Walnut Street Historic District
The Walnut Street 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 © 2015, The Gombach Group.
The Walnut Street Historic District is a residential area located in the center of the city of Oneonta, New York, the largest city in Otsego County. The Walnut Street Historic District includes the entire length of Walnut Street, which runs generally east and west between Maple Street and Church Street. Three north-south cross streets — Dietz Street, Elm Street, and Ford Avenue — divide Walnut Street into four unequal blocks. Walnut Street is the widest street in the city and considered locally to be one of the most attractive. The homes are large and well maintained. Maple and elm trees line the street. Evergreen and deciduous bushes surround the houses, and in several instances hedges divide property lines.
Walnut Street is located one long block north of the primary commercial district on Main Street (State Route 7). Because of this proximity, several houses near the edge of the Walnut Street Historic District have been converted to commercial usage. The pressure of commercialization is particularly noticeable between Ford Avenue and Dietz Street just south of the Walnut Street Historic District boundary.
Traffic from the commercial district and a nearby I-88 interchange is constant, but it does not seem to have affected the residential character of the Walnut Street Historic District. Additional residential streets lie to the north, east and west of the Walnut Street Historic District, but the architecture of the houses is not of the same high quality nor have they been maintained at the same level of integrity.
The Walnut Street Historic District contains forty-six primary structures and several noteworthy dependencies. The Walnut Street Historic District is residential with only three explicitly non-residential buildings: a church and its associated rectory and school.
Approximately twelve of the residential structures are no longer single-family dwellings, having been converted to apartments, offices, a nursing home, a fraternity house, and a convent. These new uses are compatible with the residential character of the Walnut Street Historic District, and even the adapted buildings are remarkably intact. Only the Catholic Church and its rectory are intrusions.
Because Walnut Street developed in the second half of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th, virtually all of the residences represent Victorian or Neo-Classical Revival styles. The various styles of architecture are interspersed in such a way that simple Italianate cottages share the same block as the grander Victorian homes. With the exception of the Elm-Walnut intersection, where the only intrusion is located, the larger and more imposing houses are placed on the corners. Particularly noteworthy is the Walnut-Dietz intersection, where a different style is represented at each corner: Romanesque at 55 Dietz Street, Queen Anne at 57 Dietz Street, Neo-Classical Revival at 19 Walnut Street, and Shingle Style at 18 Walnut Street. The intermixing of the grand and vernacular styles, and the placement of prominent buildings at the intersections, heightens the visual qualities of the Walnut Street Historic District.
Two structures, the Cope House (21 Elm Street) and the Gould Dietz House (6 Walnut Street), were built in the Greek Revival style. The Dietz House features a full gable pediment with a fan, corner pilasters, and sidelights and cornice around the door. The Cope House is a late example of the Greek Revival design with Italianate influence. It is square in plan with a fully detailed cornice and ironwork cresting over the portico.
Of the Victorian styles, the Italianate houses are among the earliest and simplest. Built in the 1860s and 1870s, the Italianate cottages have low-pitched roofs, bracketed eaves, enriched double doorways, and asymmetrical plans. The style is well represented by 27, 29, and 35 Walnut Street.
Particularly noteworthy in the Walnut Street Historic District are two houses built in the Second Empire style. Located at 23 and 25 Elm Street these houses have oriel windows, towers, arched windows, and the distinctive mansard roof.
Exceptional houses located at 31 and 43 Walnut Street, and 29 and 35 Ford Avenue represent the eclecticism of the late Victorian period. All of these houses are two and one-half stories in height and constructed of brick, but each is distinctive in its detailing: The 35 Ford Avenue house has decorative terra-cotta plaques set into the brickwork and 29 Ford Avenue has random polychromed bricks and corbelled segmental arches over the windows. Both 31 and 43 Walnut Street have elaborate panelled chimneys and courses of decorative brickwork. All have irregular rooflines with dormers, pierced bargeboards, highly detailed gables and cornices, and two boast Chateauesque towers. All are surrounded by wide porches; particularly noteworthy is the Eastlake porch on 29 Ford Avenue.
Classical architectural styling appears again in the Queen Anne and Shingle style houses built in the last decade of the 19th century. These have the irregular plan and roofline of earlier fashions but the decorative elements are more purely Classical (11 and 13 Walnut Street and 27 Elm Street). The later Neo-Classical styles become more symmetrical, as in the Burton Morris House at 41 Walnut Street. It has a two-story veranda across the facade supported by Ionic columns, a Palladian window in the dormer, and a fanlight over the door. All of the classical features are large and assertive. The Gurney House at 26 Walnut has similar but less boldly developed detailing.
The final phase in the Neo-Classical development is represented by the rigid symmetry of the Hemstreet-Pendleton House at 19 Walnut Street. Its symmetrical facade, columned portico, and bold classical cornice are almost austere in their formality, but all the classical details are very rich. Even the garage of this house has classical details.
The Walnut Street Historic District contains a variety of historic buildings which remain in a remarkable state of preservation. Built mostly between 1850 and 1915, these buildings illustrate the growth of Oneonta from a rural village to a large and prosperous city and marketing center. This transition is reflected in the solid spacious homes which line Walnut Street and neighboring streets. The homes of influential businessmen and civic leaders, mayors and educators, they form a grouping with important historical associations and character.
The houses on Walnut Street constitute a rich and varied collection of nineteenth and early twentieth century architectural styles, beginning with local vernacular traditions and developing through Italianate, Second Empire, Shingle, Queen Anne, and Neo-Classical styles. While some of the structures are distinctive individually, it is the blend of styles, their near original condition, and their gracious surroundings which make the area unique as an historic district.
After the Clinton-Sullivan Campaign routed the Iroquois from the Susquehanna Valley, settlers began building in the area around Oneonta. By 1806 there were four clearings along Oneonta Creek, and by the 1830s, with the coming of the Charlotte Valley turnpike, Oneonta had begun to develop as a village. One of the early settlers was Jacob Dietz, a merchant and civic leader, who accumulated a large estate and extensive tracts of land. His son Gould Dietz built a house at the junction of Walnut and Dietz Streets (later moved to 6 Walnut Street). Arriving in Oneonta in 1822, Eliakim R. Ford was another early merchant. Ford acquired much of the land north of Walnut Street between Dietz and Maple.
At mid-century, Walnut Street consisted of several scattered houses and hop warehouses. E.R. Ford owned the north half of the street, and in 1866 he built two Italianate cottages, one for his daughter Jane Ford Saunders at 35 Walnut Street, and one for his son Sylvester Ford at 29 Walnut Street. The houses retain such typical Italianate features as flat roofs, bracketed eaves, asymmetrical plans, and double doorways.
At about this same time, in 1865, the railroad being built from Albany to Binghamton reached Oneonta. Originally called the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad, the line was acquired by the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company in 1870 soon after its completion. The Delaware and Hudson was established to haul anthracite coal from Pennsylvania mines to steamboats on the Hudson River and subsequently constructed rail lines to the coal fields near Scranton. In 1870, the company chose to locate their railroad shops in Oneonta, roughly halfway between Albany and Scranton or Binghamton.
The railroad property in Oneonta consisted of car and locomotive repair shops, a major yard, and division point offices. These facilities were particularly important since the railroad encountered steep grades near Binghamton and northeast of Oneonta on Richmondville Hill, necessitating helper locomotives. The Oneonta shops became the focal point for large concentrations of motive power. By 1906 the railroad employed 740 shopmen and 460 trainmen in Oneonta with an annual payroll of $40,000. In 1924 the largest railroad turntable in the world was constructed at the Oneonta roundhouse.
The second major stimulus to the growth of Oneonta was the establishment of the State Normal and Training School there in 1887. The first state-supported institute for higher learning, it provided a liberal arts course with the intention that the pupils would be teachers. In its early years the school struggled through a series of disasters including fires and curriculum difficulties. In 1898, Percy I. Bugbee became a principal, a position he held for 35 years. He is credited with establishing the institution's educational foundation. During these years he was a resident of 18 Walnut Street.
The railroad and college were catalysts for a remarkable period of growth in population, business, and building which caused the development of the final and major phases of the Walnut Street Historic District. In 1865, when the railroad reached the village of Oneonta, it had a total population of 744. By 1882 the population reached 3,700, almost five times greater than in 1865. When Oneonta became a city in 1909, the population had reached 9,041. Today's population is 15,000.
Originally, Walnut Street was two blocks long running from Maple Street to Dietz Street. Ford Avenue was opened in 1869, bisecting the block between Dietz and Elm. In 1895, Walnut Street attained its present size when it was extended to Church Street, formerly Center Street.
Merchants supported by railroad and college prosperity were attracted to Walnut Street to build grand and imposing homes. Large spacious residences replaced the hop warehouses and scattered vernacular houses.
Partners in business built houses within short distances of one another. After A.C. Moody started his hardware and salvage business, he built an elegant Second Empire house at 23 Elm Street in 1870. Later his partner Frank Gould constructed an even grander mansion at 29 Ford Avenue in the Victorian Gothic style.
Brothers Louis C. Gurney and Everett Gurney were partners in the firm of M. Gurney and Sons, Dry Goods, Carpeting, Cloaks and Draperies. In 1895, when Everett Gurney was living in a converted hop warehouse at 26 Walnut, Louis C. Gurney built a Victorian Romanesque house at 55 Dietz Street. In 1900, Everett moved the converted warehouse to 28 Walnut and built a large, Neo-Classical Revival house on the site. For many years thereafter the brothers lived only one block apart in the Walnut Street Historic District.
Among the most prominent families in the Walnut Street Historic District were Albert Morris and his sons, owners of a large and successful feed and grain business. In 1885-1886, Albert Morris built a mansion at the corner of Maple and Walnut (43 Walnut Street), a masterpiece of Victorian eclecticism. In 1902, his son Stanley Morris built a large Queen Anne style house across the street at 10 Maple Street. Another son Clifford Morris, occupied the opposite corner, a large Victorian Gothic house at 5 Maple Street, while yet a third son, Burton Morris, constructed a grand Neo-Classical Revival house at 41 Walnut Street in 1913.
Percy I. Bugbee resided at 18 Walnut Street during his 35 years as principal of the State Normal School. Another notable educator was Frederick S. Binder, the first president of Hartwick College (est. 1927), who lived at 6 Walnut Street.
Walnut Street has been the home for three mayors of Oneonta. Oneonta's first mayor, Albert Morris, lived at 43 Walnut Street and served from 1909-1912. Later mayors were J.S. Lunn who lived at 6 Walnut and served from 1912-1917 and Daniel Franklin who lived at 43 Walnut Street and held office from 1938-1942. Another important political figure living in the historic district was Abraham L. Kellogg, a lawyer and State Supreme Justice who lived at 29 Ford Avenue for over thirty-five years.
During the twentieth century Oneonta has continued to be the commercial center of Delaware and Otsego Counties. Education has continued to be important to the community with the establishment of Hartwick College in 1927 and the expansion of the Normal School into the State University College at Oneonta in the 1960s and 1970s. The Delaware and Hudson Railroad continues to maintain large railroad shops in Oneonta, but with the advent of diesel locomotives and changing traffic patterns in the 1950s the shop forces have been reduced.
An increasing number of the large mansions in the Walnut Street Historic District have been converted from single-family to apartment or office use. The Charles Smith House (25 Elm Street) has been converted to a convent, the Gould-Kellogg House (29 Ford Avenue) is now used as a home for the retarded, and the Louis Gurney House (26 Walnut Street) and the Henry Saunders House (31 Walnut Street) have been remodeled for apartments. In all these adaptations the original character of the houses has been retained but the expense of maintenance continues to work against large houses like the ones in the Walnut Street Historic District.
The increased use of the automobile has meant the creation of a large parking lot between Dietz Street and Ford Avenue near the Walnut Street Historic District. Homes surrounding the parking lot have been converted to business uses. This commercial pressure has led to increased awareness of the historic value of the Walnut Street Historic District and eventually to this nomination.
Campbell, Dudley M. A History of Oneonta, 1906.
Moore, Edwin R. In Old Oneonta, vol. 2, 1963.
Slawson, Alma F., and Diantha Dow Schull. Oneonta Landmarks, 1973.