A Former Corset Factory Hums With Activity Again in Upstate New York
In its heyday, the Crescent Corset Company employed more than 700 women, many of them Italian immigrants, at a factory on South Main Street in Cortland, New York. The large industrial brick building, built in multiple stages starting in 1923, quickly became an anchor for the small city, which sits between Ithaca and Syracuse.
“In Cortland, which is 15,000 to 20,000 people, you can’t talk to too many people [whose] grandmother didn’t work there, or their sister, or their aunt,” said Ben Lockwood, president and CEO of Housing Visions, the nonprofit developer that has helped transform the rundown building into a vibrant commercial and residential space over the past several years.
The saga of the Crescent Corset Company factory, as it was formerly known, is similar to that of many other manufacturing sites in American cities during the second half of the 20th century. Over the years, activity within the building slowly declined until it became vacant, and a once proud structure had become an eyesore.
But the factory’s fate changed when Housing Visions partnered with David Yaman Realty Services, a local firm. Together, they produced an adaptive reuse plan that brought the former factory back to life, once again making it a keystone in Cortland.
Crescent Corset Company: A Haven for Immigrant Woman
Lockwood said that, historically, the Crescent Corset Company factory served as an “economic engine” for Cortland. The company was one of the first wholly owned subsidiaries of the JCPenney Company, and its workers would churn out privately labeled “Lady Lyke” corsets while on the clock.
The factory became a haven for immigrant women, mostly from Italy. Many of them immigrated directly to Cortland—forgoing stops in larger cities like New York or Philadelphia—because they knew, thanks to a network of friends and family, that work awaited them there.
“It was a great place because you would have new Americans coming in and, even if they didn’t speak English, they could walk down to the factory and get a job,” Lockwood said.
That success eventually ran out, however. In 1971, the building was sold out of local control. Manufacturing continued, in some capacity, for the next several decades, but it ceased completely in the 21st century, said David Yaman, who was born and raised in Cortland. Some areas of the building became office space, but those tenants eventually left, as well.
The factory’s last owner, a multinational textile firm, didn’t pay much attention to the property, according to Lockwood and Yaman.
“It was an absentee owner,” Lockwood said. “There’s no other way to describe it. This was left over from a multinational empire … this was just kind of a little hanging piece from all their mergers and acquisitions over the years.”
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The factory’s deteriorating state did not escape people’s notice.
“This building is, by Cortland’s standards, monstrous, well over 100,000 square feet,” Lockwood said, explaining that anyone heading to the local high school or a nearby ski resort will drive past the two-story building.
The Housing Visions team had a particularly good view of it, considering they own a Low-Income Housing Tax Credit development across the street. So, in addition to reviving a historically significant building, Lockwood said the company wanted to protect its existing asset from proximity to such a large, vacant, and deteriorating structure.
Fortunately, the factory was on the market, and Housing Visions and Yaman came together to get a deal done. It turned out to be a great collaboration, Lockwood said, noting that each side brought specific expertise.
“Dave knows the market down there,” Lockwood said. “It’s been great on the commercial side, having his finger on the pulse. And we were able to use Housing Visions’ comfort in the tax credit sphere.”
They came up with a plan to convert the factory into a mixed-used complex, believing there was demand for both residential and commercial units. The National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC) supported the companies with state and federal historic tax credit equity, which Lockwood says was necessary for getting the adaptive reuse project off the ground.
'Whatever We Could Salvage': The Factory Maintains its Historic Character
Yaman was concerned about the state of the building. The primary culprits were a leaking roof, which was causing damaging to the hardwood floors, and the lack of interior heat. The moisture that was accruing did not do the structure any favors.
"My fear," said Yaman, "was that in a couple of more years, it would have been a lost cause."
The first phase of the restoration was completed in 2017. This phase made up the bulk of the work, Lockwood said. Tenants were already moving in at that point.
Construction crews managed to retain much of the original building, repairing exterior and interior brickwork, the roof, and the hardwood floors. The ceilings remain exposed, and while there weren’t many original windows left by the time the project took place, their replacements fill the openings as they were designed. They also salvaged metal doors and found a large industrial scale that now sits in the apartment complex's lobby.
There’s a significant amount of natural light, Lockwood said, which harks back to the building’s manufacturing days, as sunlight was crucial at a time when workers couldn’t rely as easily on electricity.
"Whatever we could salvage that reminded people it was an industrial building at one point, we did," Yaman said.
There were still sections of the factory, namely a partially submerged section of the first floor, left untouched due to budget constraints. But in 2019, NTCIC was able to provide an additional $2 million in New Markets Tax Credits through the Irvin Henderson Main Street Revitalization Fund. The windfall allowed Housing Visions and David Yaman to add a significant amount of usable space, getting the project over the finish line.
Cortland: A Community in Transition
Now, four years later, their plan is off to a roaring start. The 47 apartments, three of which are restricted to households earning 80 percent of the area median income, are fully leased, and the commercial tenants—anchored by Family Counseling Services of Cortland County, which specializes in family mental health in the area—have created a burgeoning community among themselves, said Lockwood.
Several new tenants, in fact, have established themselves in the complex recently, including a coffee shop, a wholesale flower shop, a nail salon, a photographer, and a dance studio.
“The last six months have exceeded my expectations,” said Lockwood. “It has really been pretty neat to watch.”
Yaman agreed, adding that the "synergy among the tenants is really quite surprising."
And they’re likely not done adding businesses yet. Somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 more square feet on the first floor will eventually be available for commercial use. Lockwood said they shouldn’t have much trouble filling that space once the final stages of the work are complete. They’ll just need to wait for the right tenants.
The project is a nod to Cortland’s industrial past, Lockwood said, as well as a showcase for how that past can contribute to the future progress of the city’s built environment.
“One of the benefits that you have in these old industrial cities is that you have stock that just cannot be replicated,” he said. “So when we repurpose, we can create really cool spaces that you couldn’t build today if you started from the ground up."
The neighborhood adjacent to Crescent Commons—as the apartment and commercial complex is now called in homage to its past—was in a state of transition before the project began, Yaman said. But he believes the repurposed site will help stabilize the area and show others in the community that they can revive other older buildings that have fallen on hard times.
Yaman and Lockwood both said they’ve already seen more investment in the immediate area.
"You don't recognize stability because it's the same," Yaman said. "But you recognize deterioration. We prevented deterioration, created stability, and now we can see how it's going to improve."
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