History of The Kilmer Building

Read about the Kilmer Building’s rich and unique history.

The Kilmer Legacy

Swamp Root. It conjures up the vision of a chubby peddler in a tight suit, riding into town on a broken down wagon (pulled by an equally broken down horse) to sell his concoction to unsuspecting villagers. Not the vision of a Gilded Age entrepreneurial family who would market a “medicinal formula” for curing “liver, kidney and bladder ailments”. But it happened and it happened right here in Binghamton, New York. The story of Swamp Root, and the Kilmer Family, is closely tied to the city’s growth as a center of manufacturing in the late 19th and early 20th. 

Willis Sharpe Kilmer, an 1890 graduate of Cornell University, proved to be a marketing trailblazer when he devised a nation-wide advertising campaign for Swamp Root. Swamp Root, a “medicinal” tonic of herbs, oils, and 24% grain alcohol created by Willis’s uncle, Dr. Sylvester Andral Kilmer in 1878, began to sell very well and emboldened Willis to pour all of the company’s resources into expanding production. This risky plan revealed much about Willis Kilmer’s personality, his willingness to “bet the farm” so to speak. He nearly ruined the company, bringing it to the brink of bankruptcy before Swamp Root’s popularity sky-rocketed; Willis’s gamble had paid off and paid off big. Swamp Root made the Kilmer family very, very wealthy. 

Willis Sharpe Kilmer was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1869, and moved with his family to Binghamton in 1881, when Willis’s father, Jonas, was recruited to aid his brother Andral in managing his fast growing Swamp Root business. The brothers worked together until 1892, when Jonas bought Andral out; paving the way for Willis to assume the helm of the business and possibly lighting the flame of an alleged family squabble. 

By 1900, the family feud had smoldered long enough. One night having had too much to drink and angry over what he viewed as his father having been pushed out of the business (and a hefty share of the profits), Andral’s son allegedly torched the original Swamp Root factory located at the corner of Chenango and Virgil Streets. The fire prompted Willis Kilmer to build the impressive Renaissance style structure, known as The Kilmer Building, that stands today at the corner of Chenango and Lewis Streets. Binghamton’s first skyscraper rose like a phoenix from the ashes and served as a symbol of the grandeur of Willis Kilmer’s life and the fortune he amassed.

The Kilmer building was described in a 1917 issue of the New York Sunday World as follows:

When you step off the railroad train, the Swamp-Root laboratory is the first striking object that confronts you-a beautiful, white, high-towering building.

The article went on to say:

In many respects this building stands unique. The main office is wholly unlike anything of the kind in the country. The massive columns of solid marble and beautiful hand-carved molding, cornices and ceiling, and the marble mosaic floor, is of the type that forces admiration.

The newly constructed building also housed the fledgling Binghamton Press newspaper founded by Willis Kilmer in 1904. It is thought that Kilmer, unhappy with press coverage he was receiving in the Binghamton Evening Herald for both the efficacy of Swamp Root and some rather sensitive matters in his personal life, started a newspaper with the goal of pushing the Evening Herald out of business. Whatever his motives were, Kilmer successfully forced the Evening Herald to shut down their presses. Eventually Kilmer moved the Binghamton Press to a twelve story building downtown, but not before the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act would put strict limits on the claims Kilmer could legally make about the ailments that could effectively be cured by Swamp Root. Luckily for Kilmer, his fortune had been more than comfortably amassed by the time the proverbial Swamp Root well was dried up!

As with many successful Gilded Age businessmen, Kilmer was not afraid to use his wealth to support a lavish lifestyle. Willis and his father both built mansions on Riverside Drive in Binghamton; Willis’s was razed after his death but Jonas’s can still be seen today as the home of Temple Concord. Kilmer owned a yacht, named the Remlik (Kilmer backwards and the name of the restaurant that is located in the Kilmer building today!) that was purchased by the U.S. Navy, renamed the USS Remlik, and used as an armed patrol vessel in World War I. He owned a hunting and fishing“camp” in Sky Lake, New York, and was a member at many exclusive clubs frequented by other millionaire gentlemen of the era. 

But perhaps Kilmer’s most beloved and indulgent hobby was horse racing. He owned three horse stables, two in Virginia and one in Binghamton that was located on Riverside Dr., at the present day site of the Lourdes Hospital Complex. Sun Briar Court and Racing Stables became the final home of Kilmer’s renowned horse, Exterminator, that he purchased for $9000 in 1917, as a workout buddy for his prized horse, Sun Briar. Kilmer often referred to Exterminator as “that truck horse’ or “the goat” and never had any intention of entering Exterminator in a race, let alone the Kentucky Derby. But fate intervened and an injury just days before the Derby forced Kilmer into scratching Sun Briar. And so on a muddy day in May, going off at 30-1 odds, “the goat” crossed the finish line first wearing Kilmer’s brown, green, and orange silks. Exterminator continued to race until 1922, winning 50 out of 99 races and the honor of  “horse of the year” in 1922. After his retirement, Exterminator spent a few years in Virginia and finally, after Willis’s death in 1940, right here in Binghamton. Every year the widowed Mrs. Kilmer would throw a birthday party for Exterminator and invite the local children to come and celebrate by enjoying some ice cream in honor of the champion. In 1945, at the age of 30 and having become one of the most successful horses in racing history, Exterminator passed away and was buried at Whispering Pines Cemetery in Binghamton.

Exterminator’s story seems to have paralleled that of his owner; an unlikely rise to fortune and fame through grit and determination. Both the man and his horse left behind tangible legacies that winners often do, names etched into history. The Kilmer building was sold shortly after Willis’s death to the Lander Company for the manufacture and bottling of perfume. In the mid-1970’s, the Lander Co., vacated the building eventually ceding the property to the Broome County Industrial Development Agency in 1996. The IDA had grand plans for this Binghamton landmark but as the years past, and the building sat empty, it continued to fall further and further  into disrepair.

Enter Frank and Lynn Whitney. On their daily drive past the Kilmer Building, they could see its magnificence beneath the sad decay and, in 2004, took a risk (something Willis Kilmer would most assuredly have admired) and bought the building. The Whitneys began an extensive renovation; they hired craftsmen to restore and replace the building’s grand architectural details as they, much as Kilmer had done a century before, “bet the farm” (or in the Whitneys case, the retirement fund) that the building still had life in it and was ready for more stories to be made in its stately halls. Frank and Lynn Whitney’s vision and dedication saved one of Binghamton’s historic treasures and contributed to the City’s downtown revitalization. By 2007, the Kilmer Building was well on its way to its new life as a location for a restaurant, small businesses, office spaces, and luxury loft apartments.

Today, in an effort to begin to move into a much deserved retirement, the Whitneys have taken on a new majority investor, Martin Dietrich. Mr. Dietrich has a track record for preserving historical buildings and working to revitalize many areas around the Southern Tier. Thanks to people like the Whitneys and Mr. Dietrich, the Kilmer Building will stand for many more years as a Binghamton landmark and a monument to the entrepreneurial spirit of Willis Kilmer.


By Linda C. Callea