The streets northeast of downtown were once its most elegant neighborhoods. James Street was lined with mansions owned by Syracuse's most notable citizens. Today, there are only a few points of light in this section of Syracuse. The Sedgwick section continues to be a respectable neighborhood. A handful of the old mansions still survive on James, but most are gone. The Hawley-Green neighborhood, listed as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places, began a comeback, but has stalled after city government withdrew much-needed support.
St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center continues its relentless expansion northeast of downtown. Numerous houses and commercial buildings on Butternut Street, North State Street, North Townsend Street, East Laurel Street and Prospect Avenue have been demolished to create employee parking lots for the hospital. Even a former school East Willow Street where Prospect ended is gone. What began as a single building now encompasses a sprawling complex on nine city blocks. In 2005, St. Joe's began their newest parking garage, taking up half a block between McBride Street and Prospect Avenue. In 2006, a former Learbury factory and warehouse was demolished on North State Street.
St. Joes doesn’t seem to have much regard for its neighbors. Some have complained that while what appears to be their medical waste incinerator at East Laurel and North State is normally run for a few hours every Saturday afternoon but sometimes well after midnight on weeknights. Says Will S., "It's not important enough to burn Tuesday afternoon, but can't wait until Wednesday afternoon." Large fans blowing cooling air between the double walls of the combustion chamber flood the partly residential neighborhood with turbine noise similar to a jet engine. Adds another neighbor, "I should move to Hancock (airport). At least the planes pass quickly."
Elsewhere in the neighborhood, trouble signs almost literally spring up. The immaculate North McBride Street surrounding McGroarty Park is sandwiched between Catherine and North Townsend Streets, both of which have run-down rental units. Catherine Street in particular is liberally sprinkled with “No Trespassing” signs on its houses.
Butternut Street shows its age. The Conrad Loos Building at 836 Butternut, one of the oldest surviving buildings on the street, is in danger of demolition. The fire-damaged first floor, which held a succession of pharmacies including Kress and Kacey's, has been vacant for a decade. The upper residential floors have been vacant for four decades. Nearly all of the windows are boarded up. Owner Tino Marcoccia has been engaged in a long-running battle to raze the building and redevelop the lot as a single-story convenience store. He claimed that demolition of the building would cost $70,000 while rehabilitation would cost 20 times that amount. Although the property is designated as a historic site, Syracuse's historic designation statute is too weak to protect such sites from demolition. Wilson Farms lost interest in the site by 2001 and Marcoccia has not yet found a replacement, so the building remains protected not by law but by Syracuse's business climate.
Through much of Butternut Street’s length west of Grant Boulevard, every block can be expected to have at least one for sale or for rent sign. The Otisco building, a former brewery at North McBride Street, has sat vacant for years. The city’s effort to auction off the building failed. The building is contaminated with toxic materials and will likely have to be cleaned up and torn down by the city at considerable taxpayer expense, much as Midtown Plaza had to be. Across the street from the Otisca, an empty house was razed and an empty lot remains. The only sign the house was ever there is a grating in the sidewalk, now filled in with dirt.
From the mid-19th century through the early 20th, James Street was the wealthiest street in Syracuse. Its residents included titans of industry and commerce and even a mayor or two. Their opulent mansions made a man who remembered it say, "It was a sight for the gods." Virtually none remain today, especially in the westernmost mile closest to downtown.
The triangular block that once began James Street was a parking lot in the mid-20th century. In 1963, the Kenney-Primex Garage was built on the site but lasted only 18 years before being torn down in 1981. The block has once again reverted to an open parking lot.
The Alhambra once stood on the north side of James Street, at the corner of what is now Oswego Boulevard. The Oswego Canal ran next the Alhambra and behind , the only building on the block that survives to this day. It reportedly served as roller skating rink, theater and auditorium. The Alhambra was also referred to as a convention hall, making it a predecessor -- at least in spirit -- to the Oncenter. The name comes from the Alhambra, an ancient fortress in Granada, Spain.
The second photograph above shows the 200 and 300 blocks of James Street, with the Alhambra on the left and Snowdon Flats just above the center of the picture. The 200 stretch of Oswego Boulevard was eliminated, merging these blocks and leaving the boulevard only a single city block long. The merged blocks of James became home to the thicket of Routes 81 and 690 heading northwest past downtown. A photograph taken from the same viewpoint today would show only parking lots and highways with the Snowdon the only recognizable structure.
The western end of Burnet Avenue is anchored by the Snowdon apartments. It was once an elegant apartment building and one of Syracuse’s most desirable addresses. Residents and visitors were greeted by the massive, curved portico facing downtown. Each floor held only a handful of luxury suites.
In the 1970s, it was converted into a ramshackle rooming house rented out on a weekly basis, with many small, individual rooms carved from each suite. In recent years, it has the dubious distinction of having the highest concentration of convicted sex offenders in Onondaga County. Over the years, developers have offered to buy the Snowdon and restore it to its original splendor, but objections always arose that the low-income and often transient population living in the building would be displaced with nowhere else to go. So the Snowdon continues to deteriorate in the hands of owners and tenants interested in neither its architecture nor its history. Canopies added to the north and south entrances probably in the 1920s have proven less sturdy than the robust structure they were grafted onto. Nothing remains of them today except skeletal, rusted steel frames.
The Unitarian Church of the Messiah stood for over a century across Burnet Avenue from the Snowdon before being torn down in the late 1960s. Today, as with the Alhambra, no sign remains of it except a gravel parking lot. A few of the houses along Burnet were renovated for commercial use years ago. There have been no further renovations in recent years. Many Burnet Avenue sidewalks are equal parts broken concrete, asphalt and dirt.
Just beyond the Snowdon at 432 through 446 James Street are two old buildings which have been empty for years. 446 James was purchased and the new owners began installing cladding using the EIFS technique, but for whatever reason, the new facade was suddenly halted weeks later. No apparent work has been done on the structure since then.
Three blocks further up, an office building sits decaying at 601 James Street. The building stands on the site where once stood a mansion owned by General and former Syracuse mayor Elias Leavenworth. The mansion was torn down with such haste that the site stood empty for years before the office building was constructed.
Beside the office building is his remaining namesake, the Leavenworth Apartments at 603 James. It's another of James Street's more upscale addresses in the past that has fallen on hard times. The entrance with its wide, three-way steps and curved canopy is long gone, replaced by a graceless aluminum-framed vestibule.
The Century Club has been serving small organizations as a private club for over a century. While the small, elegant building still stands, the club erected a wrought-iron fence around its property in the 1990s.
While the old New York Central Railroad passenger depot has been refurbished as Time Warner’s News 10 facility, the mail and freight depot on Burnet Avenue on the opposite side of Route 690 has been left to crumble over the decades. The wooden canopy over the platform is rotting away, with large holes showing through the boards. On the trash-strewn platform, the lonely "Waiting for the Night Train" sculptures wait for a train that will never come.