Fredonia Commons Historic District
The Fredonia Commons 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 Fredonia Commons Historic District has a plan similar to plans often found in New England and in areas settled by people from those states — the major civic buildings, churches and commercial buildings are all sited around a village green. This roughly trapezoidal shaped district includes approximately twenty-five structures.
The Fredonia Commons Historic District is bounded on the north by the rear lots lines of those properties fronting on Church Street between Center and Day streets. Center Street forms the western boundary of the Fredonia Commons Historic District while the southern boundary is created by the rear lot lines of those properties fronting on the south side of Main Street from 35 East Main Street to 10 West Main Street. Rear lot lines of the properties 21-29 Day Street form the eastern boundary of the district.
Traditionally, the Fredonia Commons has served as a focal point for activity in the village. The village was originally planned around one large rectangular village green; however, sometime during the 19th century Temple Street divided the area into two parks. Around three sides of the Commons are located the major public and civic structures of the village. Of these several are noteworthy:
1. The Fenner Fire Station (31 Church Street) is a large, squarish three story brick building. There are panelled bands at the cornice line and also panelling in the brick work. Pedimented dormers are located in the east, west and south roofs, and there is a projecting oriel at the second and third floor level in the center of the south facade. Third story windows are round headed.
2. The Fredonia Village Hall (corner of Church and Temple Streets) is irregular in plan and massing. The front elevation has a tower and porch. Windows are of a variety of forms. The roof line is also irregular. Constructed of red brick with tan stone trim, elements of both Queen Anne, and Greek Revival features are present. Inside and to the rear of the building is the old opera house which retains many of its original features.
3. The U.S. Post Office (21 Day Street) constructed in 1935 is rectangular in form with two projecting wings. As is the case with many public buildings from this period, the treatment of the doorway, pilasters supporting an entablature with scrolls and an urn are derivative of 18th century Georgian architecture.
Although the Darwin R. Barker Library was originally built as a residence, today it serves the public as a library. Despite extensive remodelling it remains Federal in style with its elliptical window at the south gable and the classically derived door enframement at the south entry.
Major religious edifices of the village also face the Commons and contribute to the visual interest of the area. Two churches are located on Church Street which parallels what has always been the commercial thoroughfare of the village, Main Street. All three churches are key buildings in the Fredonia Commons Historic District:
1. The United Methodist Church (25 Church Street) has elements of the Neo-Gothic style. A large perpendicular Gothic window flanked by two towers is seen at the south facade. There are stepped buttresses and lancet windows at the sides of the church. The northeast corner of the church has a cornice decorated with battlements.
2. The Baptist Church (19 Church Street) was designed by a local architect, John Jones, and built during 1852-53. In style and form it is typical of this period. The building is based on the Temple form and utilizes the appropriate details. There is a central tower which supports an octagonal, louvered cupola.
3. Trinity Episcopal Church (11 Day Street) constructed in 1834-35 appears to be an early example of the Gothic Revival for this part of the state. The building features pointed arch windows with tracery and a central tower with decorative battlements.
The commercial buildings which are located on the south side of the Commons are almost all row type structures or blocks built adjacent to one another. Thus, they form a consistent and coherent wall of commercial edifices, most 1 1/2 to 4 stories in height with a variety in style and silhouette. Many of these buildings have had first floor modifications, but most retain some interesting details. Several of these commercial buildings are derivative of the Italianate style; of these 6 West Main Street with its overhanging eave supported by decorative brackets and round headed windows is typical. It is these stylistic elements — the round headed windows and paired brackets — that are repeated in the other buildings in the Fredonia Commons Historic District. Buildings on Main Street deserving of special notice include:
1. West Main Street (1879-1880). Here the north (main) facade presents an irregular silhouette and is constructed of brick and stone which gives a polychrome effect. Corbelled brick work and galvanized iron form a heavy cornice which is topped by a cast iron cresting.
2. Sessions-Gent Insurance Building, an early twentieth century building with clean lines, smooth brick wall surfaces and steel sash windows, is one of the few examples of a commercial building based on the International Modern style in Fredonia.
3. I.O.O.F. Building (5-11 E. Main Street). Originally the central portion of this building was topped by a mansard roof which was replaced with a parapet in 1923. The building height (three stories) and features such as stone quoins and stone label moldings give the building an imposing presence.
4. Manufacturers and Traders Trust Company (1 East Main Street), very formal building. Six engaged columns frame the tall arched windows at the west facade while on the north facade there is a triumphal arch motif. Both elevations and a parapet are decorated with medallions.
At the western side of the Commons is the Russo Building, an early twentieth century building, providing a good counterpart to the other more historic buildings in the area. Occupying an entire block, the building has recessed window bays at the second and third floor levels and projecting two story oriel at the southeast corner. Occupying the site of a large 19th century hotel, it completes the architectural unity of the square.
Of the twenty-five properties included in the Fredonia Commons Historic District, three may be classified as intrusions. These are the Town of Pomfret Building (9 Day Street), an undistinguished, one story brick building, that is unsympathetic with the visual character of the district. The lots adjacent to 10 West Main where the Masonic Building stood until destroyed by fire, and the parking lot adjacent to the Village Hall, both form visual "holes" in the architectural fabric of the area around the Commons.
The Fredonia Commons Historic District was the nucleus of the village when it was settled in the first decade of the 19th century. Its buildings, while historic in terms of the growth and development of the area, also present a remarkably complete record of changing architectural tastes.
Following the survey of the Holland Purchase in 1798, settlers began migrating to western New York. Canadaway Creek, which supplied a ready power source for mills, and the proximity to Lake Erie attracted settlers to this area. Most influential in the early development of the village was Hezekiah Barker, a veteran of the Revolutionary War who settled in the area in 1806 and purchased land in what is now the village. It was Barker who laid out the lots in the village and set aside the Commons area. In 1825, he deeded the Commons to the Town of Pomfret. It was also during this year that a platform was erected upon which General Lafayette greeted many of his Revolutionary comrades.
Educational institutions have been and remain an important part of the life of the village. As one county history notes, "the most important event in the history of the town of Pomfret was the founding of the Fredonia Academy in 1823." When the Academy was established, it is reputed that, "it was the 'lone star' of the west, no other such light glittered in the wide expanse between it and the Pacific." The Academy attracted students from all the surrounding towns and counted among its graduates many prominent men of the area, such as Governor Reuben Fenton. The Academy closed in 1867, but a normal school replaced it shortly thereafter and today the State University College at Fredonia continues tradition.
The present village hall building stands on the site of the original Normal School Building constructed in 1890. The Village Hall at one time housed the post office, village jail, village offices and the local opera house. Local legend has it that the Marx brothers performed here and offended the proper ladies of the village. It is said that this resulted in the mythical kingdom in "Duck Soup" being named Fredonia.
Just as it was important for the early settlers to establish educational institutions, the creation of various congregations followed rapidly after settlement. The three churches sited around the Commons are indicative of how religious these early settlers were, and while not all of the church buildings date to the settlement period, the congregations do. The present Baptist Church was begun in 1852 and completed the following year. It was while working on this building that John Jones, a local architect held in high esteem, fell from a scaffold and met is death. Jones also designed the Trinity Episcopal Church, which was the victim of a disastrous fire in 1925. A gathering of local women met in the Baptist Church in 1873 and formed a Temperance Crusade which is said to have led to the formation of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Around this time there were approximately 18 distilleries in the town and this perhaps accounts for the strong commitment to temperance in Fredonia.
Throughout the early portions of the 19th century, there were numerous industries located along the banks of the Canadaway Creek which is just outside the Fredonia Commons Historic District. During this period the most well-known was the "Risley Seed Gardens" established in 1830. Their business was extensive and their products were sent to "every state and territory." However, the fact that Fredonia was never connected to a major railroad accounts for the fact that it never became an industrial center as did its neighbor Dunkirk which was the western terminus of the Erie Railroad. The citizens of the area did, however, attempt to become part of speculative ventures common during this period:
"A railroad was surveyed from Fredonia to Van Buren. A corporation was formed which bought Wheelers Gulf, three miles south of Fredonia, for stone quarries, and stock in the property was sold largely on Wall Street."
Because of gas springs located along the banks of the Canadaway Creek, the village began using natural gas to illuminate public buildings as early as 1821. The source was from a well "at the Main Street Bridge" which provided enough gas for thirty burners. In 1858, "Elias Forbes became interested in the well and formed a company. Three miles of mains were laid through which gas was conducted to the village, where it was used in stores."
Later private homes were supplied as well.
While the neighboring city of Dunkirk in the 19th century became an industrial center due to its proximity to waterways and railroads, Fredonia has traditionally been and remains primarily a residential community. In the twentieth century the economic base of the village has had several components. There is still a garden seed company which employs around 100 persons. The favorable climate of Chautauqua County has resulted in the production of grapes and other fruits and vegetables and the collateral processing industries. Presently, the Red Wing Company which specializes in the making of jellies and a winery, the Winston Wine Cellars, are both located in Fredonia. Probably the largest employer is the State University College at Fredonia.
The form of the downtown area is the classic plan so often found in New England and in areas settled by people from those states — a major open space of grass and trees (now embellished with fountains), around which are grouped the major civic buildings, the churches, and, as an appropriate balance a commercial side as well. In Fredonia this scheme is well-preserved. The commercial structures are almost all row-type structures, or blocks built adjacent to one another. They thus form a consistent and coherent wall of commercial edifices, most 1 1/2 to 4 stories in height with a visual variety in style and silhouette that is a microcosm of the architectural history of the past 150 years. Prior to the loss of the Masonic Hall, two major Second Empire buildings gave foci to both East and West Main Street — now only the Old Fellows Building (with an unfortunately altered roof) maintains this sense of a visual focal point. By contrast, the public and civic structures on the other three sides of the Commons are discreet architectural entities, surrounded by greenery, so that they read as individual monuments. The two with the tallest towers — the Baptist Church and the Village Hall — actually form a gateway of sorts for Temple Street. This street, with its mix of residences and commercial structures makes a transitional zone between the busy downtown, with its major buildings and public spaces, and the surrounding areas, which are strictly residential. The area is thus a unit both visually and functionally.
Crocker, E. and Reiff, D. "A Brief Historical and Architectural Examination of the Proposed Fredonia Village Center Historic District." Fredonia: Paper prepared for the Village of Fredonia, 197 Centennial History of Chautauqua County. Jamestown, NY: Chautauqua History Co., 1901.
† Ross, Claie L., New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Fredonia Commons Historic District, nomination document, 1978, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.