Elmira Civic Historic District
The Elmira Civic Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
The City of Elmira, population 40,000, is a major commercial center and the county seat of Chemung County located in the Southern Tier of New York State. The main section of the city is laid out in a grid pattern on the north side of the Chemung River. Elmira's south side was developed later and the streets on that side of the river conform to no regular pattern.
The Chemung County Civic Historic District comprises a group of buildings just north of the Chemung River. The T-shaped district is formed by Church Street running east-west with Lake Street intersecting that road from the south. Peripheral buildings are included on four adjoining streets: Baldwin, Carroll, Market and Water.
The district is distinctive for the large concentration of historic structures which are used for civic, social and educational functions. Specifically, there are six county buildings, the city hall, an armory used by the city for office space, a large post office, a YMCA and a YWCA, two private social clubs, a library, an art museum, a church and a building intended for the Chemung County Historical Society. Most of these buildings are located along East Church Street and the upper section of Lake Street. The lower half of Lake Street, which extends from Market Street to the river, is lined with commercial structures.
The buildings in the district represent a large variety of late nineteenth century architectural styles reflecting different periods of the city's growth. The oldest buildings include three of the Greek Revival style, notably the Arnot Art Museum with its columned portico in the Ionic order. The Italianate style figures prominently among the buildings on Lake Street. The nineteenth century commercial buildings, the Tuthill-Reid residence, and the outstanding Chemung County Courthouse (listed on the National Register in 1971) all date from the 1860's and illustrate variations of Italianate architecture. These buildings are stylistically similar to two early Romanesque-inspired structures, the Lake Street Presbyterian Church and the County Clerk's Office. Also dating from the same period are three buildings in the Second Empire style.
The buildings constructed during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century and the early part of this century are manifestations of a broad range of fashionable architectural tastes. Outstanding is the City Hall, designed in the Beaux-Arts style with exceptional terra-cotta ornamentation. There is an unusual variety of structures such as the monumental Neo-Classical Post Office, the Renaissance Revival City Club, the Sullivanesque Elks' Club, the Colonial Revival Brownlow Building, and the Richardsonian Romanesque Armory; as well as other buildings of a more eclectic nature such as the E. A. Swan house, 302 East Church Street.
The historic district forms a cohesive collection of buildings which are in several ways distinguishable from surrounding structures. The buildings have a high degree of architectural integrity, with the City Hall, the Post Office, the Chemung Canal Bank and the County Courthouse outstanding as individual structures. As the center of civic and social activity, the buildings share a similarity of function which in many instances is reflected in the building types in the district.
The commercial district of the city had developed along Water Street and several lateral streets extending north. The lower end of Lake Street became one of the early developed business locations, situated as it was between the Chemung Canal Bank and the county buildings. On Christmas Eve, 1866, a fire destroyed most of the buildings in that area. By 1869, the destroyed buildings were replaced. The two blocks still standing are among the oldest surviving commercial blocks in Elmira.
The latter half of the nineteenth century was a prosperous period in Elmira's development. Between 1870 and 1890 the population doubled. This growth is reflected by the large number of structures in the district constructed between 1875 and 1910. Exceptional among these buildings is the City Hall, constructed in the latest Beaux Arts style in 1895. During this period a State Armory, two additional county buildings, and a U. S. Post Office and Court house were built within two blocks of each other. Interspersed between these buildings were the YMCA, the YWCA, the Elks Club, the Masonic Temple, the City Club and the Century Club. The latter two were typical of the private clubs for wealthy businessmen which were common in the United States around the turn of the century. The first Steele Memorial Library was built in 1898 just south of the county buildings. The library was moved to the present structure in 1923. In 1911-12 the Arnot mansion was converted into an art museum. These buildings established the character of the area included in the historic district.
An important aspect of these buildings is the fact that many were designed by the local architectural firm of Joseph Pierce and H. H. Bickford. These prolific architects virtually shaped the character of Elmira between 1885 and 1925 when they designed several hundred buildings. Within the historic district, Pierce and Bickford designed seven buildings and were responsible for major alterations to five more. Prominent among their designs are the City Hall, the Century Club, the YMCA and the Armory. These buildings illustrate the range of their work as each design exemplifies a different aspect of the popular styles of the period. The offices of this important firm were located on the second floor of 118-120 Lake Street.
Like many urban centers, Elmira fell into economic decline after World War II. The tragic flood of 1972 prompted a massive urban renewal program which leveled much of Elmira's original business district. A larger portion of buildings in the civic historic district have survived because of their adaptive use as office space. The city and the county have renovated three historic buildings for office space, as well as maintaining their original structures. Several buildings in the private sector have also been converted to offices and apartments, such as the Tuthill-Reid residence and the former Century Club. The Chemung Canal Bank Building will soon house the Chemung County Historical Society. Three social clubs, the YMCA, the Elks and the City Club continue in their original use. Only the YWCA razed its original quarters for a new building. The business blocks on Lake Street, which form the last major early nineteenth-century enclave in Elmira, also continue in their commercial use.
All the major architectural styles of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are represented in the Elmira Civic Historic District, a clear reflection of Elmira's development during that period. A tiny landing on a swampy river in 1800, Elmira was the most important city in New York's Southern Tier by the end of the century. With this growth came the wealth and sophisticated tastes that are reflected in the fashionable residential, commercial and civic buildings of the historic district. As the heart of government and commercial activity, the district has had a continuing association with historical events and personages that have shaped the face of modern Elmira.
Archives, Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira New York.
Byrne, Thomas, History of Chemung County, 1976.