Beginning in the 1950s, as city populations shrank and suburbs boomed, planners and elected leaders struggled to find a solution to urban decline. Many people believed the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century city was obsolete, replaced by the automobile-dominated suburb. Urban Renewal (sometimes called “urban removal” by its critics) was embraced as a way to “modernize” cities. Entire blocks and neighborhoods were demolished and interstate highways cut through cities. Such projects were partially funded by the federal government. Urban Renewal decimated many cities, replacing hundreds of thousands of historic buildings with large-scale new development, parking structures, or nothing at all. The modern historic preservation movement, and Historic Ithaca, among many other local organizations throughout the U.S., emerged out of the wholesale destruction wrought by Urban Renewal. By 1964 in Ithaca, people were starting to react to the demolition of prominent downtown buildings. Public outrage grew as such notable buildings as the Cornell Public Library and the Ithaca Hotel were torn down. The final blow came when the old City Hall building, after many years of opposition from the DeWitt Historical Society and others, was demolished in 1966. The demolition of City Hall provided a rallying point for many people, including the Downtown Business Women’s Association and the DeWitt Historical Society. Members of the former, as early as 1965, were talking about the need to survey and document historic structures in Ithaca, and were worried about the attractiveness of downtown as a business center given the loss of so many landmark buildings. It was during the week of the City Hall’s demolition that Cornell University held a weeklong “Planning for Preservation” course. The primary speaker was Professor Stephen W. Jacobs, professor of History of Architecture at Cornell’sCollege of Architecture, Art and Planning. Guest speaker Helen Duprey Bullock, Director of the Department of Information at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., gave a presentation on how to organize a preservation group. After the meeting, inspired by Bullock and aided by Jacobs, the Downtown Business Women’s Association quickly formed Historic Ithaca, with the mission “to identify and preserve the historically and architecturally significant buildings and areas of Tompkins County." At the first public meeting, Cornell professor in City and Regional Planning Stuart Stein outlined the new organization’s first objective to survey architecturally and historically significant buildings in Ithaca and Tompkins County.
In Historic Ithaca’s early years, membership was comprised mainly of women, due to the early involvement of the Downtown Business Women’s Association. Many of the members had a long history of community service and were involved in several organizations including the DeWitt Historical Society, the Downtown Business Women’s Association, the Ithaca Garden Club, and the DeWitt Park Improvement Association. In 1968, Historic Ithaca undertook its first major project - an architectural survey of downtown Ithaca. Several hundred commercial and residential buildings were photographed and documented, establishing a baseline for evaluating local historic resources. One endangered building was the 1854 Gothic Revival-style Old County Courthouse. In 1968 HI began a successful advocacy campaign to save it from a proposed demolition to make way for an addition to the County Sheriff's office. The following year, Historic Ithaca joined the long and ultimately successful effort to save the Boardman House from demolition. The house was constructed for George McChain in 1866 by A.B Dale on land bought from Ezra Cornell. The building was bought in 1886 by Judge Douglas Boardman, who became the first Dean of Cornell University’s Law School in 1887. The building was sold to the Ithaca Conservatory of Music in 1911, which later became Ithaca College in 1932. Although there was a lot of work yet to be done to secure protection for Ithaca's historic buildings, there was plenty of fun and celebration in the early years of HI. In 1968 a tour was held of East Hill homes, and in the following year Historic Ithaca bestowed its first Preservation Award upon Joe Ciaschi for the Station Restaurant adaptive use project. During this time HI also began the tradition of an annual holiday party - one that it still enjoyed by our supporters today!
One of the four buildings identified as a preservation priority at HI's first meeting in 1966 was the Clinton House. Development proposals included tearing the building down and replacing it with a Holiday Inn, but by the end of the decade HI members were developing strategies to make sure the downtown landmark didn't end up as the next Urban Renewal loss. The 1833 Clinton House has always been one of the city’s most cherished landmark buildings. Named after Governor DeWitt Clinton of New York, it was designed in the Greek Revival style by Ira Tillotson, a local architect, builder and surveyor. Hailed as the finest hotel west of the Hudson River, the building contained over 150 rooms including offices, bathing rooms and spacious halls. Historic Ithaca purchased the Clinton House in 1973 and immediately set to work rehabilitating it with the help of thousands of volunteer hours. The Clinton House would serve as HI's flagship and headquarters for the next 35 years. HI leaders Connie Saltonstall and Vicky Romanoff spearheaded the project, together with Carol U Sisler, who joined HI as the first paid part-time secretary in the 1970s and went on to serve as the Director until 1993. The project was funded by various sources, including the Eva Gebhard-Gourgoud Foundation, the Phillips Foundation, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the form of grants and Preservation Fund loans. Since then, intermittent restorative work and repairs have been carried out. As board members, staff, and supporters were rolling up their sleeves and pitching in at the Clinton House, educational offerings were expanding with the establishment of a Biennial Conference series and an annual memorial lecture held in memory of founding member and Board President Courtney Crawford. Preservation Services were also expanded with the hiring of HI's first professionally-trained preservationist in 1980. Two years later, HI began offering consulting services to St. James AME Zion Church, helping the congregation to secure financing for the preservation of their 1836 building, the oldest surviving church structure in the City of Ithaca. This relationship is now in its fourth decade. The '70s and '80s also saw the adoption of a local Preservation Ordinance by the City of Ithaca in 1971, setting the stage for the designation of dozens of individual landmarks and six historic districts (and counting!) But the 1980s also brought some preservation setbacks. After a multi-year fight and contentious court case between HI and Cornell University, Roberts Hall, East Roberts Hall, and Stone Hall were demolished in 1987. The three National Register-listed buildings on Cornell's Ag Quad had been built just after the turn of the twentieth century to house the New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
- Historic preservation revives and maintains livable, vibrant, sustainable and attractive communities by preserving and revitalizing older and historic buildings.
- Preservation fosters economic development by fueling reinvestment in existing infrastructure, creating quality skilled jobs, and reinvigorating downtowns.
- It helps maintain a “sense of place”—those distinctive qualities that define neighborhoods, cities, and regions.