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Mountain Home Magazine

Back to the Future

Jun 04, 2014 03:01PM

Soon after Virginia Wright moved to Corning in 1958, she went downtown with her six-month-old baby to look around. But she didn’t stay out long that day. “I came home and cried,” she says. “There were basically only bars and men’s shoe stores. I thought, ‘I can’t raise a family here.’”

Virginia wasn’t sure exactly what she was expecting. The downtown she encountered clearly catered to the men who worked at Corning Glass Works—not their families. Her husband, Jerry Wright, was one of those workers, just starting a position as a product designer. Corning was a company town in every way, good and bad.

Virginia wasn’t the only one who noticed that there were problems on Market Street. Vacant storefronts plagued the street. The buildings sported an odd assortment of neon signs and aluminum siding. It lacked vitality.

But, during the 1960s and ’70s, Virginia, along with city leaders, business owners, and others, helped spark a movement that reinvigorated Corning’s historic Market Street, and offered a model for renewing main streets across the country—one that continues to inspire cities to this day.

At the time, Virginia’s discontent with Corning’s downtown wouldn’t rest. Jean Wosinski, the wife of a Corning Glassworks scientist, commiserated with her. Jean suggested that they do something. She was, says Virginia, the “mover and shaker” of the pair.

Virginia and Jean noticed that Market Street’s upper stories were quite ornate, and they felt other people should pay attention to the beauty of the buildings. Constructed during the 19th century, they were mostly made with materials straight from the local Corning Brick and Terra Cotta Works factory that operated from 1878 through the 1930s. Along the five blocks of Market Street, terra cotta moldings adorned buildings, and ornaments like lions and stately owls topped them. Cornices decorated doorways and arches swept over windows. Accents, swags, corbelling, and ironwork dressed up façades. Varied building heights, plus polychromatic and patterned brickwork, offered interest in what were otherwise monotonous walls.

Together, Virginia and Jean created a presentation, complete with a slideshow and accompanied by Petula Clark’s song “Downtown,” detailing the neglected beauty within the community. The pair offered the show to anyone who would listen, including library-goers, the Kiwanis Club, and the Common Council.

After one event, a Common Council member told her, “Virginia, you can’t legislate beauty.” And then he patted her on the head.

“Neither one of us had any power,” says Virginia. She didn’t even have a clear vision of what Market Street, the five-block backbone of downtown, could become. Before moving to Corning, Virginia had studied botany at Denison College in Granview, Ohio, where she lived in a dormitory in a house built in 1866. She then lived in Chicago, where she remembers standing on the platform of the ‘L’ and noticing one of the buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. In Corning, she became the librarian at the community college, and then at the Corning Museum of Glass. She appreciated history and aesthetics. But mainly she wanted a downtown that served as the center of her community, one where she could enjoy spending time. And she wanted others to think about how to create that, too.

“If people don’t pay attention, buildings crumble,” Virginia says. And they were quite literally crumbling, in part to make room for new development, and she didn’t want her community to crumble with them.

At the time, downtowns across the country were changing. New shopping malls popped up in the outskirts of town. In Corning, population 17,000, a 1966 urban renewal plan called for the demolition of 175 downtown buildings to make room for a modern civic center, a library, and more. At the same time, ground was broken at the Arnot Mall, the largest shopping center in the Southern Tier at the time. It was modern and big: enclosed and air conditioned, it spanned thirty-eight acres.

The Rice Building on East Market Street—with possibly the only example of continuous terra cotta garland ornamentation around a building in Corning—was just one of the many demolished structures. At one point, Virginia’s husband pulled terra cotta moldings from a trash heap, bicycled home with them, and transformed them into a “brick and board” bookcase, which still stands in their living room today. Another active preservationist, Ernestine King, salvaged a sculpture from the rubble of the opera house demolition site by loading it into her red wagon—then making her kids walk home. Today, that salvaged sculpture of the god Pan is displayed at the Information Center of Corning, One West Market Street.

The merchants remaining in downtown Corning tried to keep up with the times. They added signs to attract attention. They updated their storefronts by covering up outdated styles.

In one display of progress, builders transformed Ecker’s Drugstore at 47 East Market Street to demonstrate a new Corning Glassworks product, Pyroceram, as cladding on the building’s exterior. In the local paper, the drugstore management announced innovation inside and out: the use of an innovative IBM computer system for “fast, accurate processing” and the thin-but-strong, low maintenance Pyroceram that would create a “distinctive store unlike any other” with “permanent beauty.”

Later, in 1970, the Corning Glass Works Foundation gave the city more than $1.4 million to implement the 1966 downtown plan for the new expansive civic center plaza.

Despite the cultural push to modernize, many eyes looked up at the buildings, back in history, and inward at their own ideas of progress. Virginia and Jean’s humble appeals to pay attention to the existing beauty on Market Street started a conversation, and soon many people were concerned with the state of Corning’s downtown.

During the early 1970s, downtown efforts multiplied. Care for Corning, an informal group of the American Association of University Women, was formed with Ernestine King’s help, and then later became the Council on Urban and Cultural Development. Grants funded professional recommendations from architects and preservationists, public exhibitions, and a pilot program to improve building façades. On the recommendation of the Corning Glassworks Foundation, Corning executives traveled to other cities to see their restoration projects, like San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square and New Orleans’ Vieux Carré. Relationships between the City, Corning Glass Works, the Corning Foundation, and the Corning Urban Renewal Agency strengthened.

In 1971, Tom Buechner, founding director of the Corning Glass Museum (and Virginia’s boss), returned to Corning after about a decade away working at museums in New York City. While away, Tom had created a sculpture garden at the Brooklyn museum, featuring salvaged architectural elements from demolished buildings.

Upon his return, Tom championed the Market Street restoration effort that honored historic buildings. He brought a concrete vision and organizational skills to make that vision a reality. In early 1972, he said, “Corning is our environment. It reflects us and affects us and our children. What this place looks like reflects the kind of people we are, and, in time, the kind of people we will become.”

Regarding one restoration proposal putforth,Tomsaid,“The sum of money involved is much less than the new library, the new city hall, or the new skating rink, but what it could mean for the future of this community is greater than all three put together.” In March 1972, the Corning Foundation gave $72,000 to establish a twenty-one-person committee to oversee the creation of a Market Street Restoration Plan.

Then, disaster struck. In June of 1972, Hurricane Agnes ripped through the region and flooded Corning. Sixty percent of the community was underwater, including Market Street. For Virginia Wright, the flood was life-changing: as a librarian of the Corning Glass Museum, she worked seventeen-hour days to save precious and one-of-a-kind books; at home, she took in another family who had lost their house. With a gaggle of kids and four fighting cats in one house for six weeks, things were chaotic. She focused her attention on her job and her family, and she was relieved that the restoration of Market Street was already in good hands.

Many in the community agree that a silver lining emerged from the disaster. Before the flood, skepticism about the restoration effort hung like a cloud, with the nagging question: what if we do everything right, create a physical renaissance, and no one responds, nothing changes? When the floodwaters receded and the mud was washed away, residents had a chance to reconsider the future of their community. Everyone lost something in the flood, and some say that the divide between blue-and white-collar workers was washed away, too, that the flood leveled class barriers, at least somewhat. Amo Houghton, Jr., CEO of Corning Glass Works at the time, said with conviction, “We are not licked, we are going to bounce back.”What the flood could not wash away was the vision that was taking hold in the community. When federal relief funds came in, the community built brick sidewalks, created a park, and planted more than 100 honey locust trees. These were the same ideas that originated during the early conversations about Market Street.

That vision, which had started as a conversation more than a decade earlier, coalesced with three goals in mind: to re-establish Market Street as a commercial center, to establish an attractive environment, and to preserve buildings with rare architectural elements. All this, two full years before Jackie Kennedy rallied for the preservation of Grand Central Station in New York City.

In 1973, Mayor Joseph J. Nasser wrote, “We are not dealing with a world of make believe. The plan calls for restoration of real buildings; for the preservation of an honest heritage, and for valid public improvements… [the plan] avoids the sameness of the average shopping center. It does not tear down, but builds upon something which exists and already has great value. The project will add warmth and style to this important thoroughfare.”

But who would lead this effort? And what exactly would it entail? Vision was one thing, but imagine the task. Tom described it this way: “Nowhere has the main street of an industrial American city been restored to its turn of the century appearance while serving as a lively, modern, shopping center. We could become a model for the nation—an 1870s living museum street merging in a 1970s renewal complex. Perhaps we could do it by 1976, the bicentennial year.”

Market Street’s 125 buildings had various owners, some of whom were absentee landlords, and many different tenants. Merchants worried about their bottom lines, and most wanted their businesses to stand out in order to attract customers, and they did that with gaudy signs.

Tom put out a call to find someone to work on the restoration efforts full time. Norman Mintz, a graduate student at Columbia University, heard that call from a professor.

Norman was an ideal candidate. With a master’s degree in historic preservation and a bachelor’s degree in industrial design, he was the former owner of an antique shop. He and his new wife were looking for a change from New York City, and when they were offered that chance they took it.

When the couple arrived in April of 1974, snow still dusted the ground. But, despite that cold welcome, Norman said he felt right at home. Everyone he met—business leaders, community members—was open, inviting, welcoming, and warm. Plus, the architecture was exceptional, he says, particularly the uninterrupted façades.

In 1974, with Tom Buechner’s leadership, the nonprofit Market Street Restoration Agency (MSRA) was formed to implement the restoration plan. Norman Mintz became the first director and “main street manager.” No blueprint for this type of job existed. A main street manager? How would he convince building owners and shopkeepers to change the look of the street? Certainly no shopkeeper wanted an out-of-towner telling him what to do.

Norman couldn’t exactly tell people what to do, even if he had wanted to. The central Market Street blocks had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, giving the area formal recognition. But the improvements Norman wanted to see weren’t written into law.

The idea was to offer people free advice and design help for their signs and façades. Norman started his job by talking, chatting up merchants, and listening to their troubles. He never mentioned the words “historic preservation.”

“In that first year, I bought so many things that I didn’t need,” says Norman. He bought items as an excuse to go in and talk with business owners, to gain their trust. Eventually, he would walk outside with them, cross the street, and take a look at their stores. He worked with the merchants to convince them that restoration was often easy, and good for business. Norman would offer a vision for what the storefront could become, and explain how an attractive storefront could attract more customers.

After all, 750,000 tourists visited the Glass Museum every year. Imagine if they had a reason to stop at Market Street.

The first building restored was Brown’s Cigar Store. “It didn’t need much help,” says Norman, who peeled away layers of paint to determine the original color—and then recommended repainting in that color. Norman estimates that the paint job cost the owner about $300.

Such small improvements created a buzz, and neighbors began to look critically at their own storefronts. Norman sometimes helped with the improvements himself, using a crowbar to take some coverings off and reveal the original fabric of the building beneath.

Not every recommendation was as clear-cut as Brown’s. When Norman was asked to advise the owner of Harold’s Army and Navy store, he drew up plans to recreate a Victorian-era wooden façade, replacing its structural pigmented glass, known as Carrara glass, installed in the 1930s. Norman considered Tom Buechner’s vision of a Victorian era streetscape his mission, but something didn’t sit right about this particular project.

“I realized I did something wrong,” he says. So he redid the drawing, leaving the façade in its 1930s state, but suggesting other smaller changes that respected the good design changes. “By trying to educate the owner, I was educating myself. The exciting thing about main streets is that they continue to evolve.”

And evolve they do. By 1979, the white Pyroceram cladding that encased Ecker’s Drug Store at 47 East Market Street came down, in a funding collaboration between the owners, the Corning Glass Works Foundation, and New York State. Originally, the Victorian building housed the offices of architect H.C. Tuthill. Today, the Tommy Hilfiger store resides there.

“With all the work that was done,” says Norman, “it soon became apparent that we had to do more than just restore buildings.” The MSRA, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year, began collaborating with other organizations, and is now part of Corning’s Gaffer District, which plans promotions and events to draw people downtown, all in the effort to revitalize and energize the community. One of those events—GlassFest—marks its fifth anniversary this month. In tribute to all of this, AIASNY (The American Institute of Architects Southern New York), along with the Preservation League of New York State, Corning’s Gaffer District, and MSRA are holding a two-day conference this month in Corning, with Norman Mintz back in town as a keynote speaker.

Corning was on to something. Other small cities and towns heard the buzz. Articles were written about Corning in architecture and preservation magazines. Norman was soon asked to speak in small towns in upstate New York and beyond.

Norman then received a visit from the Director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Midwest office, Mary Means, and talked about his experiences in Corning and what it meant to be a “main street manager.” She had seen that small town downtowns were in trouble all over the United States, wanted to do something about it, and met with people who were making improvements in several small towns. Norman was one of those people. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, she selected three Midwest towns to work with as pilots for the National Main Street Program.

“Originally, we had no intent of having a staff person in each of our three pilot towns, but seeing Norman in action on Market Street caused us to make that commitment,” she says. “It turned out to be a central decision, for we learned the importance of a full-time main street manager for momentum and quality control.”

Mary’s intention was to complete the National Trust’s pilot program and then move on. But the idea caught on, and the organizations expanded to even more states.

“Corning was quite important to the birth of what is now the National Main Street Center, and more than 1,200 towns and cities in the US and Canada have used its technical assistance and trainings to bring life back to their historic downtowns,” Mary says.

After almost a decade with the organization, Norman returned to New York City, where he eventually became senior director of Main Streets and Downtowns for the Project for Public Spaces.

By 1986, the Agency had grown to administer a $100,000 annual budget. The vacancy rate on Market Street dropped from 18 percent in 1974 to 3 percent in 1986. Façade renovations were completed on fifty-five of the 125 buildings. Ninety buildings displayed new signage. Since the restoration efforts began, more than $32 million has been invested in major downtown projects.

Today, you can stroll down Market Street and meet some of the pioneers of the main street movement. At the Glass Menagerie, owners Jackie and Dick Pope can show you the white glazed terra cotta “egg and dart” design on their façade, the original high tin ceiling inside, and the stained glass transom window they had custom made by J. R. Thurman, an artisan in Trumansburg. In 1978, when the couple bought the building, the Beaux Arts Renaissance style was hidden: the entrance had been moved to the side, the ceilings inside were lowered, and the dirty 1972 flood line still hidden behind wood paneling. They had their work cut out for them, but they didn’t cut corners, says Norman. Today, the couple stocks the store with sparkling American art glass by regional and national artists.

Corning’s Gaffer District and the MSRA team keep the momentum going by continuing their sign and storefront design services, fostering new upper story development opportunities for upscale living, and organizing events like GlassFest. In 2013, $5 million was invested in building rehabilitation, storefront vacancy rates in the district were at 8 percent, and Corning was voted the most fun small town in America.

And when Virginia Wright walks down Market Street today? She says, “I just thrill. A small, active community is just great to live in.” And that’s powerful.

…So go downtown / Things will be great when you’re downtown /

No finer place for sure, downtown / Everything’s waiting for you…

-“Downtown,” 1964