In a press release issued today, the historic Dennis-Newton house at 421 North Albany Street on the city’s Lower Northside was named to the Preservation League of New York State’s biennial “Seven to Save” list.

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The list is a selected statewide group of seven structures of historic value that are threatened with destruction, whether through demolition by neglect, inappropriate development or other means.

The house is a venerable structure not just for its age, but because of the role it played as the United States’ first African-Amercian fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha.

The house was built in 1868 by Norman Dennis, an early African-American resident of Ithaca who had moved to the area from New York City, and worked as a laborer and mason. His daughter Lula Newton inherited the property in 1893, and it was transferred to her husband Edward’s name in 1898.

In autumn 1905, the couple rented space to an African-American Cornell student named C. C. Poindexter. Poindexter began gathering several of his Cornell friends at the home, starting a literary social group called the “Social Study Club”. This Cornell student club would lead to the formation of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity a year later.

According to the Preservation League, in 1982 the property was transferred from the last descendant of the Newtons to a private owner who currently lives outside of Ithaca.

The property is structurally sound, but due to years of disrepair it has been condemned.

However, through advocacy by groups like Historic Ithaca, the city is coming around to recognizing the structure’s historic significance, declaring it an individual historic landmark in April 2015.

By being declared a historic landmark, the property owner cannot allow the property to decay to the point of demolition, risking heavy fines and other legal action.

It also makes the building eligible for state income-tax credits, and local historic building property tax abatements for projects that improve the building’s current state and raise its tax assessment value in the process.

There are plans underway to restore the structure. Alpha Phi Alpha has launched the $5 million “Jewels Heritage Project”, which calls for working with the property’ current owner or buying the property outright to halt further deterioration, and restore the house to a habitable state.

The Jewels Heritage Project also calls for a commemorative monument at the site of the first Alpha Phi Alpha house at 411 East State Street.

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Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.