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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, its original purpose is not easily discernible. Though badly neglected, the ruins that greeted us this winter morning still retained a strangely dignified air, but it was murky and ill-defined. Like some half-remembered dream turned stone.

Complementary to the building at its center, the grounds themselves were barren, save for some dead plant-life that managed to poke through the heavy snowfall. We trekked toward the building, our footsteps crunching loudly as they shattered through the icy glaze that covered the property. The sound of our walking echoed, not only off the building, but from deep inside of it as well.

For how bright the sun was this day, the inside of the old building was deeply shadowed. Snow easily entered through the empty holes where windows once were, and amassed in drifts at various points where the winter winds saw fit. The chambers off from these halls were all repetitive in nature – Large empty rooms. Dark, bitter cold, and devoid of even the most basic of remnants from the days which this building was alive. The only signs of activity came in the form of tiny paw marks in the snow, left behind by the building's sole feline tenants. Ones that never revealed themselves to us.

Eventually we found ourselves in the basement. It was exceedingly dark, and if not for the use of flashlight, utterly impossible to traverse. After some time we happened upon a curious corridor of doors. They looked very much like the kind of doors you would see in a high school or college. Thick, with large windows so that those outside could observe those within. We decided to travel down the hallway of doors to see where they may lead us, but after climbing over piles of metal tables, chairs, and debris, we discovered that the corridor abruptly ended at a pitch black wall. We backtracked, and continued on. Eventually we came to a subterranean chamber, at the center rose a very thin set of stairs. Above it there was a square hole in the ceiling, through which sunlight and snow entered. We were surprised that a hole in the basement ceiling led outside, rather than into the floor of the building's first story. The presence of sunlight meant that we had found ourselves beyond the foundation of the building – Underground, but outside on the property somewhere.

We soon found a set of stairs and climbed them. They led us to dark landing with a metal door at the opposite end. Opening the door we found ourselves in a series of seemingly out-of-place greenhouses. These greenhouses were actually one of the primary items which we wanted to see on our visit, and we were excited to have finally found them. Though mostly glassless, and filled deep with snow, they still stood strong. Long ago these glass-roofed rooms were the very heart of the facility we just snaked our way through. It was a proud place back then, the center of a noble humanitarian effort, and it had a name – The Boyce Thompson Institute.

To tell the tale of this weathered edifice, we begin with the man who's name would eventually come to adorn it - William Boyce Thompson. Mr. Thompson was born to a small mining town in Virginia, May 13, 1869. At 18 he attended the Phillips Exeter Academy, and upon completion studied at the Columbia University School of Mines. When he finished his education he returned home, and was immediately employed by his father in the family’s copper and silver mines, located in Montana, and Arizona. His endeavors proved quite successful, and in 1895 he wed Gertrude Hickman and moved to New York where he joined the Curb Exchange (now refereed to as the New York Stock Exchange).

Once settled, Exeter classmates and club members took to introducing Mr. Thompson to various New Yorkers of influence, which worked out favorably for all parties, as Thompson was one of the few residents of New York at the time with an in-depth knowledge of the mining business. He became a prosperous mining promoter, developing mining properties in the West and Southwest of the United States, as well as in Canada. Later on he even managed to acquire a diamond mine in Africa. This all proved very lucrative for Mr. Thompson, and in time he amassed a considerable fortune.

Beginning in 1906, and going through 1910, Thompson purchased properties in Northern Yonkers, New York. He then hired the noted architectural firm “Carrere and Hastings“ to design a beautiful estate, which he called “Alders with Alder Manor “. Upon the completion of his grand estate in 1912, Thompson was only 42 years old. He had all he needed, and considering his worth, he likely also had everything he ever wanted. To accomplish such things so early in his lifetime is impressive in it's own right, but what makes William Boyce Thompson a man worthy of remembering are his actions well after most would have considered settling down and relaxing into their golden years. 

In 1917, Herbert Hoover was Chief of the Belgian Relief Fund. A privately run organization which focused on war-relief. After the end of the World War the organization found themselves needing to raise approximately $150 million dollars. Coincidentally Hoover was a member of the Rocky Mountain Club of New York, a club to which Mr. Thompson was also involved. An arrangement was made, and Thompson took on the role of treasurer, helming a newly-formed finance committee created to generate these funds. To begin, Thompson pledged $100,000 of his own money. The Rocky Mountain Club also cared for soldiers stationed in France, and for those traveling there. Under Thompson's watch the club raised roughly $5 million for it's war-aid causes.

Soon after he began raising funds with the club, Thompson also donated $250,000 to the Red Cross. In 1917 he then led the Red Cross into Russia to asses the need for medical supplies and other care. It was on that fateful trip that Mr. Thompson's 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. (This was the Russian Revolution of 1917, which saw the fall of the Tsarist Monarchy, and the formation of the Soviet Union).

Upon returning to the United States, Thompson set to work with what was to be his life-defining purpose, which is saying a lot considering what he had accomplished up to this point. 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.

To those ends he purchased properties adjacent to his estate, and constructed the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research. The institute was dedicated in 1924, and sat on some 300 acres of farming land and fields. The purpose of his facility was a simple one: to make food easily attainable for everyone. He truly felt that if food were affordable and plentiful, it could potentially lead to a more peaceful world as a whole. “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 of pneumonia 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 forty years the residents of Yonkers have watched on as the vacant facility slowly deteriorated through the forces of nature and man. What was to become of this old building, and when will it be too far gone to save? Those questions were answered on June 10th, 2015, when Simone Development broke ground at the long-abandoned property. Their aim is to redevelop the building into a “85,000-square-foot mixed-use complex with office and medical space, restaurants, banking and retail stores.” known as the 'Boyce Thompson Center'. There are two noteworthy features about this plan (aside from the name) that show Simone Development understands the significance of the property in their possession. The first is that building will be restored using materials selected to match the existing architecture, with the developer stating, “The historic Boyce Thompson building, which was built in the 1920s, will be restored to its original character”. The second, that the new building being erected on the grounds will be connected to the existing structure via a greenhouse. Though the new greenhouse itself is a thoughtful nod by the developers to the building's past life, what makes it so important is what will be contained within - As visitors walk the path through the new greenhouse they will be greeted with a memorial gallery honoring the life work of William Boyce Thompson.

So it goes, even though nearly a century has transpired since his passing, Mr. Thompson's legacy is alive and well on the grounds of his old institution.


 The old lobby looked quite sad on the day of our visit.



The attic.

Interesting machinery left from the old elevator system.

View from the window in the previous photo.

 To the basement...

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



The following images are from the website. They show artist rendering of what the planned Boyce Thompson Center will look like upon completion.

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