The Riverside Historic District [†], situated on an oxbow of the Ohio River, is a primarily residential area which was developed in the last two quarters of the nineteenth and first quarter of the twentieth centuries. The district is noteworthy for its representation of the domestic and ecclesiastical styles in vogue during this period and for the architectural integrity and cahesiveness which it possesses. The northwestern end of the district was part of the Original Plan (1818) and Upper Enlargement (1819) of Evansville and was developed on a standard grid plan, with the structures for the most part facing Riverside Drive and First and Second Streets instead of the cross streets. Although zoning ordinances do not seem to have been developed until the 1920s, most of the buildings adhere to a minimum setback and lot size. Photographs taken during the last decade of the nineteenth century show a pleasant prosperous neighborhood with well planted (although unpaved) streets.
The Riverside Historic District is significant for the quality and diversity of its architecture and for the number of persons of local and state significance who have lived there.
The city of Evansville was originally settled in the early nineteenth century on an oxbow of the Ohio River, laid out in a standard grid plan that was oriented to the river bank. That original settlement had by the middle of the nineteenth century become the downtown district, with the prime residential area being located just southeast in what is known as the Riverside Historic District. The plan of the district and downtown retains its original orientation to the river, despite' the growth of the rest of the city along streets laid according to the cardinal points.
Developed primarily in the last two charters of the 19th and first quarter of the 20th centuries, the district housed many of Evansville's most prominent citizens, including affluent merchants, professionals, manufacturers, and others. As might be expected, the neighborhood featured many imposing houses exhibiting the wealth of their owners, but it also contained more modest residences owned by clerks, shopkeepers, or craftsmen.
In time, and particularly during the period between the two World Wars, the descendants of the original families began to move out, and the area deteriorated as more and more of these substantial houses were divided into smaller rental units or converted to other uses. Efforts to reverse this trend began in the late 1940's and have gained momentum, particularly in recent years with the formation of the Riverside Neighborhood Association and the adoption in 1975 of a local ordinance creating the Original Evansville Preservation Commission. Based upon State enabling legislation, the ordinance has charged the Commission with the authority to approve or disapprove any new construction, razing or external changes to any property located in a district of approximately 18 blocks located within the Riverside Historic District.
The Riverside Historic District is presently experiencing a return to respectability, with more and more persons buying property with an eye to rehabilitation and owner occupancy. A federally funded housing rehabilitation program introduced in 1977 is expected to contribute substantially to the improvement of the neighborhood. The Riverside Historic District was determined eligible for the National Register on June 8, 1976.
The district has managed to retain its cohesiveness and turn-of-the-century flavor despite past problems and threats to its existence. The stately homes and large shade trees lining brick-paved Southeast First Street particularly convey a sense of what it was like to live in a prosperous Evansville neighborhood in the last century, while the neighborhood as a whole offers a good representation of housing types and styles from the period. The district contains numerous buildings designed by the leading architects practicing in Evansville in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centures, such as Henry Mursinna (John Augustus Reitz House); Manson Gilbert (700 Sunset Drive); Robert Boyd and Henry H. Brickley (310 Southeast First Street, First Presbyterian Church); Clifford Shopbell (813 Southeast First Street, 408 Southeast Riverside Drive): James and Merritt Reid (St. Paul's Church): and Frank Schlotter (606 Southeast First Street). Some of the persons who built houses when the area was developed were affluent and able to travel to the east coast and abroad. They provided their architects or builders not only with sophisticated tastes, but also with furnishings which had been shipped back, such as elegant chandeliers, pier mirrors, and ornate fabrics. In addition, the German population in Evansville produced artisans and craftsmen capable of painting murals and laying intricate parquet floors.
Other houses in the district, not designed by architects, were often patterned after local vernacular styles. Their relative modesty complements the more elaborate structures, and adds to the district's diversity.
Most of the negative intrusions conform to the residential character of the district, but are unsympathetic in terms of scale and material. As can be seen on the map, many of these are located on the fringes of the district, so that their effect on its integrity is minimal. Also within the district are several neutral intrusions, most of which conform in use, scale and material, but which are of more recent vintage than others in the district. These structures, as well as several older buildings that have been substantially altered, do not seriously detract from the district's overall integrity.
The quality of the architecture, the workmanship, and the wide use of masonry and rich ornamental detail distinguish the Riverside Historic District from adjacent residential areas. This distinction was a factor in determining the district boundaries, as were differing land uses in adjacent areas and neighborhood cohesiveness.
† Adapted from: Nancy O. Long, Historic Preservation Specialist, Department of Metropolitan Development, Evansville, Riverside Historic District, nomination document, 1978, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
1st Street SE • 2nd Street SE • Adams Avenue • Chandler Avenue • Chestnut Street • Oak Street • Riverside Drive SE • Sunset Avenue