How about visiting a place that suggests a trendy urban neighborhood in Boston or New York City, without the long drive? Interested in stylish
shopping and exceptional food, casual to fine dining?
Do you enjoy varied entertainment, music and nightlife? It’s time to discover Syracuse’s Armory Square, where you’ll find it all.
Not so many years ago, “The Square” was a decaying district of dirty streets, dingy warehouses, and empty factories in a forgotten corner of downtown Syracuse. A few remaining businesses struggled to survive within the walls of architecturally historic buildings, their ornate arched windows, cornices, and brickwork deteriorating with time and neglect. That grimy image has changed dramatically, and the neighborhood continues to evolve.
Armory Square’s tree-lined streets and brick-trimmed sidewalks now offer visitors access to everything from specialty chocolates to live music to gourmet meals at fine restaurants, among the best in all of upstate New York. There is a science and technology museum, an IMAX theater, a multi-function art house, and outdoor events during the spring, summer and fall. There are shops and boutiques offering crafts, fashionable apparel, and unique food items. There are pubs and clubs. In short, Armory Square has emerged as an eclectic neighborhood, a very cool place to live or visit.
Before its demise, the sector was once a bustling Syracuse neighborhood. In an earlier era, when the Erie Canal flowed through the heart of the city, and later when the main line of the New York Central puffed its way through downtown on Washington Street, it presented a fitting location for industry and commerce. Hotels, businesses, factories, and warehouses flourished. The New York Central Passenger Station stood proudly at the corner of West Fayette and Franklin, just a short block from the center of present day Armory Square.
But after World War I the new and larger Barge Canal was routed north of the city, and the “Old Erie” was filled in. Then, in the 1930s, the railroad and New York Central Station moved to a new elevated location many blocks away. Over the next few decades the district experienced a steady decline as many businesses moved out or ceased operations altogether.
Coming back to life
Fortunately, people with vision began to emerge in the early 1980s, people who were able to see something in the deteriorating buildings beyond grit and crumbling brick. One of the first was Eddie Butler, who opened The Packing House Café in the Hall-McChesney Building (c1892) at the corner of Walton and Franklin. Others recognizing the area’s potential opened a bakery, a framing studio, a craft studio, and an antiques shop.
Bob Doucette, a local real estate developer, and his partner George Curry, who doubles as a professor of landscape architecture, were early moving forces in the renaissance of Armory Square.
“George and I were having dinner one evening at a local restaurant,” Bob remembers. “We were lamenting that the lively city life available in places like Boston and New York City should, and could, be available in Syracuse. The historic buildings were here; the layout and compactness were here.”
Bob chuckles when he recalls, “By the time we had finished our first or second bottle of wine we had become true visionaries and were formulating a strategy – no money, no experience, just a vision and a strategy.”
They decided the district could be successful only if it evolved as a mixed-use urban neighborhood – retail outlets on the street level, office and residential space on the floors above. Residency would be absolutely critical.
“Without people actually living there and walking its streets, Armory Square would never have the vitality an urban neighborhood needs and demands,” says Bob.
The partners drove their plan forward in 1983, purchasing and beginning renovation on the Labor Temple Building, an 1887 structure that had seen better days. Incorporating a mix of Renaissance, Romanesque, and Italianate style features, the building once housed a manufacturing plant, and later served as offices for several labor unions.
Bob and George convinced the young owners of a quirky new restaurant, Pastabilities, to inhabit their first-floor retail space. Bob recalls, “It was a perfect fit.”
Over two decades later, Pastabilities remains one of Armory Square’s most popular eateries, testimony to a wise decision. Owner Karyn Korteling has no plans to leave. “We love being here, being part of Armory Square,” she says. It’s just one of many restaurants in The Square where diners can relax in the ambiance of aged brick walls and rustic woodwork, or sit outside in a pleasant courtyard when Central New York weather allows.
Armory Square’s name derives from an imposing tan brick structure nearby, a former state armory building. A longtime fixture on its grassy oval plot at the end of Jefferson Street, the building now houses the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology (MOST). The museum offers numerous hands-on exhibits, a telecommunications lab, the Silverman Planetarium, a climbing maze, and the Bristol IMAX Omnitheater, where a six story dome envelopes visitors in spectacular sight and sound.
During The Square’s early development, activity focused on a few buildings near the four corners at Franklin and Walton Streets. Bob and his partners built Center Armory on a vacant lot at that intersection, a brand new building designed in keeping with nearby historic structures. It created an opportunity for more street level business and overhead living space.
No signs of slowing down
In 1984, the placement of Armory Square on the National Register of Historic Places proved to be an asset for the district’s continuing revitalization. Distinctive shops, bistros, and taverns have continued their spread to surrounding streets – South Clinton, West Fayette, West Jefferson – and growth shows no signs of slowing. Innovative businesses continue to test the Armory Square waters and new residents occupy available apartments and lofts.
There are always newcomers to the Armory Square scene. After a decade living in New York City and working at several upscale Manhattan restaurants, Bill and Sara Collins decided to return to their roots and families in Central New York. Their “downtown casual” eatery, bc Restaurant, opened in 2004. Its decor and unique menu suggest their Manhattan experiences. “Armory Square felt like SoHo in New York,” says Bill. “We saw a positive past here and an even more positive future.”
For lovers of the arts, a welcome addition to the area has been The Redhouse. Located in a three-story brick building at the corner of Fayette and West Streets, this multi-function art house creates a comfortable forum for live theater, cinema, music, lectures, and exhibitions of fine art. The Redhouse’s wide-ranging presentations spotlight local, national, and international artists in an intimate atmosphere.
The Landmark Theater (formerly Loew’s State) on Salina Street offers another entertainment venue, and is just a block from the old armory. It is the last of Syracuse’s classic movie palaces, the only one to escape the wrecker’s ball. Rescued and restored to its original splendor, the Landmark’s interior with its oriental carpets, chandeliers, vibrant murals, and grand staircase is often hailed as a Hindu-Moorish fantasy. The theater hosts first-rate concerts, shows, and events year around. Recently, “New York City style” living space was added to the upper levels of the Landmark building.
For short-term visitors, Hawthorn Suites has established a fine hotel at the corner of Clinton and Jefferson. Chosen as the chain’s “Hawthorn of the Year” in 2003, the hotel is located at The Square’s doorstep, providing easy access to all the district has to offer.
Plant a seed and a tree grows
Bob and George agree that there has been no grand plan for Armory Square; its success and growth are the result of hard work and persistence by countless individuals, city planners, and entrepreneurs. Owing to a continuing civic belief in the vision, there is always something new and different happening. Syracuse University, showing faith in The Square’s future, recently transformed a rundown 1920s-era warehouse on West Fayette into a dynamic learning laboratory for architecture and design students. After a $9 million renovation, The Warehouse opened in early 2006, offering students fresh classrooms, studios, computer labs, an atrium, and lecture space.
Businesses have come and gone in the 20 plus years since Eddie Butler opened his Packing House Café, and problems have been faced and overcome along the way. Difficulties aside, Bob Doucette sees a bright future in Armory Square for individuals and city government as well. “One should think of downtown development as an investment. Plant a seed and a tree grows. The tree will eventually bear fruit and everyone realizes a return for the investment.”
Armory Square has surely born fruit since those days three decades ago when the area was down and out, filthy and forgotten. Now its bright lights and cozy corners beckon spirited crowds, young and old alike, to visit once again. And summertime? That may be the best time of all to sample those fruits.
by James P. Hughes
Jim Hughes, a retired teacher living in Syracuse, enjoys the history and beauty of the Finger Lakes and regularly roams the region. He has contributed several articles to Life in the Finger Lakes.