In 1972, Corning and many surrounding communities in Steuben County were devastated by catastrophic flooding caused by tropical storm Agnes. As the hurricane moved up the Atlantic coast, it turned inland where it stalled over the Chemung River Valley, dumping torrential rainfall. The swollen river broke through its dam system early on June 23, sending a massive wall of water surging downstream.
As Corning began the lengthy process of rebuilding after Hurricane Agnes, the city found itself at a crossroads and asked “Do we restore the historic architecture of downtown or do we wipe the slate clean and rebuild?” The answer was both.
The Market Street Restoration Agency took over the direction of the five western blocks of Market Street, from Wall Street to Bridge Street. The historic buildings underwent extensive restoration to preserve their 19th century architecture. Corning’s project garnered national attention through recognition by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Market Street became the model for the new National Main Street civic preservation program.
Meanwhile, the east end of Market Street past Wall Street underwent a complete urban revitalization. Demolishing water-damaged buildings created space for a newly designed civic district. Today, this is home to City Hall and Corning’s administrative offices, police headquarters, the Southeast Steuben County Library and the Radisson Hotel.
At the time of the flood, the building that houses The Rockwell Museum served as City Hall. It housed the county clerk, mayor’s office, police headquarters and fire department.
Old City Hall became a hub for staging first responders following Hurricane Agnes. The high-water mark in the Museum’s lobby shows that this historic building also suffered extensive damage from floodwaters.
Although Old City Hall was on the National Register of Historic Places, it stood vacant for several years after the flood with its fate unclear. An agreement was finally reached between the Corning Glass Works (now Corning Incorporated), the City of Corning and the Rockwell family to preserve and repurpose the Romanesque Revival building. The parties agreed that the building would be renovated into a museum and house the Rockwell’s American art collection.
In June of 1982, a decade after the flood, Old City Hall was rededicated as The Rockwell Museum.
Video | Agnes: The Flood of ’72 by Brian Frey
Video | Main Street Rising by Brian Frey