City Hall

About City Hall

Syracuse’s City Hall, a fortress of Onondaga limestone, occupies an entire block of downtown real estate. With its connection to the Erie Canal, its bronze bell, and a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, it bears witness to the city’s history while housing the public servants working to build its future.

Main Character

The Councilor-in-Chief

By Ankur Dang

Public service and celebrating the city’s diversity fuels Van Robinson, president of the Common Council.

Documents awaiting signatures, requests and letters that need responses, notes regarding meetings he has scheduled for today, and memorabilia from his travels abroad — Matryoshka dolls, bamboo handicrafts, beaded wall hangings —sit on his desk. There is a transparent paperweight in one corner, and his warm, black eyes come to rest on it as the shimmering substance inside the object reflects in the lenses of his spectacles. Van Robinson, the president of the Common Council has seen the sights of the world and found his own place in the service of the people of Syracuse. As someone who has experienced the transformation that America went through in the 60s and the 70s, Robinson’s politics are steeped in social justice and strong positions. Some would say he is a tough leader. But there are many in the city who see a different man behind the title.

Although Kenet Staten doesn’t know the city’s Common Council president personally, he easily describes him as “sweet.”

“At least, that’s what my grandkids would say,” Staten, 49, says with a laugh, explaining Van Robinson’s humility and warm smile makes him an endearing politician. Staten has lived in Syracuse all his life, except for the years he was deployed abroad with the U.S. Army. Today, he is a cab driver and one of thousands of people who live and work in Syracuse. Staten remembers he admired Robinson as a child, because Robinson was responsible for re-starting the NAACP chapter of Syracuse in 1977.

“I know how different things were 40 years ago, and trust me, Robinson does too,” says Staten. “That is why he is more sensitive to the needs of the people of color in this city. And with us being a sanctuary city, there are a lot of them.”

Robinson’s respect for a multicultural society started during his childhood in the Bronx. Then, he joined the U.S. Navy and worked to improve the quality of the Syracuse City School District, using his career to serve his fellow citizens. But it is the “moments in between” that have shaped him as an individual and a public servant.

Robinson recounts how he ended up in the Navy with a fond smile on his face.

“When we are teenagers, we think we are invincible,” he says. “And we were no different. We formed what are today known as gangs. We called them clubs. We wore jackets with emblems on them. Some of us were decent kids, some of us were not. We didn’t use guns, but we had baseball bats and brass knots and such.”

When he was 17, one of the members of the gang killed someone from another neighborhood in a fight with a zip gun. This event prompted Robinson, who had just lost his mother and graduated from high school, to think of his future. He decided that if he wanted to stay out of trouble, he needed to enlist.

So, he served in the Navy for three years, during which he travelled in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean. “This was the time of Nikita Khrushchev. Stalin had recently died, and things were changing,” he says. “Everyone was hoping that relations would improve, but they only worsened. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis happened.” Robinson pauses, and in the silence, he seems lost in thought. “Those were dark days,” he adds. “I had left by then. I did not actively participate in any battles and skirmishes, but I saw the world.”

Those travels helped him grow up and informed the person he would become. He met people who spoke different languages, ate foods from other cultures, and saw people who looked different and who prayed to a different God. The experiences prompted him to devote himself to the Civil Rights Movement and continue to grow his worldview. “As a young man of 17, I stood outside the Colosseum in Rome. It did not mean much to me at that age,” he says. “But then I went back as a man of 70, and I was overwhelmed at the thought that 2,000 years ago, gladiators and emperors would have stood there. I was sharing a moment with people from the past, even with my younger self.”

They also continue to inform his activism. Thanks to his continued wanderlust, he now considers climate change a major concern. “Even today, we love traveling, my wife and I,” he says. “And it was on a trip to Alaska a few years ago that I realized just how serious the problem of the climate change is.” He was shaken by a fact that the tour guide shared with them: The stream bed that he and the other tourists were standing on had been covered by the glacier merely five years ago.

Robinson says he is often surprised, amused, and saddened by how people treat each other. He recalls an incident during an official visit to a suburban private elementary school a few years ago. “These three little girls, no older than 8, came up to me and said that they wanted to ask me some questions,” he says. “I thought that they probably wanted to ask me something for a school project.”

The girls had been on an exchange visit to a city school and were concerned that the students there didn’t speak “the proper way.” They also were fascinated to see students dressed in traditional clothes and to see students helping their friends communicate in English. For Robinson, this encounter illustrated the divide between city and suburban life.

Community members like Staten also see this divide and wonder how leaders such as Robinson will address these issues. He values all of the diversity represented in the city’s school district, and he believes the quality of the education needs to be better. “I went to a city school, and it was good when I was a kid,” he says. “But I sent my son to a charter school. Because the public school system is overburdened now. I think we need a shift.”

The school system serves as just one issue Robinson handles that divides the citizens of Syracuse. According Robinson’s chief of staff, Michael Atkins, the other big issue in the city is the Interstate 81. The section of elevated I-81 north that runs through Syracuse along with other bridges located on or near the I-481, I-81, and I-690 interchanges is deteriorating. So much so that the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) has identified I-81 as a necessary reconstruction project. Robinson has called for the removal of I-81 since 2001 because the highway bisects the city, separating sections of the city and making access to Syracuse University and Upstate Medical University a challenge. At present, the city has four options—replace the highway with a new elevated viaduct; knock down the elevated span and reroute through traffic around Syracuse on Interstate 481 or Interstate 690; dig a tunnel to replace the viaduct; or just do routine maintenance on the existing highway. “That is a big issue because people are just not agreeing upon what might be the best way to have it,” Atkins says. “People in the greater Syracuse area are against the boulevard that will allow the flyover to go from outside the city while residents who live in the city disagree.”

Despite those disagreements, those close to Robinson believe in his ability to help the city work through its infrastructure and education issues. “I have known Van for a long time, I was the council president before him, and he asked me to stay on as his chief of staff,” Atkin says. “He has the interest of the city as his prime concern.”

Robinson’s term ends later this year, and it is unlikely the I-81 issue will be resolved by then. But while he agrees the delay in repairs is not ideal, he believes the concerns are not unfounded. If all this debate and deliberation ultimately leads to a solution that is agreeable to everyone, then it all will be worth it.

As he says that, he pulls up the file on the latest set of requests and questions about I-81. The file holds letters from citizens, activists, and officials and documents. For the next few hours, he will read these and then discuss the best way to go forward on the main issues with the other councillors. His cup of coffee has turned cold. He reaches for the first document, grabs a pen, and begins to make notes.


The Hall of the People

City Hall is a place of governance, rights, freedoms, and conversations. It is an idea and an institution. Today it has a building to call its own. But that wasn't always the case.

Building Profile

Building Block

By Chandler Dunn

City hall is a constant reminder of the socio-political on-goings of Syracuse,” one local observes, “and keeps people involved and engaged.

Throughout the day, people trickle in and out of the gray-stoned, red-roofed, Romanesque building that dominates its own block in downtown Syracuse. Two men in gray suit pants and white button-ups push open the heavy wooden doors of the building’s arcaded main entrance and walk down the steps towards the café across the street. A woman in a skirt and suit jacket rushes toward the entrance’s ascending stairs, clutching her phone between her ear and shoulder while she fishes through her tote. From the side of the building, a man in a hard hat and bright-orange construction vest exits and walks toward his truck, passing a young family — mother, father, and son, walking hand-in-hand toward the entrance. The young boy places both feet on each step before taking on the next as he joins the steady trickle of citizens of Syracuse that filter through City Hall, where the mayor, the Common Council, and the political business of the city reside.

The other side of the wooden doors leading into the building reveals another set of ascending steps to City Hall’s short, main hallway. Positioned to the left of the staircase, just down the hall from the mayor’s office, sits the city clerk’s office. Inside, City Clerk John Copanas, 57, works in coordination with city government to mediate and finalize all city legislation with the Common Council and mayor. Upstairs, along with Common Council offices and chambers, paintings of Syracuse life—a Native American woman playing guitar and a collage done by youth refugees—line the wall. Downstairs and down the hall from the Clerk’s Office, behind the desk on the main floor, acting as a gatekeeper to the entrance to the mayor’s office, sits Teresa Carmon, a veteran security guard. Carmon has worked at City Hall for 22 years and remembers the burial of Mayor Lee Alexander. He served as the mayor of Syracuse for 16 years from 1970 to 1985, and he remains the only person to “lie in state” at City Hall for his viewing. Mourners paid their respects at City Hall before Alexander was buried in Oakwood Cemetery. Carmon admits that what she relishes about her workplace are its history and its familiarity.

Since 1845, the corner of East Washington and Montgomery streets in downtown Syracuse has been the center for the city’s local engagement. In 1845, positioned at the junction of the Oswego and Erie canals that once ran through the city, “Market Hall” became an outdoor farmers market named after the street to its east, and the bustling center of the recently chartered city for nearly 50 years. Near the end of the 19th century, Syracuse established itself as not just a town in the state but as a prominent cultural and commercial center of New York. In his 1889 inaugural address, Mayor William B. Kirk called to the city to build upon its progress and design a new, grander City Hall that reflected the character of the ever-developing city.

Inspired by Albany’s City Hall, which was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, architect and Syracuse native Charles E. Colton modeled Syracuse City Hall in the Richardsonian Romanesque style. Incorporating the typical features, City Hall includes a hipped roof and a turret, standing 165 feet tall, in the southwest corner of the building, holding a bell. The exterior features Onondaga limestone, a type of limestone traced to the Devonian Period roughly 400 million years ago, and specific to the Upstate New York geographic region and Ontario. Save for a few minor changes, the building stands the same today as it did the day of its unveiling on April 30, 1892. It sits on the same block, overlooking the same juncture of East Washington and Montgomery streets, confined to the same 78 x 204 feet dimensions of the original Market Hall.

In fact, that bustling spirti of Market Hall remains in the people and operations of this stone structure. For Kelley Beaudoin, a bartender at Wolff’s Biergarten, a local bar opposite City Hall, the well-preserved, Romanesque-gothic exterior serves as a reminder that unlike “the West, where everything is new and shiny, Syracuse is an older, established, industrial city with roots.” But Beaudoin also recognizes that City Hall’s presence is more than a reminder of the past. He often hears patrons discussing local government issues and the particulars of different perspectives on policy initiatives that emerge from different communities. Over the bar’s popular steins of beer and cider and baskets of peanuts, customers chat about recent initiatives, like the recent legislation permitting Uber and Lyft in Syracuse. City Hall, Beaudoin concedes, “is a constant reminder of the socio-political on-goings of Syracuse, and keeps people involved and engaged.”



By Chandler Dunn

Timeline loading graphic
City Trustees’ First Meeting

The first mention of a meeting located at Market Hall with Syracuse trustees is documented on May 11, 1846.

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The City Chooses An Architect

A nonpartisan commission chooses Charles E. Colton, native to Syracuse, fellow of the American Institute of Architects and treasurer of the Western New York Association of Architects, to be the architect for the building. On April 2, Colton’s architecture plans for a “Richardsonian Romanesque” City Hall, inspired by the Albany City Hall, are approved.

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A $230K Price Tag

The contract to build the new City Hall is awarded to Hughes Brothers for the sum of $238,750. Old City Hall is taken down, and construction of the new building begins. The first cornerstone is laid in November of the same year. The completed building was opened in 1892.

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World War II Claims Bell

The original bell from the bell tower is melted for war efforts in WWII. The sounds of bells chiming are not heard from the tower until 1987, when the Rotary Club donates electronic carillons (an electric bell-sounding instrument) and a bronze plated aluminum bell is added.

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City Charter Outlines Council

The Common Council is established to consist of a president and nine members, with the president and four members elected from the city and five standing as district representatives that are included in the city charter.

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A Time Capsule Is Buried

In September, in commemoration of the city’s centennial, a permanent exhibit opens in City Hall’s main hallway representing historic photos downtown Syracuse, the Erie Canal, and City Hall. Additionally, a time capsule is buried containing artifacts from the year.

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  • 1846
  • 1888
  • 1889
  • 1939
  • 1960
  • 1989


Bell of the Hall

By Ankur Dang

Almost silenced by wartime efforts and a persnickety architect, the city hall bell survived, chiming four times a day.

Whimsical. That is how Teresa Carmon, a 51-year-old security guard at City Hall, describes the building’s bell. To her, it lends personality to the iconic, Romanesque structure that houses the people, systems, and paperwork that govern the city of Syracuse. Dressed in a crisp uniform, she wears a wistful expression as she talks about this particular feature of her workplace. The 5,000-pound bell and dimensions of the tower that houses it are not typical topics of conversation in this building since it is usually known for being the seat of the city’s government.

“The building is special, with all these historic looking arches and columns, but the bell is something I don’t remember from my childhood,” she says. “I grew up here, and there were only stories of a bell that had been melted for a noble cause.” Indeed the bell was silenced during World War II when its metal proved more valuable to Allied troops than its melodious charms to the citizenry. But, it came back.

The original City Hall bell first arrived in 1858, even before the building, whose construction was completed in 1892. For a number of years, the bell served as an important fixture of city life, ringing on public holidays, like the Fourth of July, and to warn citizens about emergencies, such as fires. In fact, the city offered a dollar award to citizens who were the first to spot a fire and ring the bell. Needless to say, this also led to false alarms and chaos at times.

But not everyone appreciated the metal songbird. Charles Colton, City Hall’s architect, believed that the technical equipment required by the bell spoiled his beloved tower’s aesthetic. However, many felt that the mammoth-sized bell belonged, and ultimately Colton surrendered.

Passionate bell supporters also helped bring it back in 1987 (after the Allied troops debacle) when the Rotary Club donated a new aluminum plated, electronic bell. Then, in 2010, the club upgraded its gift and donated a digital bell, which is what downtown visitors now hear ringing dutifully four times a day, with a different melody each turn.

“People confuse this bell with the church bells. It is only the city hall bell that creates the music,” Carmon clarifies. “Of course, it does not serve any practical purposes anymore, but it is a part of the city’s soul. And for that alone, it is vital to this city.”

Three Questions

Municipal Middleman

By Chandler Dunn

Meet the city clerk who mediates among those who run the three branches of Syracuse’s government.

John Copanas, 57, has worked for Syracuse’s city government since he graduated from Le Moyne College 35 years ago. He has served as City Hall’s City Clerk since 1992, and that job makes him the linchpin between the executive branch and legislative branch, mediating between proposed and implemented legislation. He also processes all written legislation to ensure it conforms with the City Charter and sends it to the common council and the mayor for approval. From recording and certifying city legislation to approving funds directed toward the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, accepting murals into the City’s permanent art collection, authorizing the selling of old homes to Greater Syracuse Property Development Corporation, and issuing dog licenses, Copana works on items that impact all aspects of local life. His work gives him an in-depth, firsthand understanding of City Hall’s growth, progress, and change over the past three decades.

How would you describe this block?

Well, the city is the oldest government in the area in the sense that—most people don’t realize this—county government as it is today was formed in 1962, but the city of Syracuse was formed in 1848. So we are one of the oldest governmental bodies. But, looking back, there was an interesting time, which has only happened once in the city’s history. It was when Mayor (Roy) Bernardi back in 2001 [2004] was tapped by then-President George W. Bush to work at (the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development). So he left office, and for the first time ever the council president ascended to be the mayor of the City of Syracuse for the remainder of that term. It was an unusual situation where the person who was mayor was not directly elected as mayor, he was elected council president but became mayor. That was an interesting time. It was different, something that has never happened before or since in the history of the city.

What’s your favorite memory here?

Well, I was very happy when I started working here out of college because the city was in such a great financial position. You started in public service, and you felt like you were really accomplishing something because you had the funds and resources to do things. Today, it’s like putting your finger in the dyke and making sure the damn doesn’t overflow on you. So there’s always cutting the corners and trying to make things work with less, but the first 10 or 15 years I was here, the city had significant funding to be able to accomplish a lot of things that you could be proud of.

What future do you see for this block?

Obviously there is talk about a metropolitan government, which in the long run would be a good idea, but you have to include the towns and villages and the school district and the city and the county to create a real metropolitan government. What has been proposed right now—and why no one supports it, I’m not surprised—is just to have the city absorbed by the county. That’s not a real metropolitan government because we’re the seat of the county and we’re the biggest entity within the county.


This is What Democracy Sounds Like

By Ankur Dang and Chandler Dunn

Inside the Romanesque structure of Onondagan limestone, citizens work to execute the city’s business with a chorus of steps, key taps, creaks, and rings.

Block in Stats




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All data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau, broken down according to the census tract in which the block is located.