The Boyce Thompson Institute

The Boyce Thompson Institute

A red brick construction, more a shell than a building, sits alone on a small snow-covered plot of land. Gutted and covered in graffiti, it's original purpose is not easily discernible. Though badly neglected, the ruins retained a strangely dignified air, but it was murky and ill-defined. Like some half-remembered dream turned stone.

For nearly a century this hollow edifice has stood on a hillside in Yonkers, NY, and for a large portion of that time it has existed in a state of abandonment. A once-grand establishment reduced to little more than a local curiosity. It had become one of those places that seemed to have always been there, yet few people knew very much about. In truth those sad remains were at one time a noble scientific institute, but before we delve into the history of this storied building, we must first come to understand the man behind its creation.

Our story begins at the turn of the 20th century, with a man named William Boyce Thompson. A very successful businessman who amassed a fortune in the mining industry. However, it is not his wealth which makes Mr. Thompson so worthy of remembrance, but what he chose to do with it. In 1912 Mr. Thompson had completed the construction of his estate in Yonkers, he was only 42 years old and already possessed more than the means to retire and enjoy life at his new estate, relaxing in comfort for the rest of his years. Where most would have finally sat back and enjoyed the fruits of their lifelong labors, Thompson chose to do quite the opposite – With his increased wealth came an increased desire to help those less fortunate than he. His philanthropic efforts started in earnest at the end of the World War, when he began promoting and financially backing war relief funds. Not long after he became involved physically as well as monetarily. In 1917 Mr. Thompson helped lead the Red Cross into Russia to asses the need for medical supplies and other care. It was on that fateful trip that his worldview was altered. The sights he bore witness to in Russia stuck with him for the rest of his days - People deprived of the basic human necessities, living in the streets, and slowly starving to death as a revolution tore cities apart around them.

Upon returning to the United States, Thompson set to work with what was to be his life-defining purpose. His aim was made clear by a statement he made regarding his plans: “There will be two hundred million people in this country pretty soon. It’s going to be a question of bread, of primary food supply. That question is beyond politicians and sociologists. I think I will work out some institution to deal with plant physiology, to help protect the basic needs of the 200 million. Not a uplift foundation, but a scientific institution dealing with definite things, like germination, parasites, plant diseases, and plant potentialities.” In short, Mr. Thompson's goal was to ensure that the sights he saw overseas were never to occur again.

Construction of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research began shortly thereafter, and was built upon property adjacent to his estate. “Agriculture, food supply, and social justice are linked.“ His ideal became a contagious passion, one which drove the institute on its path to the betterment of society. Sadly, William Boyce Thompson's life story ends shortly after the creation of the institute. On June 27, 1930, he passed away at home in his nearby estate. His funeral drew much attention, as nearly all people of influence in American society paid their final respects to a man who's worth was measured not by his fortune, but by his actions. In 1978, after 54 years of operation in Yonkers, the Boyce Thompson Institute joined with Cornell University and relocated to its campus in Ithaca. It still operates today.

For over thirty years the residents of Yonkers had watched on as the vacant facility slowly deteriorated, left to rot away in an overgrown field. It was during that time that we, ourselves, had made our first trip out to see the old research facility. It was a sombre sight to behold, knowing the passion for which it was created, and now seeing it thrown away as it were. The old building was grand, but it looked almost like its spirit had been broken. We wandered through hallways filled with dunes of snow, the windowless corridors doing little to keep the outside weather at bay. The lobby sat battered, with its pillars and iron-railed staircase sadly withering away through neglect. Oddly one of our most noted recollections from our trip was not of the building itself, but of a small statuette which we happened upon as we were leaving. It was about waste-high, stone, and featured the forms of several women weathered to muted shapes from years of exposure to the elements. It stood alone, away from the building. If we had visited in the warmer months we would have surely missed it entirely in the tall grass.

So now we find ourselves, years later, driving up the same roads that once led to the abandoned research center. Now though, what we come upon is a beautifully restored building and grounds, a site that celebrates the history of the Boyce Thompson Institute which once called it home. Now known as the 'Boyce Thompson Center', the old building shines again. It no longer looks broken and sad, rather it appears proud and bright, full of life once again. As we pulled into the adjacent parking lot the old stone statue from years past came back to memory. “Guess it would have been right about here”, we said to one-another as we put the Jeep into park. As we walked we spoke of how we were glad that we found it it on my first visit, as it and the field where it once stood had since been turned into the parking lot for the retail shops.

Our return visit to the institute proved more impressive than we had anticipated, the attention paid by the re-developers is truly something that should be used as an example when dealing with future adaptive reuse projects. They not only brought the building back to how it must have looked when first built, they did so in such a way that they managed to retain the storied air which we felt when we visited it in an abandoned state. The building holds stories, history, and it shows it. The weathered brick is still here, but it's clean, sealed, topped with a new roof, and modern climate control systems. The old meet with the new and beautifully entwine in the redesigned space. The celebration of history is everywhere, but first and foremost it greets you in the lobby. We were amazed to see it was still the same lobby we knew from our first visit, but brought back to its past self. This room is actually dedicated to the building's past life as a research center, and all along the walls can be found information and photographs about what once happened here. Above the lobby is a sitting room, along the walls hang black and white photographs of the building, going all the way back to its initial construction.

What makes a building significant, and what ties it to the community, is how it exists within it. The Boyce Thompson enter may once have been a plant research facility, but that is just one part of its timeline, and does not, and need not, define it. For instance, in a massive wing we passed through while abandoned now exists an Italian restaurant called Fortina. And whereas numerous other businesses in the old institute built new surroundings into the old building, Fortina embraced the vacant structure and designed their establishment around retaining that aesthetic. In doing so They have created for themselves, and their patrons, a unique atmosphere found nowhere else. Within, standing two stories tall can be found the form of Demeter, the Greek goddess of wheat and corn. A beautiful mural painted by a local artist who, years ago, was tagging the building while it sat abandoned. Beyond that the craftsmen who worked on the bar, the custom raining work, the furniture, and even the ventilation systems are Yonkers locals, which perfectly illustrates the philosophy that a building comes to embody and reflect the community which it stands.

Once we were done touring the property we packed up our things and begin our trek back to the Jeep. We stopped midway though, as we remembered that we had not yet visited the lower level main entrance. We make our way around the side of the old institute, past another beautiful mural, this time depicting the accomplishments of the scientists who once toiled away within these walls. We continue the length of the rear of the building to its central entrance. Opening the doors we came upon an unexpected and touching sight - Proudly displayed at the far end of the room, illuminated by an overhead lamp, stood that old weathered statuette we remembered from our first visit. Behind it on the wall hung a large black and white photograph of it with former employees of the institute, and above that, printed upon the wall, was the story of the stone carving. We read it as we stood with the old stone, and we learned of its past life as a sundial in the fields, and how it was at one time a focal-point of the grand gardens that once adorned the institute. Lost for decades it is now found, and safely kept within the walls of the old institute, much like the spirit of William Boyce Thompson himself.


The old lobby, tired and worn.

Snow dunes.

In the attic.

Interesting pulley wheels left from the old elevator system.

This is where the Fortina restaurant eventually came to exist.

To the basement.

 Metal flakes sparkle, trapped in an icicle formed by a broken downspout.


 The old stone.

This is the institute as it exists today.

The concrete block patch visible on the second floor of the wall is where we took our photo of this room when it was in an abandoned state.

 Where once the greenhouses stood can now be found a mural depicting the achievements of the Boyce Thompson Institute.

 The old stone in its new home.

These images are taken from the June 1932 issue of 'Popular Science'