Orleans County Courthouse Historic District
The Orleans County Courthouse Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
The Orleans County Courthouse Historic District in Albion, New York is made up of thirty-three buildings. The buildings are situated on and around Courthouse Square which is bounded by East State Street on the north, East Park Street on the south, Main Street on the west and Platt Street on the east. Most of the buildings in this area date from the 1830s to before 1910, including seven churches, eighteen residences, and eight public and institutional buildings. The area represents the heart of the nineteenth-century village of Albion which is located on the old Erie Canal at the intersection of two important rural highways (State Routes 31 and 98).
Courthouse Square, which was given to Orleans County by Nehemish Ingersoll for the first county buildings, is a square block located in the center of Albion. Standing on this square, which covers the remains of a drumlin, are the Orleans County Courthouse (1858), the County Clerk's and Surrogate's Building (1888), and the Orleans County Jail (1970). The northwest half of the square has always been maintained as a spacious lawn or village green.
Around this village focal point are grouped seven churches representing major Christian denominations. The most prominent of these buildings is the Presbyterian Church with its 175-foot tower and spire that can be seen ten miles away. This is the tallest structure in Orleans County and is made of native Medina sandstone. Balancing the Presbyterian Church on the opposite, or southwest, side of the square is the low-lying Pullman Memorial Universalist Church which seems to hug the ground. St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, also of reddish brown sandstone, prominently appears to the southwest. Piercing the sky behind St. Joseph's is the spire of the First Baptist Church. In the opposite direction lies the United Methodist Church and the Free Methodist Church. Also located around Courthouse Square are residences and public buildings.
In 1975 the courtroom in the courthouse was completely redecorated. Colors were based on the 1928 restoration color scheme. During the past two years a great deal of restoration work has taken place at the Swan Library. Many paintings and antiques which had been relegated to the attic and basement have been brought out and restored. The sterile 1952 interior decoration has given way to a colorful refurbishing.
The Orleans County Courthouse Square Historic District comprises thirty-three architecturally significant buildings dating from the 1830s to before 1910. Vernacular as well as architect-designed, they reflect major architectural ideals that flourished in America from the late Federal through the Colonial Revival periods. The Orleans County Courthouse Historic District derives a unique local character from builders' frequent use of Medina sandstone, a material abundant in the area and an important element in the nineteenth-century economy of the region. It was employed for entire buildings, such as S.S. Beman's Pullman Memorial Church (1894), or for parts of buildings, especially lintels and foundation courses.
Endowed with public, ecclesiastical, and residential structures, the Orleans County Courthouse Historic District represents the prominence of Albion as the seat of Orleans County. Surviving for the most part little altered, the buildings in the district accurately mirror the establishment of political, religious, and cultural life in the county. Scale, density, and materials are those of the nineteenth century, yet the Orleans County Courthouse Square Historic District continues to function as it did in the past, as the active center of a vital rural life based primarily upon agricultural prosperity.
Shortly after Orleans County was taken from Genesee County in 1824, state commissioners from Albany were appointed to determine the site for the new county buildings. According to a nineteenth-century account:
"The principal contestants for this advantage were Gaines and Albion, the two most important villages in the new county. The new commissioners visited Gaines, listened to the claims put forth by its leading men, enjoyed the hospitality of the village, and then went to Albion. The people of the latter village were wordly-wise, and more determined and enterprising than their neighbors on the ridge, as the following account of the means which they employed to gain the preference of the commissioners will show: The visitors were conveyed to the residence of Nehemish Ingersoll, where they partook of a well-prepared dinner. After the meal and when the commissioners felt very good, they were placed in a carriage and driven around the enterprising village, while Philetus Bumpus and Nehemiah Ingersoll expatiated upon the future growth of the place. A branch of Sandy Creek runs through the town. A building had been erected for a mill, but had never been occupied. A dam had been built. Bumpus caused this dam to be raised several days before the commissioners appeared, and when they whirled by in their carriage they saw a broad sheet of water, a fine mill and abundant power. When out of sight of it Bumpus told them in a quiet way what a grand thing it was for a town to have water power, and how abundantly Albion had been blessed with it. It was this act which determined the location of the buildings."
Albion, which derives its name from the largest of the British Isles, developed during the nineteenth century and became known as a prosperous community by 1900. Its late nineteenth century wealth is well expressed in the architecture of many older homes in the community.
Situated on the fertile Ontario Plain, Albion has always looked to agriculture as its leading business. The opening in 1825 of the Erie Canal, which goes through Albion, created here a market for local farm products which were transported on the canal to the populous eastern and western portions of the state. Orleans County was known as the bread basket of the world until 1850, while Rochester, thirty miles to the east, attained the reputation of The Flour City. Apples have also been a major agricultural product in the region. As many as 25,000,000 barrels were shipped via the Erie Canal in 1925.
Aside from farming, other nineteenth-century businesses included banking, retail shops, and involvement in the International Railway Suspension Bridge at Niagara Falls. William G. Swan was superintendent and a stockholder for nearly forty years. He also was the benefactor of the Swan Library, a building in the historic district.
Medina sandstone, a high quality building stone with a dark reddish brown color, also figured prominently in the nineteenth century economy of Albion. John Ryan opened the first quarry near Medina, New York, eleven miles west of Albion in 1837. Most of the quarries, however, were eventually located in the Albion area. By 1902, forty-three quarries were in operation annually, employing over 2,000 men each season. The entire "Million Dollar Staircase," designed by H.H. Richardson for the state capitol at Albany, was quarried near Albion — including a single block measuring more than thirty feet in length. Much of the "brownstone" in New York City, likewise, came from the quarries of Orleans County. By the 1920s the quarries experienced difficulties in selling their product, for Portland cement by then had become an inexpensive substitute for stone. Nonetheless, Medina sandstone remained in demand for curb stones until the 1940s. Currently only one quarry still functions, and only on a part-time basis. While much good stone is still readily available, quarrying costs prohibit its general use.
Giving testimony to this once important industry is the frequent use of Median sandstone in the buildings in the historic district. Three churches were constructed of this material which was also employed for steps, lintels, sills, sidewalks and paving blocks in a number of buildings and streets.
Located around Courthouse Square within the historic district are several churches which have played important roles in the religious history of the village and state. Free Methodism began in Albion in 1859 as an outgrowth of Abolitionism. Albion's Free Methodist Church is the first structure of this denomination and is known as the Mother Church. George Pullman provided Albion with a church which today  is one of only eighteen Universalist churches operating under the Unitarian Universalist Association of New York State. In 1860 there were over two hundred Universalist churches in New York.
The Presbyterian Church, with its lofty spire, bears tribute to Elizur Hart who bequeathed $60,000 to the parish in 1872, wishing that the spire would surmount the one on the Baptist Church two blocks away. The placement of St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church also preserves the story of local rivalry. When William Stafford, a Baptist, lost an election for County Judge he blamed his defeat on his Baptist friends whom he claimed neglected to support him. In spite, he sold his property adjacent to the Baptist Church to the Catholics, stipulating that St. Joseph's parish build directly next to the street so as to block the view from Main Street of the Baptist Church. The Episcopalians too have an unusual situation, worshipping in a church which was actually built by the Presbyterians who, in 1844, traded the church for building materials and a nearby lot.
The Orleans County Courthouse Historic District is particularly rich in examples of nineteenth-century church architecture. The Chapel of the First Presbyterian Church in the Greek Revival style is one of the oldest churches in the village and was formerly the main building of the parish before the new church in the Gothic style was built adjacent to it in 1874. The chapel's handsome doorway with Corinthian columns in antis (originally they stood forward supporting a porch), the broad wooden architrave, the simple proportions, and the slender windows along the sides suggest the influence of the practical architectural guides which so often were the source for Greek Revival buildings in western New York. The simplicity and severity of this brick church, in which external ornament is confined to the leaves of the capitals (which are made of iron and may have been cast in a nearby foundry), represents both the conservative taste that characterizes much of Albion's architecture as well as the limited means of the early parishioners. The interior is equally spartan, except for a handsome plaster medallion in the ceiling.
The much larger First Baptist Church of 1860 shows the shift away from the Greek tradition to the more romantically inspired Medieval Revival, which, chiefly due to the authoritative example of the Episcopal Church, came to be regarded after 1850 by all Christian denominations as the proper mode for church architecture. The First Baptist Church combines Romanesque and Gothic elements. Round arched windows and corbel tables naively co-exist with stepped buttresses and a tall hexagonal tower that rises at the center of the facade.
A similar inconsistency between Romanesque forms and Gothic proportions characterizes the First Free Methodist Church, a board and batten structure complete except for its spire. Identified with the rural churches of Richard Upjohn, board and batten was a popular method of external finish for wooden churches in the 1850s-1870s. Trinity Episcopal Church in nearby Warsaw of 1852 (from designs by Upjohn) would have provided an easily accessible example of this particularly American development in ecclesiastical architecture. Yet, the designer of the First Free Methodist Church demonstrated considerable refinement in the use of this sheathing, treating the battens as slender colonettes topped with unmolded block capitals. The same system was followed when the tower was built in 1900.
Romanesque also is the style of the brick First Methodist Church which, in its present form, dates from the 1870s.
The scholarly phase of the Gothic Revival is represented by the First Presbyterian Church designed in 1874 by the architect Andrew Jackson Warner (1855-1937) and occupying a splendid site across from the Courthouse Square. Warner, whose office was in Rochester, had obviously familiarized himself with the work of such leading church architects as Withers and Upjohn. Indeed, several elements of the design, such as the placement of the tower, the main elevation with its rose window, and the early English character of the details, suggest influence of Upjohn's Third Presbyterian Church (1859) in Rochester. The Albion church is built of rusticated Medina sandstone, the expressive potential of which Warner would have been thoroughly familiar with from his days as supervising architect of H.H. Richardson's Buffalo State Hospital (begun in 1870). The choice of material was particularly appropriate, for the building derives its architectural character from thirteenth-century English parish churches which, as Warner surely knew, were always constructed of stone available near at hand.
St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church (1896) is also Gothic and built of Medina sandstone, but it lacks the picturesque skyline and careful detailing of the First Presbyterian Church. Its large size reflects the influx of Eastern European Catholics into western New York after the Civil War.
Albion's finest church is the Pullman Memorial Universalist Church. It was built in 1894 to the designs of Solon S. Beman (1853-1914), a Chicago architect who had been a student of Richard Upjohn and who was in particular demand as a designer of churches. Beman was also the architect George Pullman chose to build his railroad car manufacturing town in Illinois. Pullman had worked as a cabinet maker in Albion from 1848 to 1855 and during these years seems to have conceived the idea of building the luxurious passenger cars that later bore his name. After he had moved to Chicago and made his fortune, Pullman agreed to erect this church at his own expense and put Beman in charge of the work. The building is in a modified Richardsonian Romanesque (pointed arches replace the broad round arches Richardson favored) and, as with most of the other churches in the Orleans County Courthouse Historic District, is a rather late manifestation of its style. Beman perceived the sympathy possible between rough hewn Medina sandstone and the simple forms and heavy proportions of the Richardsonian style. The result is a compact, centralized building with a tower vaguely reminiscent of that over the crossing of Richardson's Trinity Church (1872) in Boston. The unpolished texture of the stone, the emphatic mural character of the design in which unmolded windows reveal the thickness of the fabric, and the composition of distinct units that are unified by strong horizontality and subordination to the crossing tower are in the best Richardsonian tradition. Also like Richardson's churches, exterior massiveness and sobriety give way to spaciousness and color on the interior where Tiffany stained glass in rich hues of blues and purple combine with warm golden oak which is used for the beamed ceiling.
The earliest dwellings in the Orleans County Courthouse Historic District reflect the late Federal architecture of New England and the eastern part of the state. The Mahaney House of the 1830s, with its three-bay facade, elliptical arched entrance, and saddle back roof, is typical of houses built all across western New York in the 1830s and 1840s. The house at 33 Platt Street, a considerably less interesting example of the same type, shows an early use of Medina sandstone in the foundation course. The Bullock House, the home of Rufus Bullock, Reconstruction governor of Georgia, and perhaps the oldest building in the Orleans County Courthouse Historic District, has panels recessed beneath arches on the first floor, a method of facade design that recalls the brick architecture of such notable Federal dwellings as Charles Bulfinch's second Harrison Gray Otis House (1800) in Boston.
The Greek Revival Church House at East State and Ingersoll Streets is the most imposing residence in the Orleans County Courthouse Square Historic District. The home originally belonged to Sanford Church, Lieutenant-Governor from 1850 to 1852 and later Chief Judge of the State Court of Appeals. Despite the grand portico of Doric columns, the house retains a strong Federal flavor. The slender proportions of the columns and the clapboard siding, even in the pediment, impart a fragile and refined appearance that is more reminiscent of the great homes of the preceding period than characteristic of the Greek style, which was generally given a more monumental character. The elliptical fanlight in the pediment further suggests an association with such earlier Hudson Valley mansions as Boscobel and the Roger Morris (Jumel) House.
Typical small Greek Revival dwellings are 112, 118, and 124 East State Street. In the latter example, the recurring composition of one main section facing the street coupled with a lateral side wing is handled particularly well.
Rivaling the Church House in size and magnificence is the brick dwelling of Judge William White at 134 East State Street. It was erected in 1879 by the prolific local builder William B. M. Barlow (1833-1903). A fine example of the French inspired Second Empire style, the building is trimmed with Medina sandstone and is distinguished by a picturesque tower that is supported on the second level by slender Corinthian columns. As in Parisian prototypes, the high Mansard provided another full story under the roof. The building is particularly well-preserved on the exterior, retaining its full complement of iron cresting and slate roofing tiles.
Barlow also built the rectory of St. Joseph's Church, (c.1875) a bold, square brick building in the Tuscan style. Here Medina sandstone is used for lintels which are incised with floral patterns. This taste for ornament that was part of the material which it decorated (as opposed to being applied to the surface) was popularly identified in the 1860s and 1870s with the English designer Charles Eastlake. Eastlakeian influence is also to be seen in the handsome porch of turned wood supports and decorative grillwork on the house at 104 East Park Street.
Truthfulness to the nature of materials was one of the key notions in the philosophy of the Queen Anne style, the most important of the later nineteenth century movements. The popularity of Queen Anne derived in great measure from the fact that it allowed the designer considerable freedom in composition, planning, character of decorative motifs (which could range from late medieval to Renaissance), and choice of materials. The variety of texture and mass that could be achieved, even in vernacular examples, is well illustrated by the house at 21 West Park Street. Shingles, brick, sandstone and colored glass combine in a design of projecting and receding surfaces, broken pediments, multiple rooflines, and a projecting second story, all of which reflect the desire for substantial comfort that characterized middle-class taste in the 1880s and 1890s. The dignity of the Greek Revival and the elegance of the Second Empire style gave way to more relaxed architectural values. Interior plans became asymmetrical and open and looked forward to contemporary notions of interior design.
The broad latitude permitted the practitioners of the Queen Anne style can be fully appreciated by comparing 21 West Park Street with the Shingle style house at 16 East Park. (The exterior is now covered with aluminium siding.) The Shingle style was an American variant of the English-inspired Queen Anne and was an expression of the revived interest in early American architecture stimulated by the 1876 Centennial. Here, several elements common to early New England houses, besides the shingle covering, appear, including the long "salt box" sloping roof line and the tall chimney stack that rises through the entire height of the building.
The Presbyterian Manse of 1893 is more squarely in the Colonial Revival style that became popular in the 1890s. This movement continued well into the twentieth century and brings architectural developments within the Orleans County Courthouse Historic District full circle. The delicate half-ellipse of the Pullman Parsonage of 1905, together with other details, recalls the Mahaney House and the Church House of seventy years earlier. The Medina sandstone foundations ally it with the unbroken local tradition of the use of that distinctive material.
Public and Institutional Buildings
"In lands settled after American independence the court house, not the church, became the architectural focus of a 'county seat'..." No better illustration of Henry-Russell Hitchcock and William Seale's contention could be desired than Albion's splendid courthouse. Erected in the center of Courthouse Square, it still preserves much open space around it. Symbolizing the "domination of the secular" in the villages of the frontier, courthouses represented stability and civilization — "the ark of man's covenant with the land" — for within their walls were preserved the vital records of property ownership.
The Orleans County Courthouse was constructed in 1858 by William Barlow and may be regarded as his chief work. It replaced an earlier building of 1827. Records indicate that in 1858 a committee of supervisors visited the Wayne County Courthouse in Lyons and decided to adopt it as the model for the Albion building.
Neo-Classical imagery remained current for public buildings throughout the nineteenth century. The ornateness, especially of the cupola, is symptomatic of the 1850s and makes an instructive comparison with the staid classicism of the earlier Federal and Greek Revival buildings in Albion. With re-gilding of the dome, the exterior of the courthouse could be restored to its original appearance.
The neighboring County Clerk's and Surrogate's Building of 1885 is a particularly lively example of the imaginative designs of Rochester-based architect Harvey Ellis (1853-1914). Ellis enjoyed calling attention to the wall surface which here displays a considerable amount of inventive brickwork. Endowed with an asymmetrically balanced pattern of openings, the Surrogate's Building is as exuberant as the courthouse is monumental. The apparent lightness is deceiving, for the Surrogate's Building was constructed entirely of fireproof materials, including vaulted brick ceilings, marble floors, and metal rafters. Ellis, it was said, possessed a "structural and technological sense and it is from that point on that his genius as a practitioner in the true fine art of building begins to sing."
The Swan Library, which was originally built as a Greek Revival residence in the 1840s, was remodeled in 1888-89 in the Colonial Revival style for use as a library. Corinthian capitals were added at this time to the earlier exterior pilasters, but cast-iron grills in the frieze windows date from the 1840s. Internally, the building, which retains much of the original Greek Revival woodwork, is distinguished by a handsome Colonial style reading room.
The Cooperative Extension Building, was also originally erected as a residence. It began life in the Greek Revival style (cast-iron lintels remain), was first remodeled with Italianate details (brackets and overhanging eaves) and later with an Eastlake tower. Finally, in the early twentieth century a handsome Doric porch was added.
"Albion Mem. Univ. Church," Inland Architect & News Record, 24 (Oct. 1894).
Illustrated Historical Album of Orleans Co., N.Y. New York: Sanford, 1879.
Orleans County History: Past to Present. Albion, N.Y.: Eddy, 1976.
Signor, Isaac. Landmarks of Orleans County. Syracuse: Mason, 1894.
Souvenir Book of the Village of Albion. Albion, N.Y.: Privately printed, 1905.
† C. Wilson Lattin, State University at Buffalo and Claire L. Ross, New York State Division for Historic Preservation, Orleans County Courthouse Historic District, nomination document, 1979, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.