The long-awaited Irish Cultural Center of the Mohawk Valley and Five Points Public House will soon provide Central New York with a traditional Irish experience and a warm welcome for all.
One evening in September 2018, Frank Doyle sat at the bar in O’Donnell’s Pub & Grill on Varick Street in Utica. A few seats away, he noticed two older men talking excitedly about the Irish Cultural Center of the Mohawk Valley (ICCMV) and Five Points Public House which was under construction just down the street.
Doyle recalls the conversation he overheard: “One of them says, ‘I’m a good buddy of one of the guys on the (ICCMV) board and he said the trucks are coming in from Ireland with all the original stuff.’ And the other guy says, ‘Really? And I’ll tell you another thing, they’re even bringing a guy over from Ireland to install everything.’”
Doyle said he grinned and exchanged a knowing look with the bartender. Only the two of them knew that Doyle himself was the “guy from Ireland.”
“It was fun to hear them talk,” Doyle said. “They were so excited about it.”
This excitement has sparkled all over the Utica area for three years in anticipation of the ICC’s opening day, which is now expected in June. Though delays have caused some frustration, the quality, magnitude, and cost of the project explain the length of time it’s taken to complete it.
The saga began in 2007 when the non-profit Great American Irish Festival (GAIF) purchased the land at 623 Columbia Street, the historically significant site of the first Irish Catholic church in Utica. During the next eight years, the GAIF board was able to have a foundation built but struggled to raise enough funding to continue construction.
Then in the spring of 2015, Syracuse area developer Vaughn Lang took on the project. And that’s when the pace picked up. His backing, plus a $1 million New York State grant secured by New York State Senator Joe Griffo, and donations from businesses like Gutchess Lumber of Cortland and Wilcor of Utica, along with continued fundraising by the GAIF, provided the needed resources. Still a great deal of time-consuming work lay ahead.
While the original design would have taken a year to complete, Lang’s vision was grander.
He began by tearing out the original foundation. Though it was found to be structurally sound, Lang had a larger, heavier building in mind. He envisioned a 23,500 square-foot building with a stone exterior which required a stronger, larger foundation and steel construction to support it. This took a year to complete. Transporting the 60 tons of stone from Rainbow & Adirondack Quarries in Malone, NY, and installing it on every inch of the building’s exterior, took 10 more months.
The ICC’s construction manager John Sullivan of John Sullivan and Sons Construction said it would have been finished more quickly if he’d been able to hire more reliable workers willing to stay on the job. “We had one guy who went to the men’s room and never came back,” he said. Others didn’t show up on work days. He and his brothers, Jim and Tom Sullivan, did much of the work themselves. Though it took time, Sullivan said he’s happy with the result. “I think it shows a great deal of pride,” he said.
Meanwhile the pub fixtures, including the mahogany bar, dividing walls and furniture, as well as the stained glass and brass accents - were being handmade by The Irish Pub Company (IPC) near Dublin, Ireland. After a year of work, these pieces along with real antique bric-a-brac collected at flea markets in Ireland arrived in Utica in September 2018 in three shipping containers. Since then, employees of IPC have visited five times to install the tile floor, paint the ceiling mural, and train local carpenters in reassembling the pieces of the pub.
IPC offers several pub versions, and Lang had chosen the Victorian. “I wanted something old and traditional, everything as close to traditional as possible,” he said.
Acquiring and demolishing two derelict buildings nearby also took time, but yielded a parking lot large enough for 85 cars.
The three projects in one - the pub, event center, and museum - involved tasks, challenges, and myriad decisions in triplicate.
“It was just time-consuming,” Lang said. “Every detail of this building, with respect to the three different aspects, took time. If you build a pub, that’s it. If you build an event center and a museum that’s it. But it all has to coordinate and the flow has to be just right.”
Lang considered every detail with care, even designing the event center light fixtures himself and commissioning local manufacturer Meyda Lighting to create them.
“It’s been a labor of love,” Lang said, emphasizing that the ICC is meant to be a place where people of all ethnicities are welcome with no membership dues. Lang himself traces his ancestry to Poland, but when asked what he likes about the Irish community in Utica, he said, “Genuineness, compassion, brotherhood, sisterhood, organizations, and just everything. Absolutely the people. They don’t care that I’m not Irish.”
But Lang had a reason beyond friendship for investing in this grand project.
He said, “I’m not from this community. I live in the Syracuse area. I have a law firm. I’ve developed real estate in the Syracuse area and I’ve been successful. But at the end of a lifetime, you look back and say, what did you do? All of my other projects have been for profit, the bottom line. But I’m at the point in life when I’m saying to myself, I want to do a legacy project. And this opportunity was dropped in my lap. I can always be here and say I was part of the development. And being a part of the Irish community has been an absolutely marvelous thrill.”
When the doors open to the public in a few weeks, the entire community will be able to enjoy what he and his team have accomplished.
The authentic Irish pub on the first floor takes its name from the intersection of Columbia, Varick, and Huntington Streets in Utica and from a similar one in lower Manhattan which was the center of a neighborhood known as Five Points where many Irish immigrants settled a century and a half ago.
With a capacity of 135 patrons, the pub is divided into cozy areas designed to encourage conversation, including seats arranged around an enormous gas fireplace, an outdoor patio, a whiskey tasting room, and the main bar with seats for 18.
“It’s full of nooks and crannies,” said ICC Treasurer Linda Voce. “You have to be able to sit and visit and have a conversation. So we don’t just have hard cold chairs. The seats are upholstered. It’s an intimate place to be.”
One of the unique features, the snug, recalls some of Ireland’s history. Even as recently as the 1960s respectable Irish women didn’t like to be seen in pubs, so small rooms with low walls and doors were built in some pubs where women and others could have a pint in private. Today it would be a good place for event planning meetings or business lunches.
There’s also a stage, where musicians from the local area, New York, Boston, Ireland, and elsewhere will perform.
The dual kitchen will serve the event space and pub restaurant with traditional Irish fare, and American favorites, for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch seven days a week.
The Event Center
The 288-seat event center can be divided into three spaces with folding walls for different events happening at the same time. O’Connor’s A Moveable Feast will provide catering for the ICC event center as well as continuing to serve its off-site clients. Smaller events can also be hosted on the patio and in the museum.
Upstairs, the sunny, window-lined museum will provide space for local cultural organizations to present programs like storytelling, music workshops, and historical lectures. ICC Vice President Peter Karl said the board plans to build its own collection of historical items for the museum over time, but will begin by borrowing traveling exhibits from other Irish cultural museums in the US. The first, on loan from the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, will feature Irish influences on rock and traditional music, and later will present another exhibit on the Irish in baseball.
Karl, who has been involved with efforts to build the ICC since 2005, compares his feelings now that the center is about to open to the sentiments of the 1993 movie, Rudy, about a young man who overcame a litany of obstacles to reach his dream of playing for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. “Never give up,” he said. “It’s very satisfying to know we never gave up on the Irish Cultural Center.”
The ICCMV’s official website is also under construction, but while that's in the works, you can sign up to receive progress updates on their temporary website at irishculturalcenterofmv.org.
(This article first appeared in the May 2019 issue of ACCENT Monthly magazine, published by the Utica Observer-Dispatch.)