A Column about Historic Locations in New York's Southern Tier - by Roger Luther
Binghamton's Castle is Ready and Waiting

There are more than 160 properties in New York State designated by the National Park Service as National Historic Landmarks. Binghamton’s Castle, the former New York State Inebriate Asylum, is the only one in Broome County. Of all 160, it is one of the most historic – and vacant since 1993 it is also one of the most endangered.

Binghamton's Castle on the Hill

Dual staircase designed by architect Isaac Perry

In 2008 local news media reported that finally the Castle would be saved. The New York Times sent a reporter and ran a feature story on it. Earlier that year SUNY Upstate Medical University announced plans to repair, renovate and use the building. The new facility would include a physician assistant program, community free clinic, residency training program, student housing, conference center, and a museum. It was expected to attract 150 students to the Binghamton area. New York State Assemblymember Donna Lupardo was instrumental in securing $12.45 million to repair and restore the exterior of the structure – phase one of the rehabilitation project.

In September of that year, 150 years to the day from the original laying of the building’s cornerstone, a grand ceremony was held at the site. Speeches were made by representatives of then-Governor Paterson, Senator Hillary Clinton and Congressman Maurice Hinchey. Assemblymember Donna Lupardo and SUNY Upstate Medical University President David Smith addressed the crowd. A large contingent of Free and Accepted Masons performed a ritual ceremony, reenacting the ceremony of 1858 and rededicating the building for its new use. Musicians entertained with popular music of the 1850’s. It was a great day for historic preservation and an even greater day for the City of Binghamton! As Dr. Smith commented: “The castle restoration project taps into the two primary economic engines in the region – education and medical services – and the impact will continue long into the future.”

That was seven years ago. Today the building sits empty behind a locked chain-link fence, there has been no construction work, there is no talk of physicians, clinics, students or museums.

What happened? Following the 2008 announcement, “the great recession hampered the state’s ability to fund all but essential projects,” said Lupardo, adding, “this was not considered one of SUNY Upstate’s top priority projects.” In fact, it would be another four years, the summer of 2012, when Governor Cuomo finally released the funding for phase one of the project. But by then things had changed. “Upstate’s commitment to the project started to waiver,” said Lupardo. It would only get worse.

Upstate Medical University is now “reconsidering our position” said Daniel Hurley, Assistant Vice President of the university’s Government and Community Relations. Soon after the 2012 announcement there was a change in leadership when President David Smith left the university. Both Lupardo and Hurley agree that Smith was the champion of the program to rehabilitate and use the Castle. Smith in fact, was involved in a similar historic preservation project in the South prior to joining Upstate Medical University. With Smith’s departure, the visionary, the preservation advocate and driving force for the project was no longer there.

Interestingly, the capital appropriation is still on the books for the first phase of the project. Lupardo is actively looking for new opportunities and has been in contact with Howard Zemsky in Buffalo. Just last month Governor Cuomo named Zemsky president and CEO of Empire State Development Corporation and commissioner of Economic Development. Zemsky has a strong background in rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of historic structures. His development group is currently redeveloping Buffalo’s historic Larkin District, and Zemsky is on the Board of Directors of the Richardson Center Corporation which exists, as their vision statement proclaims, to “rehabilitate the National Historic Landmark Richardson Olmsted Complex (the former Buffalo State Asylum) … to be the crowning jewel of a mixed-use, multi-purpose civic campus of public and private activities.” In fact, rehabilitation of the historic Buffalo asylum has been a remarkable success.

This is of particular interest in light of Governor Cuomo’s recently announced Upstate Revitalization Initiative. Asked if Binghamton’s Castle might be included in the competition for revitalization funds, Empire State Development Project Manager for the Southern Tier, Robin Alpaugh, commented that the Regional Council has been working with its development partners to frame a strategy. “Although it is too early to tell if this property will be included, revitalization and re-use of underutilized state-owned facilities like this one is encouraged, so it could be part of our ultimate plan, depending upon level of interest and potential projects,” said Alpaugh.

Thankfully, for the 22 years since being vacated in 1993, the Greater Binghamton Health Center has continued to provide heat, basic maintenance and tight security for the building. Today, although there is evidence of ongoing deterioration, the structure is in remarkably good condition, inside and out.

There are many projects to consider for the Governor’s Upstate Revitalization Initiative, but consider this… Binghamton’s Castle is Broome County’s only National Historic Landmark; it was designed by one of New York State’s most famous architects, Isaac Perry; from a design standpoint it is one of the most distinctive and significant structures in upstate New York; it was the very first facility in America for the medical treatment of alcoholism, and constructed over 150 years ago, the building is still structurally sound.

The Castle was built during Binghamton’s earliest years. It brought families and even national attention to a growing, progressive community – it helped build this city. For a century and a half the facility has provided security, comfort and employment for thousands, while standing witness to the formation, growth and eventual decline of the surrounding community – a community that is now all about revitalization.

Education and medical services – those primary economic engines identified seven years ago are even more prominent today. We’re seeing growth in the areas of healthcare, assisted living, student and senior housing. Late last year the Department of Veterans Affairs (currently located near the Castle,) announced plans to establish a new outpatient clinic within 15 miles of downtown Binghamton. SUNY Broome’s newly released Master Plan speaks of growth, expansion and the school’s “startling revitalization.” Binghamton University is experiencing unprecedented growth.

As construction options and available resources are considered to accommodate the current revitalization of our Southern Tier, let’s not forget Isaac Perry’s masterpiece – the Castle up on the hill – the building that started it all. More than a Treasure of the Tier, indeed, this building is a National Treasure. If ever there was an ideal candidate for revitalization, this would seem to be it.

Click Here to See More Photos of the Castle

Treasures of the Tier - A Column about Historic Locations in New York's Southern Tier - by Roger Luther