Doings at the Dewitt

story and photos by Bill Wingell

When it comes to definitions, nothing defines Ithaca better than the term “community.” And when you’re looking for a community in Ithaca, you’d be hard-pressed to find an example better than the Dewitt Mall.

Since the 1970s, the Dewitt Mall, located downtown on Cayuga Street between Seneca and Buffalo Streets, has provided a unique mix of shops, offices and residential apartments in a more than 100-year-old former school building. It came within a wrecking-ball’s swing of being torn down.

Built as the Ithaca High School in 1915 and then repurposed as the Dewitt Junior High School in 1960 for another 10 years, the five-story building was finally deemed outmoded and unneeded by the Ithaca School District in 1971. When it was put up for sale, the district received only one bid: from Ithaca architect William S. Downing, Jr., who offered to buy the structure for $20,000.

When, according to news reports, the projected cost of the building’s demolition came in at more than $50,000, and in the face of a growing historic preservation movement locally, the school district accepted Downing’s bid.

Becoming a retail landmark

Within a year, Downing began accepting tenants in his renovated building. Among the earliest occupants was the now legendary Moosewood vegetarian restaurant, which opened in 1973. David Hirsch joined the restaurant’s ownership collective in 1976 and began cooking within months. Since then, he has assisted in putting together a dozen of the restaurant’s popular cookbooks. The 14th version is scheduled for publication later this year.

William Downing passed away in 2011 at the age of 90. His architectural design assistant In Shik Lee, who now manages the Dewitt Mall, noted: “Bill’s attitude was always that he wanted the Dewitt Mall to have the feel of a European village, so that’s why he always promoted the Moosewood restaurant and the café downstairs. It always brought people in to eat, and helped them feel like they were walking down a village street. It helps the shops as well.”

Lee said the mall has 45 commercial spaces, including 15 shops on the ground floor and 30 businesses and studios on the upper floors. The upper floors also include 45 apartments. All of the apartments are rented, she noted, and there is a waiting list of about 40 people.

“We have all the amenities in the building,” Lee noted. “We have a grocery store and the restaurants. Residents can go shopping downstairs and they can even do their exercise walks on every floor.

“The old school hallways are great exercise paths, apparently,” she added. “Bill Downing used to say he lived so long because he walked the stairs every day to get up to his fifth floor office.”

Kids’ clothes and more

Another early occupant of William Downing’s mall venture was Jan Rhodes Norman. “My first foray into the world of retail was back in 1977, when my children were a year-and-a-half and five years old,” she said. “I had for quite a few years been making clothing for my children and people would ask me, ‘Where did you get those,’ and I’d say, ‘Well, I made them.’’’After complaining for years that there was “no cool kids’ store” in Ithaca, Norman decided to open one herself. She talked to William Downing, and he renovated a space for her in his mall along a hallway near the current location of Greenstar Oasis natural foods store.

“Bill Downing always viewed the businesses in the building as being family,” Norman said. “He was always more than fair in his rental price and as a result, he attracted a lot of ‘outliers’ that other people weren’t necessarily interested in renting to back in the ’70s.

“My husband and I took out a second mortgage on our home, and I started a store I called The Cat’s Pajamas,” Norman related. She sold children’s cotton clothing and creative playthings.

After about a year of doing business in the small shop, Norman moved her store to a much larger space along the mall’s main hallway. Following The Cat’s Pajama’s successful move, Norman decided to open yet another shop across the hall in what was then a mop room. Mall owner Downing transformed it into retail space, and Norman began selling futons and bedding in a tiny store she called Sweet Dreams.

Two years later, she sold The Cat’s Pajamas to Jennifer Engel, who continues to operate the business today.

“As the years went on, I ended up starting another children’s store on the Ithaca Commons called Alphabet Soup,” Norman explained. “I sold that a number of years later.”

Along the way, Sweet Dreams moved to the commons as well, and became Night and Day.
“Over the years, I owned many different stores on and around the commons, and then I started Ithacamade, a gift store, on Ithaca’s west end. When I moved it to the Dewitt Mall a-year-and-a-half ago, it was kind of like coming home to me,” Norman said. “There’s something unique and different about the Dewitt Mall.”

Norman explained that for Ithacamade, “We use the same philosophy as the Ithaca Farmers Market, which is ’30 miles as the crow flies,’ (within 30 miles of Ithaca to be considered local) but the bulk of what’s in the shop is from either the city or town of Ithaca.”

A hub for locally-made goods

“Our honey is from Interlaken, and the beeswax candles are from the same apiary,” Norman noted. “Some of the artwork we carry is from Trumansburg, some is from Brooktondale. It’s all very regional, but the overall majority is from Ithaca.

“There are crafts and art and food,” she continued. “We carry local chocolate, local honey, and local vegan macaroon cookies from Emmy’s Organics. We carry cutting boards and amazing wooden bowls.

“There are ceramics and leatherwork that are all functional art, and it’s the same thing for the ‘silk oak’ – that’s my personal part of the business,” Norman added. “It consists of locally-crafted clothing with original designs that are silk-screened in my studio about four blocks away from the store.”

About the Dewitt Mall, Norman observed: “There’s such longevity to all of the stores here. As a store owner, it really does feel like a community, and I think the shoppers also feel that.

“It is a very unique experience that the Dewitt Mall has to offer.”