Architectural Icons

Mark Twain’s Study, Elmira
by Sierra Guardiola

Scattered throughout the approximately 9,000 miles that make up the Finger Lakes Region are some amazing architectural gems. They are buildings with rich histories that stand as symbols for not only residents of the area, but visitors as well. Their stories tell the tales of the region as it has changed over time with each new decade. Here are just a few of the many historic and architectural icons that bring pride to the region.


Times Square Building


Originally built as the Genesee Valley Trust, this building has housed banks in the city of Rochester since the cornerstone was laid on October 29, 1929. The building was intended to signify progress and prosperity, says Emily Morry, historical researcher at the Rochester Public Library. Ironically, that day signified the opposite with the crash of the stock market. The building, which was the tallest skyscraper in the city at that point, did symbolize prosperity and housed the Genesee Valley Trust bank and continues to be a home to major banks in the city.

The Wings of Progress that famously adorn the top were meant as a sign of optimism, says Morry. Architect Ralph T. Walker was inspired to design them based on an experience he had in Florida in the 1920s. He was playing with a bunch of sea shells and happened to set them on their edges. To him they suggested a sense of flight and upward lift, says Morry.

“He designed these Wings of Progress not only to suggest a sense of optimism, but also they were reflective of this era of aviation in which they were built,” she said.

The wings have actually served as beacons to aviators in the night as they fly over the city. The Art Deco style signifies the technological progress of the era as well, Morry adds.


Niagara Mohawk Building


A famous example of Art Deco, this building stands on Erie Boulevard West in the city of Syracuse. Typical of this era of architecture – it was built in 1932 – the building gives off a silver shine from the combination of terra cotta, cast stone, and stainless steel that comprise its structure. The front of the building boasts the “Spirit of Light,” a sculpture built out of steel from the Crucible Steel Co. right in Syracuse that is a part of the building’s grandeur.

The steel was originally designed by Crucible for the Chrysler building in New York City. After it was successfully used there, it was decided that the same steel with its famous sheen would be used on the Niagara Mohawk Building, says Robert Searing, associate curator of history at the Onondaga Historical Association.

Melvin King, an architecture graduate of Syracuse University, helped to design this building, explains Searing. King’s work serves as an iconic moment in time that is captured in a tangible physical structure. “It’s a symbol of a bygone era in a way,” says Searing. “The wealth that it took to build it, the style of it, the design, the way the building sort of looks out as a light in the sky.”


Mark Twain’s Study


This octagonal quaint building served as a creative space for the famous writer. The space was gifted to Samuel Clemens by relatives Susan and Theodore Crane in 1874. It was placed on property at Quarry Farm that then overlooked the Chemung River Valley. It offered Twain a space to work on some of his most well-known literary works.

In 1953, the study was moved to the campus of Elmira College where it still stands today. It is now home to the Center for Mark Twain Studies at the college, and is open for tours for visitors throughout the year.


Cornell Clock Tower


Standing tall on East Hill in Ithaca, the McGraw Clock Tower serves as a famous image associated with Cornell University. This landmark is home to the Cornell Chimes that bring concerts to the surrounding area every quarter-hour. With its 161 steps, the tower has served as a presence for students past and present of the university as a symbol of their alma matter.

The tower contains 21 bells that are rung manually each day by the chimesmasters who are members of an active student-run organization. The chimesmasters play concerts daily while classes are in session and perform a modified schedule during exams and breaks.


Rose Hill Mansion


This landmark traces its roots back to when the land was first used as a farm. Bought in 1809 by the Rose family of Virginia, the land originally only had a small two-story house with an attached kitchen, says Kerry Lippincott, director of the Geneva Historical Society. When the family bought the property, they brought with him enslaved people to work on the family’s property, which served primarily as a sheep and wheat farm at the time. The land came to fame later on as being one of the first farms in the United States to be completely drain tiled, which is a technique that helps to control the levels of water in soil.
When the land was bought by Robert Swan, he decided he wanted to be a gentleman farmer and had the 20-room, Greek Revival-style mansion built in 1839.

Although the property began as a meager two-story home, the land was once as big as 1,100 acres. On the 27 acres that exist today, the original kitchen from the home now serves as the visitors’ center for the mansion.

“You come for the architecture but you stay for the story,” Lippincott says.


Black Sheep Inn & Spa


This building embodies the design popular in the 1800s known as the octagon movement. This movement began on the east coast and moved west, and consisted of houses made in the shape of an octagon. Due to structural issues, many of these houses are no longer standing, leaving Black Sheep Inn & Spa one of the last standing in the United States, according to Emily Simms, Steuben County Historian.

The structure was built by Timothy Younglove, one of the most prominent farmers in the area at the time. Younglove inherited the land the building stands on from his father Cornelius, and decided to build octagon building there. During his lifetime, he kept volumes of diaries outlining the progress of the property, she says.

“A lot of what we know about the octagon house is from his diaries,” Simms said. “Being able to hear it in his own words is nice.”

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