Model of Ithaca’s West End needs new home

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Anyone who’s ever been to the second floor of Alternatives Federal Credit Union probably noticed a large model against the wall. This 8x8 scale model depicts the West End of Ithaca on Oct. 9, 1960, and it’s the passion project of Freeville Mayor David Fogel. The model has had several homes in the past few decades, but now, it’s in need of a new home once again as Alternatives undergoes renovations to its second floor.

The story of the West End model starts all the way back in 1978, when Fogel submitted his project proposal to Historic Ithaca. In that proposal, Fogel described the planned model as “a true historical tableau in miniature, the end of an era frozen in time.”

Fogel said that, at the time, he wanted to build the model for a number of reasons, one being pure nostalgia. Fogel, a native Ithacan, had many fond memories of the old West End. In addition, he wanted to depict a critical piece of history by creating a model of an area previously known as The Rhine, which existed prior to the flood control channel that finished construction in 1970.

“This was an area that was once a thriving residential neighborhood, and the flood control channel had virtually destroyed its character as a neighborhood,” Fogel said.

Due to that drastic change, the scenes Fogel planned to create would look vastly different from what they looked like at then-present day in the 1970s and even now in the 21st century.

“By depicting an important phase in the development of Ithaca’s West Side, the proposed scale-model will give Ithacans an unusual opportunity to see the contrast between what once was and what exists now,” Fogel wrote in his proposal.

Fogel managed to sell the idea and got to work. Its original construction was completed in 1986, seven years after its projected completion. Fogel said that, since he was the one constructing the model, it took many long hours of research and crafting to complete.

A few times in the beginning, he wasn’t sure if he’d finish it. At some point around ’83, he got inspired and started working intensively to finish it finally in another three years. It ended up taking literally thousands of hours to complete.

The biggest piece of building the model was research – days and days of interviewing people that used to live there and digging into historical documents like tax records and aerial surveys. Fogel said it was all worth it.

“[The model is] all very accurate,” Fogel said. “Every one of these buildings is exactly the way it looked.”

And for the people he spoke to who lived in The Rhine, he said, the project meant being able to capture a place they once called home.

“It was a very close-knit community, and everybody knew everybody else, so I went from one family to the next and was able to talk to literally dozens of people,” Fogel said. “This project really meant a lot to them.”

In the original proposal, Fogel estimated it costing just over $500. By the time it was done, that number spiked, costing thousands of dollars to build and display.

Its first home was on display at the Clinton House, which, in the 1970s, housed the Dewitt Historical Society, for a few months. He had hoped to find a permanent home at the time but was unable to do so, so it went into storage in his parents’ basement for 10 years or so. After that, the residential half of it was on display at the Tompkins County Public Library for a few months in the late ’90s.

Shortly after, in 2002, Alternatives was being built, and Fogel, seeing that the credit union was opening on the West End, the very neighborhood the model depicted, decided to approach Alternatives with the prospect of a permanent display place. The best part – Alternatives accepted.

“For the first time, it had a permanent home,” Fogel said.

The Alternatives building and new work on his model was finished in 2003 after he did some restoration and embellishment work. An opening for the model was held in December of 2003, almost 16 years ago now.

“They’ve been a great host, and I was hoping that it would last indefinitely, but nothing lasts forever,” Fogel said.

And that brings us to today, where expansions at Alternatives are leaving no space for Fogel’s model. As Karl Graham, chief of community development at Alternatives, explained, Alternatives is going through much expansion with its Free Tax Preparation Program, previously called the Volunteer Income Tax Program, or VITA.

The program is designed to ensure people of low to moderate income (making less than $56,000 annually) receive all the tax credits they are eligible to receive, Graham said.

“As the credit union has grown, so has the number of our staff,” Graham said. “We are using space formally devoted to the tax site as staff office space, reducing the space available for the tax program.”

Brian Zapf, Alternatives director of the Free Tax Preparation Program, explained that that’s why Alternatives approached Fogel earlier this year to tell him Alternatives would no longer have space to display his model.

“Unfortunately, I’m kind of the proximate cause of why we have to move this [model],” Zapf said. “We had been looking to move the VITA program to other spaces, but that was cost prohibitive, so we’ve decided that we have to hold it here, and because we have to hold it here, we’re going to have to find a home for the model.”

The renovation project starts in mid-January 2020 and plans to finish by the end of April. That means that Fogel has only a couple months to find a new home for his model – whether that be in storage or on display.

Helping him on his mission is Susan Holland, executive director of Historic Ithaca. Holland has mainly helped by asking all her connections if they have space for the model. But it’s been difficult, considering the model takes up 64 square feet of floor space and doesn’t come apart easily.

“People would love to have it, love to have it in their place, but it’s very large,” Holland said.

One of the first places she and Fogel approached was The History Center. Executive Director Ben Sandberg said he was delighted to hear about the model, having done some model work in high school and college and seen how intricate Fogel’s model was.

“She sent me some photos and was like, ‘Do you have a potential home for this?’” Sandberg said. “My joke was ‘Yeah, my living room.’”

Sandberg called Fogel’s model “a phenomenal piece,” complimenting its attention to detail.

“It captures a neighborhood in a moment of time,” Sandberg said. “There is something so real and tangible about having it represented in three-dimensional space that captures the feel of a space and of a neighborhood.”

Unfortunately, there is no space at The History Center for Fogel’s model, Sandberg explained.

“In our move from our old space into the new space, the space we have for collections shifted, and during that process, we definitely don’t have the space to accommodate that 8x8 model,” he said. “If I could wave a wand and have another 10,000 square feet of floorage, I’d absolutely move it into the collections.”

With that option out, Fogel and Holland are still looking for another areas to house the model. They’ve had little luck yet, but everyone interviewed agreed it’s a worthy cause.

“It’s such a cool project and an important one particularly in a community that cares about its built environment,” said Scott Witham, previous director of Historic Ithaca. “To be able to see that in 3-D I think is really exciting and, in fact, important.”

Best case scenario, Fogel said, is to find a display place for it that is even more publicly accessible than its current home at Alternatives. Zapf echoed that sentiment.

“It’s been great hosting the model,” Zapf said. “It has been a focal point for anybody who has been coming through. … I just wish that it would be in an even more accessible place.”

No matter what happens with Fogel’s model, he’s hoping to spread awareness of its existence and importance in the community.

“It’s valuable to have this sort of historical perspective on the way an area develops,” Fogel said. “Whether it guides future development or not is an open question, but it’s always useful, I think, to see the way an area changes. Hopefully, that will give some insight as to how to move forward in the future.”

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