A Place to Celebrate Tompkins History & Culture
About The Center
The History Center in Tompkins County has a long tenure in the community, going back to 1863 when Ezra Cornell helped initiate the first Ithaca historical society. Starting in 2014 The History Center’s Board of Trustees started conversations about what to do given that the organization’s wonderful five-dollar-per-square-foot lease at Gateway Center was ending in December 2018. The trustees decided that to be a premier local history education and research center for residents and visitors, a different setting would be needed. When Executive Director Rod Howe was hired in 2015, he discussed the potential move with several community leaders. The idea of sharing physical space with partners also in the county’s historical and cultural fabric arose organically.
The first potential partnership emerged with the Downtown Visitors Center of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, a division of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce. The Downtown Visitors Center and The History Center could more fully support heritage tourism together, an idea seeded by former Tompkins County legislator Stuart Stein which later informed the county’s Heritage Tourism Implementation Plan.
Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation was also keen to join in order to have a visible location for the rebuilt Thomas-Morse airplane, known as the “Tommy Plane,” following its centennial celebration flight to be held in September 2018.
Representatives of THC, IAHF, and the Chamber searched for possible locations with a strong interest in the Ithaca Commons and engaged in conversations with Tompkins County government and Tompkins Trust Company.
Tompkins Trust Company was encouraging and so their Bank Alley building became the potential new site for this “heritage center” as the bank prepared to build new headquarters on Seneca Street. Its location, architectural character, and visibility were all advantages, and Tompkins County legislators decided to purchase it during the county’s bicentennial.
Tompkins County has had a longstanding commitment providing space for a museum that preserves the records and artifacts documenting its history. The county was seeking ways to minimize the cost of this type of heritage tourism and education center while also maximizing The History Center’s role as a community attraction, tourism destination, and anchor for a “heritage education center” which would house several related other non-profits in the area.
Initial agreements and building analyses were followed by a formal agreement, enabling the start of non-profit partnerships, architectural plans, operational guidelines, the work of branding and naming, and a capital campaign. Mack Travis and Jean McPheeters were brought on to co-lead the initiative.
New York state grant funding was secured through the Consolidated Funding Application process from the NYS Council on the Arts and Empire State Development funds. The county purchased the building which was then named the Tompkins Center for History and Culture. Stream Collaborative, LeChase Construction, and Tessellate Studios were selected for the build-out of the space. The partners as a whole first toured the facility in January 2019.
The Tompkins Center for History and Culture will serve as a community hub that celebrates our rich history, heritage, and culture, inviting participation and engagement from both county residents and visitors to our community, a place like no other in upstate New York.