Skaneateles Historic District
The Skaneateles Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Portions of the text below were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The Skaneateles Historic District consists of fifty-nine structures and a park located along both sides of East Genesee Street between Onondaga Street and the Skaneateles Lake Outlet, and includes the adjacent block of Jordan Street as well as the contiguous stone mill property on Fennell Street. This, the central business district for the village, is bounded on the south by Skaneateles Lake and on the north by a mid-nineteenth century residential neighborhood. Developed throughout the nineteenth century, the Skaneateles Historic District consists predominantly of commercial buildings, with a substantial number of houses, some churches, public buildings and a public park. The architecture in the Skaneateles Historic District is principally Federal and Greek Revival with various Italianate modifications, and some examples of late nineteenth and early twentieth century design. There are five small non-contributing buildings in the historic district.
Genesee Street is the major thoroughfare in Skaneateles connecting the access roads to Syracuse and the east side of the lake with the north-south artery on the west side of the lake. It was the earliest road in the area and the site of the first settlement in the 1790's. Two homes of the first settlers survive in the handsome residential neighborhood of predominantly early nineteenth century houses in the east half of the Skaneateles Historic District. Here, the tree-lined street also boasts landscaped Victorian estates facing the lake on the south side, while elegant two-story homes on more modest sized lots line the north side. Two masonry churches, one built in 1873 and the other in 1890, contribute to the visual importance of the neighborhood, while a waterfront park opens a view of the lake to the passer-by.
Located on the site of the village's first business center razed by fire in 1835, a continuous row of three and four-story brick commercial buildings, built in 1836, lines the lake side of Genesee Street in the west half of the Skaneateles Historic District. Typically, each building is three or four bays wide with a storefront at the first floor and offices or apartments on the upper floors. Brick parapets projecting above the roof line distinguish the individual units of the Greek Revival style row. The only exceptions to this uniformity are: an 1868 two-story Italianate structure, recently restored, at the east end (68-74 E. Genesee Street); an 1874 three-story mansard-roofed building at the west end (4-6 E. Genesee Street); and the handsome Modernistic facade of the 1928 bank building at the edge of the district (2 E. Genesee Street). In spite of their stylistic differences, each of these three maintain the scale and rhythm of the streetscape.
Opposite the row buildings, the north side of Genesee Street is occupied by a variety of public buildings and shops, which gradually replaced earlier shops and homes during the latter half of the nineteenth century. These range in scale from the small, 1856 Greek Revival style office (47 E. Genesee Street), to the 1858 bank building with its five-story tower (33 E. Genesee Street), to the three-story, eight-bay business block built in 1881 at the corner of East Genesee and Jordan Streets (1 E. Genesee Street). Styles vary as well, including the elaborate 1857 Italianate residence, now used as a Masonic Lodge (11 E. Genesee Street), and the Romanesque Revival style library built in 1887 (49 E. Genesee Street). This diverse group is unified by the relatively uniform setback of the buildings from the street and their similar scale.
Jordan Street was developed beginning in the 1850's as an extension of the Genesee Street commercial area and is slightly different in character. The focal point of the intersection is a handsome three-story stone and brick Greek Revival style block built in 1850 (1-7 Jordan Street). Most of the street's row buildings are two and three stories tall, three or four bays wide, and modest in design. The block at #10-14, constructed sometime after 1874, has interesting Italianate and Stick style details. The earliest building in the group, #23, built in 1830, was modified with a mansard roof about 1879. The most recent is the Georgian Revival style building (8 Jordan Street) built about 1929.
The stone mill on nearby Fennell Street, visible from Jordan and Genesee Streets, is a rare surviving example of its type. Built in 1842, it is the only one remaining of the many manufacturing plants which lined the lake outlet in the mid-nineteenth century.
The Skaneateles Historic District is noteworthy for its well-preserved, well-maintained collection of nineteenth-century buildings which represent all phases of the village center's development. The residences at the east half of the Skaneateles Historic District were built with a similarity of size, scale, materials and relationship to Genesee Street. Updating of architectural style was achieved through moderate modifications, such as porch additions or roof brackets, which contribute to the visual interest of the area.
The continuous row of seventeen Greek Revival style brick commercial buildings visually anchored at the west end by the Pardee Block, dominates the character of the west half of the Skaneateles Historic District. The variety of late nineteenth century structures across from the row display a harmony of scale and integrity of individual design. On Jordan Street, the commercial row architecturally relates the late nineteenth century development of this street. Despite alterations to facade materials, the original uniformity of size, scale and design has been maintained.
The Skaneateles Historic District is a significant collection of intact nineteenth and early twentieth century residential and commercial buildings surviving in central New York. Situated at the north end of Skaneateles Lake, over half of the 60 properties (including a park) in the Skaneateles Historic District were constructed prior to 1840, and all but three by 1900. Rows of remarkably well-preserved commercial buildings reflect Skaneateles's prosperity as a manufacturing and mercantile center, while the elegant residential neighborhood of Federal, Greek Revival and Italianate style houses was home to the village's earliest and most prominent families. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the village gained prominence as a vacation resort and many large estates were developed near the lake. The Skaneateles Historic District is further enhanced by two churches, a lakeside park and an early gristmill.
Originally part of a military lot owned by Judge Jedediah Sanger, the village center was laid out in 1801 with lots lining either side of Genesee Street between present-day Jordan and Leitch Streets. Several of the earliest Federal style structures on the street still stand, although all have undergone alterations during the nineteenth century. The 1796 Lovell Gibbs House (61 E. Genesee St.) was relocated to face south in 1820 and had the Italianate doorway and porch added about 1860. The Norman Leonard House (77 E. Genesee St.), originally built in 1806, was gradually enlarged and totally remodeled in 1862 to its present Second Empire style appearance. More in keeping with its original design is the Stephen Horton House (75 E. Genesee St.), built in 1816 with a pilastered and arcaded facade, typical of upstate New York Federal architecture, and leaded tracery in the entranceway sidelights and semi-elliptical transom light. The classically detailed portico was added to the front door at the end of the nineteenth century.
The advantages of the site attracted further settlement. The picturesque location had plenty of water for domestic and manufacturing purposes, and the presence of an established trade route along the great Indian trail made the village desirable and convenient as a mercantile center. Isaac Sherwood headquartered his extensive stage lines and mail routes here in 1818, stimulating a carriage and wagon-making industry which gained national prominence. Supporting this activity were a large number of blacksmiths and mechanics. Of these, one of the most successful was John Legg, who came here in 1804 and established a blacksmith shop and carriage factory at the site of the present day Legg Hall (68-74 E. Genesee St.). The existing Italianate style building was constructed in 1867 as shops with a public meeting hall upstairs by Legg's son-in-law and financial manager Joel Thayer. A banker and prominent citizen, Thayer also remodeled his father-in-law's house (77 E. Genesee St.) in 1862 from a transitional Federal-Greek Revival style building into one of the most elaborate Second Empire style residences in the village. The family legacy also includes Thayer Park (76-90 E. Genesee St.) which was once their private garden and was given to the village by Joel's daughters Eva and May in 1922. Situated between Genesee Street and the lake, the park is an open lawn dotted with stately deciduous and evergreen trees. Evening light is provided by the original cast-iron street lights which line the paths along the water's edge and the street, Before the Thayers filled it in, this area was undeveloped due to a sharp drop off. As natural lakeside, formal garden or park, it has always been a natural buffer between the commercial row buildings to the west and the fine homes to the east.
The village was officially incorporated in April 1833, the fourth village in Onondaga County. One of the first departments organized was Fire Engine Co. No. 1, which operated out of a fire house on the edge of the outlet (21 E. Genesee St. site). Despite precautions, an extensive fire in 1835 razed the major business section of the village, including thirteen shops on Genesee Street. The only structure remaining today of the early stores is the wood frame, Federal style building at the west end of the row (12 E. Genesee St.). The devastation prompted the enactment of legislation prohibiting the erection of wooden row buildings. Businesses rebuilt immediately, constructing the handsome row of sixteen brick buildings still lining the south side of Genesee Street (12-62 E. Genesee St.). Above the Greek Revival style facades of these 1836 structures, the projecting parapets of the masonry party walls emphasized the fireproof qualities of the new construction.
While the Erie Canal had little impact on the village, the advent of the railroad opened a new era of enterprise for the area. In 1836, the Skaneateles Railroad Company was formed to join a feeder line with the Syracuse-Auburn Railroad five miles to the north, and although of crude construction and horse-drawn, this line provided both passenger and business service to the village. The tracks led down present-day Fennell Street (historically known as "Railroad Street"). The existing brick building at the corner of Fennell and Jordan streets (23 Jordan St.), built in 1830, became the Railroad Hotel and was expanded with the addition in the 1870's of an upper floor and mansard roof to its present form.
In 1845, Skaneateles was at its height of productivity. The village boasted twenty-three shops, forty-five manufacturers, four saw mills, three woolen mills, two iron works, two distilleries, two tanneries, one brewery and five taverns. The old stone mill (1 Fennell St.) was built that same year, with four run of stone processing flour and feed. Replacing an earlier wooden mill which had burned, the stone mill was the center of life for the villagers and farmers from the surrounding rural area. The railroad originally came to the door, and the passenger depot was located across the street.
Among town leaders in 1845, was Freeborn Garrison Jewett, a prominent local lawyer and the first president of the village, who later became a member of the New York State Assembly and the U.S. Congress. His first home was the transitional Federal-Greek Revival style house at 79 E. Genesee Street, built in 1827. The Greek Revival details on a Federal plan include corner pilasters, a wide entablature at the cornice which extends across the gable ends of the house, and Doric style columns on the front porch. By 1857, when Mr. Jewett's stature and wealth had increased, he built a larger, more fashionable and impressive Italianate style house in the heart of town (11 E. Genesee St.)
A protege of Jewett's was Benoni Lee, another successful lawyer and self-made man. In 1856, he had the small building at the corner of State and E. Genesee Streets (47 E. Genesee St.) built as his office. Commonly known as "The Sphinx," this unusual structure is an adaptation of the marble Greek Temple form in brick. Doric style pilasters on all sides imitate a classical colonnade. An entablature with corbeled brick "modillions" and molded cornice has a full return across the gable ends and beneath the eaves forming a pediment.
Public services increased by mid-century. In 1863, soon after passage of the National Banking Act, Skaneateles's first banking institution, the Lake Bank, was organized. Later the First National Bank, it was merged with the private bank of Charles Pardee and operated from the first floor offices in his Greek Revival style building at the corner of Genesee and Jordan Streets (1-7 Jordan St.). Skaneateles Savings Bank was founded in 1866 and the west half of its present Victorian era building was built in 1888 (33 E. Genesee St.).
The Skaneateles Library Association was incorporated in 1877. Ten years later, at the bequest of Benoni Lee, "The Sphinx" was acquired as a library building. Intended for demolition, the building was retained in memory of its benefactor when, in 1890, the present Romanesque Revival style library was dedicated (49 E. Genesee St.).
In the last half of the nineteenth century, Skaneateles became a popular resort. The beautiful scenery, the clean waters of the spring-fed lake, and an abundant supply of lake trout attracted wealthy families to build their cottages and villas here. Henry Latrobe Roosevelt of the famous New York family retired to Skaneateles in 1856, purchasing Dr. Samuel Porter's house and remodeling it extensively to its present appearance (116 E. Genesee Street). Originally constructed as a Federal style house in 1816, the eaves of the main roof were extended and supported by curved brackets in the Italianate style. Other details were added such as the foliate column capitals on the porches and the board bracing added to the facade and the new east ell. This home then became the social center of the village during the fashionable summer season. The home at 104 E. Genesee Street was once occupied by Phares Gould, whose daughter was related by marriage to Winston Churchill. Originally built in 1826, the house was enlarged to its present appearance in 1890 by the addition of the side wing, porches and the two-story bay windows.
Steamboats, used on the lake since 1831, became a popular tourist attraction in the later part of the 1800's. Passengers, who could arrive by railway service from Syracuse and Auburn, boarded the boats at the village for lake excursions. Several hotels were built to accommodate the visitors. In 1875, Charles Krebs, father of the famous restauranteur, built his "country hotel," the modest frame structure with decorative slate mansard roof and cupola which still stands in the village center (4-6 E. Genesee St.).
The Skaneateles Historic District also includes the work of two well-known architects. The great American architect Stanford White designed three buildings in Skaneateles, one of which is the well-preserved Shingle style Willetts House (100 E. Genesee St.). Known as "The Boulders," the house is distinguished by fieldstone facing on the first floor elevation, with an inset porch at one corner and a porte-cochere extending from the opposite side. Bands of decorative shingles encircle the portion of the upper floor which projects above the long, low-sloping roof. Horatio Nelson White, a prominent architect in the central New York region, designed St. James Episcopal Church in 1873 on the site of the original 1824 wood frame church (94 E. Genesee St.). This is a superb example of the English Gothic Revival style architecture and its interior features the original hand-carved chestnut wood altar.
Another important visual landmark in the Skaneateles Historic District is the Romanesque style First Presbyterian Church (97 E. Genesee St.), built in 1891. The impressive red brick tower trimmed with limestone is capped by a pavilion roof with a gilded fish design weathervane.
The village's twentieth-century prosperity is reflected in two important structures in the Skaneateles Historic District. The Skaneateles Savings Bank expanded its offices at 33 East Genesee Street, adding the two bays east of the clock tower in 1928. The building materials and design were consistent with the earlier Victorian structure, giving it the present-day uniform appearance. That same year, the more contemporary First Trust and Deposit Company bank building was constructed (2 E. Genesee St.). Though Modernistic in style, the stone facade of the bank complements the scale and rhythm of the facade openings of its earlier neighbors, and provides a visual anchor for the historic streetscape.
The Skaneateles Historic District was the original section of the village to be established and remained the focal point of activity up to the present day. It contains the highest concentration of fine nineteenth-century buildings in the town and is notable for its cohesive architectural character and excellent state of preservation. The structures represent the major activities of the village during its development, and most of them are still used for their original purposes.
Bruce, Dwight, Ed. Onandaga Centennial. Boston: Boston History Co., 1896.
Clayton, W. W. History of Onondaga County, N.Y. Syracuse, 1878.
Leslie, Edmund Norman. Skaneateles: A History of Its Earliest Settlement and Reminiscences of Later Times. New York: Andrew H. Kellog, 1902.
Skaneateles Historical Society. Pictorial History of Skaneateles. NY, 1980.
Sweet, Homer D. L. Sweets New Atlas of Onondaga Co., New York. New York: Walker Bros. & Co., 1874.
Syracuse-Onondaga County Planning Agency. Onondaga Landmarks. Syracuse, 1975.