Damascus Historic District
The Damascus 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 © 2008, The Gombach Group.
The Damascus Historic District parallels the Delaware River and the route of the old Newburgh-Cochecton-Great Bend Turnpike. It is in the shape of a reversed "L" with the River forming the base. Entry to the district from the east is across the mid-twentieth century interstate bridge, the road continuing west as Route 371 (the old Turnpike) or turning left onto River Road (Rte. 63027), just beyond the boating access area adjacent to the bridge. A cluster of buildings near the bridge forms the heart of old Damascus village. From here, Rte. 371 stretches west up a steep hill, with the district ending just beyond the school at the top of the hill. Cash's Creek parallels Route 371, flowing into the Delaware between the boating access and a cemetery to the south.
The center of the District is dominated by the Baptist Church and adjacent Overlook Cemetery, the latter situated on slopes on both sides of River Road as it sweeps around a double curve, and comes back to the river. From the cemetery to the southern boundary of the District the road hugs the river which is to the east. The west side of the road features steeply sloped lawns, mature shade trees and landscape greenery, and houses with varying amounts of set-back from the highway. These are fairly large houses dating from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century. Their architecture — Tuscan Villa, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival — is generally more elaborate than the houses along the Turnpike (Route 371), with views of the river, across front lawns and road, dominating their setting. Along with the churches and the Philip O'Reilly House, these are the buildings in the district which are characterized by the highest level of ornamentation and craftsmanship.
Following the unaltered route of the Turnpike, entry to the District from the west along Route 371 offers a dramatic vista from the higher ground near the Galilee Road intersection. There is a steep drop downhill into the river valley, with a view of the cluster of buildings around the Baptist Church to the south and the Delaware River and Cochecton flats in New York State to the east.
Route 371 in Damascus is lined on either side by nineteenth and early twentieth century residences. There is just one post-1942 house in this area. Most of the non-contributing resources are garages positioned behind the houses. On the south side of the road, the houses are very close to the highway, so close that at least one lost its front porch when the road was widened for vehicular use many years ago. Behind these houses flows Cash's Creek, with a wooded area and steep drop-off in back of some houses. Across Route 371, houses are set farther back from the road, and less closely clustered. Many of these houses are backed by yards or small fields between buildings and the wooded hillside to the north. Dry laid stone walls and outbuildings of indeterminate age are also found behind many of these residences; only the longer (more than 10 feet) stone walls and large outbuildings such as full-sized barns are individually documented as resources.
Community oriented properties within the District include the churches, cemeteries, and school. The Damascus Academy, one of the most prominent schools in the river valley, was replaced by a two-story brick building in 1929; that building, with its 1962 and 1992 additions at the rear, anchors the western end of the district. At the center and western end of the District, the two churches are well maintained examples of Greek Revival and Renaissance Revival architecture. The cemeteries associated with these churches feature modest markers dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day.
Most of the buildings of the Damascus Historic District single family residences and associated buildings are generally late 19th century in architectural character. With the exception of the masonry school building, all are wood frame structures. Some have had siding applied, but many retain their original clapboard.
During the heyday of Damascus in the nineteenth century, both the Turnpike and River Road were lined by more residences and commercial buildings than exist today. Although a small village even then, it was a busy community with a number of commercial enterprises, including a general store and a blacksmith shop. The only businesses now active in the Historic District are a dentist's office and a decorative tile shop. The Vail Appley Store, once an important, multi-building complex, still stands, but since the 1980s closing as an antique shop on the ground floor, it is used for residential purposes.
Most of the architecture is simple and vernacular in style, with hints of Greek Revival or Queen Anne detailing. Outstanding buildings within the District include 1) the Philip O'Reilly House (c.1840), with its classic Greek Revival detailing (roof gable with enclosed pediment, wide frieze band, formal entrance) and complementary Greek Revival outbuilding; 2) the Vail & Appley Store (c.1860), with its unusual Victorian storefront, incorporating a 2-story bay window with multiple panes of colored glass; 3) the Baptist Church (c.1832) with its classic spire, elaborately pedimented arched windows, ornate doorway, and pilasters; 4) the picturesque Luther Appley House (c.1850), the only Tuscan Villa Style building in the river valley, with 3-story corner tower, elongated windows and roofline bracketing; and 5) the Greek Revival Style Methodist Church, with classical pilasters and belfry.
In addition to garages and other outbuildings associated with several residences, non-contributing elements within the District are: 1) two small mid-20th century cottages between the Philip O'Reilly House and the Vail & Appley Store; 2) a contemporary 2-story under construction on the foundation of the Damascus Wagon Shop, across the road from the Vail and Appley Store and across the creek from the Baptist Church; and 3) a one-story contemporary residence on the north side of Route 371.
With the exception of the houses clustered near the bridge and farther along Route 371 just east of the intersection with Galilee Road, the buildings are somewhat irregularly dispersed, partly the result of the uneven typography and partly the result of buildings which have been demolished. Although most of this demolition took place before permits and records were filed, evidence of an 1872 map indicates that at least five buildings then extant along Route 371 are no longer in existence. Where buildings once stood, there are now lawns, small fields, and wooded areas.
The area beyond the boundaries of the Damascus Historic District, in back of the designated building's, is forested hillside. Along the River Road, south of the boundary, there are less than a dozen houses, most of them built since 1942. On River Road north of the district, there are no buildings within sight. West of the district, along Route 371, there are less than a half dozen buildings in the village, all post-1942.
Buildings in the district are in variable condition. The more imposing buildings, such as the churches, the Luther Appley House and the Philip O'Reilly House, tend to be in excellent condition with a high level of architectural integrity. Others have lost some integrity and are only in fair condition. However, all of these buildings retain enough of their historic integrity to identify them with the period of significance (1810-1942).
The Damascus Historic District makes a significant contribution to the history of nineteenth and early twentieth century development of the area, especially for its association with the Newburgh-Cochecton-Great Bend Turnpike. It is also a distinctive nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture of its buildings. Historically, the Turnpike and other developments related to this highway river crossing link the District to Context 2: Upper Delaware Transportation, 1614-1942.
Damascus holds a unique place in local history because of its location at the point where the Newburgh-Cochecton-Great Bend Turnpike crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. The most significant date for the Damascus Historic District, and the beginning of the period of significance, is 1810, when the Turnpike was completed, connecting the village to Newburgh on the Hudson River and Great Bend on the Susquehanna River.
Begun in 1801 as a link between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers, by 1810 it had been extended through Pennsylvania to the Susquehanna River, forming one of the important routes for pioneers moving westward and for farmers bringing goods and stock to eastern markets. Where the Turnpike crossed the Delaware at Damascus, a busy community grew up around it. Only the Baptist Church, built in 1832, and the route of the Turnpike in the district (Route 371) remain as physical reminders of that first spurt of development, when the Turnpike was at its most active. Even when the Turnpike was abandoned as a private road in 1853, with the turnpike company formally dissolving in 1868, the highway continued in public use. A succession of bridges between Damascus and Cochecton (NY), originally associated with the Turnpike, supported the only roads spanning the Delaware for at least 30 miles up and down river until the 1890s. The Vail & Appley Store is the only remaining commercial building of that era, although virtually all the contributing buildings within the District are associated with community development of the period.
The architecture of the Damascus Historic District has a distinctly nineteenth and early twentieth century character. Many of its buildings are simple vernacular residences, with hints of Greek Revival and Queen Anne styling. Greek Revival and Queen Anne are the two most common types of historic architecture in the river valley. Damascus and Equinunk are the two communities with the greatest concentration of those styles. Damascus, in particular, has some unusually fine examples of the classic and Victorian styles within its boundaries. The more notable of these exhibit outstanding examples of craftsmanship. They include the Greek Revival Philip O'Reilly House, the Renaissance Revival Damascus Baptist Church, the Tuscan Villa Style Luther Appley House, and the Greek Revival Methodist Church.
The physical setting of the village has much to do with its nineteenth century flavor. Earliest settlers nestled their community along Cash's Creek at the point where it flows into the Delaware River. The hills were heavily forested, providing wood for local building and for rafting down river to sell at Trenton, Easton, and Philadelphia. The river remained largely unchanged, but the hills were eventually logged off. Today, second growth timber has reforested the hillsides and the area surrounding the village again looks much as it did in the early nineteenth century. As in Turnpike days, the village is visually dominated by the river and the forested hills beyond.
Although a number of the buildings associated with the Turnpike have been demolished, the spatial arrangement of those remaining — especially along River Road and the south side of Route 371 — still evokes the late nineteenth century, when Damascus was a thriving village at an important river crossing. This lack of intrusion by the late twentieth century world is what makes Cochecton unique. Other communities in the valley may have as much late nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture, but it tends to be dispersed among more modern buildings. Here, there are few new buildings and, although older buildings may have been "remodeled," they tend to retain a sense of their original style.
The combination of historical significance, natural environment, unusually concentrated clustering of old and historic buildings, and lack of visual intrusion make Damascus a unique Upper Delaware community.
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