Ottawa East Side Historic District
The Ottawa East Side Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. Portion of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document [†] Adaptation copyright © 2014, The Gombach Group.
The Ottawa East Side Historic District comprises one of the city's oldest subdivisions and was among its premier neighborhoods in the mid-19th through early 20th centuries. Its location is unique, on a peninsula bordered on the north and west by the Fox River, and on the south by the Illinois River. The only bridge linking the district to the rest of Ottawa west of the Fox River was first built along Main Street in the mid-1850s. To the east, land remained undeveloped. Because of this proximity yet relative isolation to the city's central business and commercial district, the East Side became a prime location for the city's early professional class, who built gracious homes on large lots, many overlooking the Fox River. As the neighborhood matured through the early 20th century, these larger properties were subdivided into smaller lots with more modest houses.
The majority of the historic district falls within Green's Addition of 1835. Despite the irregular edges of its land mass, this subdivision imposed an orthogonal grid street pattern stretching from Division Street on the west to Green Street on the east. Major streets run east-west, including East Main, Congress, Pearl and Chapel, while minor streets run north-south, including South Division, Orleans, York, Chester, Grafton, and Green. Just outside the eastern and southern edges of the district, south of Main Street and east of Griffith Court, lay unimproved marshland and woodland. Although the area between Main Street and the north bank of the Illinois River was originally laid out for development when the East Side was first platted in the 1830s, these streets flooded regularly, and were never built up. The exception to this is the land between the Ottawa Township High School and the Illinois River, which in recent years has been converted into playing fields and parking lots for the school. The small western section of the historic district between Shabbona and South Division was part of the original Canal Trustee's subdivision. The few streets east of Green Street, which were platted in the early 20th century, were excluded from the boundary of the historic district.
Blocks within the district are rectangular, with most homes oriented along the east-west streets. Most houses sit on similar-sized lots, with some using adjacent parcels as side lots. Only the lots along the north side of Chapel Street, which are located on a bluff that runs along the south bank of the Fox River, vary substantially from the standard lot size. The larger lots along these blocks accommodate some of the grandest homes in the district. Only a small handful of streets feature rear alleys. The lots on the north side of Chapel Street back up right against the Fox River shoreline. There are some historic brick streets remaining in the area, notably Pearl and Congress Streets. All streets have curb and gutter, sidewalks running parallel to the street, with narrow, landscaped parkways. Some homes have side driveways. Mature vegetation abounds throughout.
The establishment of Ottawa's East Side as a residential district began in 1834, with the arrival of its first developer, Henry Green. Green, a native of New Hampshire, came to Ottawa with his wife in the early 1830s, and initially settled south of the Illinois River before purchasing nearly all of the land in the East Side Historic District from two farmers. Green subdivided the land in 1835. The plat included 51 blocks of varying sizes bounded by the Fox River on the north, Green Street on the east, the Illinois River on the south side, and Division Street on the west. The blocks between Division Street and the Fox River had been subdivided as part of the Canal Trustee's Subdivision of Ottawa. Larger blocks were located in the northern half of the subdivision, from the south side of Main Street to the Fox River. Smaller, square blocks were located south of Main Street, including streets named Canal, Merchant, Market, and Water Streets. Because of frequent flooding, this area of Green's Subdivision was never developed. This single subdivision included almost all available land in Ottawa's East Side, and, with the exception of a handful of blocks that were re-subdivided in the early 20th century, has remained essentially intact.
Green constructed his own residence, an impressive Italian Villa on the northeast corner of the subdivision, on a parcel along the Fox River, in the mid-to-late-1840s. The house, at 736 Chapel Street, still stands today, but was completely remodeled in the 1920s. Although Green himself became one of the first residents within his subdivision, he was apparently not interested in developing the area. Around 1848, Green sold his house and land in East Ottawa to William H. W. Cushman who had arrived from Massachusetts in 1834. Cushman was an astute businessman, founding the Ottawa Machine Shops and a foundry along the lateral canal. He soon became one of the most wealthy and influential of Ottawa's early citizens, amassing real estate across the city. He was intimately involved in Bank of Ottawa, which was known in La Salle County as "Cushman's Bank." Cushman was twice elected to the Illinois State Legislature. Soon after his purchase of Green's Subdivision, Cushman put the majority of the lots up for sale.
The 1850s through the early 1870s were a time of brisk growth for Ottawa, and, by extension, for Ottawa's East Side neighborhood. Between 1850 and 1860, the population of the city doubled, from 3,219 to 6,541. By the mid-1850s, over 25 new residences had been constructed within the East Side neighborhood, a relatively impressive number considering that the area had been nearly empty less than a decade earlier. Although still sparsely inhabited, the East Side was nevertheless developing a reputation as one of the premiere neighborhoods in the burgeoning city. The East Side was the only residential area in the city to have landscaping requirements. The 1855 city ordinance stipulated that two rows of ornamental trees, set at the curb and 13 feet from the curb, were to flank each sidewalk in the district. Many of these original trees still survive, creating canopies of shade throughout the district.
Early houses in the district were built on lots scattered throughout the Green Subdivision north of Main Street. Most were either handsome Greek Revival residences (a popular style at the time) or more modest vernacular structures. Through the 1850s and 1860s, members of Ottawa's professional and merchant class began to settle in the area, buying up multiple lots, sometimes taking up an entire block, and building impressive houses. Among these new residents were John G. Nattinger, a merchant and coal dealer who constructed a Gothic Revival-style house at 406 Congress Street around 1860, and Jeremiah Strawn, a retired farmer whose handsome Greek Revival house was constructed at 532 Congress Street in the mid 1850s. Several of the finest houses from this period, including John Manley's house (1864) and H. M. Hollinger's residences (1853) were built on the north side of Chapel Street, which boasted sweeping views of the Fox River.
Washington Bushnell, who served as a state senator from 1861 to 1868 and as Illinois Attorney General from 1869 to 1873, was also an early and prominent resident of the East Side. Bushnell purchased a large parcel along the 600 block of Pearl Street and built a massive Italianate house at 622 Pearl Street. Local merchant E. Y. Griggs built his impressive home at 704 Orleans Street, a combination of the Early Classical Revival and Italianate styles, around the same time. These houses still stand as landmarks within the historic district.
It was also during this early period of development that the East Side's first non-residential structure was built. When the city was divided into wards as part of its incorporation in the early 1850s, the intent was for each ward to build its own elementary school to serve the children living there. East Ottawa's school, called the Washington School, was first erected around 1860 on York Street between Pearl and Congress Streets, in the middle of the neighborhood. This first school building was replaced in 1906 with a new structure, which was demolished in the 1970s. The block on which the school stood is now a public park.
Residential development in Ottawa's East Side continued at a slightly slower pace in the 1870s, only to pick up again with the city's second population boom the following decade. The population surged during the decade between 1880 and 1890, from 7,834 inhabitants to 9,985, and Ottawa's East Side neighborhood continued to attract the city's most prominent citizens. Many built grand Queen Anne-style residences along Main Street, which was the district's main thoroughfare and route to the business district. Among them was Charles E. Hook, whose handsome home was built in the early 1890s at 514 East Main Street. A native of Ottawa, Hook was director of the First National Bank, and served as city treasurer from 1885-87, In 1897, he was elected as Ottawa's 24th mayor, and was re-elected in 1903 and 1905.
Dr. John Cushman Hathaway, a prominent physician who had come to Ottawa after graduating from Jefferson Medical College in 1856, settled in a picturesque Queen Anne home at 622 Chapel Street around 1890. Upon Hathaway's death in 1901, the house passed to his daughter Annie and her husband Robert Carr. Other prominent citizens who moved to the neighborhood during this period include John F. Reed, owner of the farm implement factory Reed & Co., and W. C. Vittum, a real estate broker and director of the Ottawa Development Association. Vittum's house at 431 Pearl Street, was designed by local architect Jason F. Richardson, who worked in Ottawa from the late 1890s through the 1930s. Richardson was a prolific designer, and is best known for his public and commercial works in the city. This early example of Richardson's residential work is one of several houses constructed in the late 19th-century that were designed by local architects, a relatively new phenomenon in Ottawa. Earlier houses in the city had been architect-designed, but usually by firms based in larger cities.
The 1880s and 1890s saw the emergence of a small number of locally-based architects working in Ottawa, nearly all of whom designed houses within the East Side. Among the earliest was John W. Watson, who practiced in the city between 1885 and 1895. Watson designed the sprawling Queen Anne residence at 702 Chapel Street for Walter D. Strawn in 1892. Also practicing in Ottawa during the mid-to-late 1880s was William Youmans. Youmans designed four houses in the East Side neighborhood that are still standing. The Queen Anne residence of Charles and Louisa Green built around 1885 at 500 East Main Street is among the finer examples of the style. Youman also designed a residence for Moses Stiefel at 831 Congress Street. Moses Stiefel founded a men's clothing store under his name soon after his arrival from Austria in the 1860s-the store remained a fixture in Ottawa's business district until it was shuttered in 1995.
As in previous decades, these larger, more expensive houses for wealthy Ottawa citizens were balanced by substantial numbers of less ostentatious residences, some built on speculation, for middle class residents, on single lots. Perhaps seeing opportunity, one of the early residents in the area, S. B. Gridley, divided his large estate on block 19 in Green's Subdivision, at the eastern end of the neighborhood, into multiple smaller lots, with a new street, named Gridley Place, running through its center. This was one of only a handful of small re-subdivisions of Green's original Subdivision. The houses along the west side of Gridley Place, and along the east side of Grafton Street, were built up with the more modest houses.
In 1906, the same year that the elementary school was built, the East Side became the first residential district in Ottawa to have its streets paved—streets were covered with paving bricks, stone curbs were installed, and scored brick sidewalks replaced wooden ones. Although the brick sidewalks have since been replaced with concrete, much of the brick paving on the street is still visible within the district.
In the 1910s, population levels started to climb slowly again, reaching the original 1900 levels by 1920. Between 1920 and 1930, Ottawa experienced its greatest increase in population in any single decade, from 10,816 residents in 1920 to 15,094 in 1930. Not surprisingly, this population increase led to a corresponding residential building boom in the East Side neighborhood. Even during the 1910s, when population growth continued at a slightly anemic pace, construction within the East Side neighborhood continued at an impressive clip, which can be seen as a testament to the continued desirability of the area for many in Ottawa's middle- and upper-classes. New houses continued to be constructed on lots across the entire neighborhood—some of these may have been occupied by older homes. In addition, the early decades of the 20th century saw the expansion of development east across Green Street into areas that were being subdivided. Beginning in 1908, with the platting of the Eastwood Subdivision east of Green Street between Main and Congress Street (and located east of the historic district), the eastern edge of the neighborhood was subdivided in several stages, offering up new lots just in time for the rise in construction during the 1910s and 1920s.
Although a substantial number of residential construction during this period consisted of bungalows and cottages, two housing types that were seen with increasing frequency in Ottawa's more working-class neighborhoods in the southern and western reaches of the city, the East Side continued to see a mix of modest housing and more expensive, often architect-designed residences. Well-known local architect John Hanifen designed twelve houses in the East Side of Ottawa in the 1910s and 1920s-more than any other neighborhood in the city. Most of these houses were Prairie designs or handsome historic revival styles, both of which were popular at the time. Hanifen also remodeled the interior of two houses in the area.
Another interesting trend during this period was the remodeling of older, 19th century houses to reflect a more current design sensibility. Among the most notable examples of this trend are two houses re-designed by architect Norman Cook. In 1922, Cook transformed the Italianate residence originally built by Henry Green on 736 Chapel Street in the 1840s into a textbook example of the Dutch Colonial Revival Style. Seven years later, Cook created a handsome Tudor Revival design from a 19th-century residence at 300 Pearl Street, for its current owner, Louis A. Wilson.
In an unusual reversal of updating an older house into a current style, Dr. Roswell Petit and his wife, Dorothy, built a new house at 323 Pearl Street as an exact replica of a late-18th-century residence in St. Genevieve, Missouri. Petit and his wife moved into their new "old" house in 1929—they had been living across the street, at 300 Pearl Street.
The 1910s also saw the construction of the new Ottawa Township High School building along the south side of Main Street. The building, which replaced an earlier brick school building constructed in the 1880s at Columbus and Washington Streets, was built along the south side of Main Street, just east of the Armory Building. A manual arts building and gymnasium were added in the 1930s.
Residential construction in Ottawa's East Side slowed considerably by the 1930s, in large part because of the effects of the Great Depression on building across the country, and ground to a halt by 1940. Although residential building after World War II picked up in the newer subdivisions east of Green Street, where most of the area's unimproved lots remained, the East Side Residential Historic District had reached residential maturity by 1940, with very few new houses built within the district after that date.
† Victoria Granacki and Lara Ramsey, Granacki Historic Consultants, Ottawa East Side Historic District, LaSalle County, IL, nomination document, 2013, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.