Culinary Arts Center: A landmark saved, a box opened – and a future in the making

Carefully stepping over the wire barricade, SUNY Broome President Kevin E. Drumm and Director of Campus Operations Phil Testa passed through the pillared entrance of the Carnegie Library and entered its study doors, which still bear the logo of the Binghamton Public Library on the frosted glass.

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The cavernous space still offered glimpses of its former glory, with scrollwork decorations and lofty arches. But the patterned floor bore witness to 16 years of vacancy, with broken floor tiles scattered every which way.

The two men didn’t linger. Wielding a drill, Testa took down boards behind the building’s old cornerstone, handing a worn metal box to a waiting President Drumm, who then carefully transported it across Exchange Street where a crowd began to gather. They were eager to know the contents of the time capsule, placed in the foundation back in 1903.

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They were eager, too, to learn the building’s fate – as SUNY Broome’s future Culinary Arts Center.

“This is a long-realized dream now, today,” Professor Rey Wojdat, head of SUNY Broome’s Hospitality Programs, told Preservation Association of the Southern Tier (PAST) President Roger Luther before the start of the Sept. 29 groundbreaking ceremony. “Andrew Carnegie would have been very happy.”

Luther agreed. For years, the former library had been on PAST’s “Eyes on Five,” a list of the most endangered landmarks in the Southern Tier. With plans in place for its future, it will now be removed from that list, another endangered building to take its place.

Remembering the Past

In 1901, Binghamton was bursting with industry – and in sore need of a library. A group of dedicated citizens wrote a five-page letter pleading their case to industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who wrote back with a simple two-paragraph letter: “I’ll give you $75,000 as long as the city buys the lot,” related Gerald Smith, Broome County historian and an instructor at SUNY Broome.

Built in Classical Beaux-Arts style, the building was designed by architects Sanford and Halbert Lacey, with Isaac Perry as consulting architect. After the cornerstone was laid in 1903, the brick building rose up – trimmed with limestone, topped with red clay tile and featuring a Greek Ionic-style portico, with the names of literary icons etched in stone above its windows. The doors opened in 1904.

When the building’s cornersimg_5871tone was originally laid, librarian William Foote Seward – a cousin of that more famous Seward — remarked: “It shall be the people’s university in which every man, woman and child of our city shall have part and lot.”

Those words still resonate today, Dr. Drumm reflected.

“Since the very beginning, community colleges have been democracy’s college — a place where anyone could pursue knowledge and education, not just a special few,” he said. “Not only are we keeping the Carnegie library itself intact, the college is also preserving its essential mission. It will remain the people’s college – a place of learning open to all.”

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For 96 years, library patrons went in and out of its doors, noted Smith, who worked in the building himself for 22 years as part of his three decades with the Broome County Public Library. By 2000, however, the library had long outgrown its space and moved to a newly constructed building a block away.

“It’s seen better days,” Smith acknowledged. “It’s about to be reborn.”

In another odd quirk of history, SUNY Broome had its origins only a few blocks away in the former Armory on Washington Street, President Drumm noted. The college began there 70 years ago as a State Institute of Applied Arts and Sciences, predating the SUNY system. That building burned down in a dramatic Labor Day fire, promoting the college’s move to county property on Upper Front Street in 1956.

Now the college is returning to downtown Binghamton – and revitalizing an important piece of the region’s history, Dr. Drumm said.

Building the future

Over the next 18 months, the Culinary Arts Center will take shape in the former library – preserving its historic character, but also creating a state-of-the-art learning environment for the college’s planned culinary arts program (which is pending approval) and current hospitality and event management programs. The project is estimated to cost between $10.5 million and $12 million, and has received $3 million in funding from Broome County, $5 million from the State of New York and $2.2 million from the Regional Economic Development Council. It’s also eligible for historical tax credits, and there will also be a campaign for private dollars headed by the Broome Community College Foundation.

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“I was happy to secure a $5 million appropriation in the state budget to help bring the historic Carnegie Library back to life with this new downtown development,” said Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo. “Local food and agriculture are major components of our local economy; we want to continue to foster the culinary entrepreneurship that has helped revitalize the area. This school will encourage the next generation of restaurateurs, brewers, distillers and other producers to stay in our community.”

The facility is being designed by Passero Associates, with the guidance of Cynthia Carrington Carter, a historical architect from Renaissance Studio. Amenities will include a fabrication lab for the Events Management program, a fully equipped beverage lab for mixology classes, garde manger and production kitchens, a full-dining room, a computer lab, a state-of-the-art lecture hall for cooking demonstrations, and office space, lounge areas and a proposed community education cooking studio.

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Why culinary arts? With its highways and farmland, the Southern Tier is a major food hub for the entire state, Dr. Drumm pointed out. Two hundred farms in the region raise everything from apples to livestock, and food manufacturing is one of the area’s most significant industries, according to the Department of Labor. Wine, cheese, apples, yogurt, beer – you can get all of this and more in the Southern Tier.

“We intend to be the capital of the region, if not the nation, for the farm-to-table movement,” President Drumm said.

Hospitality and culinary arts are also part of that food hub – and training in these areas is the missing link. SUNY Broome had a culinary arts program proposal ready to go for years, but it remained on the shelf due to a lack of facilities, he said.

img_5952Currently, many hospitality students take their classes off-campus due to a lack of necessary facilities.

“We’re actually teaching in a church and it’s hard,” Wojdat said.

When Wojdat first came to campus 23 years ago, he taught in Grandma’s Kitchen – a space located where the BC Center is today, featuring a kelly-green 1960s-era stove and kitschy onion-themed wallpaper. Then, they moved up to BOCES but later lost that space when the facility remodeled. Now, courses meet at Saints Cyril & Methodius Church – a space for which the college is grateful, but nevertheless not their own.

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“This will be a crown jewel,” said Wojdat, who also led a toast during the groundbreaking. “We have a lot of potential for what we could do here in this building.”

Binghamton Mayor Rich David praised President Drumm and Binghamton University President Harvey Stenger for the role they and their institutions have played in revitalizing the city’s downtown. Kara Grippen, the Southern Tier Regional Representative for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, read a letter from the governor expressing his support. Broome County Executive Debbie Preston and state Sen. Fred Akshar – both alumni of the college – also expressed their enthusiasm.

“Broome County believes in this new project,” Preston said, adding that officials feel the programs offered there will be popular among students.

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Of course, the students themselves were the best advocates. Wearing smart purple uniforms, the college’s Hospitality students – under the direction of Professor Maria Montemagno – served sparkling grape juice in wineglasses as visitors enjoyed historical displays provided by PAST. They included Cheryl Bellos, Dana Connery, Brianna Felton, Kelsey Guelzow, Haley Keister, Milayla Kilts, Danita Sheard, Reailyna Stanback, Jelissa Thompson, Britanni Ucci, Monica Wasielewski, Leah White and Elizabeth Wirth.

Executive Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Francis Battisti knows the career possibilities of hospitality firsthand. His parents were Italian immigrants and ran a restaurant, and his brother continued in the tradition as a restauranteur. Such careers are demanding, requiring attention to detail and a high level of professional skill.

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“It allowed my family to achieve the American dream, and me to be here today,” he said.

So, what was in the box?

As Drumm, Wojdat, Luther and Smith donned white gloves, Testa chiseled the time capsule open. The president then carefully removed the items, which Luther and Smith interpreted and Wojdat placed in a protective Plexiglas case for viewing.

“I don’t know what this is,” President Drumm said after extracting the first item, which appeared to be a book.

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“I do!” Smith chimed. It was a 1903 city directory, listing all the area businesses.

Newspapers followed; Binghamton had three back in 1903, when Theodore Roosevelt was the nation’s president. There was a list of city officials, building specifications – they would have come in handy three months ago, Wojdat noted – and the original blueprints. Of the last, there had been only two copies in the public eye: one had been lost by the architect, and the other by the city clerk’s office in the 1960s, Smith noted.

And then there was the mystery box: the size of a pack of gum, with the word “ribbon” still etched in otherwise tarnished writing on its metal surface. The historian peered at it, puzzled. Luther was also stumped.

With some further investigation, that mystery may be solved 18 months from now – in time for the building’s grand opening.

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