West Main Street Historic District
The West Main Street/West James Street Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. 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 West Main Street/West James Street Historic District is situated at the center of the incorporated village of Richfield Springs in Otsego County, New York. Richfield Springs, (population 1668) is located in east-central New York State, approximately 65 miles west of Albany and 65 miles east of Syracuse. The village achieved prominence in the nineteenth century as a resort community and was substantially developed before 1940. Main Street, the portion of U.S. Route 20 located in the village, forms an east-west axis and represents the center of commercial and institutional development in the village. Residential development is present on Main Street, east and west of the business district, and along the secondary streets such as James Street located north and south of this corridor. The West Main Street/West James Street Historic District represents the first of three significant concentrations of historic resources identified and proposed for nomination in Richfield Springs as part of a comprehensive historic resources survey of the village completed in 1992.
The West Main Street/West James Street Historic District incorporates the historic institutional and commercial core of the village and a significant residential neighborhood representative of historic architectural trends in the village. Of the 53 principal buildings located in the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District, 21 are businesses and 29 are residences. A school, library and church complex complete the total. In addition, the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District also includes 17 outbuildings, two historic iron fences and one historic gateway. Of the 73 total features in the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District, 61 are contributing and 12 are non-contributing. The West Main Street/West James Street Historic District includes the majority of West Main Street and West James Street between Elm Street at the west and Lake Street at the east. The two principal streets in the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District are connected by one block segments of Elm Street at the west and Center Street at the center.
The portion of West Main Street included within the boundaries of the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District is distinguished by four large late nineteenth century brick commercial blocks designed in the popular Italianate and Queen Anne styles and several earlier frame commercial buildings designed in the Greek Revival and Italianate styles, all located along the south side of the street from the vicinity of Center Street east. This row of intact commercial buildings is urban in scale and density and defines the character of Richfield Springs' business district at the height of the resort era. West of this row of buildings, the south side of the street includes a small non-contributing 1966 branch bank, a 1910 public library, and an imposing church complex begun in 1880 which visually anchors the western end of the block. This block is defined by generous front and side setbacks, lawns and mature trees and plantings. The north side of West Main Street, having suffered the loss of two large hotels in the 1950s, is less consistent in land use and character but includes several important individual buildings. Among these are the large brick automobile garage and dealership at 30 West Main Street, built ca. 1920, a Second Empire style store building, built ca.1875, several nineteenth century residences, and the imposing and well-preserved Colonial Revival style Richfield Springs Central School, built in 1938-1939.
The West Main Street/West James Street Historic District includes all addresses on West James Street with the exception of an extensively altered residence at the extreme eastern end. Within the district, West James Street contains 21 existing or former residences and 11 barns or garages. A non-contributing telephone exchange building built in 1967 is located at the northwest corner of West James Street and Taylor Avenue. Residences in this section of the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District represent a cross-section of residential architecture in the village and include a small Federal/Greek Revival style plank-wall cottage built ca.1830, a Greek Revival house built ca.1840, a Gothic Revival house built ca.1870, a finely detailed brick Italianate style house built in 1867, a Stick style mansion built in 1872, an elaborately detailed Shingle style residence built in 1885 and a number of houses built between 1875 and 1900 influenced by Queen Anne or Shingle style architecture. Sidewalks are present on both sides of the street and front yard setbacks are minimal in all but several locations. Mature shade trees represent an important character-defining element of the streetscape. Two houses, nos. 5 and 11 West James Street, retain contributing period iron fences and a third house at no. 19 West James Street retains original castellated stone gateposts with crenellated tops built ca. 1885.
The West Main Street/West James Street Historic District includes a short length of Elm Street along its western edge establishing an important visual connection between West Main Street and West James Street. Three modest nineteenth century residences are located along the west side of the street. The east side of the street includes an open lawn adjacent to the 1872 Ward House and the St. John's Church complex at the north end. Significantly, the portico of the Richfield Springs Central School is located on axis with the center line of Elm Street.
The northernmost block of Center Street between West James Street and West Main Street is also included within the historic district. The narrow, alley-like street provide access to the rear of businesses and hotels fronting on West Main Street. Three buildings are located on Center Street including an elongated nineteenth century storage barn and two frame shop buildings built ca.1890. A fourth building oriented toward the street is an early nineteenth century storage barn associated with a former hardware store at 53 West Main Street.
The West Main Street/West James Street Historic District is significant for its association with the social and economic development of the village of Richfield Springs, and for its significance as a distinguished collection of nineteenth and early twentieth century commercial, residential, educational and religious architecture. Representing a ca.1830-1940 period of significance, buildings within the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District reflect all major phases in the evolution of the village, including the turnpike and early spa period (ca.1800-1920), and the early automobile era, (ca.1920-1940). Architecturally, the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District is marked by exceptional examples of Italianate, Gothic Revival, Stick style, Queen Anne, Shingle style, and Colonial Revival architecture, as well as vernacular interpretations of Greek Revival and Second Empire style architecture. Intact streetscapes include a largely unbroken row of nineteenth century commercial buildings along the south side of West Main Street and an intact nineteenth century residential enclave along West James Street. Significant twentieth century contributions to the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District include a 1910 library, a distinctive automobile dealership and garage and an imposing Colonial Revival style high school building constructed with Public Works Administration funding between 1938 and 1939.
The sulphur springs around which the village of Richfield Springs developed were well-known to the Iroquois who used the Ganowauges (stinking waters) as a curative to treat frostbite and other ailments. The springs are believed to have been discovered by Europeans in 1754, however, the location did not become the focus of permanent settlement until the 1790s. In 1791-1792, William Tunnicliff built a sawmill and gristmill near the western edge of the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District, and a short time later, C. Robinson established a store at the corner of West Main Street and Elm Street in the district where St. John's Church currently stands. The extension of the Third Great Western Turnpike through the settlement in 1808 brought greater exposure to the springs and encouraged additional development at this location including the construction of the Richfield Hotel in 1816. The hotel was located on West Main Street just east of the high school until 1955 when it was razed.
The commercial promotion of the sulphur springs was initiated by Dr. Horace Manley, who purchased the site of the Great White Sulphur Springs in 1820. Manley built a bath house at this site in the following year and brought 25 patients here to take the water cure. As the springs grew in popularity, demand for lodgings supported the construction of new and larger hotels including Page's Tavern in 1823 and the American Hotel in 1830. Hotels and collateral business establishments were built along both sides of the turnpike where a thriving Main Street business district emerged. Residential construction occurred throughout the village but eventually coalesced into neighborhoods separate from but immediately adjacent to the business district, particularly along James Street, Church Street and East Main Street.
Although little remains from the first forty years of architecture in the village, buildings from this period appear to have reflected design and construction practices typical of turnpike towns in Central New York and the Southern Tier region during this period. Buildings were characterized by rectangular plans and simple massing, balanced facades with Federal or early Greek Revival detailing, interlocking frames, clapboard exteriors, and often vertical plank wall construction. These buildings were also modest in scale. The only intact example of architecture from this period in the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District is the ca.1830 Sarah Tunnicliff House at 24 West James Street. The small one-and-one-half story frame house provides an excellent representation of the construction practices described above and illustrates a vernacular interpretation of late Federal and early Greek Revival style detailing. The house is complemented by a contemporaneous barn at the rear of the lot.
Richfield Springs prospered as a mineral springs spa and by mid-century included a number of large frame hotels with capacities ranging from 100 to 500 guests each. The hotels were generally built along Main Street, east and west of Lake Street, and were characterized by long, one and two-story verandahs and porticos. The majority of the hotels of this period involved designs derived from the Greek Revival style. The ca.1840 Brunswick Hotel at 47 West Main Street in the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District is significant as the only hotel of this type to survive in the village. Despite storefront alterations at the front, the building retains its basic form, fenestration, portico at the facade and an unaltered guest room wing in back. Residential architecture in the village during this period also reflected Greek Revival style tastes, however few intact examples remain. The residence at 14 West James Street is representative of the type, and illustrates the wide entablatures, corner pilasters and trabeated entrance with sidelights commonly associated with the type. By 1860, the architectural design in the village began to reflect the influence of the Italianate style. The former Buchanan Hardware building at 53 West Main Street, built ca.1860, is an early and well-preserved example of the transition from Greek Revival style form and design to the bracketed Italianate style.
Richfield Springs incorporated as a village in 1861 with a permanent population of approximately 400. In 1870, a branch of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad was brought to the southern edge of the village to facilitate transportation to resort from major urban centers in the Northeast and Midwest. The railroad heralded a new era of growth and wealth in the village which continued into the first decade of the twentieth century. New hotels and boarding houses were built to accommodate the 2000-3000 guests which arrived each summer, and expensive summer estates were built in and around the village by prominent industrialists and businessmen, including Cyrus McCormick of McCormick Harvester Co., forerunner of International Harvester. By 1890, the year-round population of the village had increased four-fold to more than 1600 residents. Although the medicinal qualities of the sulfur springs continued to be a significant attraction, the village became an important part of the summer social scene for individuals of wealth. Among the more prominent summer residents and guests of the resort were Richard C. Croker, the infamous boss of New York's Tammany Hall, generals George McClellan and Joe Hooker, Admiral George Dewey, inventor Thomas Edison and writer Oscar Wilde. In addition to lavish private entertainment, social activities included the track, a daily coaching parade, tennis, cycling, roller-skating, golf, baseball, card playing, dancing, music and summer theatre. At least one hotel maintained a landscaped pleasure ground for strolling.
The increased wealth and sophistication of the resort in the decades following the Civil War is reflected in the stylish late nineteenth century architecture which survives throughout the village, particularly in the historic district. The Italianate style, distinguished by a vocabulary of flat or nearly flat roofs, bracketed cornices and cubic massing was applied to commercial and residential architecture alike. Distinctive examples in the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District include the 1867 Peter Van Horne House at 2 West James Street, the 1875 Elk Hotel at 13-17 West Main Street and the 1885 Getman Block at 11 West Main Street, designed by W. Niver of Fultonville, New York. The Gothic Revival style appears to have been a comparatively late arrival in Richfield Springs. Examples in the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District include a Gothic cottage at 6 West James Street, built ca.1870, and an exceptional board and batten Gothic Revival church designed by prominent New York architect Henry Dudley and built in 1880. The decoration and furnishing of the church involved memorial glass from the Tiffany studio in New York and a memorial organ from Hook and Hastings of Boston.
Significant examples of other leading architectural styles of the Victorian-period are also present in the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District. The Stick style is illustrated by the imposing Edmund A. Ward House at 5 West James Street, built in 1872. The Queen Anne style is best represented by houses at 9 and 11 West James Street (built in 1886 and 1894), and three-story brick commercial buildings at 51 and 21-29 West Main Street (built in 1882-1883 and 1886). The Westcott block at 21-29 West Main Street, designed by W. Niver, represents an outstanding example of the style featuring intact period storefronts, banded brick masonry with terra cotta details and elaborate iron balconies at each bay of the second and third stories.
The Shingle style became popular for larger residences in the village soon after it was introduced in the design of Cyrus McCormick's 1882 estate in Richfield Springs by the renowned architectural partnership of McKim, Mead and White. The main house on this estate was demolished in 1958. In the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District, 19 West James Street, reputedly built for McCormick's gardener in 1885, represents an exceptional and early example of the style in the village and is believed to have been designed by the same architects. The modest, but finely detailed house features castellated stone gateposts at the street which set the property apart from its more conventional neighbors.
The destruction of the massive, 450 guest Spring House Hotel by fire in 1897 and the decision not to rebuild may have represented a turning point in the history of the village. Richfield Springs remained viable as a resort well into the first two decades of the twentieth century, however, both seasonal and permanent populations began a slow but steady decline. An electric railroad connected the village with Oneonta and Cooperstown in 1902 and the local economy was supplemented by light manufacturing and a creamery complex built at the south edge of the village. Several public amenities were built in the village during this period including the Public Library at 59 West Main Street, built through the philanthropy of hotelier Thomas R. Proctor in 1910, and designed in a modified Mission style by Utica architect Frederic H. Gouge. The building's design is typical of the smaller Carnegie libraries established throughout the United States during this period.
Automobile transportation became commonplace in the village in the 1920s and became a growing source of tourism in the face of the declining popularity of the mineral springs and the large nineteenth century hotels. Although little research has been focused on this period, a former automobile dealership and garage, built ca.1920 at 30 West Main Street in the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District, appears to be an important legacy of the period. The building is configured with what appears to have functioned as a two-story showroom and office unit at the street and a garage section at the rear with a truss roof and rock-faced concrete block walls. The tapestry brick facade is designed with a segmentally arched vehicle portal at the center and flanking doorways and showcase bays.
The economic depression of the 1930s stifled new construction in Richfield Springs and hastened the loss of its nineteenth century architecture. However one major public building emerged from this decade in the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District, the 1938-1939 Richfield Springs High School. Built with Public Works Administration funds, the Colonial Revival style school was designed by Richfield Springs architect Myron A. Jordan and is distinguished by its formal composition, limestone entrance portico, multi-light window sash and domed cupola. The school building retains an unusually high degree of integrity and represents one of the finest examples of public school architecture of this period in Central New York.
The 1940s and 1950s were years of loss for historic resources in Richfield Springs. Although the demolition of hotels began in the 1930s, six of the largest were demolished between 1940 and 1960. Two of these hotels, the Richfield and the Majestic, were located on the north side of West Main Street in the area now encompassed by the historic district. With these exceptions, however, there have been comparatively few changes to the historic fabric of the West Main Street/West James Street Historic District since the Second World War. The district continues to reflect the social, economic, and distinctive architectural development of the village between 1830 and 1940 and represents an important symbol in efforts to recognize and preserve Richfield Springs' distinguished past.
Brown, Robert C. and Ronnie McCoy. A study of Early Hotels of Richfield Springs. Richfield Springs, N.Y.: Richfield Area Chamber of Commerce, 1991.
Hughes, Greta G., and Ella L. Winne, eds. The Town of Richfield. A Collection of Local History Articles, Richfield Springs, N.Y.: Richfield Springs Mercury, 1961.
Ward, Dr. Henry A. Annals of Richfield, Utica, N.Y.: Fierstone Printing House, 1897.
Richfield Springs, N.Y., Historical collections including issues of the Richfield Springs Mercury on file at the Richfield Springs Public Library, 59 West Main Street.