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Mountain Home Magazine

Fifty Years of Restoring Downtown Corning

May 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Karey Solomon

Virginia Wright, a new Corning resident in 1958, cried after visiting downtown. The wife of a recently hired worker at Corning Glass Works, she didn’t see places that appealed to families, just bars and shoe stores for the men. The upper stories still had some of the nineteenth-century architectural character, but the first-story storefronts sported aluminum siding and neon signs in attempts to modernize.

In the 1960s, downtown Corning—once a thriving retail and residential community—continued to decline after many businesses moved to malls. Virginia and another Corning wife, Jean Wosinski, took a slideshow they’d made on the neglected opportunities for beautification to community groups. They were mostly ignored or condescended to. But in 1971, Tom Buechner, founding director of the Corning Museum of Glass (and Virginia’s boss), took up the call to restore Main Street, and he had the connections and skills to make it happen. He was building steam when in the summer of 1972 Hurricane Agnes caused the Chemung River to escape its banks and put Market Street underwater.

Rather than dousing enthusiasm, the community’s shared loss increased resolve, and several citizens, including Mayor Joseph J. Nasser, banded together to create a plan that would become the Market Street Restoration Agency. Tom, who had worked for years at New York City museums, spread the word that they were looking for someone to head up the restoration efforts. A Columbia University professor shared this news with a promising graduate student in historic preservation, and in 1974 Norman Mintz was hired as the first director. When he and his wife arrived in Corning, he was struck by the unique architecture and uninterrupted facades.

“I made it up as I went along,” Norman says now. He began by visiting every business and talking to each business owner. He saw many vacant storefronts, and many of those occupied were in bad shape. He helped one merchant renovate his storefront with paint and new signage. Other projects followed. “It was incremental,” he recalls of the improvement and rebirth of civic pride. He located contractors for the improvements merchants wanted. Grants from Corning Incorporated helped. The MSRA took no government urban renewal money, which allowed the group to move more quickly and efficiently. Norman also began a tradition beloved to this day, the downtown Christmas celebration known as Sparkle.

After nine years, he moved on, but the work of the MSRA continued. Centerway Square was reconstructed into a community gathering space, and amenities were increased to make the city walkable and friendly. Other annual downtown events were added, creating the vibrant, often celebratory environment of Corning today.

While the street-level businesses were thriving, many upper stories of the historic buildings were neglected, used only for storage and, informally, by pigeons. In 1990, preservation architect Elise Johnson-Schmidt was brought in to head the next phase, bringing a new focus to upper-level apartments.

“Everyone said no one’s going to want to live on Market Street,” Elise recalls. She saw historic buildings with “good bones” and an opportunity for owners to fund their preservation and upkeep while bringing new life to the street.

She started with one conversion, then invited the community to an open house. Five hundred people came. “And things took off.” Elise spearheaded the project of creating 150 market-rate apartments whose residents enjoyed the amenities of the many eateries, specialty shops, and nearby entertainment, even a Wegmans supermarket at the west end of Market Street and a hotel at the east end that has been both a Hilton and a Radisson—all within walking distance.

“I was always interested in how things went together and worked,” says Elise, who began her studies with a double major in engineering and animal science. Then a summer course in architecture changed her career path, and she shifted her focus to the art of transforming buildings into homes that in turn transform a community. After eleven years directing the MSRA, now an arm of the Gaffer District, Elise began her own practice in Corning, Johnson-Schmidt & Associates at 15 East Market Street, Suite 202, and took on other projects like the creation of Academy Place Apartments, fifty-eight units in the former Corning Free Academy, another of the city’s historic buildings.

“I love what I do. I feel so fortunate to have a career that brings joy to me every day,” she says. It’s a joy she shares each year with 400 area second graders, who make a field trip to the Gaffer District for a mini course Elise designed to highlight some of its architectural elements. The following day, each child is given a box of store-front proportion to decorate as a building facade with their favorite features. Lined up together, the children’s artwork becomes a mini city, which often kindles an interest in architecture. And a number of those former second graders have indeed gone on to study architecture and intern in Elise’s office. In 2015, Elise received the Jefferson Award, which honors citizens who step forward to serve their community, specifically highlighting her work educating the next generation about the value and methods of preserving Corning’s history.

“Our storefronts are 92 percent full,” says Kristin Brewer, director of preservation and design for the Gaffer District, which continues the work of the MSRA. “We offer free design services if someone needs help with a façade or needs structural drawings or help with choosing colors that fit with the historic look.” Find out more at gafferdistrict.com or call them at (607) 937-6292. For more views of current and completed projects from Johnson-Schmidt & Associates, see preservationarchitects.com or call them at (607) 937-1946.

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