Montour Falls Historic District
The Montour Falls Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
Viewed from afar, the most prominent feature near the Montour Falls Historic District is the tumbling waters of the Chequaga Falls. At the foot of the falls is a truly important collection of buildings.
The distinctive Montour Falls Historic District includes 24 mid and late nineteenth century structures. Genesee Street runs north and south through the district and is characterized by well-kept residences. Village offices, the public library and the M&M Club are located on Main Street. At the intersection of Genesee and Main Streets, stands an outstanding collection of buildings. Locally, this visual focus of the Montour Falls Historic District is known as the "Glorious T". Certain of its elements warrant special discussion:
Sheriff's Office, 112 N. Genesee Street (Gillispie and Coreyell, 1854) — Originally the sheriff's office, residence and jail, this rectangular, gable roofed building is constructed of brick and stone. Grecian elements in the facade, such as the treatment of the doorway and the termination of the sidewalls in a brick entablature, are noteworthy. The artistic use of brick compliments the neighboring structures.
Schuyler County Clerk's Office, corner W. Main and Genesee Streets (Gillispie and Coreyell, 1854) — Presently used as a lawyer's office, this brick building is one of two basically identical structures which flank the former County Courthouse. L-shaped, this corner structure appears to be two rectangular, prostyle, tetrastyle temples set at right angles to each other. The columns of both porticos, like the rest of the structure, are constructed of brick.
Montour Falls Village Hall, 330 W. Main Street (Gillispie and Coreyell, 1854) — Formerly the Schuyler County Courthouse, this two-story Village Hall is the focal structure in the symmetrical complex of Greek Revival public buildings situated on Main Street between Genesee and Schuyler Streets. Constructed of brick, the structure is prostyle tetrastyle. The original door and sidelights, as well as Grecian styled hanging lamps, all contribute to the facade. The most conspicuous feature of the Village Hall is the octagonal wood frame cupola rising high above the building.
Montour Falls Memorial Library, corner W. Main and Schuyler Streets (Gillispie and Coreyell, 1864) — Like its counterpart, the former County Clerk's Office, the Library is an L-shaped brick structure built to resemble two one-story prostyle tetrastyle temples. A wide flight of stairs leads to each portico. When the structure was converted from a bank to a library ca.1900 a bay window with Tiffany glass was erected in the re-entrant angle of the building.
Other structures of note in the "Glorious T" area are St. Paul's Episcopal Church (Gillispie and Coreyell, 1853) and the M&M Club (formerly the Montour House, Gillispie and Coreyell, 1853), a three-story brick railroad hotel with much of the interior still intact.
Genesee Street exhibits a wide variety of examples of domestic architecture ranging from high styles to simple vernacular. Three large houses from the Victorian period dominate the streetscape:
203 South Genesee Street is a large two-story brick residence in the style of an Italian villa. The square tower with round-headed windows and a bay window are all distinguishing features of this building.
211 Genesee Street is an excellent example of Victorian domestic architecture. A gambrel roof slopes down to form a veranda. Although the building has clapboard siding, it has many elements of what is commonly called shingle style.
225 Genesee Street is a board and batten building that is strikingly asymmetrical. Some of the clapboard siding is scalloped, adding to the decoration. Windows are irregularly shaped and spaced.
A key structure in the village is the Ashton residence (101 North Genesee Street), a Greek Revival dwelling with a portico supported by four stately Ionic columns. The original doorway, with sidelights and transom of glass, is intact.
There are no intrusions in the Montour Falls Historic District, and what few exterior alterations there are have modified the buildings only slightly. In some instances modification has actually enhanced the buildings, such as in the case of the Tiffany windows which were added to the Montour Falls Memorial Library. Many of the interiors of the buildings have been altered for twentieth century spatial needs.
Situated at the foot of Chequaga Falls in the Finger Lakes region, the Montour Falls Historic District comprises the heart of the mid-nineteenth century hamlet of Havana, known since the turn of the century as Montour Falls. The Montour Falls Historic District is a good illustration of community planning and architectural craftsmanship in the small communities which were developing in the rural southern tier in the middle of the nineteenth century. The architectural and historical focal element in the Montour Falls District is a fine complex of public buildings designed in the Greek Revival style.
Until General Sullivan's raid in 1788, the area around Chequaga Falls was a stronghold of the Seneca Indians. However the destruction of the village by Sullivan's raiders opened the way for settlement by the white man. Many early settlers were veterans of the Revolutionary War who in travelling through this new frontier recognized the beauty and possibilities of the location. Typical of these early settlers was George Mills who realized overland trade routes were too burdensome and an Indian canoe would be the safest way to reach settlements in the Mohawk Valley and Susquehanna River. At the head of Catherine Creek, he founded Mills Landing (Montour Falls), and soon other settlers followed.
Many of these settlers were migratory laborers, blacksmiths, and would-be merchants. In 1829, Charles Cook arrived in Montour Falls as a canal contractor for the Chemung Canal. Realizing the potential of a town on the canal, he encouraged traffic and business into the village, spurring the building of mills and sawmills on the cliffs near the falls. Having purchased much of the land on the western side of the village, he laid out lots and streets, and built stores, warehouses, mills and factories.
Montour Falls would be without its important collection of civic buildings were it not for Charles Cook — entrepreneur, canal commissioner and state senator. Known as the father of Schuyler County, Cook was instrumental in the formation of the county in 1854 from neighboring counties. Montour Falls, then known as Havana, served as the county seat from that date until Cook's death, and it was during this period that Cook commissioned the firm of Gillispie and Coreyell to build the major public buildings in the village: the County Clerk's Office, the Schuyler County Courthouse, the bank, Montour House, and the Episcopal Church. Their designs sensitively combine the high styles of the day with local materials. Because these buildings were designed by the same firm a sense of visual unity was created.
As Talbot Hamlin has stated, the Greek Revival style set the character of buildings in the newer community centers, such as those of the Finger Lakes area. In Montour Falls, the predominance of this style testifies to the community's strong development at mid-century. The grill work on the courthouse, hanging wrought iron lamps, use of curved brick in the pillars are all typical of the freedom of planning and innovative techniques of the Greek Revival style in this region. The more eclectic styles popular later in the century are present in the Montour Falls Historic District in the form of only a few residences scattered on Genesee Street.
At a time when village life was self-contained, many of the substantial homes on Genesee Street were the homes of the leading men in the village. On this street lived Professor Halsey Ives who was chief of the Art Department of the World's Columbia, Pan American and Louisiana Purchase Expositions. In addition, David B. Hill, one time New York Governor and U.S. Senator was born in a modest frame dwelling on Genesee Street.
The village plan of Montour Falls follows the natural terrain of the area, with irregularly shaped lots clustered around the creeks, falls and cliffs. Charles Cook laid out the main thoroughfare so that it afforded a full view of the falls. An 1857 map reveals that Cook also followed a practice usual in other speculative towns, reserving the choice lots for himself. Virtually the entire frontage on the canal is shown as the property of Cook; as John Reps notes: "This was an obvious device to increase land values and thus maximize profits when the reserved lots were later put up for sale."
Around the turn of the century, the newly named Village of Montour Falls experienced rapid development. In 1903 the Shepard-Niles Crane and Hoist Corporation of Montour Falls began as the Havana Bridge Works with a capital of $4,900. The firm bought the Niles Crane Works of Philadelphia and the patents for electric motors to diversify their output. The community's other key industry, the Seneca Engineering Company, was founded in 1904 by George F. Barton. Both companies have supported the community's economy up to the present.
Activities associated with the use of the Montour Falls Historic District may have produced archeological remains which enhance the historical value of the site. These remains may include subsurface features associated with the history of the district.
Beers, S.N. Schuyler County. Syracuse: J.H. French, 1857.
Corbell, John. The Land of Gold. Rochester: Democratic Chronicle, 1898.
Hamlin, Talbot. Greek Revival Architecture in America. New York: Dover Inc., 1964.
Reps, John W. Town Planning in Frontier America. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Whiffen, Marcus. American Architecture Since 1780. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969.
† Ellen T. McDougall and Margaret L. Nadler, New York State Division of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, Montour Falls Historic District, Schuyler County, NY, nomination document, 1976, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.