February 15, 2016
More changes planned for County Office Building
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
The entrance to the gymasium that is virtually unchanged from when it was a high school is shown on Thursday.
The Cortland County Office Building has one Art Deco flourish pasted onto a Federalist Revival face — an indelible reminder that what Cortland today uses as a multipurpose government and human services center has been modified, added to and re-envisioned many times over 125 years.
So it shouldn’t be too jarring to watch county employees — including the legislators who run the place — stand against a wall to have their photographs taken for the 21st Century equivalent of the hall passes once required to wander the former high school.
The county is instituting a number of changes to the building — initially erected in 1892 as the Cortland Central School and purchased by the county in the 1970s after a new school was built — to improve security. After all, it has 19 entrances, dozens of ground-level windows and no obvious security cameras.
Some of the changes are minor — new photo IDs that county employees get to wear on a lanyard like a leash. Others are more substantial — new locks so some of those 19 doors can be used as exits, but not entrances. A corner office in what used to be a complex of wood and metal shops has been emptied to make space for the eventual arrival of a metal detector and security station. It used to be a home economics classroom.
The room is adjacent to the only wheelchair-accessible entrance on the property and is a logical point to focus security measures in a one-entrance facility.
Re-purposing an old school to a county office building isn’t unique — Tioga County did it with an old high school in Owego — but Cortland County’s has lost none of the community icon status of its school days. It remains a place where people go, even if they don’t have to do business with the county.
Last week, Pat Ferro, of Cortland, and Clara Bleck, of Virgil, paced the perimeter of the auditorium on the second floor. Eleven laps is a half-mile and a good way to get some exercise outside the chill of single-digit temperatures. “We had a good class,” said Ferro, who graduated in 1958. “I still see some of the kids,” even though the kids are well into their 70s.
She bumps into many just downstairs at the senior center, where classmate Kaaren Pierce sometimes takes her father for lunch.
“All the special ed classes were in the basement — doesn’t that say a lot?” said Pierce, who graduated in 1960 and was later a student teacher in the building. Lunch was an hour and a quarter — long enough for Pierce to walk to her Franklin Street home for lunch and a soap opera or a stop at The Varsity soda shop on Main Street.
Science classes filled the third floor — along the front hall the Legislature now uses for office and meeting space. The bookstore, The Busy Corner, sat where Clerk of the Legislature Eric Mulvihill has his office. But Pierce’s favorite place? The second-floor bandroom, where she played clarinet when Ronny James Dio played trumpet as Ronald James Padavona.
“He was a trumpet virtuoso. There was nothing he couldn’t do with that trumpet,” Pierce said. That was before his days as a Heavy Metal god and driving force behind Black Sabbath, Dio, Elf and other bands. He was class president, too, and had told Pierce he wanted to be a pharmacist.
The band room is still in use — the riser where the band played is used for storage for the Department of Social Service. The heating vents still feature the G clef and music notes.
The kitchen is still used, too, providing meals for the senior center. The school’s gym was never re-purposed — one can find basketball leagues and a toddler program there run by the Cortland City Youth Bureau.
That kids and seniors and just about anybody in Cortland can use the building is one of the reasons Legislator Kevin Whitney (R-Cortlandville) wants to tighten security.
“We have no idea who’s in the building,” Whitney said. Threats are sometimes made against social service workers on the second floor — and county officials very much remember the 1992 killing of four social service workers in Schuyler County. It has tenants — Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cortland County leases space — and children and seniors. And, of course, employees.
“We want to keep the people using the building safe,” said Legislator Richard Bushnell, (R-Cortland) a member of the school’s last graduating class in 1965.
What form changes may take has yet to be decided, Whitney and Bushnell said. And some of those changes won’t be publicized. No security cameras are apparent now, but any the county may add may be placed in obvious, or very subtle, spots. Which doors would be limited to exit only, or emergency exit, or accessible only with keys or magnetic passes has yet to be decided. How the county will need to arrange security staffing — not decided.
The central door on the building’s south side — a beautiful focal point — was never actually used much, Pierce said. “I don’t remember using the front door,” except that it was a common place for the annual senior class group portrait.
The building has seen many changes. The 1923 addition virtually tripled its size adding the auditorium, gymnasium — with its art deco flourish — and classrooms specially designed for elementary students, said Mindy Leisenring, director of the Cortland County Historical Society. The face, with the front door Pierce never used, was added then, too.
It’ll survive a few more changes. And in the meantime? Pierce will try to forget that hers was the first class that had to take a fourth year of science, because of the U.S.-Soviet space race following Sputnik. But she won’t forget the school. “I need to walk through that building.”
To read this article and more, pick up today's Cortland Standard
Click here to subscribe