By DAVID PODOS
HERKIMER – Longtime Herkimer resident and self-proclaimed history buff Joe Chilelli is breathing new life into the historic Munger Building on North Main Street in Herkimer.
Many who lived in the area during the 1950s and 60s remember shopping at Munger’s. It was the premier department store of the valley. But in recent years, the building has stood largely empty an unused – a gem hidden behind unassuming storefronts along North Main Street.
Now, the building at 142 N. Main St. is humming with activity once again as Chilelli has opened The Mohawk Valley Community Market within the former department store building. The market offers consumers a unique shopping experience with quality vendors and artisans along with locally grown food products, Chilelli said.
Henry Gillette Munger founded Munger’s, one of the biggest department stores in the Mohawk Valley. The store was often referred to as “the Macy’s of the Mohawk Valley.”
In 1898, a fire destroyed the original H. G. Munger building, located behind the Herkimer National Bank on North Main Street. Little is known about that 19th century fire, but according to records at the Herkimer County Historical Society, the fire is believed to have started from a faulty furnace.
Following that devestating fire, Munger moved his department store into the first floor of the four-storied Earl Block, which was built in 1898 on the corner of North Main and Green streets.
Tragedy struck again as a second fire did major damage to the department store in 1917. That fire was started by an explosion in the basement. Munger set about rebuilding the store yet again, holding a grand opening on May 22, 1918. That rebuild brought the valley the Munger’s of the 1950s and 60s, that many recall today, which is now the location of the Mohawk Valley Community Market.
“I basically fell in love with the building’s history and architecture,” said Chilelli, a former Herkimer County legislator and a licensed real estate associate broker for Coldwell Banker/Faith Properties.
Chilelli said he felt that if no one stepped up to purchase the Munger Building, it would simply continue to deteriorate. So he bought it himself.
“We have turned it into a vendor mall with many different and unique shops from antiques, artisans, and food items,” he said. “At the present time we have over 30 vendors.”
With four stories to work with, Chilelli said the building holds many possibilities.
“What many people might not know is that on the third floor is the original Herkimer Opera House,” Chilelli mentioned. “At some point we plan on renovating that. Hopefully we can provide some sort of performing arts venue. But that is three to five years away.”
The Herkimer Opera House was built in 1884 and was a stand alone building. The opera house closed in 1906, but not before a number of famous performers graced the stage including Joseph Jefferson starring in Rip Van Winkle, Eva Tanguay, who went by the self-proclaimed title of “the girl who made vaudeville famous,” and Julia Marlow who performed Barbara Frietchie – The Frederick Girl. Munger, when he rebuilt his business after the second fire in 1917, incorporated the opera house building into his new building, thus expanding his department store.
For now, Chilelli has plans for expanding the Mohawk Valley Community Market.
Within the next month the market will be welcoming Enzo Pizzeria. Chilelli enthusiastically encourages anyone who is interested in joining the community market as a new vendor to contact him directly at 315-219-9195, or the General Manager at 315-628-1506.
“Even though the first floor is completely finished, there is still room for additional vendors,” he said. “What we have planned for this year is to expand outside. We would like to add a farmer’s market. The market will be located directly in the back of our building’s parking lot with plenty of parking. In regards to our farmers market, on May 15, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., we are going to have a sign-up for any new vendors who wish to participate in that. We are looking at the end of June to launch.”
The Mohawk Valley Community Market is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.