South Worcester Historic District
The South Worcester Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. 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 South Worcester Historic District encompasses the rural, unincorporated hamlet of South Worcester and its immediate setting. The hamlet is located approximately 65 miles southwest of Albany, New York in the northwestern foothills of the Catskill Mountains, and contains 41 buildings, 20 of which are currently in use as residences. Buildings within the hamlet are situated along both sides of Otsego County Route 40 for approximately one mile. The narrow, tree-lined road extends along the north side of a small east-west valley formed by the Charlotte River. Open fields occupy the flat bottomlands between the river and the buildings in the hamlet, and a combination of fields and woodlots cover the steep hillsides immediately north of the road. Architecture within the hamlet consists primarily of nineteenth and early twentieth century frame residences and outbuildings representing typical vernacular interpretations of popular national styles of period between ca.1810 and ca.1942. Several distinctive church buildings, a working farm complex, and two significant cemeteries contribute to the historic character of the hamlet. The topography of the valley, the presence of open space, and the virtual absence of modern intrusions contribute significantly to the historic setting of the hamlet and help to define the South Worcester Historic District.
The boundaries of the South Worcester Historic District include the hamlet's buildings and much of the adjacent open space historically associated with farming in the immediate community. Although several former fields have reverted to woods, much of the land surrounding the built portions of the hamlet remains open and in active agricultural use. The eastern boundary of the South Worcester Historic District follows South Worcester Hill Road, paralleling a small and precipitous stream which passes under Otsego County Route 40 before intersecting the Charlotte River. The center line of the Charlotte River forms the southern boundary of the historic district as well as the political boundary between Otsego County and Delaware County. The river also marks the edge of farming in the hamlet. The western boundary of the district is defined in part by South America Road, separating two cemeteries and the built up portions of the hamlet from more sparsely populated portions of the river valley to the west. The northern boundary of the South Worcester Historic District largely follows the rear lot lines of the properties on the north side of Route 40 within the district. This boundary approximates the northern edge of the river valley, thus containing the hillsides which form the historic visual backdrop to the hamlet.
The core of the hamlet is located in the eastern half of the historic district and is distinguished by a cluster of houses, former professional offices, an inn building, a store building, a blacksmith shop and two church buildings. Despite the loss of several historic houses and stores since 1900, the core of the hamlet continues to reflect the scale, density and land use patterns prevalent among small nineteenth century farming centers in central New York State. Farmhouses and occasional outbuildings and barns are located on farm sites east and west of the core. Hayfields occupy the slopes immediately north of the hamlet's center and flat bottomlands, currently under cultivation, extend to the south and west, providing vistas across the length of the historic district. West of the core, Route 40 follows the topographic contours of the north side of the valley, and is situated on a narrow shelf of land approximately 20 feet above the valley floor. Wooded hillsides rise abruptly to the north of the road throughout the western half of the district. The extreme western edge of the historic district is anchored by two historic cemeteries and an active dairy farm containing a collection of nineteenth century buildings.
Buildings within the South Worcester Historic District are oriented toward Route 40. Setbacks tend to be minimal within the higher density center of the hamlet, and more generous on the outskirts. Mature maple trees line both sides of the road within the built-up portions of the historic district as well as along the fronts of the farm houses and cemeteries east and west of the core.
The architectural character of the South Worcester Historic District is defined by a consistent use of traditional wood frame construction techniques and strong similarities in scale, form, and exterior cladding among the constituent buildings. Although a variety of historic styles and building forms are evident within the district, the majority of the buildings represent vernacular interpretations of these styles and are modestly scaled and detailed. The earliest surviving buildings in the South Worcester Historic District, including Abraham Becker's ca.1830 law office, the ca.1810 Roe House, the ca.1840 pharmacy shop, the original 1832 portions of the former inn, and the ca.1840 blacksmith's residence reflect the proportions, multi-light fenestration and attenuated detailing of associated with the Federal style. Typical details include symmetrical, flushboard-sided facades, elaborately carved and paneled entrances, and shelf-like cornices with fine molding profiles and attic fanlights or louvers.
The Greek Revival style is expressed in the design of the hamlet's two mid-nineteenth century church buildings, the ca.1840 Becker-Freedman farmhouse, the original ca.1840 wing of the Demby House, the ca.1840 portion of the farmhouse standing on the Timothy Murphy property, the ca.1840 Robertson farmhouse and the mid-nineteenth century portico of the former inn. These buildings are characterized by heavy entablatures and corner pilasters, six-over-six light windows, and trabeated entrances. The Italianate style, distinguished by its cubic massing, flattened rooflines, and richly bracketed cornices is represented by two mid-nineteenth century residences, and ca.1850-1880 alterations to two earlier Greek Revival style residences. Picturesque style embellishments were also added to several other buildings in the South Worcester Historic District during the second half of the nineteenth century, as exemplified by the elaborate scroll sawn porch brackets applied to the Tamarack Cottage, and the verandah applied to the Becker Freedman farmhouse, featuring paired porch posts, and a spindle work frieze and balustrade.
The South Worcester Historic District also includes several specialized support buildings common to the development of rural hamlets during the nineteenth century. A two story, saltbox shaped blacksmith shop, built ca.1830, and modified throughout the historic period, is a particularly rare surviving example of its type. A three story bank barn, located near the western end of the historic district, illustrates a barn type commonly associated with dairying in the second half of the nineteenth century, and is finely detailed with Victorian period gables, hooded round arched windows, and diagonally planked doors. A second bank barn and a series of farm outbuildings remains in use at the Rand farm. Several unevaluated barn sites are also evident in the district. The support building category also includes several surviving privies, and an extant, but altered carriage shed associated with the former Methodist Church.
Twentieth-century construction in the South Worcester Historic District includes several simple hipped roof houses resembling early twentieth century pattern book designs, a 1925 schoolhouse recently adapted for residential use, and a ca.1950 Ranch house, listed as a non-contributing building. Several car garages were built in the hamlet after ca.1920.
In addition to buildings, the South Worcester Historic District includes several significant sites and structures. The South Worcester Cemetery at the western edge of the South Worcester Historic District, is representative of early nineteenth century burial grounds in its hilltop siting and simple rectangular form, and is distinguished by its finely carved and highly intact funerary art, historic plantings, and a dry-laid fieldstone perimeter wall. A smaller family burial ground is located immediately north of the cemetery and features a symmetrical site plan including a large obelisk, a pair of mature Norway spruce trees, and a cast iron perimeter fence. Other significant historic features in the South Worcester Historic District include a nineteenth century stone house foundation and a network of stone farm walls evident in scattered locations north of Route 40.
The South Worcester Historic District is historically and architecturally significant as a complete and unusually well-preserved farming hamlet, representative of rural development in central New York between 1810 and 1942. Located in the rugged foothills of the Catskill Mountain region, the development of the hamlet is representative of the growth of many small farming communities which thrived in central New York in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Hamlets such as South Worcester served as community centers for sparsely populated rural farming districts, and provided focal points for local business, education, religious services and social activities. The vitality of these small farming hamlets in the mid-nineteenth century and their subsequent decline during the twentieth century closely paralleled changes in the region's agricultural economy. Since 1942, South Worcester's declining population and relative isolation from major transportation corridors and urban centers discouraged new construction and limited change within the hamlet. Today, South Worcester is recognized and valued for its distinguished and largely intact collection of vernacular architecture and the significant presence of an unspoiled rural setting.
The hamlet of South Worcester is situated in the Charlotte River valley, approximately 20 miles east of the river's convergence with the Susquehanna River at Oneonta. The valley trends northeasterly toward its source in Schoharie County, and is believed to have served as a Native American communication corridor between the Schoharie and Mohawk valley region to the north, and the Southern Tier to the south and west. European interest in the valley began with Sir William Johnson's purchase of approximately 130,000 acres in the valley from the Mohawks in 1751. When Johnson finally obtained the patent for his purchase, his holding consisted of a strip of land along the river. Johnson named the river after Charlotte of Mecklenburg, wife of George III.
Settlement of the valley began prior to the American Revolution, but sporadic fighting dispersed the region's first inhabitants. Upon the conclusion of the war and the settlement of confiscated Tory lands, several families migrated back into the Charlotte valley. Prominent among the valley's postwar settlers were Josiah Dorwin, James Strain, Timothy Murphy and the Palatine families of Jacob Becker and Dr. Ludwig Molter. These later families accounted for a large percentage of South Worcester's early populace.
The Town of Worcester was incorporated in 1797. Although sources specifically describing the physical extent of the hamlet of South Worcester and its local economy before 1860 have not been identified to date, its origins appear to have followed typical settlement and development patterns repeated throughout Central New York during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Settlement and farming usually began at subsistence levels with some lumber, ash, grains, potatoes, fruit, wool and leather eventually being produced for market. Centers for local services and trades needed to support the farms and process farm products emerged early in the nineteenth century, and matured and prospered in response to the expanding agricultural economy and a resulting growth in rural population.
Permanent farms and substantial frame dwellings are known to have been in existence in South Worcester by the 1790s, however, subsequent improvements to the hamlet's initial building stock resulted in extensive alterations or replacement. As a result, the earliest identifiable architectural resources in the South Worcester Historic District date from the second generation of construction in the hamlet beginning at about the second decade of the nineteenth century. It was also during this period that the hamlet acquired its first school (ca.1810-1820), organized its two churches (Lutheran, 1832-1834; Methodist, ca.1830s) and established the first of the specialized services such as stores, shops, and a post office and a cemetery, which collectively contributed to its identity as a typical farming hamlet of the period.
Significant buildings in the South Worcester Historic District built between ca.1810 and 1840 represent typical vernacular interpretations of the widely popular Federal style, readily distinguished by their diminutive scale, finely scaled detailing, and small, multi-light windows. Abraham Becker's former law office, built ca.1830, and Dr. Stewart's pharmacy shop, built ca.1840, are two of the finest examples. The Roe residence, a small, somewhat altered house south of the former Methodist Church, was built ca.1810, and is believed to represent the earliest recognizable building in the hamlet.
The hamlet's greatest period of prosperity and construction appears to have occurred between 1840 and 1880. This era coincides with increases in the region's agricultural output, and significant improvements in Otsego County's transportation network. Some of the hamlet's relative wealth during this period can also be attributed to the business and political activities of Abraham Becker, a prominent Otsego County lawyer and banker residing in the hamlet during most of this period. Becker maintained a law office and school in the village, operated a bank, and in 1850 built a substantial 60-room country seat in the center of the hamlet named "Lindenwood." Although the mansion burned in 1905, an earlier building used by Becker as a law office and bank survives across the street from the mansion site within the historic district.
Many of the South Worcester Historic District's most significant buildings were built or improved upon during this period, including the two church buildings and a majority of the existing residences. Stylistically, the surviving buildings of this period are best characterized as vernacular manifestations of the Greek Revival style, and later, the Italianate style. Important examples of the Greek Revival style include the ca.1850 Lutheran Church, the 1868 Methodist Church, the ca.1840 Becker-Freedman farmhouse, and the mid-nineteenth century portico and entablature of the ca.1832 hotel. The Italianate style is represented by the richly bracketed Hartley residence, a large mid-nineteenth century addition to the ca.1840 Demby residence, and a mid-nineteenth century farmhouse in the southern third of the historic district. An architecturally distinguished bank barn, built ca.1875 and detailed with round-arched windows, diagonally planked doors, and a cross gabled roof form, survives to represent the larger barns associated with farms in the hamlet during the post-Civil War years.
Changes in the region's economy after 1880 began to affect smaller farming hamlets such as South Worcester in several significant ways. The rise of manufacturing resulted in employment opportunities in urban areas and a subsequent loss of population in rural areas, particularly in areas marginally suited for farming. It also led to the availability of less expensive manufactured goods, such as farm implements, building materials and furniture which began to compete with the output of local tradesmen. In short, economic growth began to shift to the larger and more strategically located railroad towns which could support diverse manufacturing and service economies. Farming practices also began to change during this period from an emphasis on grains, wool, fruit and potatoes, to the production of fluid milk which could now be rapidly and profitably transported to urban markets over a network of railroads. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, farming became increasingly mechanized, requiring less labor and encouraging the use of larger tracts. These changes were reflected in South Worcester by a declining population and in sharply limited construction activity.
The few buildings constructed in the South Worcester Historic District after 1880 included several pattern book houses built ca.1900, and a small, modified Arts and Crafts schoolhouse built in 1925 and later converted for use as a private residence.
In 1928, Sherburn Becker, grandson of Abraham Becker and one-time mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, returned to South Worcester and began assembling land in the flats to form a large-scale dairy farming operation referred to as the Charlotte Valley Ranch. Eventually his holdings included 3000 acres, both churches, and 20 to 30 additional buildings in the hamlet. Becker's interest in the hamlet extended beyond the realm of profit into a genuine concern for its architectural preservation. Becker seems to have been inspired by the Colonial Revival Movement and the idealized image of rural New England villages, and spent a large sum of money stabilizing and restoring buildings in the hamlet. Property owners who chose not to sell out were provided with free paint and assistance in maintaining their buildings. One of the architectural legacies of this period in the hamlet's history is the Titus Bright Memorial Hall, a community hall resulting from the 1929 rehabilitation and alteration of a mid-nineteenth century stone building.
Becker died in 1948, and his holdings were sold off in 1950. The flats adjacent to the Charlotte River continued to support dairy farming, and in more recent years significant historic buildings in the hamlet have been acquired and rehabilitated by non-farming residents. Although the specific pattern of fields and woodlots in the historic district has continually changed since the hamlet was settled, the agricultural setting and preservation of open space in the hamlet remains unaltered, providing South Worcester with its cherished historic rural qualities.