Eight That Can’t Wait 2018: First Baptist Church – Mizpah Tower

Mizpah Tower looking west from Columbus Circle, 2018. (Bruce Harvey)

Downtown Syracuse – 215 East Jefferson Street, Columbus Circle

Update Fall 2020

No redevelopment plans have been filed with the city. The owner has corrected code violations on the exterior. The state preservation covenant related to the state EPF grant for the roof expired in March.

Threats: Deterioration, Vacancy, Lack of Viable Use

The First Baptist Church, better known as Mizpah Tower, has been a long-standing preservation challenge in Syracuse. It was included on PACNY’s 2002 threatened properties list and remains on the 2018 list because the building continues to deteriorate and no viable rehabilitation plans are known to the public. With its prominent location across from the Onondaga County Courthouse and the OnCenter, Mizpah Tower remains a conspicuous symbol of remaining challenges to the revival of downtown Syracuse.

The white terra-cotta Gothic Revival-style church, part of the local and National Register-listed Columbus Circle Historic District, was built in 1914 according to the design of prominent Syracuse University-trained architect Gordon Wright. The church featured a unique mix of religious and commercial space (sanctuary on the ground floor, hotel rooms on the upper floors), which earned it an entry in Ripley’s Believe it or Not. The building suffered a lightning strike in the 1980s that resulted in removal of the tower finials, and in 1988, the congregation moved out of the building. The city took it over for back taxes in 1993 and received a state grant to install a new roof, which placed a preservation covenant on the property. The building subsequently passed to different owners who to date have made various rehabilitation proposals. Most recently, interior demolition has been ongoing without public input.

Mizpah Tower, looking northwest across Columbus Circle, ca. 1930. (Syracuse Then and Now)

The auditorium of Mizpah Tower, ca. 1930. (Syracuse Then and Now)

Mizpah Tower is plagued by broken and missing windows, extensive interior water damage, and failing masonry, but is structurally sound. With its prime location in Syracuse’s civic heart, the building has great potential as commercial, meeting, and performance space that could be tied to the nearby OnCenter and county courthouse, while its upper floors could serve a range of uses, from lodging to residential and office use. PACNY hopes that listing Mizpah Tower as a threatened property will renew public attention and spur interest among public agencies and the owner to develop a feasible rehabilitation plan that preserves important interior and exterior features of the building. If it could be done for the Hotel Syracuse, why not Mizpah Tower?

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