Urban Renewal Survivor Finds New Purpose as Grand Royale Hotel
It was the annual Independence Day celebration, but more than that, on this day the cornerstone of Binghamton’s new City Hall was to be ceremoniously placed. As reported in the Evening Herald the following day, this was “the grandest event Binghamton has ever seen.”
The crowd filled Court House Square and extended well up and down all nearby streets. “It was a great place for pickpockets” reported the Binghamton Republican.
After speeches by Mayor George Green and the Masonic Grand Master, a tin box was placed into a cavity in the stone block. Inside, among other items was a bible, the charter and ordinances of the city of Binghamton, proceedings of City Council, a message from the Mayor, architectural drawings for the new City Hall and several daily newspapers. The stone was then lowered into position and the Masonic ritual was duly performed.
There had been a need for a new City Hall for several years. Since 1857, city offices, the police department and fire station were located in Firemen’s Hall, which stood on this same site.
In 1895, taxpayers voted to have a new City Hall constructed and the following year a design competition was held for the new building. The winning design was submitted by the firm of Ingle and Almirall of New York City. Designed by Raymond Francis Almirall in the distinctive Ecole des Beaux Arts “Hotel de Ville” style, it is a style of which only a very few buildings exist in the United States.
Characteristic of the style are bold sculptural features, deep cornices, a raised first story, a grand entrance and staircase, arched windows and doors, symmetry and classical details. Of special interest is the ornate copper clad cupola that stands majestically above the Collier Street entrance in perfect complement to the nearby County Court House dome.
The original entrance opened to an impressive vestibule. A marble staircase once led to another hexagonal iron staircase at the center of the structure which spiraled around an open elevator shaft. Above the vestibule was a two-story Council Chamber Room, its ornate walls covered with portraits of Binghamton Mayors through the years. An equally large court room was on the floor above.
Seventy years after the July 5 ceremony, downtown “renewal” was in full swing. A modern Governmental Center was under construction just one block south of Court House Square, and by 1972, after serving the community for 75 years, City offices relocated and Binghamton’s Beaux Arts masterpiece sat empty.
As early as 1970, the need to consider preservation and adaptive reuse of the structure was identified. The following year it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Finally, after sitting empty for ten years, the building was purchased and renovated into a hotel, appropriately named “Hotel de Ville.” Major funding for the project was contingent on a requirement by the State Historic Preservation Office that the vestibule, the Chambers Room, and the Collier Street façade be restored. In addition, the central staircase and elevator shaft were to remain intact.
The architectural firm Cummings and Pash was contracted for the renovation, which included changing the entrance from Collier Street to the State Street side of the building. The original vestibule was converted into a restaurant.
Today known as Grand Royale Hotel, well-appointed guest rooms and hotel facilities work in complement to the structure’s original style and architectural features. The vestibule and Chambers Room are now used for meetings and special events.
The building holds a few secrets – the original central staircase and elevator shaft, although not accessible by the public, remain intact, and concealed under a carpet in the lobby, a trap door leads down to a secret chamber. Some say it was once part of a tunnel used to transport prisoners to court – an interesting thought, more likely it was used for coal storage.
According to General Manager John Christopher, current owners Dr. Nirmal Aujla and his wife, Rajpreet of Watertown, New York, have plans for the building. “The goal is to become a member of Historic Hotels of America” (a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation), he said. “To that end, we will be relocating the lobby to the Collier street side and undertaking an extensive capital improvement plan to include replacement of carpets, wall covering, furnishings and soft goods.”
“Dr. Aujla and his wife are committed to repositioning the Grand Royale as a premier destination for lodging in Broome County. They are extremely proud of the building and the history that it represents for so many generations of Binghamtonians,” said Christopher.
Forty years ago urban renewal was drastically altering the character of this city. At that time Binghamton’s Commission on Architecture and Urban Design (CAUD) voiced concern about the impact of urban renewal and the fate of this historic landmark, concluding: “The future character and personality of downtown Binghamton will be determined by the preservation of City Hall.” It is interesting that today, visitors to this city take away memories and snapshots not of the products of urban renewal, but of the architectural treasures that survived in spite of that program.
Directly across Court House Square sits another grand structure from the same era. Binghamton’s Carnegie Library has remained vacant for ten years. It stands deteriorating, silently waiting for an owner with a vision, so like City Hall, it may continue to shape the character and personality of downtown Binghamton for generations to come.