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Historic Ithaca celebrates 50th anniversary with History Center exhibit

A poster in Historic Ithaca’s window advertises the event at The History Center on March 5. Photo by Rachel Mucha.
By Gabby Jorio and Rachel Mucha

Historic Ithaca is celebrating its 50th anniversary starting this March with an exhibit at the History Center opening March 1 and a panel discussion March 5.

The celebration of Historic Ithaca isn’t over after the exhibit. The City of Ithaca is going to declare June 20 Historic Ithaca Day in honor of the anniversary.

Historic Ithaca’s exhibition, running from March 1 to March 27, will celebrate Historic Ithaca’s past projects. It will display photographs and information about Historic Ithaca’s preservation projects, including its most known project, the preservation of the Clinton House, named after Governor Dewitt Clinton of New York. On March 5, there will be a panel discussion at the History Center with early preservationists. The panel discussion will mostly focus on the history of preservation in Ithaca.

Historic Ithaca formed after the City Hall was threatened with demolition. Local business people saw that demolition was becoming a trend in Ithaca, and their goal was to save Ithaca’s architectural history. Their first project arose out of an organizational meeting in 1966 when the group identified four significant buildings that were facing demolition. These buildings were: The Clinton House, the former Ithaca High School, the Boardman House and Tompkins County Courthouse.

The Clinton House is one of the most well known preservation projects in Ithaca. It was originally built depicting a greek revival style. The style still remains intact today and the building is now home to the New Roots Charter School, offices and rental properties.

Historic Ithaca appointed a new executive director Feb. 16, Dr. John Lewis. Lewis took over when previous executive director Alphonse Pieper stepped down after seven years.

“We’re having some panel discussion by some of the early preservationists who were the heroes of preservation work in the 60s and 70s,” Lewis said.

Historic Ithaca has worked to maintain the landscape in spite of urban renewal.

“The buildings that you see, you can see the history, but places like the Clinton House wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Herculean efforts by preservationists at that time,” Lewis said.

Lewis said that without preservationists, Ithaca would not be distinct. Preservation efforts in Ithaca seek to maintain the community’s architectural heritage.

“If it hadn’t been for preservationists at that time, Ithaca would look like any other community in the United States,” he said. “We want to maintain a character of the community that is unique to Ithaca, that we know is Ithaca.”

Historic Ithaca continues preservation projects through Significant Elements, a store in which community members can purchase antiques and repurpose them.

Robert Rector, a long-time Ithaca resident and new employee of Significant Elements, has seen how important Historic Ithaca is to the community.

“With preserving old buildings and just making people aware — the education element of it. Letting people know that that house isn’t just a house, there’s a story behind everything,” he said.

Significant Elements is one way community members can preserve old things instead of throwing them away.

“People donate stuff — a lot of stuff,” Rector said. “They can bring their old lighting fixtures or door hinges to us. People who are seeking that stuff out can come here and find it.”

Lewis said that one of the biggest challenges in preservation is economic — it takes money to prevent old buildings from being torn down.

“There’s a lot of economic incentive to take down buildings and put up new ones that can make developers more money,” Lewis said.

Historic Ithaca is a non-profit and the employees volunteer their time there. Karen Binder is the bookkeeper and office manager at Historic Ithaca, who is able to come in a few days a week.

“It’s kind of a work of love,” she said. “Not everything that we want to keep going is a building, sometimes it’s these old chairs or that kind of thing.”

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