In 1972, Corning and many surrounding communities in Steuben County were devastated by catastrophic flooding caused by Hurricane Agnes. 50 years later, community centers around the region are presenting exhibitions and programs in honor of this traumatic natural disaster that marked an important crossroads in the city’s history. This exhibition examines the architectural changes that Old City Hall has undergone, pre- and post-Agnes, through photographs and videos.
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. The City of Corning was flooded under more than 9 feet of water. The Chemung River rose 27 feet in total, displacing more than 6,000 people from flooded and destroyed homes. At the time, Agnes was the most-costly storm to impact the United States. The hurricane caused an estimated $2 billion in damages and killed 24 people in New York State; 18 of the deaths occurred in Steuben County. NOAA’s National Hurricane Center retired the name “Agnes.”
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.
This exhibition examines the architectural changes that Old City Hall has undergone. On the interior, the building was in great need of repair even before it sustained damaging floodwaters to its lower floors. On the exterior, follow key moments of the evolution of this architectural restoration project, such as the removal of the cupola. Today, when you visit the galleries of The Rockwell Museum, you can appreciate the care and consideration that has been invested into this historic landmark.
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