The East Main Street Commercial 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. [‡]
Lining both sides of East Main Street, Palmyra's downtown business area contains two blocks of solid, brick 19th century commercial architecture. These buildings stretch from William and Cuyler Streets on the west to Clinton Street on the east and form the East Main Street Commercial Historic District.
These almost unbroken commercial facades are two and three stories high with a variety of cornice detail and first floor treatment. The cast iron storefronts which survive on many of the first floors are marked with either "W.H. Cheney" or "S. Shorer, Rochester, N.Y.". The streetscape as a whole is a composite of a series of individual shops. The average small shop is three bays wide with a central entrance flanked by two display windows. Frequently several small shops are part of a larger "block," and the following are the most prominent commercial blocks in the East Main Street Commercial Historic District.
The Cuyler Block (#205-13) — Three story brick commercial block built in 1876, twelve bays wide in all, subdivided in three sections which are delineated by stone quoins. The monumental six bay wide central portion with a gabled roof is flanked by two three-bay dependencies with flat roofs. Attenuated windows with arched tops and stone keystones, first floor cast iron store fronts, third floor built for Mason's Lodge. On the rear of the building are three "bulls-eye" windows.
The Jenner Block (#323-339) — Probably one of the earliest structures in the East Main Street Commercial Historic District, this three story brick block is divided in six units. Each unit is three bays wide with simple rectangular lines, undecorated flat stone lintels and sills. The three eastern sections are residences (#331, 337, 339). The three commercial buildings have been heavily remodelled in the 20th century, but remnants of their 19th century commercial past can still be found. Two "Cheney" cast iron elements have been incorporated in the facade of #323, and inscribe on the stone step in front of #325 is "Volkomer's Landing Area." A mid-19th century bracketed cornice runs continuously from #323 to #337 stopping short of #339 which has only a simple brick cornice which may be illustrative of the original appearance of the entire group.
The Jarvis Block (#202-220) — Two story brick block which anchors the southwest corner of the East Main Street Commercial Historic District opposite the Cuyler Block. Eighteen bays wide over all, subdivided by stone quoins into seven sections. Central portion is four bays wide with large "false front" gable facing that of the Cuyler Block and inscribed "Jarvis Block - 1876." A heavy bracketed cornice links the central gable to two arched ones at either end. Lettering in the east gable reads "W.H. Farnum." Windows have stone "eyebrow" trim, and the first story store fronts are inscribed "S. Shorer, Rochester."
The Williams Block (#234-8 — Three story brick grouping of three stores dating from the 1840's but remodelled along with #240 in the 1860's with iron lintels in a decorative floral pattern, and iron store fronts.
The Williamson Block (#302-312) — Three story brick commercial building. Ten bays to the west have carved label moldings on the second and third story windows, and the slightly taller five bay wide section to the east has arched stone lintels, a more decorated cornice, and a broken pediment centered on #310-312. This section has a fine cast iron front decorated with classical figures and acanthus leaves, and the entrance of #312 has its original double wooden doors. Large meeting hall on third story used by Masons prior to the construction of the Cuyler Block. First liberty pole in front of block was replaced by the present steel one in 1892 which stands 150' high after it was shortened 20' due to wind resistance.
Also of special note is the old Palmyra Hotel building (#224-48) — It is a three story brick structure with a striking two story gabled portico with ionic columns above first floor commercial establishments. The hotel was built in 1836-7 and through the 1890's had a porch and Doric columns on the first floor and a square cupola with a dome. The cupola as well as the third story of the rear wing have been removed.
At the east end of the East Main Street Commercial Historic District are several single residences (#316, #322, #330, #336, #315-17). Numbers 316 and 336 are the only frame buildings in the East Main Street Commercial Historic District. Number 316 has an elaborate bracketed trim on the porches, bay windows, and cupola and a handsome arched front door. Number 332 and 315-17 across the street appear to be a matched pair which have been treated differently through the years but retain essentially the same details — three stories, three bays wide with one double window in the front gable, slightly arched window lintels. Number 322 has a bracketed arched window hood over the front entrance and #315-17 a bracketed, flat roofed porch resting on slender ironic colonettes. The entrance doorways differ in shape and #315-17 has iron balconies on the first and third floors as well as an iron fence inscribed "C.T. Bush Patent Fence - April 22, 1873." The gate is marked "March 1873." Number 315-17 has two story brick and frame addition to the east. Number 322 is known as the Pliny Sexton Homestead and is said to have been built by him in 1827. The 1904 map shows both houses owned by P.T. Sexton, and #322 is still owned by Pliny Sexton's heirs. Number 330 is a simple two story brick house with a gable roof, brick lintels, and doorway with sidelights. A later concrete block porch has been added, wrapping around most of the north and east facades.
The twentieth century changes to the East Main Street Commercial Historic District include the renovation of #201 in 1922 with yellow brick-faced hollow tile which was also used in the construction of #222 (the Jacob Papanu Building) in the same year. Both buildings bear 1922 date stones. The only one-story building on the street, #224, was built in 1920 as an automobile garage and salesroom, and it is now Jim's Sporting Goods Store.
The solidity of mid-19th century commercial life in Palmyra, due to the combined assets of stage coach, railroad and canal traffic through the village, is stamped on the spectacular brick facades of the East Main Street Commercial Historic District.
Palmyra became a thriving canal village late in the 1820's, and East Main Street contains a full gamut of 19th century commercial structures. These range from 1830's buildings like the old Jenner Block, which have been little changed, to other early ones like the Exchange Row (just east of the Cuyler Block) and the Williams Block, which were built in the 1830's and 40's and remodelled with decorative window hoods and cornices in the 1860's. Finally, the East Main Street Commercial Historic District contains representatives of later vintage of commercial architecture, the Cuyler Block (1870) and the Jarvis Block (1876). The former was built by George W. Cuyler on the site of a row of old wooden buildings described in a local reminiscence a "landmarks of a former generation...torn down or moved away to make room for a more modern and attractive brick block." Another row of wooden buildings across the street burned a few years later and the Jarvis Block was built on the site.
The old Palmyra Hotel "with its massive columns and surmounting dome" presided over the village's 19th century main street. Local accounts describe the hotel veranda as a popular lingering place for both residents and newcomers. Here at the south end of Market Street (Market Street Historic District listed on the National Register) which led to the canal and in the center of commercial activity of Main Street, the onlooker on the veranda could survey the prosperous village. One observer wrote in 1895 that he found in the village: "...three dry goods stores, ten groceries, three hardware stores, three printing offices and weekly newspapers, three clothing stores, three millinery shops, three furniture and undertaking establishments, four drug stores, two jewelry and two shoe stores, two banks, a bakery, five variety stores, five hotels, three liveries, seven layers, five physicians, three dentists..."
Earlier in the century the unusually wide Main Street served as the pork market. Here, particularly during the winter months, farmers from the surrounding country would bring in pork piled high on bobsleds for buyers to bid on. The pork was then stored in warehouses along the canal until spring.
East Main Street's commercial blocks were the setting of the daily activities of an unusual combination of notable figures in both local and national history. An important local personality was Pliny Sexton whose name and influence was carried on into the twentieth century by his descendents. Sexton was a Quaker settler who lived at the east end of the East Main Street Commercial Historic District at #322. With others he built the Jenner Block across the street where he ran his successful hardware business. Pliny Sexton was well known in Palmyra as both a prosperous business man and also an upright community leader who espoused the anti-slavery cause and is thought to have been instrumental in aiding escaping slaves.
During Pliny Sexton's years the Mormon leader, Joseph Smith, became a familiar face on Palmyra's Main Street. Living just outside of the village, Smith claimed divine revelation through the Angel Moroni on the Hill Cumorah, and having translated the Book of Mormon, he brought the manuscript to Palmyra where in 1820 the first edition is said to have been printed in the Clemons Block (near the Sexton Homestead) and the second edition in the third floor of the Exchange Row over L.M. Chase's tin ship.
Also during the 1830's Judge Jerome moved his law office up from Market to Main Street where his nephew Leonard Jerome, Winston Churchill's grandfather, worked as a clerk. Here in Palmyra, Leonard first met his wife, Clara Hall.
Palmyra's East Main Street Commercial Historic District is an enduring historic environment and still today is a convincing backdrop for these fleeting historical episodes. The intermingling of economic cause and architectural effect makes the East Main Street Commercial Historic District one of New York State's finest unspoiled small town commercial districts.
Cook, Thomas L. Palmyra and Vicinity. Palmyra, N.Y. The Palmyra Courier-Journal: 1930.
Cowles, Hon. George ed. Landmarks of Wayne County. Syracuse: D. Mason & Co. Publishers: 1895.
Werner, Constance W. "Reconnaissance Report of the Preservation of Buildings in the Main Street Urban Renewal Project," Palmyra, N.Y. N.Y. State Council on the Arts, undated.
‡ Brooke, Cornelia E., N.Y. State Division of Historic Preservation, Market Street Historic District, nomination document, 1974, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.