Near Westside Historic District
The Near Westside Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. 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 Near Westside Historic District in Elmira consists of some 25-30 blocks occupying approximately 77 acres near the center of the city of Elmira. Altogether, some 480 principal structures are included, located for the most part on deep building lots with large yards. The streets are of varying widths, but are arranged in a regular grid pattern. Most are lined with trees: grand mature specimens on some blocks, recent replacement plantings elsewhere. Almost half of the sidewalks are the original slate slab. Broad front lawns and plantings of shrubs and hedges contribute to the character of the streetscape.
The Near Westside was designated as a Neighborhood Strategy Area by the city of Elmira in 1978. The Community Development target area was defined on the basis of income and building condition statistics as a 16 block area bounded on the east by College Avenue, south by Water Street, west by Walnut Street, and north by Second Street. However, documenting the historical and architectural development of the area, it was found that the historic character of the area extends beyond those boundaries to form the cohesive entity defined here as the Near Westside Historic District. On the south, the Chemung River forms a natural and historically significant boundary. To the west and north, the character of the area changes gradually. The west side of Hoffman Street is predominantly commercial and forms a clear boundary to the Near Westside residential area. However, the west side of Hoffman Street between Winsor Avenue and W. Water Street consists of tree-lined 19th century houses that are of the same character of the rest of the residential buildings and is therefore included in the Near Westside Historic District. West of Walnut and north of First Street, the area is residential, but the majority of the housing dates from the 20th century, and the ambience becomes increasingly modern. While a number of the houses are over 50 years old, as a group they are younger and of lesser architectural merit than those within the Near Westside Historic District boundaries. This same criterion has been used in defining the northern boundary. The Second Street Cemetery, in the block between College Avenue and Columbia Street, has been included for its historical significance as the resting place of many of Elmira's early and prominent citizens, including pioneers and veterans of the Revolutionary, 1812 and Civil Wars. The Near Westside Historic District has changed most drastically along its eastern boundary, where modern commercial development has encroached on the earlier residential neighborhood. A jagged boundary has been drawn to exclude these modern and intrusive elements, while including as many historic buildings as possible.
A full range of 19th and 20th century styles in domestic architecture is represented in the Near Westside Historic District. Although there is no unified architectural style for the Near Westside Historic District, the buildings do share a similarity of workmanship, scale, materials and setting. Most are large, carefully crafted, two- and three-story houses of frame or brick set in spacious yards. Stone is used very little, except for foundations. Stucco and shingles are characteristic features of the late-Victorian buildings or as an exterior finish added to earlier structures. With the exception of some row tenements and a few commercial buildings, structures are set well back from the street.
The Near Westside Historic District is predominantly residential with only about 15% of the structures having commercial or mixed commercial/residential use. Historically, the Near Westside Historic District was one of the city's wealthiest residential areas, and most of the houses were built as single-family residences. However, due to the increasing difficulty and expense of maintaining these spacious structures as single-family dwellings, many have been subdivided for multiple occupancy. Increasing population density, absentee ownership, and the process of subdivision have been accompanied in some cases by architectural deterioration. Many buildings have lost architectural details or have received repairs and alterations incompatible with their original design. Nonetheless, the Near Westside Historic District as a whole retains its historic character in terms of setting, scale, and set back. Many notable buildings are intact from the time of their original construction. Fewer than 5% of the structures are built after 1920 or non-contributing; these include one large apartment complex and small modern commercial structures.
Although the character of the Near Westside Historic District derives from its large detached residences, there are other notable building types. Some buildings were originally designed for multiple tenancy: an apartment house built in the 1920's (310 Walnut Street), a group of identical Second Empire style duplexes (391-403 W. Water Street); and two groups of small brick rowhouses (359-363 1/2 W. Second Street and 377-387 W. Water Street, which was demolished on November 1, 1982). A cemetery occupies the northeast corner of the Near Westside Historic District, and there are several churches on W. Church Street. A former firehouse anchors the southwest corner of the district. On Davis Street, between W. First Street and W. Second Street, is a small group of 19th century frame commercial buildings. Out of character with the Near Westside Historic District, but notable in its own right, is the modernistic Coca-Cola plant at 413-415 W. Second Street (c.1940).
The Near Westside Historic District is significant as a concentration of fine 19th and early 20th century architecture and for its association with Elmira's historical development. Since it developed over a period of more than a century, there is no unified architectural style to the Near Westside Historic District. Rather, the variety of architectural styles, reflecting the continued growth of the area, is a distinctive feature of the district. Various architectural styles are intermingled on each street, although the earlier styles (Federal and Greek Revival) appear nearest to the river and the city center. The grandest and most imposing houses occupy W. Water and W. Church Streets, the broadest avenues in the district; while less impressive homes and vernacular interpretations of the architectural fashions appear on the narrower cross streets. The area abounds in fine examples of Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Gothic Revival, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Neo-Tudor, and Colonial Revival architecture. Even the relatively modest houses often exhibit fine detail characteristic of a particular period and style of construction.
This richness of detail, the juxtaposition of styles, and the remarkable integrity of the structures result in a distinctive historic ambience.
Originally, the eastern half of the Near Westside Historic District was part of the town of Wisnerberg, platted by Henry Wisner in 1795. From this very early period, Water Street, overlooking the Chemung River, was a prime location for residential development, and this street has the oldest houses in the historic district. Begun as a milling center for a fertile agricultural region, Elmira grew quickly from a wilderness village to a major commercial center. Completion of the Chemung Canal in 1828, connecting the Chemung River with Seneca Lake and the Erie Canal, stimulated trade, especially the lumbering industry. Opening of the Erie Railroad in 1849 and the Junction Canal in 1854 placed Elmira at the center of a superlative transportation network. Woolen and lumber mills prospered, and the metal-working industry was initiated with the incorporation of the Elmira Rolling Hills in 1869. At this time, the city had grown to cover over half of the present historic district; about twenty percent of the existing structures in the Near Westside Historic District predate the Civil War.
The Civil War years were a boom period for Elmira, as the Union Army barracks in Elmira contracted locally for huge quantities of supplies. Particularly notable are the 16,000 yards of wool woven by the Woolen Manufacturing Company for Union uniforms. When one of the barracks was converted for use as prison camp in 1864, Elmira merchants won highly profitable food contracts. The eastern boundary of the prison camp falls within the Near Westside Historic District boundary, but the only remaining evidence of the camp is four residences on West Gray Street which were constructed from dismantled officer barracks after 1865.
Byrne, Thomas. Chemung County, 1890-1975. Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, New York. 1976.
Towner, Ausburn. Our County and Its People: A History of the Valley and County of Chemung. N. Mason & Co., Syracuse, New York. 1892.