A Story of Urban Renewal and Historic Preservation
These words by Tom Cawley appeared in the Binghamton Sun-Bulletin following the announcement of Project #2 of the city’s $80,000,000 urban renewal program. The year was 1963.
Built in 1900, Lackawanna Station was a Binghamton landmark from the start. Unusually grand and ornate, its style has been described as Richardsonian Romanesque. It was designed by noted Philadelphia architect Samuel Huckel, Jr. who designed many of the finest structures of that city and also drew plans for the remodeling of Grand Central Station in New York City.
But in the 1960’s passenger train service was coming to an end, and even worse for Lackawanna Station, urban renewal had taken hold in Binghamton.
Project #2 covered a 32-acre portion of the city spanning from Chenango Street east to North Shore Expressway, and from Henry Street north to the railroad tracks. In addition to Lackawanna Station, the plan included demolition of the old Arlington Hotel across the street, its neighboring Carlton Hotel, several small businesses and dozens of homes.
With over 50 buildings in the area, only one structure would remain standing: First Baptist Church on Chenango Street.
New construction would include a post office, a memorial park, manufacturing and warehouse facilities, and a large retail complex.
Since Lackawanna Station was still active, it was to be replaced by a much smaller, more modern facility.
As reported at the time, “demolition of the old Lackawanna Station will dramatize strongly what will be happening to all parts of downtown Binghamton in the urban renewal plan. It will not be too long before the face of the city has been altered drastically.”
For the next few years Binghamton was all about demolition. In one year alone 80 structures were demolished. But when the smoke cleared, amazingly, Lackawanna Station was still standing. Somehow it survived the ravages of urban renewal.
Passenger service continued to decline, Lackawanna Railroad’s most popular streamliner, the Phoebe Snow, made its final visit to Binghamton in 1966, and four years later the station was abandoned. For the next several years the building suffered from neglect and vandalism, and once again Lackawanna Station seemed doomed.
Finally, in 1984 local architect Jim Bryden and partner Peter Trozze purchased the building. “I went into it headstrong because I fell in love with the building,” Bryden said. “I was going to make it work come hell or high water, and feel proud of the fact that I accomplished what I set out to do.”
Over the next several months Bryden did just that. With careful attention to detail the station was repaired and renovated. A grand opening took place in 1986 and within a short time the building was fully occupied by a variety of small businesses.
Bryden ultimately sold the station in 1998, and it was again purchased in 2003 by New York City entrepreneur Ari Meisel. “I wanted to fix it up with the pipe dream that train service will one day be restored to Binghamton,” Meisel said. According to Meisel, the building is currently 75% occupied. Asked if it is for sale, Meisel commented that although he is not actively looking, he would consider selling “to the right buyer.”
The basement of the station holds hidden treasure. Since 1984, storage space has been provided to the Susquehanna Valley Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society for their collection of railroad artifacts. President John Goodnough takes every opportunity to exhibit the collection in area museums, a collection that begs to be moved upstairs and put on permanent display in Lackawanna Station.
Since its rebirth in 1984, Lackawanna Station has served the community well. But it almost didn’t happen. Looking back, one wonders just how the building survived the urban renewal axe in the 1960’s.
Cost may have been a factor. In 1968 the city reported that after seven years and many millions of dollars, “plans for the buildings that would give the city its new look, and hopefully, its new vitality, were still on the drawing boards,” and “costs had run far above estimates.”
But it’s tempting to think the plan was cut short due to community response. In fact, as early as 1962 there was concern about the systematic destruction and inappropriate construction associated with urban renewal in Binghamton. Two years later the Commission on Architecture and Urban Design (CAUD) was formed to help ensure that proposed changes were appropriate and would not compromise the character of the city.
As for the Project #2 area, today a parking lot fills the space where the majestic Arlington Hotel once stood. Scores of small businesses and homes are history… replaced by more parking lots, a sprawling post office complex and baseball stadium. The retail store is long gone, manufacturing facilities were never built, and First Baptist Church, the only structure to be preserved by the plan, was razed by its owner in 1970 and replaced with senior housing. Meanwhile, Lackawanna Station, nearly demolished 45 years ago by urban renewal, and again more recently by neglect, is the only original structure still standing.
When asked if he has advice for a potential buyer, current station owner Meisel commented: “Buy it because you love it.” That is precisely what happened 26 years ago, and because of that buyer’s passion, vision and perseverance, this community can be grateful that “come hell or high water, he accomplished what he set out to do.”