A Monthly Column on Historic Structures of New York's Southern Tier
Will the Strong Survive?
Fire Ravages the Former Cyrus Strong Building... Again!

Standing alone it would be a very impressive structure, but situated as it is between the Perry and Press Buildings, two of Binghamton’s most magnificent architectural landmarks, the building at 17 Chenango Street tends to go unnoticed. Unnoticed that is, until something spectacular happens… like last month for example, when a raging 3-alarm fire ripped through the building shooting flames high into the night sky and threatening to destroy the very heart of Binghamton’s historic district.

Fighting the Strong Building fire, morning of April 21, 1919.
Photo courtesy of the Broome County Historical Society.
“It was a spectacular blaze. The flames worked rapidly toward the back of the building… the fire billowed outward, sweeping toward the roof.” This account is as fitting today as it was when it first appeared in the Binghamton Press on April 21, 1919.

Photographs from that day showed firemen spraying water from open windows of the adjacent Press Building and from a ladder reaching to the top of the structure. A large banner hung on the Perry Building proclaiming “welcome to our heroes,” in reference to the recent signing of the armistice.

In fact, the fires occurring near Easter 1919 and Christmas 2010 were remarkably similar. Besides the near-identical eyewitness accounts, in both cases the source of the fire appeared to be near the back of the building on an upper floor, the interior suffered substantial damage, the roof partially collapsed, and there were no injuries.

With both events there was concern that the fire would spread out of control to the adjacent Perry and Press buildings – and beyond.

While the cause of the 1919 fire was quickly determined to be electrical, there is still no word on what caused the 2010 fire.

In 1897, Hills, McLean & Haskins department store occupied the first two floors and basement of the Perry Building at the corner of Court and Chenango Streets. The business was growing and desperately needed room to expand.

At the same time, the Free and Accepted Masons were looking for a permanent home. Space for meetings had long been shared with other fraternal organizations at 153-155 Washington Street (in recent years home to Phil’s Gift Shop, and currently vacant.) Now it was time to have their own building.

Local builder Cyrus Strong came up with a plan to meet both needs and in 1898 he erected a new structure adjacent to the Perry Building on Chenango Street. The new Strong Building would also be known as Binghamton’s Masonic Temple.

With connecting doorways from its Perry Building location, Hills, McLean & Haskins expanded into the basement and first floor of the Strong Building, while the upper floors were used by Binghamton Masonic Lodge #177 and various other Masonic Lodges of the area.

Both occupants, Hills, McLean & Haskins and the Masons, suffered heavy losses with the 1919 fire. As reported at the time, “the Temple building was damaged to the extent of $30,000, and the Masonic bodies lost paraphernalia costing $25,000, while the Hills, McLean & Haskins Department Store bore the brunt of damage of about $60,000 from smoke and water.”

The Masons immediately made plans for a new temple to be built at the corner of Main and Murray Streets. Meanwhile, the Strong Building was repaired and soon Hills, McLean & Haskins filled the entire building. It would remain in that facility for another fifty years, gradually expanding into adjacent buildings and ultimately surrounding the Perry Building with entrances on Chenango and Court Streets.

The burned out Strong Building as viewed from the Press Building.
The roof of the Perry Building is at the center of the photograph.

Eventually suburban shopping centers took their toll and in 1971, McLean’s, as it was known at that time, was sold to an Ithaca-based chain. Shortly after that the store closed.

In 1979, new owners of the Strong and connected buildings announced plans to develop a “Midtown Mall.” An artist’s conception from that time shows the Strong Building with a modernized façade and a glassed-in arcade on the first floor. As the new owner said, “downtown Binghamton once again will become a thriving metropolis.” That year Binghamton’s answer to the suburbs opened as a complex of retail stores and business offices, and within two years over 370 people were employed at the downtown facility.

But a thriving metropolis was not to be. By 1986 Midtown Mall was 80% vacant. A few years later it closed and it has now been empty and deteriorating for two decades.

Over recent months the Strong Building was again showing signs of life. There was a constant flurry of activity inside and out. Massive century-old rafters were being carried out the front entrance to waiting dumpsters, while pallet-loads of new plywood and 2x4’s were moved inside. The 112-year-old building was being re-developed into student housing, and construction continued at an amazing pace… until December 21.

They say history repeats itself. Nearly a century ago the Strong Building burned. It was saved by the valiant efforts of city firefighters, and thanks to the commitment and foresight of its owner, the structure was rebuilt and went on to serve the community for decades.

Last month it all happened again – the building burned, firefighters saved the structure and those surrounding it. Now it waits, and hopefully will once again rise from the ashes. The question is, this time will the Strong survive?

See More Photos of The Fire