When Dr. Rey Wojdat first ventured inside the long-shuttered Carnegie Library, syringes lay scattered across the vintage floor, its striking Grecian key design covered in grime and the decayed remains of animals – pigeons, crows, even a raccoon. A copper plaque thanking the philanthropist who paid for the library’s construction in 1903 had disappeared from the wall, perhaps stolen for scrap.
Today, the building has been restored to its former glory – and given new life as SUNY Broome’s new Culinary and Event Center, housing its popular Hospitality degree programs. The $21.5 million facility not only includes state-of-the-art amenities, but also painstakingly restored many historic details, from elaborate plaster and ceiling ornamentation to swirling ironwork – and, of course, that amazing floor.
Dr. Wojdat, chair of SUNY Broome’s Hospitality Programs Department, has been taking the CEC on the road, talking to community groups about the project’s impact not only on historic downtown Binghamton, but on the lives of the region’s future hospitality professionals.
He spoke during a Black History Month celebration at the Broome County Library on Feb. 8 and again Feb. 11 at a meeting of the Binghamton Sertoma Club. Staff who once worked at the Binghamton Library when it was located in the Carnegie building also were invited on a special tour, as were other groups, including Southern Tier Independent Restaurants.
“We understand that we were creating wasn’t just a learning center, but a museum piece,” he said to the Sertoma Club.
Funded by famed philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the Classical Beaux Arts-style building with its striking columns opened in 1904. It housed the Binghamton Library for 96 years, until the library outgrew the location and moved to its current space just a few blocks away.
The original letter announcing the $63,000 donation behind that initial project was contained in the building’s time capsule, opened during the CEC’s groundbreaking in 2016. Plans are underway to outfit a new time capsule during the building’s official grand opening event on April 2.
SUNY Broome has kept the Andrew Carnegie’s legacy in mind as the project unfolded. Long-term, Dr. Wojdat would like to replace that missing plaque honoring Carnegie, whose impact the professor witnessed firsthand during a Halloween-time trip to the Westchester County village of Sleepy Hollow.
In the village’s famous cemetery, Dr. Wojdat saw the massive monuments built by hotel queen Leona Helmsley and other luminaries, including oil tycoon William Rockefeller Jr. He noticed that many people were visiting a less elaborate part of the cemetery, leaving coins at the base of a 5-foot Celtic cross. The grave belonged to Carnegie – a man who gave away his extensive fortune to philanthropic causes before his death in 1919. To this day, visitors leave pennies on his grave as a testament to how Carnegie touched their lives, Wojdat told the Sertoma Club.
The past influenced the unfolding of the project in other ways, too, and not just in terms of aesthetics. None of the $21.5 million in funding for the project came from the SUNY Broome Community College budget, but rather from grants and tax credits, he explained. The National Park Service was involved in the latter, and had very strict requirements on how the building was to be preserved.
That led to the construction of an addition, where the facility’s kitchens and elevator are located. Ultimately, those building restrictions worked out for the best, Dr. Wojdat observed.
State of the Art
In many ways, the facility stands out, and even architects and contractors have remarked that there is little to compare with nationally, Wojdat said.
The bartending and beverage labs, with its unique twin bars of reclaimed wood, allow an instructor to see students’ work in real time. The model has since been copied at other colleges, he said. That space also preserves the original Binghamton Library safe, opened by former library employees who unexpectedly saved both the key and the lock combination.
A garde manger kitchen provides a specialized area for cold pantry work, including ice-carving and elaborate creations of aspic. The tiered demonstration kitchen has a science-fiction vibe, with screens rising from desktops at a touch. Twin production kitchens and another for Continuing Education classes round out the offerings. All are customizable, allowing the steward to literally transform the room to meet curriculum needs.
Overall, the kitchens offer every amenity a chef can imagine – and even some they can’t, considering that Dr. Wojdat – a certified chef – had to be trained in their use.
‘We have kitchens in there that cost in equipment alone well over a million dollars. We have the most up-to-date kitchens anywhere,” he said.
The kitchens include induction stoves, a newer technology that transfers current directly to metal cookware to generate instant heat. Unlike electric ranges, the stovetop doesn’t heat up – making it safer and more efficient, and capable of cooking meals more quickly.
“I’m trying to get them prepared for what will be, not just what is,” Dr. Wojdat said.
And the icing on the cake is yet to come. Yet to be installed is specialty equipment for chocolate-making – not chocolatiering, in which cooks work with chocolate to make confections, but going from fermented bean to bar. There’s only one other place in the country that does this: the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he said.
While the Culinary and Event Center is the premier home for SUNY Broome’s Hospitality Programs, it will also offer Continuing Education classes as well as three spaces available for rent, accommodating weddings, meetings, small conferences and more. Stay tuned for future news on the CEC’s grand opening on April 2!