures of New York's Southern Tier
Green Men in Binghamton
Alien Figures Spotted Around Town

They tend to stay in the background, silent, often going unnoticed, but once you start looking they can be found in several places around town. They peer out at us from across the street and look down on us from above. Many have a slightly menacing look about them, not quite scary, but unsettling to be sure. Known as "Green Men," they first appeared in this area over one hundred years ago.

Above: A Green Man on the Brunnur Building, Washington Street.

One of 16 Green Men on the Ross Building, prior to demolition.

The ceiling in the Press Building lobby.

The RBS Building on State Street.

The Palmer Building on Main Street.

The Ross Building prior to demolition.

Saving the last Green Man from the Ross Building.

Not to be confused with those ominous creatures of the same name that hail from the angry red planet, these fellows take the form of sculptured and molded faces surrounded by foliage, adorning walls and ceilings of some of this area's architectural treasures.

They don't all look alike. For that matter, they're rarely green in color and they don't always take the form of a man. But Green Men have one thing in common: each of the faces is surrounded by, or is in some way associated with foliage. Hence, the "green" connection.

The on-line reference Wikipedia, reports that Green Man symbols have appeared in architecture since the 11th century. "The Green Man motif has many variations. Found in many cultures around the world, the Green Man is often related to natural vegetative deities springing up in different cultures throughout the ages. Primarily it is interpreted as a symbol of rebirth."

Several examples can be found on a walk around town. A Green Man can be seen at the Palmer Building on Main Street, several appear on the front of the RBS Building on State Street, exceptionally ornate examples look down from the ceiling of the original lobby in the former Press Building on Chenango Street, three adorn the Brunnur Building on gorgeous Washington Street. Closely related Green Lions can be found on the Security Mutual building and one of the galleries on State Street.

Until recently, a showcase of Green Man figures could be found on one particular building in downtown Binghamton. There, one could view some of the best examples of the art in the Southern Tier, a veritable mother load of vegetative pagan deities. The historic seven-story Ross Building on Court Street had a total of 14 exquisite Green Man figures located beneath its windows, each measuring roughly 20 inches square. Two more exceptional examples were prominently displayed under arches at the top of the building.

Today, "green" is in the news… for some time the term has served to describe anything remotely associated with protecting the environment and preserving natural resources. It is more than a little ironic that for the past two weeks crowds have gathered downtown to watch the Ross Building as it was unceremoniously pummeled, battered, clawed and ultimately reduced to a pile of broken bricks, lumber, shattered glass, and twisted steel beams, then hauled to a landfill - environmentally speaking, just about as "un-green" as you can get.

Watching the destruction of the Ross Building, I was struck by the tag line of the demolition company, prominently displayed on a sign at the site: "IT ALL COMES DOWN… TO YOUR BOTTOM LINE." This clever play on words suggests that demolition is the most cost effective of options. In this case, it may be true. Most probably agree that the Ross Building had deteriorated to such a point that there was no reasonable alternative to demolition.

But it didn't have to happen. As we have seen with the Kilmer Building, the Press Building, the Goodwill Theatre, the Alms House, the Castle and more, abandoned historic buildings do not have to "all come down." By holding the owners of these architectural treasures accountable, by stopping the neglect of these buildings and performing basic preventive maintenance until new uses can be found, these structures can experience a rebirth that is not only "green", but favorable to "the bottom line" as well.

For months there has been an urgency to demolish the Ross Building, hastened in the final hour by talk of shifting walls and potential collapse. Once started, the demolition was carried out with precision and efficiency. Each day we watched as walls broke apart and fell to the ground, with seemingly no regard for the architectural jewels that accompanied the fall, shattering on the sidewalks below.

But then it happened - when the demolition was nearly complete, something extraordinarily "green" took place. With all but two of the 100-year-old terracotta Green Men destroyed, demolition came to a halt, the crane fell silent. A sole worker dressed in full hazmat attire, climbed into a lift bucket and was raised four stories to the remaining figures. Once in place, he worked with a crowbar for half an hour, prying, chipping, and finally, and very carefully, lifting each of the precious artworks into the bucket. Back on solid ground, the demolition resumed.

The Ross Building is gone, but for a brief moment, the message of the Green Man was heard. Now, in the true spirit of this symbol, that of re-birth and new life, let's hope these two figures continue their 100-year-old mission in a new home, incorporated into the structure that ultimately fills this now vacant space.

Photo Galleries:

Demolition of the Ross Building
Saving the last Green Man