The Cambridge Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Portions of the text, below, were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]
The Cambridge Historic District encompasses much of the area of habitation as depicted in the 1866 atlas [of the Village of Cambridge]. There are approximately 240 primary structures within the district (dependencies are not included in this total). Besides residences and commercial buildings, there are four churches, a printing establishment, a railroad station, a hotel, a former school, an old opera house, a coal pocket, two mill buildings, a noteworthy covered footbridge, and a small cemetery.
The architectural features of most buildings are remarkably intact and most are well maintained. Sixteen buildings have been identified as intrusions; these are concentrated on East and West Main Streets.
As may be expected from the New England origin of the settlers, almost every residence is of frame construction. About twenty residences have definite Federal period characteristics; other buildings from the early settlement period may have been rebuilt and manifest the detailing of later styles. One of Washington County's finest Federal-style homes, the Dorr-Randall house (151 East Main) is located at the eastern end of Main Street. About sixty residences have the pedimented gable and pilasters of the Greek Revival period and two have columned porticos (numbers 90 East Main and 110 West Main).
Late 19th-century styles are well represented by approximately 90 residences and commercial buildings. These include examples of Rural Gothic (100 East Main), Italianate (Cambridge Hotel), Second Empire (12 Broad Street), Queen Anne (44 West Main), "Stick" (St. Luke's Church), and Classical Revival styles (Rice Mansion, 16 West Main), as well as many vernacular treatments. There is even a touch of the Orient represented by one pagoda-roofed home (10 South Park Street).
Late 19th-century brick commercial buildings line West Main Street between Union Street and Park Street. However, some frame buildings are interspersed, a notable example being the Old Opera House (25 West Main Street). Along this stretch are located many other architectural gems of the village: the railroad station (4 Broad), print shop (13 West Main), the handsome mill with its footbridge (15 West Main) and the Rice Mansion. In all, 28 buildings within this district have been identified as having sufficient worth to possibly qualify for individual nominations.
The Cambridge Historic District contains a significant grouping of early, mid and late-nineteenth century buildings which remain in a remarkable state of preservation. These buildings illustrate the growth of the village in response to the stimuli provided, first, by the building of the northern Turnpike, secondly, by the construction of the Troy and Rutland Railroad and lastly, by the establishment of the Rich Seed Company. Few modern alterations or novelty sidings have been added which would detract from the nineteenth-century flavor of this beautiful village.
The earliest settlement in the valley of the Owl Kill came about as a result of the efforts of a Scotsman, Cadwallader Colden, sometime Surveyor-General, President of the Provincial Council and acting Governor of the Province of New York. In 1761, Golden was involved in the purchase of the Cambridge patent on the east side of the Hudson River north of Rensselaerwyck; lands which soon came into the possession of six persons, one of whom was Colden's son. The provisions of the charter included the election of public officials by all freeholders and required that one family for each 1,000 acres must be settled in outright ownership within three years. Two hundred acres of land were set aside to support a minister and schoolmaster. The foundation of a democratic society of independent landowners was thus laid.
In 1763, the French and Indian War came to an end. With the removal of the threat of raids, the unoccupied territory north of Rensselaerwyck became attractive to settlers. Little is known about the first settlements due to the turmoil which prevailed because of the Revolution and also because of the long territorial dispute between New York and Vermont, each of which claimed the land between the Hudson and Connecticut Rivers. Apparently, the first settlements and also subsequent waves of settlement were made by persons of Scottish and/or Irish descent. This ethnic background is illustrated graphically by examining the history of area churches. Among the first to be organized were the United Presbyterian Church (1785) and the First United Presbyterian Church (1793). These two churches together comprised 1,900 members in 1878 and their preachers were regularly Scottish or Irish. At this time, the Methodists, Roman Catholics, Baptists and Episcopalians together numbered only 450 persons.
During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the area of the present village gradually coalesced as a grouping of three crossroads hamlets known as Cambridge, North White Creek and Dorr's Corners, surrounded by rich stream valley farms. The hamlets were settled, not because of any potential for mills, for the Owl Kill provided no water power here, but rather to provide services such as hostelries, stores and churches. Cambridge developed because of its roads.
One of the finest Federal style dwellings which remains in Washington County, the Dorr-Randall House (151 East Main) was built in 1779 for a prominent physician. The high architectural quality of this house with its intricate wood details indicates an owner of means and cultural attainments. About 20 residences remain from this post-Revolutionary period, some quite substantial.
An early undertaking was the organization of an academy in 1800 which had 629 pupils by 1821. The academy building no longer exists, but the old boarding house which housed students has been converted into apartments (128 West Main).
Throughout the nineteenth century, the three hamlets were conveniently located, in relation to transportation arteries such as the turnpikes, the canal and later, the railroads. The building of the Northern Turnpike through Cambridge hamlet around 1800 (now Union Street) connected the area with Lansingburgh to the south and Burlington to the north. The introduction of sheepraising in 1809 and flax in 1812 brought important activities related to the growth of textile and other mills at nearby centers such as Schaghticoke, Pumpkin Hook, Hoosick Falls, Bennington and North Adams. The rich agricultural lands in the valley of the Owl Kill were ringed by these thriving upland industrial centers to which Cambridge was connected by roads.
In 1825, the building of the Champlain Canal brought Cambridge within reach of even cheaper transportation for its surplus products. However, it remained for the Troy and Rutland Railroad, built in 1852, to provide the impetus for the creation of a true local mercantile center. After a station was established in the centermost hamlet, North White Creek, development accelerated. In 1866, the three hamlets were incorporated as the village of Cambridge. The atlas of that date shows a village with much the same configuration as present-day Cambridge.
The prevalence of homes with mid-century characteristics (approximately 60 in the district) confirms this railroad period growth. The Baptist Church was built in 1844 (3 West Main) and the Methodist Church of 1838 rebuilt in 1661 (47 East Main). Some manufacturing commenced using steam power.
However, it was during the last quarter of the nineteenth century that most of Cambridge's finest buildings were constructed in answer to the economic stimulus provided by the establishment of the largest seed company in the world. The Rice Seed Company warehouse (15 West Main) was built in 1879 on a site reclaimed from swampland. The brick office building was completed in 1895. Two hundred persons were employed at the turn of the century. Associated with the seed company is the home of Jerome B. Rice (16 West Main), a building whose classical grandeur dwarfs every other residence in the village. During this period, Cambridge's importance is illustrated by the building of the opera house (25 East Main) which is remarkably intact even to the original drop curtains; the Cambridge Hotel, still in operation; the railroad station; many fine commercial buildings (40 East Main, 13 West Main); and numerous elegant residences. St. Luke's Church (4 St. Luke's Place), originally constructed, in 1866, received a completely new interior and windows, all by Tiffany.
During the twentieth century, changes took place which altered Cambridge's relationship to vital transportation networks. The railroad ceased passenger operation in the 1930's; canal use dwindled; the Adirondack Northway was constructed. Dairy farming and potatoes had begun to supplant sheepraising as early as the 1850's, although flax was still an important crop in 1872. The seed company finally closed in 1976. Recently, the seed company property was purchased by a group of local businessmen which is attempting to rent the space. Another group has plans to reopen the old opera house for entertainment.
[‡] Manley, Doris, N. Y. State Division for Historic Resources, Cambridge Historic District, Washington County, New York, nomination document, 1978, National Park Service, National register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
Academy Street • Church Street • Main Street