A Column about Historic Locations in New York's Southern Tier - by Roger Luther
Uncovering a Binghamton Landmark

It was midnight, August 23, 1862, when a fire bell sounded the alarm in downtown Binghamton. Smoke billowed from the cellar of Benjamin Franklin Sisson’s dry goods store on Court Street next to the Chenango Canal. Soon the entire building was engulfed in flames. Sisson’s son William who had an apartment over the store, barely escaped with his life. The fire completely destroyed the store as well as adjacent shops and apartments, but as reported in the Binghamton Press at the time, “The new monster steam fire engine performed admirably, and more than paid for itself, as it probably saved the whole block.”

As Sisson’s founder would later be remembered: “With an indomitable will, B.F. Sisson took courage in the well-nigh overwhelming calamity.” He rebuilt. This time the structure would be of stone, it would be substantial and virtually fireproof – and although he could not have known it at the time, it would be designed by an architect who was to become legendary.

The Granite House, completed 1863

First renovation in progress, July 1916

First renovation complete

Urban Renewal renovation, as it appears today

It so happened that at that time a new architect was making a name for himself in Binghamton. The New York State Inebriate Asylum was under construction, and its designer, Isaac Gale Perry, was in town. Sisson hired Perry to design his new store, and at the same time contracted John Stewart Wells, builder of the asylum, to handle the construction. This was to be the first design project for Perry following the asylum. It would be followed by many more throughout the region and across the state, establishing Perry as one of Upstate New York’s greatest architects.

The four-story stone structure, appropriately named “Granite House,” was completed in 1863. It would later be described as “one of the first of the fine business blocks in the city, marking the beginning of a new era in the growth and enterprise of Binghamton.”

The new store on Court Street prospered. Customer traffic steadily increased, helped in part by conversion of the adjacent Chenango Canal into a city street. This intersection of Court and the new State Street would quickly become one of the busiest sections in town.

Then, in the pre-dawn hours of Christmas Eve, 1871, there was another fire. Quickly spreading up a rear stairwell, the roof and upper floor over the store were almost entirely destroyed. Although severely damaged, Granite House lived up to its name and survived. The building was repaired and Sisson’s continued to thrive.

By 1916 the store was operating at capacity. More space was needed and it was decided to build an eight-story addition at the rear of the building. This time the architectural firm of T.I. Lacey & Son was contracted to build the addition and seamlessly integrate the original building with the new structure. To that end, Lacey found it necessary to significantly renovate the exterior of Perry’s Granite House.

Nearly fifty years later, and one century after opening the Granite House, the company was bought by a large store chain out of Cleveland, and although it was announced that operation would continue as-is, this brought to an end 121 years of Sisson-family ownership of one of Binghamton’s most popular department stores. Under new management, it was only a matter of months before the store closed and the building sat vacant. The year was 1963, and Urban Renewal had come to town.

Big plans were in the works for Binghamton – modern concrete and glass structures were envisioned, new highways would reroute traffic through and around the city. To that end, historic architecture would be demolished, homes leveled, communities divided and neighborhoods obliterated.

It wasn’t long before a local contractor purchased the building with “plans to make it one of the most modern in the forthcoming downtown Urban Renewal program.” A bank would occupy the first floor and among other tenants would be the Binghamton Urban Renewal Agency.

The new owner stated that “the exterior of the building will be remodeled in a modern treatment of glass, aluminum and stone similar to the façade found on some of New York’s most attractive skyscrapers,” adding that the building would be “the finest, most modern office facility in the area.” In order to create the new structure, the owner said it would be necessary “to practically gut the building, leaving only its exterior walls and some of the upper floors intact.”

The modern exterior was designed by local architect James Kilcy. Renovation began in the spring of 1965 and formal opening of the new “Industrial Bank Building” took place the following February. It was dedicated by then mayor Esworthy as “the first building to be completed in Binghamton’s Urban Renewal program.”

Today the bank is long-gone, but the building is occupied by a variety of businesses. Asked if the pre-Urban Renewal façade is still intact, Kilcy said that the exterior of the 1916 building was covered, but not replaced during the 1965 renovation, explaining that channels were attached to the building to support the modern glass panels and stone façade.

Rising above a mixture of architectural styles, the building stands out as an example of mid-20th century urban design – the product of an ill-fated vision for redefining downtown Binghamton. While Urban Renewal destroyed much of the city’s architectural heritage, in this case, the program was responsible for preserving at least a portion of one of Binghamton’s earliest commercial structures.

Like artwork of an old master hidden behind a modern painting, there is architectural treasure beneath the tinted glass and stucco façade of this building – remnants of a Granite House, that one hundred years before Urban Renewal, marked “a new era in the growth and enterprise of Binghamton.”

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Urban Renewal and CAUD

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