South Main Street Historic District
The South Main Street Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
Geneva's South Main Street runs on a summit of high ground along the west bank of Seneca Lake. The mile-long South Main Street Historic District encompasses 140 structures as well as Pultney Park and the original quadrangle of the Hobart College campus. The college has absorbed many of the large nineteenth century houses at the south end of the district for fraternities or faculty housing without changing the predominately residential "small town" atmosphere of the tree-lined street. The north end of the South Main Street Historic District is closer to the center of the city, and it is characterized by 1820's and 30's brick rowhouses on either side of South Main Street and around Pultney Park.
Over half the structures in the South Main Street Historic District date from 1825 to 1850, the biggest period of growth along South Main Street, but two buildings survive which envelope 18th century structures under their later architectural "skins." Durfee House (639 S. Main Street) was originally the Lesee Company Land Office and stood further north on Main Street overlooking Pultney Park. It was moved onto its present location in 1838 and enlarged to become the two-story house with Greek Revival detailing it is today. The Pultney Apartments (40 Park Place) was originally the old Powell Hotel built in 1796. Over the years the exterior has been stuccoed, a four story front porch has been added as well as a third and fourth floor. The southern two story wing is also a later addition.
The Chapman House (562 S. Main Street) and the Ludlow House (392 S. Main Street) represent the simple frame dwellings of 1802 and 1804 respectively. They are both two-story houses with gable roofs and are three bays wide on the front (East) facade. The Ludlow House was moved to its present location in 1965 by the Geneva Historical Society from a nearby location on Pultney and Williams Streets, where it was threatened by an annex to the high school. The Trinity Church Rectory (528 South Main Street) is a similar but more substantial frame house built soon after #562 and #392. It was used from 1817-21 as the National Bank of Geneva.
The most notable Federal buildings in the South Main Street Historic District include:
The Williamson House (839 South Main Street) — large, 2-1/2 story frame house, five bays wide with centered door, gabled roof, four inside end chimneys and a balustrade on the front facade. (H.A.B.S.).
The Truslow House (606 South Main Street) — 2-1/2 story frame structure with palladian window on the second floor over front doorway. Pilasters at corners of front five bay wide facade. (H.A.B.S.).
The Prouty-Chew House (543 South Main Street) — two-story brick house with a later mansard roof and Victorian wings. Handsome front doorway with fanlight set off-center on the three bay wide front facade. Interiors intact and maintained by the Geneva Historical Society and Museum which uses the house as the headquarters.
Built at about the same time as the above, Geneva Hall (648 South Main Street) and Trinity Hall (#660) are a pair of three story academic buildings, the first constructed for Hobart College. The 1837 Trinity Hall is a near copy to the 1822 Geneva Hall, and the two are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
There are numerous fine Greek Revival structures in the South Main Street Historic District as these date from the period of greatest growth along South Main Street. At the north end of the South Main Street Historic District the brick rowhouses were first built on the west side of Main Street in the 1820's (#485-496), 294-410 South Main Street, 2-10 Park Place, 46-58 Park Place) and then on the east side the following decade (375-399, 409-15, 420-53, 469-83 South Main Street).
The typical brick rowhouse is three stories and three bays wide with an off-center doorway. There are stepped brick firewalls between buildings and the cornices are generally bracketed. Many houses have later front entrance porches or embellished doorway treatment. Numbers 48-58 Park Place, 486-488 and 477-483 South Main Street are two story, and the adjacent buildings 469-475 appear to have been originally two-story with later mansard additions.
The corner buildings in the rowhouse section of the South Main Street Historic District are generally larger and more individually distinguished structures:
The White-Wilson House (485-487 South Main St.) is a three and a half story brick building which was built c.1831 as a tavern. It has stepped brick gable ends and a handsome doorway with a leaded glass transom and sidelights on the center of the five bay wide front facade.
Number 2 Park Place is a four-story double townhouse with iron grillwork on the balconies over the paired doorways on the Park Place facade and bay windows on the first two stories on the Main Street facade. The slate-covered mansard roof has dormers.
At the south end of the South Main Street Historic District are some significant individual Greek Revival structures including the Watson-Chew House, (600 South Main Street) and the Clark House (859 South Main Street) both 2-1/2 story brick houses with projecting ionic porticos (both recorded by H.A.B.S.). The Hobart College President's House (690 South Main Street) is another monumental Greek Revival house with a Doric portico. The clapboards have been recently covered with aluminum siding.
Bradford-Bissell House (629 S. Main St.) and 731 South Main Street are two examples within the historic district of a local nineteenth century building technique using adobe blocks of mud and straw. The Bradford-Bissell House, now owned by Hobart College, has elaborate Gothic trim in its three front gables and on the front porch.
The only strictly Italianate house in the South Main Street Historic District is the Wheat House (561 South Main Street) which is a two-story brick house with a three-story tower. Nearby two neat little painted brick Gothic cottages — Balmanno Cottage (583 South Main Street) and the Woods House (549 South Main Street) — have identical wooden trim in the gables and along the roofline. An elaborate Stick style residence, the Bogart-Dove House (512 South Main Street) was designed by a New York City architect, George Hathorne, in 1871.
The old Collins Music Hall (now the Elks Lodge at 459 S. Main Street) is a fine example of a small scale Romanesque public building. It is constructed of brick trimmed with stone. There is a rounded front door and the first floor windows are also rounded. Three large dormers project on the front (Main Street) facade and four smaller dormers overlook the now abandoned East Washington Street right-of-way to the south.
Several houses on South Main Street have Queen Anne details most notably the brick and frame Tuttle House (#573) which is thought to have been the result of extensive late nineteenth renovations made to an earlier Federal house.
The southern end of the South Main Street Historic District, more remote from the center of the city, was generally developed later, and here the most distinctive turn-of-the-century houses are clustered — Tudor ones (#827, #816), Jacobean Revival (#720) and several Colonial Revival houses including #820 and #828.
Three turn-of-the-century academic buildings worthy of note around Hobart College's quadrangle are Coxe Hall, Medbury Hall and Williams Hall. All built in brick with stone quoining and window trim, the buildings have curved Jacobean gables, Coxe Hall, an administration building, and Medbury Hall, a dormitory, were both designed in 1901 by Clinton and Russell, and Williams Hall (originally a gymnasium now the post office and bookstore) was built in 1908 on the designs of Arthur Nash.
The South Main Street Historic District includes three churches and two buildings that were constructed as churches and have since been converted. In the later category is the old Protestant Dutch Reformed Church at #380 South Main Street (now the Geneva Masonic Temple) and across the street #361 South Main Street, the old Methodist Church which was later to become an automobile showroom, then a U.S.O. Center during World War II and now is the Geneva Civic Center. These two buildings both constructed around 1837 probably looked much alike originally. The Old Dutch Reformed Church is brick and has a Doric portico. The Old Methodist Church, also brick, originally had columns which were removed in 1885, and the building was enlarged to cover the area formerly used as a portico.
The First Presbyterian Church at 24 Park Place is an 1877 Ruskinian remodeling of what was originally an 1836 Greek Revival Church. It is a brick building with stone trim and a tower which had to be shortened in the 1940's.
Finally within the South Main Street Historic District are two churches either designed or heavily influenced by Richard Upjohn and altered later by his grandson Hobart Upjohn. The stone Trinity Episcopal Church (520 South Main Street) is almost an exact small scale copy of Upjohn's Trinity Church in New York City. The steeple was never finished and the interior was gutted by fire in 1932, but was rebuilt in 1934 under the supervision of Hobart Upjohn. At this time the wooden clerestory was replaced in stone.
Hobart College's St. John Chapel, was designed by Upjohn in 1852. It has a steeply pitched slate roof with colored bands of slate. It is linked to the Gothic stone library (1886) by a modern stone tower (1961) named St. Mark's Tower.
The most serious potential twentieth century intrusion on the South Main Street Historic District was the widening and re-routing of Route 5 and 20, a major east-west highway, in 1953. The road was designed to intersect the district, but has been tunnelled under the street. Three South Main Street houses had to be demolished but otherwise the road's impact has been minimal and the character of the street remarkably unchanged.
Geneva's South Main Street Historic District has been acclaimed by travellers since 1800 as a model residential street without parallel in the Finger Lakes area and one of the most consistent districts of its size in New York State.
Captain Charles Williamson (1757-1808), agent of the Pultney Associates, is credited with the layout of South Main Street and Pultney Park. Williamson described the street beginning to take shape in a letter as follows:
"In this year (1796) the Town of Geneva received a great addition by the laying of a street on the summit of a rising ground, along the west bank of the lake. At the south termination of the street, a handsome country house was begun, and finished in the year following; and in the corner of the square a large and convenient house for a tavern and hotel, besides many other large and well-finished houses."
As agent for a group of English speculators headed by Sir William Pultney, Charles Williamson was responsible for the promotion of development within a tract of 1,200,000 acres of prime land in Western New York. Most of the year Williamson supervised the far flung holdings in his trust from his rooms in Powell's Hotel, the substantial hotel he described above (later to be converted to an Hygienic Institute in the mid-nineteenth century and now disguised beneath the stuccoed facade of the Pultney Apartments). An English traveller observed the effect of Williamson's presence in 1800:
"...as he (Williamson) resides here the greater part of the year he takes care that Powell does justice to the establishment and to his guests. From this cause it is that, as it respects provisions, liquors, beds and stabling, there are few inns in America equal to the hotel in Geneva."
This Englishman, John Maude, also explained Williamson's systematic subdivision of lots on South Main Street in the interests of conserving the spectacular lake view:
"...Captain Williamson, struck with the peculiar beauty of the elevated plain which crowns the high bank of the lake, and the many advantages which it possessed as a site for a town, began here to lay out his building lots parallel with and facing the lake. These lots are three-quarters of an acre deep and half an acre in front and valued at $375.00 per lot. One article in the agreement with Capt. Williamson is that no building shall be erected on the east side of the street, that the view of the lake may be kept open. Those who purchase a lot have also the option of purchasing such land as lays between their lot and the lake — a convenience and advantage which I suppose few will forego — the quantity, not being great, and consisting principally of the declivity of the bank, which for the most part is not so steep as to unfit it to for pasturage of gardens."
In 1802, Williamson returned to England and turned his restless energy to serving a British representative to the Spanish West Indies and a volunteer advisor to successive British cabinet officers. He died of yellow fever on a mission in Havana in 1808, but his family apparently maintained their ties with upstate New York and particularly Geneva. Williamson's only surviving son, Charles, built a large frame house at the end of South Main Street in the 1820's and his mother died in Geneva in 1821.
Another early, nineteenth century traveller who was struck by the beauty of South Main Street was Timothy Dwight who wrote in his widely-read travelogue that South Main Street was situated on "the most beautiful eminence, I think, for the site of a town, which I ever beheld." Like John Maud, Dwight noted that "the houses are chiefly built on the western side; the lands on the eastern being devoted to gardens, declining to the water, and forming a very ornamental part of the landscape."
As a theologian and the retired president of Yale College, Timothy Dwight, would have been interested in the establishment of Geneva College (later renamed Hobart College in 1851) on South Main Street about sixteen years after his visit. This liberal arts college, which now occupies a significant percentage of the buildings in the historic district, was established in 1822 by Rt. Rev. Henry Hobart, the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of New York. The college was the result of the merger of the existing Geneva Academy with Fairfield Theological School. Hobart College ranks as one of the earliest institutions of higher education in Western New York. Like most early colleges it was closely associated with the church, but by the middle of the nineteenth century became best known for its medical school which graduated twice the number of students than the liberal arts school did.
Hobart College's first two buildings, Geneva and Trinity Hall were constructed on South Main Street facing the lake. They were financed in part by gifts from Trinity Church in New York City, and a thread between this prestigious New York City church and the remote Finger Lakes college continued throughout the nineteenth century. Richard Upjohn, the foremost ecclesiastic architect of the mid-nineteenth century, devoted much of his career to improving the architectural standards of Episcopal churches. His design for Trinity Church under construction in New York City was studied by Dr. Benjamin Hall, the president of Hobart College, and adapted for Geneva's own Trinity Church 518-30 South Main Street). With the exception of the steeple which was never built, Geneva's Trinity Church followed the lead of Upjohn's New York City church, many of the details being taken over almost verbatim from one to the other."
Richard Upjohn's friendship with Dr. Hall and his acquaintance with Hobart College led to his commission to design the college chapel in 1858-62 (as well as two other structures in the village — Blackwell House, 1861-63, and St. Peter's Church, 1870, both under consideration as individual nominations to the National Register of Historic Places). Upjohn's interesting Geneva associations were continued by his son and grandson both of whom were architects. Richard Mitchell Upjohn designed the Hobart Library in 1885 adjacent to his father's chapel. In the next generation, Hobart Upjohn, grandson of the original architect, supervised the rebuilding of Trinity Episcopal Church according to the original design after a fire in 1934 and installed new doors on the St. John's Chapel in 1942.
In its western New York State context, South Main Street's brick rowhouses are as worthy of architectural note as the street's distinction of having two Upjohn churches. The solid grouping of rowhouses around Pultney Park is without parallel in western New York since the townhouse was never generally popular in the spacious western New York villages or cities. No rowhouses of this 1820's vintage survive in Rochester or Buffalo. Canandaigua's North Main Street Historic District (listed on the National Register) often compared with Geneva's South Main Street Historic District shares the same history as they were both laid out by Charles Williamson. Canandaigua's North Main Street has the same rhythm of large houses on large lots as the south end of Geneva's historic district but has no attached rowhouses like those in Geneva.
Many of South Main Street's rowhouses are thought to have first housed shops on their ground floors. The arrival of the railroad in the 1850's through the lower part of Geneva reoriented the commercial activity away from South Main Street. This shift caused the stabilization of the quiet residential character of South Main Street, and in 1898 Ladies Home Journal named it the "most beautiful street in America" praising it in the current romantic phraseology as an avenue which
"...not only completely fulfills all the requirements of the now popular plea for a more quiet and restful mode of living but which combines with the conveniences of modern city life the charms of Nature in all her rural beauties and healthfulness."
South Main Street continued through the turn-of-the-century as the fashionable and favored street of the growing city. Geneva's political, business, and academic leaders chose to build along South Main Street. The Ladies Home Journal genteelly describes the residents of South Main Street as "removed from the tinsel and turmoil of the material world," however, the street shows distinct architectural competition at the close of the century. Many of the earlier structures were undergoing later architectural embellishments. A mansard roof was added to the Federal Prouty-Chew House; the Swift House, another Federal house, was given a two story Colonial Revival entrance bay, and many turn-of-the-century porches were added on other houses. A number of large Queen Anne houses appeared along the street as well as imposing Tudor and Jacobean Revival ones.
Two influences have insured the preservation of South Main Street in recent years. Although many houses are still privately owned, Hobart College has purchased others which were no longer practical as private homes but have been adapted as fraternities or faculty housing. Hobart's influence is concentrated in the southern section of the historic district, while the northern section has benefited through the activities of the Geneva Historical Society which has established a revolving fund for preservation work.
Dwight, Timothy, Travels in New England and New York. Volume 4. T. Dwight, New Haven: 1822.
Geneva Historical Society, "Historic Geneva Homes: Walking Tour of South Main Street" undated c.1970.
Maude, John. Visit t the Falls of Niagara in 1800. London: 1826.
Mott, Mrs. Hamilton, "An Ideal American Avenue," Ladies Home Journal, July 1898.
Upjohn, Everard M. Richard Upjohn: Architect and Churchman. DaCapo Press, New York: 1968.
Williamson, Charles A. Description of the Genesee Country in a series of letters from a Gentleman to his friend. T.&J. Swords, New York: 1799.
The Daily Graphic: New York, Wednesday, January 23, 1878.
Files of the Geneva Historical Society.
† Brooke, C. E., New York State Division for Historic Preservation, South Main Street Historic District, Geneva, New York, nomination document, 1974, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.