The mother of all renovations
Old science hall turns into retail, grandeur intact
By Rusty Tagliareni
For nearly a century a red brick building has stood on a hillside in Yonkers, NY. For much of that time it has sat abandoned, a once grand establishment reduced to little more than a local curiosity. It had become one of those places that seemed to have always been there, yet few people knew much about. In truth those sad remains were at one time a noble scientific institute.
Our story begins at the turn of the 20th century, with a man named William Boyce Thompson, a successful businessman who amassed a fortune in the mining industry. In 1912, Thompson had completed the construction of his estate in Yonkers. At 42, he already possessed more than the means to sit back and enjoy life at his new mansion, relaxing in comfort for the rest of his years. But as World War I drew to a close, Thompson’s philanthropy took hold in earnest as he began donating to and helping to promote relief funds.
In 1917, he helped lead the Red Cross into Russia to assess the need for medical supplies and other care. The sights he bore witness to in Russia stuck with him for the rest of his days: people deprived of basic human necessities, living in the streets, and slowly starving to death as a revolution tore cities apart around them.
Upon returning to the United States, Thompson set to work on what was to be his life-defining purpose: “There will be two hundred million people in this country pretty soon,” he wrote. “It’s going to be a question of bread, of primary food supply. That question is beyond politicians and sociologists. I think I will work out some institution to deal with plant physiology, to help protect the basic needs of the 200 million. Not an uplift foundation, but a scientific institution dealing with definite things, like germination, parasites, plant diseases, and plant potentialities.” In short, Thompson’s goal was to ensure that the sights he saw overseas would never occur in America.
Construction of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research began shortly thereafter upon property adjacent to his estate. “Agriculture, food supply, and social justice are linked,” he said. His ideal became a contagious passion, which drove the institute on its path to the betterment of society. Sadly, Thompson’s life story ends shortly after the creation of the institute. In June, 1930, he passed away at home in his nearby estate. It was a who’s who of influential American society that came to pay final respects. In 1978, after 54 years of operation in Yonkers, the Boyce Thompson Institute joined Cornell University and relocated to its campus in Ithaca, where it still operates today.
For over 30 years the residents of Yonkers watched the vacant facility rot in an overgrown field. I went out to get a closer look. Once grand, the old building was at this point a somber sight to behold. The hallways were filled with dunes of snow, the windowless corridors doing little to keep the weather at bay. I remember the lobby, with its pillars and iron-railed staircase withering away. One of my most vivid recollections was not of the building itself, but of a small statuette I happened upon as I was leaving. It was about waist-high, stone, and featured the forms of several women weathered to muted shapes from years of exposure to the elements. It stood alone, away from the building. If I had visited in the warmer months, I’d have missed it entirely in the tall grass.
Eight years later, I find myself driving up the same roads, only now what I come upon is a beautifully restored commercial use facility. The Boyce Thompson Center celebrates the history of the Boyce Thompson Institute. Life has returned to it through music, art, and people in its halls. As I park my car in the adjacent lot the old stone statue pops unexpectedly into my mind, “I guess it would have been right about here”, I think. It and the field where it once stood had been turned into the parking lot for the retail shops.
The attention paid by the redevelopers should be used as an example for adaptive reuse projects. They not only brought the building back to how it must have looked when first built, they did so in such a way that they managed to retain the air of eminence I felt when I visited it in an abandoned state. The building holds stories, history, and it shows it. The weathered brick is still here, cleaned, sealed, and topped with a new roof.
The celebration of history is everywhere, but first it greets you in the lobby. I was amazed to see it was still the same lobby I knew from my first visit, but beautiful and vibrant again. This room is dedicated to the building’s past life as a research center, its walls lined with historical information and photographs. Above the lobby is a sitting room, along whose walls hang black and white photographs of the building going all the way back to its initial construction.
I sat down with Luigi Bianco, the general manager of Fortina, an Italian restaurant/pizzeria that has embraced one wing of the “ruins” to create an ambiance found nowhere else. Instead of putting up new walls and installing a standard ceiling, they chose to glorify the ascetic of the open two-story space, even leaving bits of graffiti as reminders of what was. We sat at the bar, the hub of the restaurant. In place of a standard bar-top you will find cement, polished but otherwise raw, a design choice that mirrors the original cement floors which they chose to retain.
“A lot of people have seen this place sit abandoned for 30-plus years and wondered what would happen,” said Bianco. “To see it come back to life is very touching to them.” On the 40-foot wall next to the bar, a massive mural depicts Demeter, the Greek goddess of wheat and corn. It was done by a local artist, Tony Curanaj, who “was actually one of the kids who came in and tagged up the place 15 years ago.” The craftsmen who worked on the bar, the custom railing work, the furniture, and even the ventilation are Yonkers locals.
My interview concluded, I packed up my things and started back to the car. I stopped midway though, as I recalled that I had not yet visited the lower level main entrance. I walked around the side of the old institute, past another beautiful mural depicting the accomplishments of the scientists who once toiled here. I continued the length of the rear of the building to its central entrance, opening the doors to find, proudly displayed at the far end of the room, illuminated by an overhead lamp, that old weathered statuette from my first visit. Behind it on the wall hung a large black and white photograph of it with former employees of the institute, above that, printed upon the wall, is the story of the old stone carving. I read it as I stood with my hand upon the rough stone, and I learned of its past life as a sundial in the fields, and the focal point of the institute’s once grand gardens.