Owego Central Historic District
The Owego Central Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. 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 Village of Owego Central Historic District includes approximately 90 buildings, the majority of which support commercial functions on their first floors and office, public, or residential functions on the upper floors. Concentrated at the western edge of the Owego Central Historic District is a group of public buildings including the Tioga County Courthouse, already listed on the National Register, The County Clerk's Office, and County Jail. At the southwest corner of the Owego Central Historic District adjacent to the public buildings, are Draper Park on the bank of the Susquehanna River and the New York State Route 96 Bridge over that river; both are included in the Owego Central Historic District.
Most of the commercial buildings are brick and are constructed in the commercial Greek Revival and Italianate styles which were popular in the years immediately prior to the Civil War. With very few exceptions, notably the Federal style building which originally housed the Owego Academy (1828), the public buildings date from the period of 1872-1914. These include the Victorian Gothic County Courthouse and the Georgian Revival firehouse at the northern end of the district.
The Owego Central Historic District constitutes a rough T, with Route 96, known in the village as Park and Court Streets and North Avenue, forming the vertical, north-south axis. Front and Main Streets, both parallel to the Susquehanna River and perpendicular to Route 96, form the cross of the T.
Edges of the Owego Central Historic District are marked by distinctive changes in visual quality formed by the topographic features, land use patterns, and property lines. On the south, the district is marked by the Susquehanna River, once the commercial lifeblood of Owego and the reason for the existence of the once-bustling commercial area. At this point, the five-span Court Street Bridge crosses the river, a distance of over nine hundred feet. Facing the bridge across Front Street is the courthouse and its park. Immediately west of the bridge is Draper Park between Front Street and the river, and west of that is a residential district, signalling a clear change in land use.
East of the Route 96 Bridge is a group of commercial buildings known collectively as Riverow, one of the most significant contributors to the Owego Central Historic District. Two blocks further east on Front Street, the district boundary is again clearly delineated by a change in land use from commercial to residential. Along Main Street, one block to the north, these same changes in land use mark the edge of the self-contained commercial district.
The major north-south streets are Park and Court Streets, which face the Courthouse Park and are lined with public buildings: Lake Street, a one-block street from Front to Main, with Italianate and Victorian Gothic commercial buildings; and North Avenue, which runs northward from Main and is included in the district to Temple Street, a distance of one block. On North Avenue between Main and Temple are rows of substantial later nineteenth century brick commercial structures similar in character to buildings on Lake Street. North of Temple Street, this avenue contains numerous modern buildings, forming a commercial strip of the automobile age. The northern boundary is evident in the distinction between this strip and the more urbane and dense district whose edge is marked by the Presbyterian Church at the northeastern corner of Temple and North and the Georgian Revival firehouse at the southwestern corner of those two streets.
The outstanding buildings of the Owego Central Historic District are many. Most obvious is the County Courthouse set in a park which occupies the geographic center of the Village of Owego. Less commanding but of equal note are the following buildings:
The former Owego Academy (20 Court St.) was constructed in 1828 in the Federal style with stepped gables typical of that period. It is now an office building.
The County Clerk's Office (16 Court St.), one of the best examples of Beaux Arts style in Owego, features Ionic columns surrounding its entrance.
Owego Village Firehouse (89 North Ave.), built in 1911, is a good example of Georgian Revival public architecture. Its quoined clocktower provides a convenient visual anchor for this end of the district.
The Presbyterian Church is a simple Romanesque Revival complex at the corner of Temple and North adjacent to the commercial area. The tower of this building marks the edge of the National Register Owego Central Historic District.
The Owego National Bank (203 Main St.) was built in 1913 to the designs of J. Mills Platt of Rochester in the Beaux-Arts style.
While these prominent buildings punctuate the Owego Central Historic District, the distinctive character of the district lies in the rows of brick commercial buildings which line Front, Lake and Main Streets and North Avenue. These are predominantly three stories high, three bays in width, with decorative brickwork at the cornice level and storefronts at street level. Particularly important are:
Riverow, a striking group of Greek Revival and early Italianate commercial buildings on the north bank of the Susquehanna. This assemblage presents a unified front of shops, offices and residences nearly two blocks long. The Greek Revival buildings are simple with plain stone lintels and sills, and identical brick friezes and dentiled cornices. Some buildings, such as 178 Front Street, retain their cast-iron storefronts on the first floors. The Italianate buildings, similar in scale and materials, exhibit brick pilasters separating each bay and relatively plain bracketed cornices. Cast-iron hoods ornament the windows. Some of these buildings also retain their iron storefronts.
5-7 and 9-11 Lake Street are four-bay-wide buildings which retain their original cast-iron storefronts.
15-17-19 Lake, a group of 1868-9 buildings with a unified facade, these three 3-bay buildings have storefront-level cornices and minimal alterations to their commercial sections.
35 Lake, the building with the most decorative brick patterning in Owego.
32-34 Lake, the best example of Victorian Gothic constructional polychrome in the commercial district.
80-82 North Avenue, with cast-iron storefront and brick corbelling.
78, 76, 74, 60, 58, 56 North Avenue, commercial structures built during the last third of the nineteenth century, which exhibit the variety of brickwork for which the Owego commercial district is so notable.
The intrusions within the Owego Central Historic District are relatively few. They include low, modern commercial buildings at 88 North Avenue and 23-25 and 43-51 Lake Street, early diners at 79 North Avenue and 187 Main Street, and a converted gas station on the corner of Front and Park Streets.
The Village of Owego is situated at the head of navigation on the Susquehanna River. Its population is approximately 6,000 residents and it is the seat of Tioga County. As the county seat of a rural area, Owego became an important center of both government and commercial activity. This Owego Central Historic District reflects both those roles.
The village was first settled shortly after the end of the American Revolution at the site of an Indian village. It grew very slowly, only reaching a population of 300 in 1840. During the 1830s, Owego was connected by rail to Ithaca, a development instrumental in spurring the growth of Owego. This railroad, only the Second to be chartered by New York state, provided a route via Cayuga Lake from the Erie Canal to the Susquehanna and points south. When the Erie Railroad pushed its way through the Southern Tier joining New York and Buffalo via Owego during the 1840s, the village enjoyed further growth.
The single building to survive in the Owego Central Historic District from this early period is the Owego Academy building at 20 Court Street. Founded in 1826, the academy was housed in this building from 1828 until 1883. Among its notable board members were James and Charles Pumpelly, Jonathan Platt, and many other prominent figures in Owego's history. Sold in 1883 and converted to law offices, the building now houses the offices of the Town of Owego.
The first bridge over the Susquehanna River was built in the Village of Owego in 1826 but the present bridge is the third to be constructed on the site, in 1891. This bridge continues to serve the important function of connecting the north and south sides of the village and also divides it into east and west halves.
The railroad and the river gave rise to a substantial commercial district by the 1840s. Situated on the river bank between two residential enclaves, the commercial area consisted of a series of wooden buildings on Front, Lake and Court Streets. Most likely built in the Greek Revival style similar to the residential buildings of the period, these shops were destroyed by the greatest fire in Owego's history on September 27, 1849. This conflagration destroyed all buildings on Front Street from the Susquehanna River bridge to a point east of Lake Street, and all buildings on Lake Street except a hotel at Lake and Main known as the Central House.
The Owego Gazette reported the temporary removal of many businesses to North Avenue but work began to rebuild the riverfront area immediately after the fire. By 1850, brick structures were built at 178-198 Front (even numbers) and 181-187 Front (odd numbers), including the building now known as 5-7 Lake Street. Tenants of these buildings ran the gamut of mercantile enterprises from drugstores to dry goods, cabinet stores to crockery establishments, to a merchant selling jewelry, silverware and "Yankee notions." Among the long-term occupants prominent n Owego's history were Storrs and Chatfield's hardware, located at 187 Front Street for over 45 years, a drugstore owned by J.J. Pinney and others which operated at 194 Front for nearly 100 years, and G.B Goodrich's carpet and drygoods store at 196 Front from 1850 until c.1912. The County Treasurer's office at 178 Main also dates from this period.
Shortly after the construction of these buildings, brick buildings in the Italianate style were constructed at 200-208 and 216-218 Front Street, and others in the Greek Revival style were built at 210-214 Front, thus completing the south side of what remains of "Riverow." (A pair of buildings between the Susquehanna Bridge and 178 Front were demolished in 1970 after a fire.) The commercial occupants filled the needs of Owego's residents: boot and shoemakers, milliners, dressmakers, and restaurants were the first establishments found in the buildings. Also present were a number of law offices, reflecting Owego's role as county seat.
Commercial vitality at the center of Owego was therefore re-established by the Civil War era, as these stores and others continued to operate through the period. Immediately after the war, however, another fire struck the central area of the village and wiped out a group of buildings along Front Street near the Courthouse Square. With the same diligence as before, Owego immediately rebuilt in brick 171-179 Front Street. These buildings reflected a change in architectural taste, as they were the earliest to exhibit the extensive use of corbelled brick decoration for which Owego is well know. The functions housed in these buildings were similar to those in earlier shops and were indicative of Owego's expanding commercial importance.
At the same time, many buildings were constructed along Lake Street and North Avenue. Notable among these was 19 Lake Street, whose present occupant, Bandler, Stiles and Keyes clothiers, have occupied the building since its construction in 1868, first as Robert Bandler (1868-1920s), then Bandler and Stiles (1930-1950s), and under its present name since about 1955.
In 1871-2, a new courthouse for Tioga County was constructed in the center of the public park after the designs of Owego architect Miles F. Howe. This building is individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a prominent visual and social landmark within the Village of Owego.
By the 1870s, nearly two-thirds of the present commercial district and the new Courthouse were extant. Those buildings constructed after the Civil War exhibit corbelled brick facade decoration which contrasts sharply with the Greek Revival and early Italianate buildings of the earlier period. The commercial and governmental district continued to expand, and within the next 50 years, virtually all significant buildings within the Owego Central Historic District were completed. Many buildings on Lake Street and North Avenue, Main Street, and the new jail at the corner of Main and Court were completed during the 1880s. After 1900, some of the newer commercial buildings housed nationally known stores such as J.J. Newberry's and the Grand Union Tea Company.
During the early years of the twentieth century, the Beaux-Arts style was displayed in Owego in two of the most outstanding buildings in the district: the County Clerk's Office at 16 Court Street, designed by the Elmira firm of Pierce and Bickford, and the Owego National Bank at 203 Main Street.
The prosperity of the commercial sector and the importance of the government area continue to the present day. Although individual buildings in the Owego Central Historic District have received some degree of alteration, the district as a whole retains its integrity with few modern intrusions. Its setting is defined primarily by the Susquehanna River and by the major roads through the area, essentially unchanged since the mid-nineteenth century. While commercial areas to the north and west have been pockmarked by demolitions and spotted with modern intrusions, the Owego Central Historic District retains the character of a prosperous small town at the beginning of the automobile age. Always the focus of the region's trade, county government, and the social and intellectual life of the village, the Owego Central Historic District is significant for its association with two hundred years of Owego history. Buildings in various architectural styles — including outstanding examples of Federal, Italianate, and Beaux-Arts design — embody American fashions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Dissimilarities in style are balanced by similarities of scale, proportion, materials and rhythm which unite the Owego Central Historic District into a cohesive townscape with a strong identity of place.
Atlas of Tioga County, New York. New York: F.W. Beers, 1869.
Carmer, Carl. The Susquehanna. New York: Rinehart, 1955.
Gay, William. Historical Gazetteer of Tioga County, New York. Syracuse, New York, n.d.
History of Tioga, Chemung, Tompkins and Schuyler Counties, New York. Philadelphia: Everts and Ensign, 1879.
Kingman, L.W. Early Owego. Owego, New York: 1907.
Kingman, L.W. Our County and Its People. Elmira, New York: Fergusson and Company, n.d.