East Hill Historic District
The East Hill Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination documentation.  Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
The East Hill Historic District is a 29-block neighborhood composed of 254 principal buildings (263 buildings and one structure) within the City of Ithaca, Tompkins County. The city of Ithaca is sited at the north end of the north-south valley which marks the drainage area of Cayuga Lake. This drainage basin is bounded by hills that rise to an elevation of 1,910 feet above sea level. Located on a glacial alluvial plain at the head of Cayuga Lake and along the hills to the west, south and east, Ithaca abounds in natural beauties. The dramatic terrain is highlighted by waterfalls, gorges and waterfront parks. The East Hill Historic District is located on a prominent hill, east of the central business district, southwest of the Cornell University Campus and bounded by the gorges formed by Cascadilla Creek and Six-Mile Creek.
The East Hill Historic District encompasses a 65-acre area that contains the greatest concentration of Ithaca's architecturally and historically significant buildings. The East Hill Historic District is the result of a comprehensive survey undertaken in 1979 and supplemented with additional historical research on East Hill's architectural and historical development. The boundaries were drawn to include that part of the historic neighborhood that has retained the architectural integrity of the 1870-1920 period, the height of the area's prestige and influence. The boundary has been drawn to include only the most intact, architecturally significant historic structures on East Hill. The northern boundary generally follows the Cascadilla Creek Gorge to Terrace Place, which reflects the transition from the "Flats" to the hill. Northwest of the East Hill Historic District, in the "Flats," are residential, religious and commercial properties that have a greater historical association with the DeWitt Park Historic District (listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971). Southwest of the East Hill Historic District, along most of Aurora Street and the 300 block of East Seneca Street, are commercial buildings (and parking lots) that have been substantially altered and no longer possess the level of integrity that characterizes the district. These streets form the eastern fringe of Ithaca's central business district, which is concentrated west of Aurora Street. The southern boundary follows the Six-Mile Creek Gorge and includes the former Ithaca City Hospital. Southeast of the East Hill Historic District are areas of extensively altered older residences, intermixed with early to mid-twentieth century buildings. The eastern boundary is drawn at Eddy Street, which was the 1887 village limit. Northeast of the East Hill Historic District are severely altered early twentieth century commercial buildings, modern apartment complexes, one-story concrete block commercial structures, vacant lots and the Cornell University campus.
The buildings in the East Hill Historic District display a broad range of popular American architectural styles, including Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival, Renaissance Revival, Colonial Revival, and Arts and Crafts. Many of the buildings were executed in vernacular interpretations of the major styles, and good examples of residences with nineteenth century historical alterations are extant within the district. While buildings within the East Hill Historic District date from ca.1830 to the 1930s, the majority were constructed during the period from 1870-1920. The East Hill Historic District is mainly composed of residences; however, one infirmary (converted to apartments), a former industrial structure, one public school, a former hospital and six commercial buildings have been included. Because settlement was relatively sparse along East Hill until the 1870s, most major streets within the district contain good examples of residences erected from the 1820s through the early twentieth century. Denser development occurs along the east-west streets from Stewart Avenue to Eddy Street. These streets reflect the late nineteenth century building booms and contain blocks where the residences were built within the span of a decade. The primary construction material employed is wood, but many brick and masonry buildings are interspersed throughout the district. The streets are generally lined with mature trees, and various evergreens, shrubs and hedges mark the front lawns.
The East Hill Historic District displays a diverse range of architectural styles dating from the Greek Revival period to the early twentieth century. The majority of the buildings were executed in styles popular during the final quarter of the nineteenth century and are the result of the building booms associated with the opening of Cornell University (1868) and that institution's subsequent expansion. As horsecar and street railway lines were given franchises along East Hill, the necessary transportation link between the downtown business district and the growing university was more firmly established.
While most of the buildings in the East Hill Historic District are detached, single-family residences, rowhouses, boarding houses and apartment buildings are in evidence. The brick mansard-roofed rowhouse at 101-103 North Quarry Street occupies a 135-degree corner lot. This rowhouse fronts both North Quarry and East State Street. Buildings such as the three-story Second Renaissance Revival mode structure at 307 Stewart Avenue and the William H. Miller designed, three-story stucco apartment building at 108 Eddy Street are built into the hillsides. These two buildings present rear facades that conform with the hill and provide habitable basements. Brick blocks that combine retail use on the first floor and residential units on the succeeding floors responded to the demands placed on East Hill by the Cornell University community (308 and 400-404 Stewart Avenue; 402-04, 416-18, and 418-422 Eddy Street). Common solutions to student housing needs included rental rooms or boarding houses. Dwellings such as 105 DeWitt Place were built for that purpose, while most of the larger homes along Eddy Street, Stewart Avenue, upper Buffalo Street, and East Seneca Street began 'letting' rooms at the close of the nineteenth century. Double houses built after 1890 were another response to a tight housing market; good examples of those executed in the Colonial Revival style are 116-118 Ferris Place, 302-04 Stewart Avenue, and 127-29 Eddy Street.
The East Hill Historic District is a fine collection of architecturally and historically significant nineteenth and early twentieth century residential, commercial and institutional buildings in Ithaca, New York. The architectural styles employed reflect the neighborhood's prestige and influence and the prominence Ithaca gained after Cornell University and the New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences were founded. The East Hill Historic District includes Ithaca's finest, most intact examples of popular American architectural styles that include the Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Shingle, Queen Anne, Renaissance Revival, Colonial Revival and Arts and Crafts. These buildings were constructed between 1830 and the 1930s and represent Ithaca's growth from a small industrial community to its twentieth century role as an internationally known, distinguished educational center. The architectural and historical significance of the East Hill Historic District are inextricably intertwined. The East Hill Historic District's residents were entrepreneurs, professional people, politicians and Cornell University faculty members and students; many were the social, economic and political leaders of Ithaca. The East Hill Historic District is further significant for the great concentration of the work of one of Cornell University's first students of architecture, whose prolific practice included commissions throughout upstate New York, from 1871 to 1920.
Ithaca's terrain is marked by a valley, the "Flats," surrounded by steep hills on the west, south and east and Cayuga Lake to the north. Although scattered pioneer settlements were noted by 1797, the impetus for a permanent community came after the New York State Legislature awarded the Revolutionary War Military Tracts. Simeon DeWitt, the Surveyor General of New York State, had acquired military tracts that amassed most of the delta area at the head of Cayuga Lake. In 1806, DeWitt platted a series of streets in a north-south gridiron pattern on the dry, flat land between Cascadilla Creek and Six Mile Creek. These holdings, which included the base of East Hill, proved to be the easiest to develop because the remaining land was marsh and swamp. This initial plat provided access to the hydropower source of Cascadilla Creek and became the focus for the community's industrial development. These fledgling factories and manufacturing works flourished with the completion of the Bath-Jericho Turnpike (an extension of the Catskill Turnpike) through Ithaca in 1804 and the Owego Turnpike in 1811. By 1824, seven turnpikes served Ithaca. The turnpike routes came into Ithaca by crossing East Hill and leaving through the Inlet Valley. The community's initial growth was triggered by these turnpikes.
As the lots in the "Flats" began to be built up, Simeon DeWitt platted additional land at the base of East Hill between Buffalo and Seneca Streets into parcels that measured 66 feet by 132 feet. These lots were available for purchase in 1829 and by 1834 development had extended to Schuyler Street. The community that was once clustered in the "Flats," at the base of Cascadilla Creek bounded by Aurora Street on the east, began to spread west in a linear pattern along State Street to the inlet. In 1821, the New York State Legislature recognized Ithaca as an incorporated village with a population of 859 and by 1836 the community had grown to 3,923 residents.
The combination of industry, turnpikes, retail services, a municipal water system and direct access up East Hill fostered the neighborhood's development. The residences on East Hill that date from the 1830s and 1840s are primarily concentrated on the 400 block of East Seneca and East Buffalo Streets. These Greek Revival style residences are modest, two-story dwellings with the gable end facing the street and wide cornice returns. The structures are generally three bays wide, with an entrance laid out to open onto a side hall, rather than centered. The doorway frequently was surrounded by sidelights and transom, as exemplified by 420 East Seneca Street. The ornamentation was subdued, often consisting of a plain pediment over the entrance, such as at 411 East Seneca Street. A few residences are more ornate examples of the Greek Revival style: 607 East Seneca Street displays a wide, heavy cornice with returns, molded pediment window heads and attic frieze windows on the long axis; 110 Osmun Place, the Howard C. Williams House, has wide cornice, returns, thin, strip pilasters at the corners, "eared" window enframements and incomplete pedimented portico. These vernacular Greek Revival style residences reflect East Hill's initial development and the financial resources of settlers who chose to build at the eastern fringe of the community. Only three temple-front Greek Revival style residences survive in Ithaca, and these buildings are located in the "Flats," two blocks west of the central business district, on Geneva Street.
The random nature of settlement along East Hill in the 1840s and 1850s was characterized by few residences near the village limit on Eddy Street. Except for isolated properties near Osmun Place and Williams Street that were associated with milling activities, the neighborhood retained a rural quality. The major force that spurred dense development on East Hill was the selection of Ithaca as the site for New York State's land grant college. Additional financial support and a vision to establish an educational institution that would serve the agricultural and mechanical arts needs of the state were brought forward by Ezra Cornell. In 1865 the State Senate incorporated Cornell University, an institution founded with private and public funds.
The East Hill Historic District contains a number of well-preserved Italianate residences constructed in wood or brick. At 712 East Seneca Street the clapboard structure has the characteristic low hipped roof, broad overhanging eaves with dentil cornice and paired consoles. Bas-relief panels enrich the thick, molded lintels and the composition is crowned with an arcaded cupola. Another clapboard residence at 426 East Buffalo Street has carved, heavy bracketed overhanging eaves and the more delicate architrave window heads mark the four-bay rhythm that punctuates the main facade. A tall cupola pierced by three round arch windows per side rises above the hipped roof. Two examples of the Italianate style executed in brick are located at 512 East Seneca Street and 111 Osmun Place. The 512 East Seneca Street residence is three bays wide with cast-iron lintels and sills. Ornate pendant brackets support the hipped roof overhang, as well as adorning the turned porch posts. The 111 Osmun Place residence's composition is of a projecting and a receding block. The tall, rectilinear windows with heavy, molded round and flat jack arch window hoods enliven the facade. Paired carved brackets support the overhanging eaves. Although a square or rectangular mass with hipped roof is a dominant Italianate form within the East Hill Historic District, several examples, such as 611 East Seneca Street are composed of projecting and receding blocks, sheltered by a low pitched gable roof. The broad overhanging eaves are punctuated with dentils and paired brackets. Typical stylistic details also include heavy segmental arch hoods that crown windows and doors. At 414 East Buffalo Street the massive corner tower and low pitched gable roof show the influence of the Italian Villa style. This residence displays a wealth of exuberant detail, such as the ornamental trusswork in the gable peak and a mixture of molded round arch window hoods and architrave lintels with delicate brackets. Other expressions of the Italianate style are at 523 East State Street and a more modest, yet ornate residence with two-story projecting bay, paired carved brackets and attic balconette located at 108 Terrace Place.
The Second Empire style was not as popular on East Hill during the nineteenth century, as the Italianate, the later Queen Anne, and various Revival styles. Nevertheless, many fine examples of this style survive in Ithaca, featuring the typical mansard roof, decorative window heads and a wide verandah supported by finely detailed porch posts and balustrade. A well-preserved Second Empire style residence is located at 211 Stewart Avenue. Executed in brick, this imposing structure is crowned by a mansard roof pierced by dormers with pediments and tall corbelled chimneys. The three-bay facade creates a rhythm with the dormers, sandstone lintels and sills.
The 1870's and 1880's were marked by extensive public improvements undertaken in the district and throughout the city. During this period, East Hill residents became vocal proponents for establishing schools, grading streets, laying of sidewalks and curbs and a municipal water and sewer system. The water and sewer systems came later in East Hill's development, and although many of the East Hill Historic District's residents continually petitioned for municipal service, it was not until after the typhoid epidemics in 1894 and 1903 that sewers were laid underground and the city assumed ownership of the waterworks.
The architectural expression that reflects the East Hill Historic District's development from village to city is the Queen Anne style. The buildings executed in this style were generally wood, with fine detailing on the major facades. The Queen Anne style residences present strong profiles that result from multiple gables and a rich textural variety achieved by combining surfacing materials. Characteristically the style was quite eclectic, blending motifs from other styles such as the Stick style and Shingle style. Many Queen Anne residences had circular or angular towers, multiple gables and intricate porches that present complicated silhouettes and facades. The East Hill Historic District's Queen Anne style residences are predominantly clapboard and enlivened with shingles, stucco, carved panels, and stained-glass windows. The most outstanding Queen Anne style residence is located at 804 East Seneca Street. The features characteristic of the style as interpreted in this structure are: an interplay of clapboard and shingle surfaces, asymmetrical massing, a sunburst motif panel in the gable end, a conical roofed second-story porch that merges with the first-story wrap-around porch. A shingled carriage barn (now converted to apartments) is at the rear of this property. The property at 409 East Buffalo Street has a complex roofline, rectangular corner tower, projecting window bays and carved bracket supports at the eave overhang. The materials for this residence are clapboard and shingle. Other residences take on a more compact box-like form, as in the restrained Queen Anne style structure at 810 East Seneca Street.
A few good examples of the Shingle style are found in the East Hill Historic District, but they are not as numerous as Queen Anne style residences, which were built in more modest, vernacular interpretations as well. The finest example of East Hill's Shingle style is the Judge Samuel D. Halliday House, designed by William H. Miller in 1890. This three and one-half story Shingle style residence has a long sweeping gable roof that shelters a two-story extension on the east. The windows are rectangular and banded by wood belt courses. Other Shingle style residences in the East Hill Historic District are 512 Edgewood Place and 308 Eddy Street.
The building booms in the last quarter of the nineteenth century shaped the dominant character of East Hill and established the pattern of building large, two and one-half and three-story structures to be constructed on the available lots. While many financial panics occurred during this period, Ithaca fared well due to a strong local economy and the steady growth of Cornell University, which opened a veterinary college in the 1890s. Ithaca broadened and diversified its industrial base, moving from supplying local markets to those of a more regional, and in some cases, a national nature. Agricultural implements, calendar clocks, glass, pianos, organs, building materials, carriages and guns were among the items manufactured in Ithaca. Ithaca's population grew as well, from 5,658 in 1865 to 11,079 by 1890. Yet the pattern of housing students with village residents persisted and provided East Hill property owners and local builders with a captive market. Newspaper accounts during the 1870s and 1880s promoted and encouraged the building booms on East Hill. The Democrat in 1874 recorded that despite hard times, improvements were apace. In 1881, the Ithaca Daily Journal noted that along East Hill "every other house will 'keep' students this year." The building booms that took place on East Hill were not sufficient to sate the demand created by university students and faculty. By 1889 the Ithaca Daily Journal constantly addressed the need for East Hill residences on the paper's editorial page.
Local entrepreneurs responded to the constant plea for more housing on East Hill by developing the upper blocks of East Seneca, East Buffalo and Williams Streets. The larger scale of boarding and rooming houses and multiple residences shaped the appearance of the district's northeastern limit during the close of the nineteenth century. The streets between Stewart and Eddy still had vacant lots in the 1880s and 1890s, yet these sites were along the steepest point of East Hill's slope. The proximity to the university compelled local investors to develop these parcels into multiple residences and large two and one-half and three-story boarding houses. Located at 202 Stewart Avenue is an intact three-story clapboard and shingle Colonial Revival residence built as a boarding house. Along East Buffalo Street and East Seneca Street other boarding houses were constructed. The most intact expressions of these building types are located at: 708 East Seneca Street, a two and one-half story stucco residence designed in a Chalet mode; 614 East Buffalo Street a three and one-half story Colonial Revival residence (some alterations) and 715 East Buffalo Street a well-preserved Colonial Revival residence with a symmetrical three-bay facade of clapboard and shingles. Because the demand for rooming and boarding houses was so intense during this period, three major brick residential blocks were constructed on Eddy Street. These buildings have storefronts on the first floor and residential use on the upper floors. Located at 402-04, 414-16 and 418-22 Eddy Street these brick structures are articulated with sandstone and limestone, pressed tin cornices, segmental arch windows and brick belt courses. The unified presence these buildings project results from similarity of materials and construction dating from 1894 to 1897.
The Colonial Revival style took a strong hold on architectural tastes in the East Hill Historic District. There are a number of fine clapboard Colonial Revival style residences on East Hill that are characterized by a two and one-half story block, with the main facade on the long axis divided into either three or five vertical sections and a central entrance beneath the portico. Ornamentation included Palladian windows, Adamesque detailing, beaded cornices and fluted corner pilasters. A fine example of this style is the residence at 314 East Buffalo Street, which has an elaborate swan's neck pediment portico and stained-glass Palladian window. Other examples include 506 East Seneca Street, 102 Highland Place, and 108 ad 110 Ferris Place.
The East Hill Historic District contains the finest architecturally and historically significant buildings reflecting Ithaca's growth from 1830 to 1920. The East Hill Historic District presents a record of Ithaca's expansion up East Hill, as well as a great display of popular American architectural styles from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The East Hill Historic District also represents the major building booms that took place at the turn of the century after Cornell University and the New York State College of Agriculture became major educational institutions of national and international renown.
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