Despite its crucial location and its designation as part of the
Montgomery Street-Columbus Circle Historic District, this portion of
Montgomery wears a forlorn look and remains deserted for most of the
day. Instead of providing vibrancy to the street, the institutions on
Montgomery have retreated into their shells—the YMCA with its dark front
steps, the church with its doors always closed, and the OHA with its
unwelcoming, bricked-in windows. The few passers-by on the sidewalk seem
in a desperate hurry to leave the street as fast as possible.
Given the sorry state of Montgomery, the OHA in 2008 was deciding to
leave its ancient building and move to a suburban location. The board of
directors thought it would be cheaper and easier to maintain the OHA in
a smaller facility, and that more county residents might visit its
collection if it moved to suburbia. While this move was being debated,
Gregg Tripoli, 50, took charge as executive director of the OHA.
“I saw that we had a beautiful building at a great location in the
heart of the city,” says Tripoli, and he decided not to move. Rather he
has bet the future of the OHA on a revitalized Montgomery.
A native of Liverpool, Tripoli is a graduate of Hamilton College with
bachelor’s degrees in English and history and a master’s of business
administration from the University of Pittsburgh. For the past 20 years,
he had advised and represented multinational corporations in Kuwait. “I
had been living on an airplane for the last two decades. I wanted to
return home and do something different. So I decided to look for a job
here and found the OHA,” says Tripoli.
The decision to remain on Montgomery does not mean that Tripoli did
not want to change the OHA, however. Having worked in the corporate
world for his entire career, Tripoli has brought an aggressive style and
a fresh perspective to the non-profit entity. “Our current location is
accessible to all kinds of people,” says Dennis Connors, curator of
history at the OHA who has worked there since 1992. “We have three other
major museums within walking distance. This is the ideal location to
attract those interested in history. Mr. Tripoli decided the OHA would
The first major change Tripoli has engineered is revamping the facade
of the OHA building, at 321 Montgomery St. “The building we are in was
not designed to be a museum,” explains Connors. Built in 1895, it
originally housed a telephone company—Central New York Telephone and
Telegraph. The OHA purchased the facility back in 1905.
Currently, the face of the OHA is a door and three bricked-in windows
covered with fading banners. Tripoli is determined to change that. “The
new facade will have tall glass windows, so that people walking by can
see what’s going on inside and hopefully be attracted by it. We want to
make it more welcoming.” Construction will begin in early fall and
should be completed by the end of the year, says Tripoli.
The OHA also plans to expand its gift shop into a history-themed
retail store, positioned so that passers-by will be able to see it
through the windows. “If people come in the building to check out the
store, they will notice the other things going on here, such as current
and upcoming exhibitions and other programs we have through the year,”
The OHA is going to develop more of the second floor for exhibit
space so that more of its large collection can be exhibited. With
ancient maps, manuscripts, postcards and books, the association can
function as a research facility for the community. Tripoli wants to make
students and scholars aware of this and help them conduct research on
the history of Onondaga County.
For the first time in its history, the OHA is actively collaborating
with other organizations around the city and making use of their
exhibition spaces to reach new audiences. Some of these are the Syracuse
Symphony Orchestra, the Everson Museum of Art, St. Paul’s Cathedral and
the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. For example, when Syracuse
Stage presented Little Women in November 2009, the OHA set up an
exhibit in Stage’s lobby, at 820 E. Genesee St. It revealed that as a
child Louisa May Alcott and her sisters visited their uncle in Syracuse.
“This informed people about something they would never have known
otherwise and gave the OHA more visibility,” relates Connors.
Another development that would help make Montgomery Street livelier
is the opening of a new restaurant in the space that once housed the
Brick Alley Grille House. John Tiplitz, who owned the seafood restaurant
Little Fish in Philadelphia for 20 years, decided to rent the vacant
space because of its proximity to Columbus Circle and to the many people
who work in the area. He has spruced it up with apple-green walls and
dark wood paneling, giving it the feel of a warm cafe. It will seat
Tiplitz, who has been a chef for 40 years, will serve salads,
sandwiches, burgers and other casual fare. He is also planning to put
some international recipes on the menu. “I know there have been other
restaurants in this space before mine and they closed down. But I know
mine will work because I have been doing it for 40 years and if I
provide good service and take care of the little details, people will
come,” he says.
If Tiplitz’s cafe works, it can act as another element in
revitalizing Montgomery. The OHA has plans to hold office parties and
meetings at the restaurant. It is expected to open soon.
To make sure his initiatives move forward, Tripoli needs money. “We
have managed to raise funds for our endeavors by making our donors
realize they are getting very good returns by investing in us,” he says.
“It is a symbiotic relationship. The OHA is a not-for-profit
organization, but while marketing it, I need to think in terms of a
Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli (D-120th), who helped the OHA secure a
state grant of $125,000 for revamping the facade, says he likes what the
organization is doing under Tripoli. “He is a great director. The
biggest difference between him and previous directors is that he is
pushing the OHA outside and putting up exhibitions in different places.
He is making people aware that the OHA exists,” says Magnarelli.
Tripoli plans to reach a wider audience by making documentaries for
television and radio. “I want to tell the stories of Syracuse to the
country and to the world. People are amazed when they hear stories about
our local heroes. They have an international appeal,” he says. “My main
aim is to make the OHA a catalyst for economic development in the
downtown area in a way that would help local businesses and residents.”
Working along a similar path with the OHA is the Cathedral Square
Neighborhood Association. Operatives say they hope to make the
Montgomery Street-Columbus Circle-Fayette Park area the city’s “newest
oldest” district, offering apartments for young professionals and new
restaurants, along with the existing cultural institutions and churches.
This fall the association is planning a public forum to seek ideas on
how to reawaken this section of the city.
If Tripoli manages to transform the OHA, if Tiplitz manages to
operate a restaurant of some quality, and if the Cathedral Square
Neighborhood Association gains momentum, Montgomery Street could come
back to life. The area has the potential to become a major arts and
residential hub of Syracuse and a counterweight to Armory Square, but
all the constituent parts must work together.
Avantika Sharma is a native of India with a degree from the
University of Delhi. She is interested in fashion and fine arts, and she
has worked for the Indian Express newspaper.