A Column about Historic Structures of New York's Southern Tier - by Roger Luther
Let Us Arise!
After 30 Years of Neglect, Former North Presbyterian Church Comes to Life

It was designed by noted architect Isaac G. Perry, but the small chapel at the corner of Chenango and Munsell Streets was uncharacteristically plain – definitely not typical of Perry’s elaborate style. Of course only so much can be done with a total budget of $5,600.

In that chapel on April 18, 1880, there was reason to celebrate. The occasion was the tenth anniversary of North Presbyterian Church. That day dignitaries spoke of rapid growth in Binghamton over recent years, “and no part of town was growing more rapidly than this,” the church pastor said.

Former North Presbyterian Church after redevelopment into VOA housing complex.
Above: Deterioration is evident prior to reconstruction of the facility.
At that time Binghamton was all about growth and prosperity. Area churches were filled to capacity, and even while celebrating the anniversary, it was pointed out that “rapid growth of this part of the city will soon necessitate a larger edifice for public worship.” In fact, plans for a new church at that site had been in the works for the past five years.

Shortly after that ceremony a new church was built on the site, this one designed by Truman I. Lacey. Reflecting a new level of prosperity and a budget nearly four-times that of the Perry chapel, this grand structure would have all the elaborate magnificence that its predecessor lacked.

Octagonal in shape, the design included three towers, large stained glass windows and an octagonal lantern at the top of the building. Dark stained woodwork and gracefully curved wooden beams decorated the interior. Natural lighting was abundant and acoustics were reported to be outstanding.

In the 1930’s, like many aging churches, deterioration of the tall steeple necessitated its removal. Cost of the project was donated by local Swamp Root magnate Willis Sharp Kilmer, and like his previous donation of a large Skinner pipe organ, the gift was made in memory of his parents Jonas and Julia Kilmer, longtime members of the church.

The growth continued, more buildings were added and by its 50th anniversary the church had 500 members. It would not last, and by 1970 membership had dropped to 75. Finally, one hundred years after that 10th anniversary celebration, the church closed. While membership had declined for years, operating costs continued to climb. Eventually the annual cost of heating fuel far exceeded the cost of constructing the original church. “It was the oil companies that killed us,” said the church financial secretary at the time.

The congregation eventually merged with nearby Broad Avenue Presbyterian Church. Services would now be held at the Broad Avenue facility and the North Presbyterian complex went up for sale. As the pastor said at the time, “we dare hope some other group’s interest might save it from the wrecker’s ball.”

It did. In 1981 the non-profit organization Volunteers of America (VOA) purchased the property. VOA of Western New York Chief Operating Officer Pat Drake states that in the annex of the former church, VOA provides emergency shelter and transitional housing to individuals in need, including homeless veterans and individuals who are overcoming substance abuse issues. “We’ve been doing this for more than 25 years at that location,” she said.

Interior in 2008, prior to reconstruction.

After reconstruction, an apartment on the third floor.
For as many years the adjacent church building sat empty. In 1993, local writer Thomas Crossett reported that the building had seriously deteriorated and “to neglect its maintenance will lead quickly to the time when it becomes a dangerous nuisance and must be torn down.” Crossett then posed the questions: “Is this church significant enough to save? More importantly, is there a will to save it?” Clearly, the answer to the first question was “yes!”

The building would suffer another 15 years of neglect and deterioration before the second question would be answered. In 2008, VOA applied to the New York State Homeless Housing Assistance Corporation (HHAC) based on a need in the community for supportive housing for homeless individuals, Drake said. That resulted in a $3.2 million grant to renovate the church and create housing units. The project gained support from many sources, including Broome County, the City of Binghamton and the Northside Neighborhood Assembly.

Today this landmark structure represents a true preservation success story. The exterior of the building has been restored to its former glory and the grounds have been landscaped. Inside there are 29 studio apartments on three floors, complete with kitchenettes and private bathrooms. Original architectural features such as arched windows and massive wooden beams are evident in many of the apartments.

“The new tenants are very pleased to have affordable, private units that they can live in while they get back on their feet,” Drake said, adding that VOA worked closely with the community throughout the construction process. “We’ve worked hard to maintain aspects of the church, such as the original stained glass windows and the bell from the tower that is now on a foundation in front of the building,” she said. “It’s interesting to note that the tree in front of the church is the second tallest of its kind in New York State, so a special effort was made during construction to preserve it and not do any damage to it.”

“This has been a labor of love that we think will meet a community need while maintaining a beautiful building – it’s such a foundation for that corner,” said Drake.

On April 18, 2012, a ribbon cutting ceremony will take place celebrating the opening of the re-purposed facility. Coincidentally, it was on that same day 132 years ago, April 18, that the original anniversary celebration took place. That ceremony opened with singing of the anthem “Let us Arise,” a concept perhaps even more appropriate now. Like those who will call this building home, this once-grand structure now has an opportunity to rise again and achieve its full potential.

See before and after photos at Religious Structures of Broome County, a project of the Broome County Historical Society.