The staff and Board of Historic Ithaca extend our thanks to Alderpersons Ducson Nguyen (D-2nd), Seph Murtagh (D-2nd), George McGonigal (D-3rd), Graham Kerslick (D-4th), and Michael Decatur (D-5th) for voting in favor of designating the Chacona Block (411-415 College Avenue) as an individual local landmark at the November 1st City of Ithaca Common Council meeting. With the city’s ten Common Council members reaching a 5-5 vote on designation, Mayor Svante Myrick cast the tie-breaking vote against the landmark designation and protection of the Chacona Block. Although the outcome was not what Historic Ithaca and many community members desired, we are glad that the supporting Alderpersons came to a conclusion that the Chacona Block designation aligned with the aims of the Collegetown Plan and draft Collegetown Design guidelines. We stand by our position that the Chacona Block is worthy of designation and that it meets the criteria for designation outlined in Ithaca’s preservation ordinance.
We believe that the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Planning Board came to a correct determination in supporting the designation. The Chacona Block designation received support from many well-respected preservation professionals throughout our region and state, including the Preservation League of New York State. We also appreciate the advocacy of our Board members, the over 2,200 people who signed the change.org petition supporting the designation, and those who spoke in favor of the designation. Many thanks to City Historian Mary Raddant Tomlan for her research on John N. Chacona and the Greek-American community in Ithaca.
It is disappointing that misinformation about the building and the designation continued to be repeated by the owners and those opposing the designation. The opposition to the designation claimed that the Chacona Block was unworthy because it was a commercial building that they considered unattractive and “not historic enough.” Individual landmark designation is not just for the houses of famous people or high-style churches designed by brand name architects. It’s for all kinds of buildings, including vernacular commercial architecture. In many communities in New York, early 20th-century commercial mixed-use buildings with intact storefronts like the Chacona Block have been included on the State Register and on the National Register of Historic Places. Staff from the New York State Historic Preservation Office determined that the Chacona Block is eligible for nomination to the National and State Registers. All across the state and nation, examples of commercial mixed-use buildings that have been successfully rehabilitated and contribute to the local economy can be found.
Each week, the Keeper’s office for the National Register of Historic Places publishes listing updates that reflect the broad range of buildings, structures and sites that are added to the register, all of them speaking to diversity of the American experience. The recent weekly lists for October include a farm in Connecticut, a U.S. Post Office and Court House in South Carolina, the 4th Avenue Commercial District in Tucson, Arizona, a water tower in Kansas, and a small wood frame train depot in Sopchoppy, Florida, among other listings. Of the City of Ithaca’s twenty-four individual local landmarks, only two – St. James AME Zion Church and the Dennis-Newton House – directly represent the diversity of cultures and communities that have contributed to Ithaca’s history and development. In 2015, Common Council unanimously approved the designation of the Dennis-Newton House, despite the fact that the modest, wood-frame house was condemned. The addition of the Chacona Block as a local landmark aligns with the values of our city as a community that embraces diversity and recognizes and celebrates the contributions of people of all backgrounds. On the national level, the National Park Service continues to call for increased recognition and protection of sites related to underrepresented groups on the National Register of Historic Places.
The designation of a 1912 commercial mixed-use building like the Chacona Block would reflect much about our local history, including the contributions of John N. Chacona and Ithaca’s broader community of Greek-American entrepreneurs, as well as the development of Collegetown and Cornell University. Well into the 1940s, the building was still referred to as the Chacona Block, even though John N. Chacona died in 1936. Historic Ithaca advocated for the individual local landmark designation of the Chacona Block to protect a vital piece of our community’s history.
We are disappointed with Mayor Myrick’s deciding vote. Just over a year and a half ago, the Mayor spoke at the 2016 New York Statewide Preservation Conference in Troy on a New York State Mayor’s panel on preservation. He touted the livability of our city and the smart growth efforts of Ithaca along with its history of preservation. It’s difficult to reconcile his remarks then with his vote at the Common Council meeting on November 1st.