Thousand Island Park Historic District
The Thousand Island Park Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
The structures remaining from the 1870's in the Thousand Island Park Historic District are primarily one and one-half or two-story cottages with a simple plan. The roofs characteristically are steeply pitched; first story verandas often extend across several sides of the buildings. The designs may have been derived from Gothic cottage catalogues popular during the period. The ornamental details on these buildings, however, display a rich and inventive diversity. An outstanding structure surviving from this era is the "Sweetheart Cottage: at 66 Outlook Avenue. Intricate wood latticework surrounds a large, extremely unusual inverted heart on the front facade of the building. These elements, as well as the building's diminutive scale, contribute to the picturesque character of the cottage. The "Iron Cottage," at 290 Coast Avenue East is also included among the early park buildings. It is distinguished by its corrugated metal siding, applied over a wood frame, ostensibly to protect the building from fire. The building has extensive porches, paired windows, decorated gable ends, and a prominent corner tower which emphasizes the verticality of the design.
Departing from the "pointed" style of the early Gothic influenced cottages, the Queen Anne residences of the park tend to be larger and less standardized. Although similarly picturesque with their complex massing and elaborate eclectic ornamentation, this second phase of buildings demonstrates the change in taste from the 1870's to the 1890's. The Penn Cottage, at 30 Coast Avenue West, is a good representative example of a second phase, Queen Anne style residence, with its engaged tower, a rounded pavilion incorporated at the corner of the expansive porch, a granite porch foundation, several gables, and an asymmetrical plan. Other park residences constructed in the 1890's are less strictly Queen Anne. Some display distinctly classical elements. An outstanding example of such a structure is the "Gridely Cottage," at 115 Coast Avenue West. The building's front porch is supported by grouped Doric columns. The details of the building are considerably more restrained than that of the earlier park residences. The rhythm created by the massing of forms and windows is more regular than the earlier designs.
Among the park's twentieth-century buildings are several Neoclassical designs as well as several simple, but massive, restrained Colonial Revival style cottages. The Thousand Island Park Library clearly expresses the influence of eighteenth century Georgian design and is compatible with the park's large twentieth century structures. It is situated near the green on St. Lawrence Avenue. Distinguished by a large pedimented portico and pedimented window moldings, it is an outstanding example of an early twentieth century public building in a small community.
The entire parcel of land is owned and maintained by the Thousand Island Park Corporation, while each cottage is privately owned.
The Thousand Island Park Historic District contains an outstanding concentration of substantially intact late nineteenth and early twentieth century resort architecture. Embellished with elaborate and often unique details, the closely grouped structures in the planned campground represent a significant phase in the history of the internationally recognized resort community in the upper St. Lawrence River.
In 1875 the Rev. John Ferdinand Dayan founded the Thousand Island Camp Association for the purpose of promoting Christianity. Rev. Dayan, a Methodist minister and Jefferson County native, had begun planning a religious retreat as early as 1867. The basic concept of a religious campground had changed dramatically from the old one or two day meeting in a back woods clearing. These meetings were filled with noise, confusion and extreme emotionalism. This image began to change after the Civil War, as the Baptists and Methodists established more denominational colleges. The students from these colleges who attended the meetings balanced the emotionalism with rational thought. The trend in camp meetings was to meet for an extended period and for a specific purpose. Chautauqua Institute, in the town of Chautauqua near Jamestown, New York, was organized as a summer center for training Sunday school teachers in a thoroughly Christian setting. As the Thousand Island Park idea evolved, its specific purpose was defined as "encouraging social interaction between the people of the United States and Canada." Reverend Dayan's idea was accepted in 1874 at the Northern New York Conference of the Methodist Church, and a committee of eleven lay people and clergy from the United States and Canada was chosen to select a site for the park. The western end of Wellesley Island was chosen because of its detached location, level topography, and prevailing southwest breezes.
During its first year, the Thousand Island Park was a colony of tents surrounding a few more permanent commercial buildings whose construction was sponsored by the thousand Islands Park Association. The colony was soon transformed into a permanent village of residences, many of which were embellished with elaborate and varied wood ornament.
By 1880 the picturesque Gothic cottages numbered 200 and the summer population reached 1500. While community activities focused around religious meetings and educational programs, swimming, boating and other forms of water recreation were popular. Other activities available to residents included, croquet, horseback riding, roller-skating, and lawn tennis. Services available in addition to the grocery store included a drug store, bakery, laundry, ice cream shop, book store, meat market, and hardware store. The park also boasted a library, art gallery, museum and its own newspaper. By 1885, a Board of Health was created and a reservoir and sewer system was soon after installed. The Thousand Island Park Hotel, a wooden structure accommodating 400 guests, was completed in 1883. By 1887, construction had begun on a new dock and on the conversion of the pavilion at the main dock into the larger present structure. By 1890 the park was firmly established, with nearly 600 cottages and 7000 summer inhabitants. Although as a religious campground Thousand Island Park was not unique in the country or the region, it was built on a scale far surpassing other similar associations.
The park hosted a variety of speakers each summer from around the world. In 1894, Swami Vivekananda journeyed from India to address the World Parliament of Religion, part of the Columbian Exposition. It was through his efforts that Hinduism became well-known in the West. His seven-week stay at the park allowed him to work with "a small group of disciples who would carry on his work in America after he left." The cottage at which he stayed, since known as "Vivekananda Cottage," is a chapel today. It is not uncommon for pilgrims on world-wide tours of sacred Hindu places to visit the site. Other visitors and speakers at the park included Carrie Nation and Frances Willard, highly influential women associated with the temperance movement.
The 1872 visit to President Grant to one of the Thousand Islands is generally given credit for directing national attention to the region and promoting it as a fashionable resort spot. An early (1874) letter regarding the Park Association's "By Laws" suggests that ever since its inception, the primary purpose of the colony was "to enable families to secure good, pleasant lots for cottages or tents where they (could) spend a portion of the summer in a beautiful, cool, and salubrious place," with religious purposes being only secondary. In any case, by the 1890's many of the colony's original restrictions, such as curfews and the prohibition of cards and alcohol, had been lifted, thereby bringing more of a resort character to the park.
The destruction by fire in 1912 of the park's last great hotel, the Columbia, signalled the end of an era. The fire also destroyed seven commercial buildings, a chapel, and ninety-nine other structures in the western end of the park, most of which were not rebuilt. As a result of the Depression, a foreclosure action against the Thousand Island Park was carried out in 1933. A newly formed corporation, some of whose members had been trustees of the Park Association, was able to purchase the park. The corporation operates the community today, maintaining the property and public buildings for park residents.
Thousand Island Park is the largest and best surviving example of a late nineteenth century religious colony in the region. Its 305 surviving structures, the overwhelming majority of which are summer cottages, are remarkably intact. The park survives as a small and cohesive residential enclave distinguished by its special architectural quality as well as its rich cultural and social history.
Jacox, Helen P., and Eugene B. Kleinhans, Jr. Thousand Island Park: One Hundred Years, and Then Some. Thousand Island Park, New York: Valhalla Printing Company, 1975.