Eight That Can’t Wait 2019: First Baptist Church – Mizpah Tower

Downtown Syracuse – 215 East Jefferson Street, Columbus Circle National Register and Local Historic District

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. Located in the heart of the city across from the county courthouse and civic center, the church was included on PACNY’s 2002 threatened properties list, nominated to the 2018 Eight That Can’t Wait, and carried over to the 2019 list because the building continues to deteriorate and no viable rehabilitation plans are known to the public. Over the past year and more, the owner has been undertaking interior demolition without consultation with the State Historic Preservation Office, as required under a state preservation covenant that is in effect until November 2020. The interior of the building is not subject to the City of Syracuse landmark preservation ordinance.

Entrance to Mizpah Tower showing deteriorated condition and loss of windows, 2019. (PACNY)
Mizpah Tower, looking northwest across Columbus Circle, ca. 1930. (Syracuse Then and Now)

The white terra-cotta Gothic Revival-style church 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.

Mizpah Tower showing deteriorated condition and missing finials, 2018. (PACNY)
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 understands that staff from the State Historic Preservation Office will be making a visit to the building to discuss rehabilitation plans with the owner as they relate to the preservation covenant. PACNY encourages the owner to work with the state and city in developing plans that preserve the exterior and significant interior spaces, using the historic tax credits. Mizpah Tower is deserving of the same attention and care that saw the Hotel Syracuse brought back to productive life.

Sources: Syracuse Now and Then website; City of Syracuse City Planning Division; New York State Historic Preservation Office.

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