Harmony Mills Historic District
The Harmony Mills Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The City of Cohoes is situated on the west banks of the main and south branches of the Mohawk River. A narrow shelf of land extends along the eastern section of the city, and it is on this flat land shelf, on the edge of an embankment overlooking the Cohoes Falls, that the mills of the Harmony Mills Historic District were built. The five extant mills form two rows which are parallel to the river. To the west, and slightly south of the mill complex, is a large neighborhood of brick or wood factory housing. Here the land rises abruptly and the basic grid street pattern is modified to accommodate the topography. The area is known both as Prospect Hill and Harmony Hill. It includes an old tavern, a church, a school and the house of the mill manager, known as Johnston Hall.
The boundaries of the Harmony Mills Historic District are: on the north, Jay Street, Devlin Street, North Mohawk Street and the Falls; on the east, the Mohawk River; on the south, a line running the crest of the hill behind the buildings on Johnston Avenue; on the west, Garner Street and the Troy-Schenectady Railroad.
At the end of Summit Street, on a bluff overlooking the mills and river, stands Johnston Hall, built for the mill manager, D.J. Johnston. This rambling, brick, three story Italianate mansion with mansard roof and hooded dormers is notable for ample and well proportioned rooms, energetic and large architraves surrounding doors and windows, paired and arched mahogany front doors, and a feeling of graciousness which pervades even the servants quarters. From the four occuli of the tower room can be seen views of the houses of the workers, the mills, the downtown area, and the Cohoes Falls.
Situated on Johnston Avenue southwest of the mansion is the St. Agnes convent and school complex and St. Agnes Church, a brick Gothic Revival church built in 1891 whose tall slender spire can be seen from vast distances. A white two and one-half story, board and batten double house with double gables, angular dripstones and delicate bargeboard is located at 30-40 Johnston Avenue.
During the 1870's nine blocks of Italianate and Greek Revival housing units were built west of Summit Street. The two story brick factory housing at 1 to 19 Magnum Street and 94 to 66 Willow Street are typical examples. They have heavy wood cornices and pediments which visually unite several homes.
There are within this housing district on Harmony Hill occasional modern intrusions, mostly dwellings, which do not significantly affect the prevailing nineteenth century character of the area.
The smaller housing district, which was built north of the mills and overlooking the falls, dates from 1853. Here rows of two and three bay brick houses form a homogenous grouping. The three story houses along School Street numbers 1 to 5 have mansard roofs with hooded dormers. Unfortunately, these houses have suffered the addition of modern concrete front stoops which are out of character with the homes to which they are attached.
By far the most architecturally impressive structures are the five mills. The earliest mill, referred to as the original mill of the Harmony Manufacturing Company (1837), is a plain brick rectangular structure, two to three stories in height and approximately twenty-five bays in length. It has delicate dentiling beneath the cornice and a rectangular corbeled tower, recalling Romanesque prototypes.
Mill Number 1 (1853) is quite similar in style to the 1837 mill and is a four story, gable roofed, brick structure, twenty-eight bays long.
Mill Number 2, built between 1856 and 1866 is a massive brick structure of three and four stories which achieves a special rhythmic quality through the use of drip stones over doors and windows, heavy dentiling of the cornice, and the hooded dormers of mansard roof. Square, flat-roofed towers with strongly accented quoined corners punctuate this rhythmic sequence.
The three story brick, twenty-six bay Van Benthuysen Mill of 1862-1864 also has a mansard roof, but is a building which achieves a very different effect than Mill Number 2. The whole structure is angular, even to the pointed pediments of the dormers. The use of pilasters to emphasize the wall structure and the wide entablature are distinctive features, as well as the Italianate corbeled tower whose massive angular cornice is topped by a mansard roof.
The Strong Mill of 1857 was bought by Harmony Mills in 1865 and is no longer standing. It, and the Cohoes Warp and Thread Company beside it, remain as archaeological sites.
The fifth extant mill in the Harmony Mills Historic District is the Mastodon Mill (1867-72), also known as Mill Number 3, which is already listed on the National Register and which resembles Mill Number 2 in architectural style although it is much larger. It is a massive brick structure, five stories high, and approximately 2400 feet long.
Some of the locks of the Erie Canal still exist, along with the rights-of-way of the canal: the first, begun in 1817, and the second in 1836, can still clearly be seen in areas of this historic district. Parts of power canals, too, still exist. Lock Number 18, already on the National Register, is included in this district.
Intrusions in the Harmony Mills Historic District are few. There are modern apartments on Jay Street, a modern Polish American Association building on Willow Street, several modern homes on Hamilton Street and Hamilton Place, and one raised ranch home on Vliet Street. These intrusions are small and do not alter significantly the historic atmosphere of the Harmony Mills Historic District.
The Harmony Mills Historic District at Cohoes is the largest extant nineteenth century textile mill complex in New York State, and one of the few such complexes of this size remaining in this country. The Harmony Mills Historic District encompasses five massive mills, part of the Erie Canal and power canals, hundreds of factory workers houses, the mill manager's home, a church and a school. The water turbines in the Mastodon Mill (Mill Number 3), are the largest extant nineteenth century water turbines in the country. Its visual impact essentially unimpaired by a few modern intrusions, the Harmony Mills Historic District provides fine examples of nineteenth century architectural design for industrial purposes as well as a full social spectrum of residential purposes in a manufacturing community. The Harmony Mills Historic District as a complex is a good illustration of the impact of the industrial revolution on American life.
While the exact origin of the name "Cohoes" is lost it is felt to be somehow related to the falls, which were regarded with great curiosity since the early seventeenth century when the first land grants were made in the area. The principal route north from Albany ran west of the Hudson River crossing the Mohawk River at Cohoes. In 1795 a bridge was built across the Mohawk River below the falls and a small village developed at the present site of Cohoes.
Established in 1811, the Cohoes Manufacturing Company bought some farmland along the river, and constructed a building for manufacturing screws as well as some wood tenements. In 1817, the construction of the Erie and Champlain canals signaled the coming transformation of Cohoes from a farming district to an industrial center. The two canals, important trade and immigration routes, met at the place called the "Juncta" in the south part of Cohoes. In the Cohoes area, traffic on the canal increased rapidly because of the construction of double locks. In 1826, the Cohoes Company was established by Canvass White, the hydraulic engineer who was so instrumental in the building of the Erie Canal, and Stephen Van Rensselaer who contracted all rights to the water power of the falls. In the early 1830's, following a plan conceived by White, the company constructed power canals from the river and connecting lateral canals, and acquired the right to lease and sell water power.
Among the first to purchase land and mill rights from the Cohoes Company was the Harmony Manufacturing Company, which incorporated in 1836. Peter Harmony was the company's first president and also a director of the Cohoes Company. In 1837, the original mill and three tenements were constructed. Under the management of Robert Johnson the company grew and prospered, soon becoming what one nineteenth century observer described as "the richest, the largest, and the most complete Cotton Manufacturing Establishment on the American Continent." The cotton fabric manufactured here was transported to nearby Troy where it was used for the manufacture of shirts.
The significance of the Harmony Mills Historic District lies in the technological and architectural merits of its various parts and, most particularly, in its size and integrity as a complex. The five brick mills upon which the Harmony Mills Historic District focuses are massive in scale and sophisticated in design. The Mastodon Mill is also noteworthy for its two 800-HP, Boyden type, vertical hydraulic turbines with 102-inch runners, built ca.1872 by the Holyoke Machine Company. These turbines, two of the four which originally drove the mill's machinery, are believed to be the largest ever built for direct mechanical drive and the largest nineteenth century wheels of any type to have survived. The residential portion of the Harmony Mills Historic District ranges from the more sophisticated Johnston Hall to the simple rowhousing built for the company's labor force. Dramatically set high above the rest, manager D.J. Johnston's residence is a well-proportioned example of the nineteenth century Italian villa style. The housing developed for the working class in this community is simple in design, deriving basic elements from a variety of styles popular during the period. The survival of all of these elements, without significant visual intrusions, provides an outstanding illustration of a nineteenth century community created by the economic force of textile manufacture. The layout of this large community, the architectural design and craftsmanship of its buildings, and the technological achievements embodied in its structures and machinery combine to make an important statement about the identity of nineteenth century New York and the impact of the industrial revolution in America.
Bean, William. The City of Cohoes, Its Past and Present History, and Future Prospects, Its Great Manufactories Cohoes: The Cataract Book and Job Printing Office, 1873.
Marcou, O'Leary and Associates, Inc. Historic Cohoes, Cohoes, New York: A Survey of Historic Resources, Troy: RPI, 1971.
Masten, Arthur H. The History of Cohoes, New York, from Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. Albany: Joel Munsell, 1877.
Waite, Diana S. "Historical Report on Harmony Mill No. 3." Robert H. Vogel, ed. A Report of the Mohawk-Hudson Area Survey.
Waite, John G., and Diana S. Waite. Industrial Archaeology of Troy, Waterford, Cohoes, Green Island and Watervliet Troy, New York, 1973.
† Ralph, Elizabeth K., New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, Harmony Mills Historic District, Albany County, NY nomination document, 1976, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.