Public Square Historic District
The Public Square Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. 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 Public Square Historic District is comprised of 66 properties in the central business district of Watertown, New York. (There are 64 buildings, one monument and one village green with two contributing features. There are no outbuildings in the Public Square Historic District. Five of the buildings are non-contributing, yielding a total of 63 contributing components in the district.) The boundaries encompass the city's only concentration of intact historic commercial architecture and Public Square, a village green created in 1805, five years after the community was settled in 1800. Landscaped in 1855, Public Square remains the visual focus of the older commercial areas which surround it. One religious structure, one industrial building and several civic structures are also included. Together, the relatively sophisticated, finely crafted buildings reflect Watertown's present and historic prominence as the commercial and industrial center of the region.
The boundaries of the Public Square Historic District were drawn to include those intact period buildings on Public Square and its feeder streets, Arsenal, Court, Franklin, State and Washington. The predominantly commercial and/or industrial neighborhoods surrounding the Public Square Historic District are characterized by modern intrusions and extensively altered historic structures. Urban renewal efforts have also compromised the historic integrity of sections of the downtown business district; these areas, most notably the large triangular wedge of land on the south side of Court Street and the north side of Arsenal Street, have been excluded from the Public Square Historic District.
The buildings in the Public Square Historic District are predominantly three- to four-story attached masonry rows. The use of brick is most prevalent, with occasional examples of stone construction. Exterior trim is executed in stone, brick, terra cotta, wood and metal. The buildings are designed in a broad range of popular American styles dating from the late 1840's to the early 1930's, including Italianate, Romanesque Revival, Neoclassical, Commercial and Art Deco styles. Vernacular and eclectic interpretations of the major styles survive as well. While stylistic features of the buildings vary greatly, similarities in scale, form, use of materials and methods of construction create visually cohesive streetscapes. Nearly half of the buildings in the Public Square Historic District date from the third quarter of the nineteenth century; of the other half, most date from the first quarter of the twentieth century. The remaining few buildings were built during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the late 1920's/early 1930's.
The visual focus of the historic district is Public Square, once a village green but now landscaped with mature trees, shrubbery, walkways and benches. The fountain, an elaborate cast-iron sculpture dating from 1869, and the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, a bronze and granite statue erected in 1890, are key visual elements in the park.
Facing Public Square are some of the district's earliest and most outstanding structures. The western end of Public Square is dominated by the Paddock Arcade Building (national Register, 1976; incorporated into the Public Square Historic District), an elaborate four-story row of attached brick structures. The Paddock Arcade was the first of a series of mid-nineteenth century construction projects designed to rebuild the city's business center, which had been destroyed by fires during the late 1840's. The high level of sophistication and craftsmanship exhibited by the arcade was repeated throughout the Public Square Historic District during the next eight decades. Also located on the west end of Public Square is the Woolworth Building, an imposing early twentieth century Neoclassical style structure. It occupies a site at the east end of Arsenal Street, which was the site of the old American Hotel.
The north side of Public Square is comprised primarily of attached brick commercial rows dating from the third quarter of the nineteenth century. The western most buildings, dating from the 1850's, are elaborate rows with rich, Italianate style ornamentation. The middle and eastern sections of the long block are relatively modest structures dating from the early 1870's. The Lincoln Building (89-99 Public Square), a large structure with Commercial style features and a unique, glazed brick facade, dominates the north elevation of Public Square.
The east end of Public Square is dominated by the Baptist Church, a grey limestone Richardsonian Romanesque style edifice dating from the 1880's. A row of buildings with modest, Italianate style features also occupies the east end of Public Square. According to local tradition, these three buildings survived the mid-nineteenth century fires. Extensive 1860's/1870's alterations, however, have obscured any evidence of early nineteenth century form and detailing.
The south side of Public Square features a variety of building types, periods and forms, with early twentieth century structures predominating. The large, Colonial Revival style Y.W.C.A. building and the Chamber of Commerce Building occupy the entire block east of Franklin Street. West of Franklin, the block is characterized by modest turn-of-the-century period structures. The imposing, Neoclassical style Y.M.C.A. structure occupies the prominent Washington Street/Public Square corner lot.
Seven streets radiate at various angles and directions from Public Square, five of which contain substantially intact historic structures. They are Court, Arsenal, Washington, Franklin and State Streets. Court Street, extending to the northwest, contains the Public Square Historic District's highest concentration of extant, substantially intact 1850's and 1860's structures. Although some are altered, many retain a high degree of architectural integrity, particularly on their upper stories. Italianate style features, including elaborately embellished cornices and window mouldings, are common on Court Street. Only the structures on the northeast elevation of Court Street are included in the historic district; the large triangular wedge of land on the south side of Court Street (and the north side of Arsenal Street) is occupied by a modern shopping complex and parking lots.
Arsenal Street extends to the west from Public Square with only the buildings on the south side of the street included in the district. West of the Woolworth Building is a late nineteenth century building which is non-contributing due to extensive alterations. The next block to the west features a concentration of substantially intact late nineteenth century, eclectic style structures. The Post Office, a four-story, seven-bay stone Neoclassical style structure erected in the 1910's, is the western most historic building on Arsenal Street. Beyond, large modern commercial structures characterize the Arsenal Street neighborhood outside the district. Arcade Street, a small cross street perpendicular to Arsenal Street behind the Paddock Arcade, features a particularly notable late nineteenth century Romanesque Revival style structure.
Washington Street, one of Watertown's primary north-south thoroughfares, extends to the south from the west end of Public Square. Although at one time a predominantly residential street, the northern end of Washington Street is now primarily commercial in use. The Roswell P. Flower Monument, a bronze statue of the one-time governor of New York designed by Augustus St. Gaudens in 1902, is the visual focal point of lower Washington Street. Outstanding structures representing a broad range of periods and styles line the street. Just south of the Paddock Arcade on the west side of Washington Street is the small, finely crafted Smith & Percy Building, a 1930's terra-cotta building with Art Deco features. Beyond this are modern, non-historic bank buildings not included in the district. The east side of Washington Street features a particularly diverse collection of buildings, including Italianate, Romanesque Revival, Neoclassical and Colonial Revival style structures dating from the third quarter of the nineteenth century to the first quarter of the twentieth century. Similarities in scale and level of sophistication unite this heterogeneous streetscape. Further south, outside of the district, is the Flower Library (National Register, 1/80), beyond which are modern government buildings.
Franklin Street, radiating to the southeast from the center of the south side of Public Square, is characterized by mid-nineteenth century and early twentieth century structures. The large corner lot on the west side of Franklin Street (south side of Public Square) is occupied by a notable Italianate style structure. Adjacent to it is a large, eclectic style building dating from the 1890's. Further southeast is an early twentieth century, one-story structure, next to which is the Strand Theater, also an early twentieth century structure. The last building on the southwest elevation of Franklin Street is a large, early twentieth century commercial/residential structure prominently sited on an acute corner lot. The five-story brick building features oriel windows and classically inspired embellishment.
The northeast elevation of Franklin Street consists of the rear elevations of two Public Square structures: the Chamber of Commerce Building and the Y.W.C.A. Beyond the Public Square Historic District boundary on Franklin Street is a neighborhood of mixed commercial/residential use with modern intrusions and extensively altered historic structures.
State Street extends to the east of Public Square. It contains the district's highest concentration of buildings which reflect the influence of the early twentieth century Commercial style. Large structures with modest embellishment are characteristic of the north elevation of State Street. Oriel windows and Chicago style windows are featured on many State Street facades. The rapidly deteriorating Olympic Theater is located on the south side of State Street as well as two small residential apartment buildings. The area beyond the Public Square Historic District on State Street is characterized by modern commercial structures and open lots.
Extending north and northeast from the northeast corner of Public Square are Mill and Factory Streets, respectively. None of the older buildings on either street retains sufficient integrity to be included in the Public Square Historic District.
The Public Square Historic District is a significant collection of commercial structures, parks and statuary which together reflect the development of Watertown's downtown business district from its settlement period to the 1930's. The scale, architectural distinction and craftsmanship exhibited by these buildings distinguish Watertown as the commercial and manufacturing center of the region. The Public Square Historic District features distinctive and representative as well as vernacular and eclectic examples of a broad range of nineteenth and twentieth century architectural styles, including Italianate, Romanesque Revival, Neoclassical and Art Deco. Although the earliest significant structures included in the district date from ca.1850, the district's primary historic feature is Public Square itself, which has served as the focal point around which the community developed since it was laid out in 1805. An unlandscaped, open green space during the first five decades of the community's growth, Public Square was formally landscaped in 1855 during Watertown's effort to rebuild after disastrous fires in the 1840's and early 1850's destroyed much of the community's business district. During the second half of the century, Public Square continued to be the focus of Watertown's development and, to this day, remains the key visual element which unites the downtown business district. Additional significance is derived from examples of the work of locally, regionally or nationally known artists and architects, including Augustus St. Gaudens, of national repute, (Roswell P. Flower monument, 1901), Thain & Thain of New York City (Black River Valley Club, 1906, Washington Street), York & Sawyer of New York City (Agricultural Insurance Company, 1923, Washington Street), Jordine, Hill & Murdoch of New York City (Woolworth Building, 1921, Public Square), Otis Wheelock of Watertown (Paddock Arcade, 1850, Public Square and the Iron Block, 1850, Public Square), Charlebois Brothers of Watertown (the Lincoln Building, 1907, Public Square and the Chamber of Commerce Building, 1923, Public Square) and Chauncey Calhoun of Watertown (132, 136, 138-142 and 144-150 Court Street, 1850's).
Watertown was settled in 1800 by pioneers attracted by the potentially abundant water power of the turbulent Black River. From the first years of its settlement, Watertown was a manufacturing and commercial center in a predominantly agricultural region. In 1802, Jonathan Cowan, a millwright, built the first dam across the southern branch of the Black River and erected the first gristmill and saw mill. Numerous other mills soon followed, bringing economic prosperity to the young community. In 1804, Watertown was designated the county seat of the newly created Jefferson County, providing an additional impetus to the community's development as lawyers, politicians, businessmen and other professionals were attracted to the area. Public Square was created in 1805 when eight of Watertown's most prominent citizens deeded the land at the intersection of the village's major thoroughfares (Washington, Arsenal, State and Court Streets) to serve as the village green. Although not formally landscaped until 1855, Public Square was the focal point of Watertown's downtown development since its creation. By 1810, Watertown was a bustling village with numerous artisans and craftsmen, as well as mercantile and professional concerns.
The War of 1812 played a major role in Watertown's emergence as a prominent manufacturing community. Because of the war, textiles once imported from abroad were no longer accessible and the Black River Cotton and Wool Manufacturing Company, among others, was established to fill the void. Because of its proximity to the Sacketts Harbor Military Installation, Watertown also became the center of supplies for detachments stationed in the vicinity. Commercial and manufacturing enterprises flourished, particularly taverns, general stores, distilleries and breweries, and the village, incorporated in 1816, continued to expand. By the late 1820's, the street plan and patterns of land use were well established. Primary mercantile concerns, professional offices, churches and civic structures lined Public Square and the immediate blocks of the major cross streets (Court, Arsenal and Washington Streets). North and northwest of Public Square, across the river, industrial neighborhoods and workers' housing developed. Unpretentious dwellings occupied the immediate fringes of the business district while more elegant and imposing residences on large lots were erected to the southwest.
Prosperity, expansion and new construction continued during the 1830's and 1840's. The principal industry remained the manufacture of textiles. Flour mills, breweries and distilleries were also lucrative enterprises. By the mid-1840's, the predominantly commercial Public Square was almost fully developed. The densely populated neighborhood was comprised of wood frame stores, banks, hotels, academic institutions, churches and a few dwellings. Within a decade, however, nearly the entire downtown business district was destroyed by a series of devastating fires. The first occurred in 1848 at Union Mills, a flouring concern. The worst fire occurred in 1849; it destroyed the western end of Public Square and the eastern blocks of Court and Arsenal Streets. Smaller fires during the next few years destroyed most of the few buildings that had survived the 1849 fire. According to available information, only one small row on the eastern end of Public Square survived the mid-nineteenth century fires. It is located at 82-90 Public Square; extensive alterations during the 1860's have destroyed its early nineteenth century architectural character, but it contributes to the significance of the Public Square Historic District as a representative example of Italianate style commercial architecture.
The razing of the Public Square neighborhood necessitated the redevelopment of the downtown business district during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Watertown's continued prosperity, brought on by the successes of the Portable Steam Engine Company, textile manufacturers and extensive wood pulp and paper making industries enabled the city to rebuild Public Square with sophisticated, finely crafted structures. Substantial masonry structures were built to replace the relatively modest 1820's — 1840's frame buildings destroyed by the fires. Numerous distinctive examples of commercial architecture dating from ca.1850 to the early 1870's reflect this period of unprecedented development and prosperity. Most structures built during these decades embody the features of the Italianate style. Extant examples are scattered throughout the district, with particularly notable examples located at 25-39 Public Square (the Iron Block), 65 and 101 Public Square, 170-174 Court Street, 123 Arsenal Street and 104 Franklin Street. Elaborately embellished cornices with brackets and modillions and decorative lintels above windows and entrances distinguish these structures. An outstanding, fully developed example of the period and style is the Marble Block, ca.1873, at 125 Washington Street. In addition to its distinctive Italianate style cornice and decorative window lintels, it is also significant for its marble facade and intact, arcaded storefront with elaborate scroll brackets and wrought-iron detailing. Additional significance is derived from its historical association with the Agricultural Insurance Company: the building was the first home office of the Agricultural Insurance Company, once a major employer in Watertown.
Watertown continued to prosper during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The rail transportation network was expanded and industries flourished. Prominent manufacturing concerns included the Davis Sewing Machine Co., the Watertown Steam Engine Co. (the former Portable Steam Engine Co.), and the New York Air Brake Co. (the former Eames Vacuum Brake Co.). Watertown's carriage manufacturers, including the Watertown Spring Wagon Co. and the H. H. Babcock Co., were nationally renowned. By the end of the century, Watertown was the center of a region nationally known for its paper making and wood pulp industries. Architectural expansion occurred primarily near the outskirts of the city; relatively little new construction occurred in the downtown commercial district. There are, however, several particularly distinctive examples of late-nineteenth century architecture in the Public Square Historic District, including the commercial structures at 109-111 Arcade Street, 115-119 Washington Street (the Yellow Brick Block) and 108-120 Franklin St. These eclectic style structures exhibit combinations of late-Italianate and Romanesque Revival style features, most notably, ornately embellished cornices, elaborate moldings above windows and doors, and a variety of distinctive corbelled brickwork. The Public Square Historic District's only intact religious edifice, the Baptist Church (76-80 Public Square) also dates from the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It is architecturally significant as a distinctive example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture. Characteristic features of the period and style include its massive scale, polychrome stone exterior, prominent tower and rounded-arch windows and arcades.
Much new construction occurred in and near the Public Square business district during the first two decades of the twentieth century. The introduction of the automobile opened up the North Country to tourism and Watertown, at the heart of the Thousand Islands region, flourished by providing recreational facilities, hotels and other tourist-related activities. The Public Square Historic District has distinctive examples of the Neoclassical, Commercial and Art Moderne styles reflecting this period of Watertown's downtown development. Imposing commercial structures with Neoclassical features are scattered throughout the Public Square Historic District, often located on prominent corner lots. Examples include the Woolworth Building (11 Public Square, ca.1921), the Y.M.C.A. (105 Washington Street, ca.1913-1915), and the Roth Building (Empsall's Department Store, 122-130 Court Street, ca.1904). Massive scale and classically inspired ornamentation characterize these structures. Particularly notable features of the Woolworth Building include its partially intact storefront with engaged stone columns flanking the display windows and its original main entrance, which features a stone arch with a medallion keystone and carved swag detailing above the recessed doorway. The Y.M.C.A. is characterized by stone trim including quoining and pilasters. The arcade effect of the second story windows and Palladian motif windows also reflect the influence of the Neoclassical style. The Roth Building is distinctive for its particularly opulent embellishment, including classically inspired modillions and dentils on the cornice, and medallions and keystones above the seventh-story windows. Another distinctive example of Neoclassical architecture is the Agricultural Insurance Company (203-215 Washington Street), additionally significant as one of the few stone buildings in the district. The cubic main block flanked by symmetrical wings, and the flatness of detailing, such as the facade pilasters and wide, simple frieze, reflect the influence of the Italian Renaissance. The pedimented and arcaded central entrance with its denticulated cornice and carved swag detailing is particularly notable. Examples of revivals of the early nineteenth century Federal style include the Black River Valley Club (131 Washington Street) and the Y.W.C.A. (50 Public Square). Both exhibit the traditional five-bay center-hall configuration of the previous century, as well as notable entrances: the delicate entrance detailing, including semi-elliptical fanlights and sidelights with tracery, and classically inspired porticos are characteristic of the period and style. The design of the turn-of-the-century Hungerford Holbrook Co. (1 Printing Press Place), the Public Square Historic District's only example of industrial architecture, is also based on forms popular during the early nineteenth century. Its symmetrical, six-bay configuration, simplicity and stepped gable ends recall mill and manufacturing buildings of a much earlier era. The structure is one of the city's most intact historic industrial buildings.
The Commercial style is reflected in several structures in the Public Square Historic District. Notable examples include the Charlebois Building (89-99 Public Square) and several State Street buildings. Massive scale, severe, unembellished facades and Chicago style-inspired windows characterize these early twentieth-century buildings. The influence of the Art Moderne taste, popular during the 1930's, is reflected in the Smith & Percy Building (104 Washington Street). This small, finely crafted structure is characterized by a very stylized interpretation of classically inspired features, including swags, medallions and carved relief panels. Also notable is the use of terra cotta as the building material.
Together, Public Square and the substantially intact structures included in the historic district reflect the history and development of the downtown business district of the city and recall Watertown's prominent role in the region.
Albany, New York. Division for Historic Preservation. Research Files.
Gould, Ernest C. Centennial History of Watertown, New York, A Proud Heritage - A Bright Future. City of Watertown, 1969.
Landon, Harry F. 150 Years of Watertown...A History. The Watertown Daily Times, 1950.