Seneca Falls Village Historic District
The Seneca Falls Village Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. 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 Seneca Falls Village Historic District is located in and around the main commercial sector of Seneca Falls, a western New York village with a population of approximately 7,500. The village is located between the northernmost ends of Seneca and Cayuga Lakes, 40 miles east southeast of Rochester. The Seneca Falls Village Historic District includes portions of Fall, State, Cayuga, Johnston and Water Streets and all of North Park Street, South Park Street, Trinity Lane and Beryl Avenue and contains 174 principal contributing buildings: 14 contributing outbuildings, 8 contributing structures, 2 contributing objects, 40 principal contributing buildings, 57 noncontributing outbuildings and 2 non-contributing structures. The majority of the buildings in the Seneca Falls Village Historic District are commercial and residential, and are located north of the State Barge Canal. The Seneca Falls Village Historic District encompasses a collection of brick and frame buildings exhibiting a range of mid-to-late nineteenth and early twentieth century architectural styles. The commercial buildings are generally of brick and no more than three stories high with the exception of the Hotel Gould, which is four stories high. The residential buildings are one to three stories high. The significant commercial buildings are generally Italianate in style and reflect later nineteenth century construction, while most of the significant residential buildings are Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne or Colonial Revival in style.
Two industrial complexes are included in the Seneca Falls Village Historic District — the Seneca Falls Knitting Mill complex on the south side of the State Barge Canal, constructed of stone in a vernacular utilitarian design common to mills in western New York during the early nineteenth century, and the New York State Electric and Gas hydroelectric complex at locks 2 and 3, built of brick in 1917. Four churches, two railroad stations and two schools are interspersed among the other buildings within the Seneca Falls Village Historic District. The churches generally reflect the Romanesque Revival style (the Presbyterian Church at 23 Cayuga Street also has Gothic details), and the railroad terminals, constructed in 1853, are of the Italianate style. The twentieth-century school buildings exhibit the influence of the Colonial Revival style. Contributing structures in the Seneca Falls Village Historic District include a nineteenth century stone arched bridge faced with concrete near Cayuga Street, a steel Pratt truss bridge constructed in 1915 on Bridge Street, a portion of the State Barge Canal south of the commercial district, and canal locks 2 and 3. Several massive nineteenth century stone retaining walls remain behind the commercial buildings along the south side of Fall Street. The Seneca Falls Village Historic District also includes the archaeological remains of important nineteenth century industrial and transportation facilities, many of which lie submerged below Van Cleef Lake. These resources have not been inventoried or professionally evaluated as part of the Seneca Falls Village Historic District nomination. Commercial and residential setbacks are generally uniform, although some of the earlier residential buildings along the west sides of State and Cayuga Streets have greater setbacks than later residences. There are many different varieties of historic plantings and mature trees within the Seneca Falls Village Historic District, particularly in residential areas.
The Seneca Falls Village Historic District is architecturally and historically significant as a large and exceptionally intact village commercial and residential center which retains significant streetscapes and buildings illustrating growth and development of a thriving manufacturing center between 1800-1930. The Seneca Falls Village Historic District encompasses the village's historic commercial and residential core, including one previously listed historic district and portions of the New York State Barge Canal and Van Cleef Lake. The Seneca Falls Village Historic District includes outstanding and regionally significant examples of national architectural styles popular during the Seneca Falls Village Historic District's period of significance, ranging from the Federal to the Colonial Revival. The Seneca Falls Village Historic District includes significant concentrations of Italianate and Queen Anne style commercial buildings as well as historic industrial resources and transportation facilities from the nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries. Together, the historic streetscapes and buildings of the Seneca Falls Village Historic District retain a high degree of integrity and recall the regional prominence of this community in the historic and economic development of central New York.
The development of the area that came to be known as Seneca Falls generally followed evolutionary patterns of other population centers within western New York. The falls of the Seneca River are located under the present-day canal and Van Cleef Lake. A mile-long rapids dropped forty-two feet and had to be circumvented for early river travelers. An area known as the "Flats" now under Van Cleef Lake, was a landing place for the portage around the falls. All travelers on the Albany-Geneva route used the portage, including Indians, missionaries, traders and colonial troops. During the Sullivan Expedition of 1779, which defeated the Iroquois Indians and opened up "the vast wilderness stretching from the German Flats on the Mohawk, westward to Lake Erie, and from the St. Lawrence." Following the American Revolution, part of the great westward migration of peoples from New England flowed along the Seneca River.
The area around the rapids of the Seneca River that would later become Seneca Falls was originally part of the "Military Tract," a district in western New York set aside for veterans of the Revolutionary War. In 1788, part of this tract was incorporated into a larger land acquisition known as the Phelps and Gorham Purchase. Prior to 1786, the states of Massachusetts and New York both claimed jurisdiction in the area. This matter was satisfactorily resolved in a negotiated settlement reached at Hartford, Connecticut, which upheld New York's jurisdiction but allowed Massachusetts the preemption title to all land west of Seneca Lake. This land was later sold in 1791 to Pulteney Associates, a British land brokerage firm. Pulteney Associates hired Capt. Charles Williamson as their land agent in western New York. To provide better access to the Pulteney holdings, Williamson constructed roads in northern Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York. One of these roads was the Great Genesee Road, which intersected the Seneca River at the Flats. This road at the portage helped to establish Seneca Falls as a major transportation center.
In 1786, the New York Legislature further organized the Military Tract into 28 townships. The Town of Junius was one of these and contained present-day Seneca Falls (Junius was split in 1829 into the towns of Waterloo, Seneca Falls and Tyre). In 1794, four partners — Robert Troup, Nicolas Gouverneur, Stephen Bayard and Elkanah Watson — formed the Bayard Land Company and bought most of the land around the Seneca River falls and rapids. The Bayard partnership controlled area development until 1827, when their holdings were finally sold at a substantial loss. However, the prospects for profits were high in 1794 due to waterpower and transportation potential within the area.
The New York Legislature advocated improvements in the state's transportation network at an early date. In 1789, the legislature passed the Road Township Act to fund a road between old Fort Schuyler and Seneca Lake. Another Road Act of 1794 and the Lottery Act of 1797 provided further funds for completion of what became known as the "Great Genesee Road." In 1800, the legislature refined its road project through creation of the Seneca Turnpike Company, which collected tolls along the Great Genesee Road. A natural corollary to road construction was utilization of existing natural waterways for canal development.
In 1791, the travels of Elkanah Watson, an original partner in the Bayard Land Company, convinced Governor DeWitt Clinton to champion a law authorizing river surveys throughout the upstate region. As a result of this initiative, the legislature granted charters in 1792 in the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company and the Northern Inland Lock Navigation Company for improvements to upstate New York waterways. These companies accomplished only minor improvements before dissolving in 1797. However, one of the improvements was work on the Seneca River which allowed boats of up to sixteen tons to reach the Seneca Falls.
The first white settler in the area was Job Smith, who built a log shelter on the flats in 1787. Smith founded the portage business around the falls and left in 1793 following the death of his wife in childbirth the previous year. Lawrence Van Cleef was the first permanent white settler on the flats in 1789. Van Cleef was a farmer and evidently assisted Smith in the portage business. During the 1790's, migration to the area increased as more white settlers journeyed west from New England.
Although founded to exploit and promote development along the Seneca River, the Bayard Land Company exerted a monopoly which impeded rapid growth until dissolution of the company in 1825. By that time, Rochesterville, located forty miles to the northwest at the Genesee falls, was a booming frontier town with a population approaching ten thousand. The founders of Rochesterville had quickly divided their original hundred-acre tract into lots which were sold to settlers eager to buy. A system of "family capitalism" evolved which insured orderly growth and development in Rochesterville. The location of the Erie Canal aqueduct over the Genesee River in Rochesterville guaranteed tremendous commercial advantage for the area even after the great migration of people from New England swept further westward.
During the mid-nineteenth century, Seneca Falls became associated with the burgeoning women's rights movement. Reflecting an era of great social and religious reform, the organized women's rights movement grew from a split within the antislavery movement over whether to include women within the ranks. Prior to 1840, the status of all women remained much as it had been during the colonial era. The legal status of a woman was like that of a minor or a slave. She could not vote and was denied control of her property. A wife had no power to make a will, sign a contract, or initiate court action without her husband's permission. However, middle class women of the period became strongly involved in the leading social causes of the day such as temperance, antislavery, and prison and asylum reform.
In 1838, The National Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women met at Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, a mob against emancipation of slaves or women broke into the hall and set it ablaze. Lucretia Mott, one of the organizers, feared for her life. In 1840, Mott journeyed to London, England for the World's Anti-Slavery Convention, where she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a graduate of the Troy Female Seminary. The two women decided to hold a women's rights convention on their return to America. This convention was finally held in 1848 at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls (126 Fall Street). The delegates passed a "Declaration of Sentiments" for women, asking for equality in marriage, property, education and the ministry. The resolution calling for equal voting rights passed by a small majority. The Seneca Falls convention represented a significant milestone in the women's rights movement, and was followed by state and federal legislation in 1845 and 1860 allowing married women to own and control property. Similar conventions, inspired by the Seneca Falls example were held in Akron, Worcester and Syracuse, and many other locations.
Architecturally, the Seneca Falls Village Historic District reflects Seneca Falls' development as a transportation and manufacturing center during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although few buildings survive from the earliest decades of the community's development, several houses and one industrial facility remain within the historic district to represent the growth of the village during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Prominent among these resources is the Seneca Knitting Mills Complex at 7 Canal Street. Begun in 1844, the core of the complex consists of a massive three story limestone building with a monitor roof, regular fenestration and classical embellishments including a bell tower with round arched openings detailed with keystones and impost blocks, full entablature with gable returns, and simple cut stone lintels. Later additions to the manufacturing complex were constructed of brick, detailed in the Italianate fashion with corbelled cornices and segmentally arched openings. The complex, typical of dozens which historically lined the banks of the Seneca River is the last nineteenth-century industrial facility to survive in Seneca Falls. Although a similar plant of this period survives in the adjacent community of Waterloo, few manufacturing buildings of this scale and quality of construction remain in western New York.
Remnants of the nineteenth-century Cayuga and Seneca Canal survive beneath Van Cleef Lake together with the foundations of an undetermined number of mills and factories, demolished during the construction of the present Barge Canal. Some of these structures appear to remain intact, including at least one canal lock observable when the lake is drained in the winter. These features are located within the boundaries of the current Seneca Falls Village Historic District but require archaeological documentation outside the scope of this nomination before their extent and historical significance can be fully measured.
The Seneca Falls Village Historic District also includes several extant late Federal and Greek Revival style residences of the period 1825-1850. The majority of the building stock form this period, however, was either destroyed by early fires or replaced by more pretentious residences in the post-Civil War decades. Among the earliest houses in the Seneca Falls Village Historic District is the Federal style Van Cleef House at 86 Cayuga Street, begun in 1825 and modified to its present form in 1834. This frame house exhibits a symmetrical five-bay, two-story center entrance facade common throughout the state during this period. The Charles Lansing Hoskins House at 40 Cayuga Street, built of brick in 1836, features a three-bay side entrance facade and is detailed with transitional Federal/Greek Revival style details including an elaborate entrance with engaged Ionic columns, sidelights, and transom, and elliptical attic fanlights. The Henry Seymour House at 27 Cayuga Street, built between 1844 and 1852, represents one of the few surviving examples of the Greek Revival style in the Seneca Falls Village Historic District. Built of brick, the two-story house features a gabled three-bay, side entrance facade with broad entablatures and gable end returns.
A number of Federal and Greek Revival style commercial buildings were constructed in the village during this era, but few survive intact. The only evidence of these buildings within the Seneca Falls Village Historic District is the east wall of the Sharpe Block at 41-43 Fall Street, dating from 1821 and featuring an elliptical attic-story lunette. The remainder of the building was rebuilt in the Italianate mode following a major business district fire in 1859. Several heavily altered commercial buildings of the 1820s and 1830s remain along West Bayard Street outside the historic district.
Seneca Falls enjoyed a period of accelerated growth during the third quarter of the nineteenth century which is reflected in a large number of architecturally significant commercial, residential and ecclesiastical buildings designed with reference to the romantic revivals of this period. The advent of the Rochester and Auburn Railroad in Seneca Falls in 1840-1841 and its subsequent merger with the New York Central System in 1853 was a contributing factor in the growth of the village during this period. Both the 1853 Italianate style passenger and freight terminals at 51 and 60 State Street survive, as does the former Day Street overpass, built c.1845. The terminal buildings continued to serve the railroad until 1958 when they were sold. Both buildings have been modified for use as offices.
The Fall Street business district, as it exists today, is largely the product of the rebuilding which followed the fires of 1859 and 1890 with several early twentieth century buildings interspersed. The eastern end of Fall Street features a strong concentration in Italianate style commercial buildings, typically built of brick, three stories in height, three bays in width and decorated with corbelled cornices and hooded windows. Representative examples include the buildings at 45, 51, and 53 Fall Street. The 1890 Conflagration resulted in the construction of several significant Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne style commercial buildings along Fall Street and the lower end of State Street. The Partridge Block at 111-121 Fall Street, the King and Daniels blocks at 90 and 102-106 Fall Street, and the Opera House Block at 4-14 State Street were all built within two years of the 1890 fire, attesting to the continued economic vitality of the village into the 1890s. Infill construction in the early twentieth century, including the two Neoclassical style banks at 54 and 76 Fall Street, has contributed to the architectural diversity and distinctive qualities of the Fall Street streetscape within the historic district.
The third quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed the development of Cayuga Street as a predominantly upper class residential avenue, lined by the large and stylish homes of the village's leading entrepreneurs. Prominent examples include Gothic Revival style houses built in the 1850s and early 1860s at 36, 42, 60, and 62 Cayuga Street. The Shipp House at 60 Cayuga, one of the finest examples of the Gothic Revival style in the region, is built of brick and features an unusual triple gabled facade. The Italianate style and Second Empire style are also well represented on Cayuga Street. Examples include the 1854 Italianate style house of Seabury S. Gould, president of Gould Manufacturing, the c.1860 Second Empire style house at 57 Cayuga Street built for Justus B. Johnson President of the Exchange National Bank, and the Second Empire style mansion at 30 Cayuga Street, built for Harrison Chamberlain, owner of the Seneca Woolen Mills c.1870. Large houses continued to be built along Cayuga Street throughout the remainder of the century. The 1876 Second Empire style Guoin House at 32 Cayuga Street, and the Mrs. Erastus Partridge House at 55 Cayuga Street, remodeled in the Queen Anne style c.1890 and currently occupied by the Seneca Falls Historical Society represent noteworthy examples of late nineteenth century mansions.
State Street, which runs parallel to Cayuga Street, contains similarly styled late nineteenth and early twentieth century residences of a generally smaller scale. The Barlow-Gould-Wesley House at 67 State Street is an important Colonial Revival style house built by George Barlow after 1896 and owned for a time by Seabury Gould, III, grandson of the founder of Gould's Pumps. The Emery House at 77 State Street is an imposing Queen Anne style house of frame construction which achieved its present configuration c.1886. Farther north at 95 State Street is the 1870 Sharp-Weatherlow House, an outstanding example of Italianate style residential architecture. The Gay House at 99 State Street and the Landberg House at 111 State Street are also good examples of the Italianate style.
The east side of State Street features a mix of Italianate, Victorian and Colonial Revival residences. The Mann House at 78 State Street is a distinctive Dutch Colonial design while its neighbor at 100 State Street several houses north is another excellent frame Italianate house with a cupola. 104 State Street, located at the extreme northern edge of the Seneca Falls Village Historic District, is a good Colonial Revival design with an oval window between the first and second floors.
Two school buildings included within the Seneca Falls Village Historic District: the First Ward School at 76 State Street and the Mynderse Academy on North Park Street. The First Ward School, designed by William Potter in 1905, housed kindergarten through sixth grade until 1954, when the fifth and sixth grade classes were moved to the Clinton Street School. The school building was used by the school district until 1985 when the property was bought by a private individual. Although in need of repair, the First Ward School remains an excellent example of early twentieth century institutional architecture. The Mynderse Academy, or old Intermediate School, was built in 1924 on the site of the original Mynderse Academy completed in 1833. The early academy was also part of a plan to create an early central park area within the village which was unfortunately abandoned in the 1840s when railroad tracks bisected the park. The academy was named for Wilhelmus Mynderse, a partner in the Bayard Company and one of the founding fathers of Seneca Falls. The present Colonial Revival building is actually the third on the site, having replaced an earlier school constructed in 1886. The school building currently houses offices.
The years between 1870-1873 were milestones in Seneca Falls' religious history. During that three-year period, four church buildings were completed north of the Fall Street commercial district. These include the Congregational Church (1871), the First United Methodist Church (1872), the Wesleyan Methodist Church (1871) and the Presbyterian Church (1873).
By the mid-nineteenth century, natural resources and advantageous positions along the Erie Canal enabled Syracuse and Rochester to become the predominant urban and industrial centers in central and western New York. In 1853, developments in railroad transportation reinforced the leading positions of these cities. Seneca Falls continued to prosper on a smaller scale as a regional manufacturing center by realizing the advantages of cheap power and transportation. Canal traffic dropped off after 1869, as evidenced by the declining amounts collected as tolls during the 1870s. Rail traffic did not drastically decline until about 1880, when most east-west traffic moved between Syracuse and Rochester. As competition and financial misfortune led to the decline of major industries within Seneca Falls during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the town gradually lost its relative economic prominence.
By the early twentieth century, New York's canal system had become viewed as outdated. During the early twentieth century, New York State appropriated funds for a new Barge Canal system which would modernize the old canal beds and locks and accommodate larger tonnage vessels and motorized propulsion. In Seneca Falls, the new, larger channel and locks required more water, to supply the forty-nine foot lift of the proposed locks. Sixty residential and 116 commercial buildings were either torn down or removed from the Flats, however many building foundation and canal structures appear to have been left intact. Industrial casualties included the Goulds Manufacturing Company, Rumsey Pumps, American LaFrance and the Braman Mills (site of one of the original Mynderse mills). The new locks and an associated hydroelectric plant now operated by New York State and Gas and Electric Company; were subsequently flooded beneath Van Cleef Lake. The construction of the enlarged barge canal abruptly ended almost a century of industrial activity along the falls and forever changed the physical appearance of the village.
The Village of Seneca Falls, although economically eclipsed by other regional municipalities, stood out among area nineteenth century population centers as a dynamic industrial producer. From the early mills of the Bayard Land Company days to the final obliteration of factories along the river, Seneca Falls followed a familiar pattern of development common within western New York. The rise of the pump and fire engine industries gave added impetus to the local economy and allowed the village to experience prosperity into the twentieth century. This prosperity fueled development of a thriving commercial and residential area north of the Seneca River which today is represented by many extant buildings and residences.
The Seneca Falls Village Historic District reflects a diverse melange of architectural styles common during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which illustrate commercial and residential development to a high degree. The Seneca Falls Village Historic District also contains archaeological remains important to an understanding of industrial development within Seneca Falls from its genesis as a milling center in the early nineteenth century. The area embodies architectural and historical significance through remaining buildings and structures, which taken together, illustrate the industrial, commercial and residential development of Seneca Falls over time.
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Bodner, Connie Cox, Mark L. Drumlevitch and Brian L. Nagel. Stage II Site Monitoring and Stage III Impact Mitigation, Historical Investigation, and Data Recovery for the Lower Falls Mill and Data Site, City of Rochester, Monroe County, New York. Manuscript on file. Rochester Museum and Science Center, Research Division.
Cornell, University, Preservation Planning Workshop. "Blue Form Survey — An Architectural and Historical Inventory of the Village of Seneca Falls Historic District, Seneca Falls, New York, 1989." Seneca Falls Planning Department, The Village of Seneca Falls, New York.
Eisenhart, Edward Charles. "A Century of Seneca Falls History — Showing the Rise and Progress of a New York State Village." Unpublished Thesis. Princeton University, 1942.
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