Somers Hamlet Historic District
The Somers Hamlet Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
The Somers Hamlet Historic District is located in a town bearing the same name in northern Westchester County. It is situated on two busy regional routes, one that once connected Peekskill on the Hudson River with the Boston Road at Danbury, Connecticut (now part of U.S. Route 202) and another that roughly followed the Croton River to its confluence with the Hudson at Ossining. The region is characterized by a hilly topography with the Croton River draining most of the land area. This factor has led to the creation of numerous reservoirs for the New York City water supply system in the town and around the hamlet. The rugged landscape and its protected watershed has retarded development in this section of an otherwise dense suburban county, but Somers's recent history has been one of radical transformation. The Pepsi Corporation built a large headquarters complex in the town in the early 1980s, soon followed by the I.B.M. Corporation, which established its international center on a large hilltop campus south of Somers Hamlet and bordering the historic district. In addition, one of the region's largest retirement communities has spread out along a ridge that forms the north boundary of the hamlet. While invisible in the hamlet, the impact of these huge facilities on the traffic and commercial development in the area is apparent. The effects of the resulting residential growth has squeezed the hamlet against the busy highway, and it has heightened its significance as a rare surviving element of the Westchester County's nineteenth-century rural heritage.
The Somers Hamlet built up in the early nineteenth century as a turnpike center, and the Somers Hamlet Historic District is aligned along the highway (U.S. Route 202) in typical fashion. The road follows a route from southwest to northeast through the hamlet. Although it has been gradually widened over the years to meet federal and state standards, the highway remains two lanes in scale. There are Y intersections at either end, where local roads fork off from the principal route and where denser concentrations of historic buildings are located. Each intersection is controlled by signals and contains turning lanes to accommodate the heavy flow of daily traffic. The Somers Hamlet Historic District encompasses approximately 56 acres and contains 40 properties, of which 33 properties are contributing and 7 are non-contributing. These properties contain 46 contributing features and 11 non-contributing features, specifically, 36 contributing buildings, 11 non-contributing buildings, 8 contributing sites and 2 contributing objects.
A town center was created at the western intersection where the Peekskill-Danbury Turnpike (U.S. Route 202), coming in from the west, and The Croton Turnpike (N.Y. Route 100), coming in from the south, merged.
Hachaliah Bailey's Elephant Hotel (1822-25), with its statue of the hotel's namesake, Old Bet, on a granite column in front, anchors the north side of the intersection (335 Rt. 202). A number of stylish residential and commercial buildings owned by the Bailey family distinguished the center. The Second Empire style William Bailey House is opposite the hotel (338 Rt. 202), while two other buildings were sited on what is today Bailey Park on the south side of the intersection. St. Luke's Episcopal Church (1841) is located south of the intersection, adding distinction to the center (329 Rt. 100). Blacksmith and woodworking shops and related housing were also sited in this area, much of which survives along the western most leg of Route 202.
The easterly intersection was more domestic in function and smaller in scale. This area was outside the sphere of Bailey ownership and lacked the pretension of the west end of the hamlet, but it has a density and diversity of buildings that defines the hamlet. Four substantial farmhouses serve as anchors of this intersection with a row of modest tradesmen's or laborers' dwellings intermingled. These buildings remain essentially intact.
The linear zone in the center of the hamlet is dominated by two large cemeteries on the north side of the highway. The site of a Presbyterian church, which initiated this land use, is located at the western end of these properties. The parsonage for this church still exists on the south side of the highway (358 Route 202). A few houses and a car sales room were built in this section during the twentieth century as the hamlet experienced a growth period stemming from suburban development in the New York metropolitan region.
As the population of the town increased dramatically in the last decades of the century, houses in the hamlet were converted to commercial functions. Stores and offices occupy many of the properties and outbuildings were renovated or replaced with new buildings for commercial activities. Three large buildings were constructed on the spacious grounds of the William Bailey House (c.1870, 338 Route 202) in the 1990's to expand its commercial potential, which has compromised the setting of this significant Second Empire style house.
The Somers Hamlet Historic District contains numerous intact dwellings that embody the distinctive characteristics of the early nineteenth century domestic architecture of the far eastern portion of New York State and reflect the influence of the New England states that provided most of its population. Located as it was on a turnpike connecting Danbury, Connecticut with the Hudson River, the Somers Hamlet typifies the effects of the spread of Yankee settlement into the rugged topography of the Hudson Highlands both before and after the Revolutionary War. Two-story, wood frame houses with low-pitched gable roofs and clapboard siding were the norm. Facades were generally three bays wide with entrances at the sides opening into corner-entry or side-passage plans within. Earlier houses had chimneys in the center of the house servicing multiple fireplaces in rooms consolidated around this masonry backbone. In the nineteenth century the massive chimney stack was broken up and moved in one or two parts to the end wall opposite the entry and the side passage, which became a more prominent component of the house plan.
Houses large and small were built conforming to this type, and the Somers Hamlet Historic District contains a wide range of examples. Some of the bigger ones were enlarged with the addition of side kitchen ells, which associated them with the farmhouse variant of the type. Rear ells were common on hamlet houses of all sizes. This alignment responded to the narrow frontages of lots in these denser areas. Over the years, lean-tos and out-shots were appended to side walls as plan changes occurred on the interior. The smallest of these houses were only one-and-one-half stories in height with only one room within. Decoration of these three-bay, side-entrance houses was restrained and limited to the street facade where the cornice, the entrance and window openings were embellished with flat wooden ornament. These details were based on Neo-classical models freely interpreted by local woodworkers. Complex and attenuated molding profiles, flat bands and panels, angular sawn appliques, and projecting headers were combined, at times with extraordinary effect. At its most elaborate, this detailing was carried over to the sides of the house. Even though it was off-center, the entrance was the focal point of the facade and was aggrandized by a narrow porch with a front-facing gable roof that created the sense of a Classical pediment. Later in the nineteenth century, these entry porches were replaced with piazzas that traversed the full extent of the street facade.
These houses were the prototypical dwelling type throughout British (as opposed to Dutch) cultural areas of eastern New York. They were pronounced in the landing villages along the Hudson River and Long Island Sound, in the eastern reaches of the counties along the New England border, and on Long Island. While they have their exemplars in New England, by the nineteenth century, they were much more pronounced as a New York house than that of Connecticut or Massachusetts. The type also spread into central and western New York with the huge migration of New Englanders into that part of the state where the house plan was reformulated in Greek Revival forms and decoration.
A few houses were built in the larger and more formal center hall plan and its five-bay facade with central entrance axis. In the local community, this was a pretension of wealth and elevated position. It is no surprise that in Somers the few houses of this type are associated with the hamlet's leading families. In this rural context, the main distinctions of the house were its greater size and visible reference to elite architecture, as well as the luxury of additional rooms within. In many cases, the plan of these houses were only one room deep, creating an impression of greater scale without significantly increasing the number of rooms. These larger houses shared the same decorative motifs as the side-entrance houses; there was just more of it. In at least two examples, brick was used as a building material, which further distinguished the value and status of the property. The fact that these houses were designed to be two-family tenant dwellings associate them with the commercial center in which they were located. Edward Finch built a two-story, brick duplex with a central entrance at 4 The Lane, the end of which he emblazoned with the date 1832 in glazed headers. The "Old Bet House" was also built by Finch, and it originally had two entrances on the facade and a false window in the center bay on the second floor that indicates the location of the separate stairways serving each side (337 Route 202).
The Somers Hamlet Historic District is significant in local historic and architectural contexts as a distinctive surviving example of a rural crossroads community associated with providing transportation services along a major regional turnpike. The hamlet developed immediately after the Revolutionary War along the Danbury (CT) and Peekskill (NY) Turnpike that connected a major New England highway to Hartford and Boston to the Hudson River. At Somers this turnpike intersected another turnpike that paralleled the Croton River, northern Westchester County's principal watershed, and terminated at the Hudson at Ossining. In this favorable location the hamlet became a popular stopping place for travelers and cattle drovers. Taverns and inns, as well as a smithy, wagon shop and general stores, provided the required services. Cattle in transit would be accommodated in surrounding pastures; a number of farms fronted on the road and were incorporated into the hamlet. Craftsmen, artisans and laborers gravitated to the hamlet for the work opportunities it presented, and their housing fleshed out the community. Churches, schools and cemeteries appeared as the hamlet evolved into a town center. That role was confirmed in 1927 when the Town of Somers established its first permanent office in the hamlet's most prominent building, the Elephant Hotel. This distinctive Federal period edifice is also a landmark to the Somers Hamlet's additional historical significance as the first center of wild animal menageries in the United States. Led by Hachaliah Bailey, a local drover who owned and began touring the Northeast with the second elephant known to have arrived in North America, numerous other local farmers and drovers began acquiring and touring exotic animals for popular entertainment. Bailey built the Elephant Hotel in 1820-25 and later it became the headquarters of the Association of the Zoological Institute, the first organization for the promotion of animal menageries, in 1835. When these enterprises later joined with traveling acrobatic acts and equestrian shows, the American circus was born. The Somers Hamlet Historic District has withstood tremendous development pressures in recent years to retain its historic character and architectural landmarks amid the ever-intensifying Westchester County suburban landscape. It survives as a valuable relic of the nineteenth century rural communities that were once common in the region.
The modern town of Somers was formerly part of an 83,000-acre tract of land granted by King William II of England to Stephanus Van Cortland in 1697. When the counties were divided into legislative districts in the mid-eighteenth century, it was included in the Middle District of Van Cortlandt Manor, later known as Hanover. The town was surveyed and first named Stephentown by an act of the New York State Legislature in 1788 in deference to the Colonial proprietor. However, local mail delivery was frequently misdirected as there were two other New York municipalities with the name of Stephentown, so in 1808 the town acquired its present name in honor of Captain Richard Somers, a hero of the Tripolitan War.
The first land transaction involving the hamlet occurred in 1762 when the Van Cortlandt family conveyed 240 acres of land to Hachaliah Brown of the town of Rye, New York. This acreage contained the western portion of the historic district including the Elephant Hotel and the land that would later be in the possession of Hachaliah Bailey, Brown's grandson and namesake. The area was isolated and slow to populate, and during the Revolutionary War it was part of the "neutral" lands caught between the British forces that occupied New York City and the Continental Army, which controlled territory north of the Hudson Highlands. Homesteaders fled the area as it was overrun with marauders from both sides, known colorfully as Cowboys and Skinners.
Afterwards, settlers from the Hudson Valley and Connecticut quickly pushed into the area, and the lands along the Croton River were a prime destination. While not suited to crop farming, the rocky soil and mountainous terrain supported grazing land for raising cattle and sheep. Somers's proximity to New York City and its location along established southbound land routes led to its development as a cattle town. From early in the nineteenth century the town of Somers was "...the principal market of lean stock of cattle and sheep, brought hither from various and distant parts of the country to supply the wants occasioned by the sales of fattened cattle and sheep to the butchers of New York. The farmers of this country carry on extensive traffic in this way, and droves are annually and almost constantly arriving from the inland regions, some from one hundred, two hundred and three hundred miles, to replace the consumption...[I]ts near contiguity to New York, and the excellent facilities afforded by the turnpike road running directly through the town to the metropolis, rendered the transportation of large droves of sheep and cattle a comparatively easy matter.
Somers became one of the most populous towns in the county. The 1790 U.S. Census identified 189 families in the town with a total population of 1,297, including 38 slaves. One report stated that between 1825 and 1850 an average of 5,000 cattle per year were fattened in Somers for New York City markets.
A hamlet developed at the intersection of two major regional transportation routes that traversed the town. The Danbury-Peekskill Turnpike was a busy road linking western Connecticut and the Boston Road to the Hudson River. The route was established in Colonial times and was the principal road connecting major Continental Army encampments in Danbury and Peekskill during the Revolutionary War. George Washington presumably used this route in 1776 as he traveled from his headquarters in Peekskill to meet with General Rochambeau in Danbury. This old interstate highway was designated U.S. Route 202 in the automobile era. This essentially east-west route was intersected by a road that paralleled the Croton River from its headwaters in Putnam County in the north to Ossining, a few miles south of where it emptied into the Hudson River. In 1807 this road was improved and became known as the Croton Turnpike. Travelers and drovers frequented this route making the intersection a prime location for transportation services. The travelers' toll is not known, but cattle were discounted 25 percent and charged by the score; sheep warranted no toll.
Accommodating travelers and drovers became a profitable occupation at the junction. A tollhouse had been erected there to collect fees from those changing roads, which made it an appropriate stopping place. Micajah Wright was operating a tavern in his house just east of the tollhouse (339 Route 202) by 1802, and a store was opened there in 1809. Thomas Leggett is believed to have been operating an inn on the site of the Elephant Hotel in 1806. Farmers in or near the hamlet did the same as the demand for lodging exceeded the space available in any particular home. When Hachaliah Bailey erected the elegant three-story Elephant Hotel on the land he had purchased from Leggett in 1820-25, it became the preferred lodging place and community center. It was about this time that blacksmith Thaddeus Barlow set up shop near the intersection, and a wagon shop opened nearby to capitalize on the needs of travelers' animals and vehicles. The activity at the crossroads soon attracted other businesses there.
The turnpikes provided easy transportation for raw materials and finished goods. By the 1830s George Norton was operating a cabinetmaking shop near the intersection, and a hat factory was located down the road. Artisans and laborers filled out the community occupying small single-family houses and duplexes they either owned or rented. A church was built and shared by Presbyterians and Episcopalians until the latter group built an imposing Greek Revival style edifice at the intersection in 1841. The burying ground remained with the old Union Church, then in sole possession of the Presbyterians, until the Ivandell Cemetery was laid out in 1866. The Somers Academy was erected next to the Union Church (neither has survived), and it became a public school when a town educational system was put in place. A post office first operated out of Bailey's inn and has since occupied various locations in the hamlet. The Baileys established a bank in 1839, with an office in the hotel, and a public library was operating by 1872. Somers Hamlet was bypassed by commuter railroads, parkways and interstates leaving it at least for a while, out of the way of suburban development sprawling out of New York City into Westchester County. It remained an isolated enclave through the Post World War II Era and has only in the last decades of the twentieth century begun to experience the pressure of residential development around it.
Hachaliah Bailey (1775-1845) was raised on a farm near the Somers Hamlet. Like many other farmers in the area, he raised cattle and drove them to New York down the Croton Turnpike and its predecessor road, which passed his homestead. The city's stockyards were located at the Bowery, and drovers frequented a tavern there appropriately known as the Bull's Head Tavern. It was here on one trip in 1805, Bailey was enticed to purchase Old Bet, the second elephant known to have been imported to North America. It has been said that Bailey intended to use the creature as a draft animal, but subsequent history suggests that he always had grander ambitions for the elephant. Bailey took Old Bet on the road and quickly profited from her as a public attraction. A drover by trade, he was familiar with overland travel, and he is known to have made annual trips with Old Bet throughout the Northeast. This reputation garnered him the sobriquet of Father of the American Circus from no less a showman as P.T. Barnum. He provides the following account of Bailey in his autobiography.
"Hack Bailey was a showman. He imported the first elephant that was ever brought to this country and made a fortune by exhibiting it. He was afterwards extensively engaged in traveling menageries... He built a fine hotel in Somers, N.Y., the place of his residence, called it the Elephant Hotel, and erected a large stone pillar in front of it, on which he placed a golden elephant."
Within three years Bailey had retired from traveling and focused his attention on acquiring animals and organizing menageries. In 1808 he sold two-thirds of his elephant to two other Somers drovers, Andrew Brunn and Benjamin Lent, for $1,200 each. Hachaliah Bailey's extraordinary success influenced his neighbors to join in his enthusiasm for exotic animals. Many families in Somers and surrounding areas participated in the menagerie business. Prominent local names such as Crane, Brown, Titus, Wright, Purdy, Mead, Finch and Howes, kept wild animals at one time or another. It was not uncommon to see giraffes and other jungle denizens grazing in local pastures.
As his wealth grew Bailey diversified his interests into more conventional commercial pursuits. He operated a stage line between Danbury and Sing Sing (Ossining) and maintained a sloop at the latter place to transport cattle and passengers the rest of the way to the city. In is autobiography, P.T. Barnum wrote that Bailey, in addition to building a fine hotel "was very successful in running opposition steamboats upon the North River." This obscure reference suggests that Bailey was attempting to break the lucrative monopoly on steam travel on the Hudson that had been granted by the state legislature to Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton's North River Steam Boat Company following the introduction of Fulton's boat in 1807. In that same year Bailey purchased Thomas Leggett's lot on the north side of the turnpikes' intersection and assumed proprietorship of the inn that is assumed to have been operating there. He also purchased over 350 acres on the south side of the road. In addition to his other pursuits, Hachaliah Bailey was investing his new-found wealth and notoriety in his home town. Bailey is recorded as serving as the Somers Postmaster in 1812; he was evidently operating the post office here.
Bailey built a new hotel at this location between 1820 and 1825. The Leggett House was demolished and a large brick building erected in its place. Bailey's travels had provided him with a broader world view as well as a fortune, and he employed that experience in the design of his elegant hostelry. Following pattern book prescriptions and employing talented craftsmen, the building was an exceptional example of Federal period architecture in the region, as well as in the hamlet. Brick was produced from a clay deposit on Bailey's land across the intersection and fired in a kiln at a roadside site that is within the historic district. The three-story building, with elegantly decorated entrance hall, first floor parlors, was an immediate attraction. With the bravado worthy of a great showman, he emblazoned the new establishment's name in bold letters across the facade: ELEPHANT HOTEL. A few years later, he erected his legendary monument in front of the hotel, dedicated to his first pachyderm, Old Bet, who figured large in his success.
For unknown reasons Hachaliah Bailey sold the Elephant Hotel and its associated farm in 1838 and moved his circus to winter quarters in the Washington, D.C. area, settling at a place that still shares his name: Baileys Crossroads, Virginia. He returned to Somers shortly before his death in 1845; his son, Lewis, assumed the management of the Virginia business. Buried in the Ivandell Cemetery in the Somers Hamlet Historic District, the final resting place of many traveling showmen, Bailey's epitaph reads, "Enterprise, Perseverance, Integrity."
Cradle of the American Circus
The local menagerie industry expanded rapidly during the decade of the 1820s. The growing numbers of exotic animals and the seemingly limitless popularity of animal shows attracted huge amounts of investment to various enterprises. Owners exchanged shares in each others animals and their earning potential, and silent partners fronted money for road shows on the promise of a percentage of receipts. The Somers Hamlet was at the center of this furious activity, and the new Elephant Hotel served as the headquarters that linked all the independent showman together. In 1821 John Titus, who resided on a property in the historic district (2 Deans Bridge Road), and Gerard Crane, whose house is outside the Somers Hamlet Historic District but listed individually on the National Register of Historic Places, ran a traveling show featuring "The Learned Elephant." Soon after Titus joined with showmen June and Angevine from nearby North Salem to tour one of the most successful early circuses. Benjamin F. Brown teamed up with Hachaliah Bailey to promote a touring equestrian show in the south. He was later sent to Egypt with $10,000 provided by Gerard Crane, John Titus and others to procure giraffes. The Brown family is associated with two properties in the Somers Hamlet Historic District (346 & 352 Route 202). Brown and two of his brothers went on to manage menagerie shows in the South and West Indies. Charles Wright grew up in his father's tavern in the hamlet (339 Route 202) and joined touring shows at an early age. He is reputed to have been the first person to enter the cage of a lion. Wright's brothers, Daniel and James, were also showmen, and after traveling with circus shows, settled in Ohio and Alabama, respectively.
Another townsman, J. Purdy Brown, is credited with introducing the canvas tent, a round top ninety feet in diameter, in his 1825 traveling shows. Brown's birthplace is within the Somers Hamlet Historic District. His contributions to the circus also include the first recorded instance of combining a traveling menagerie with a circus in his 1828 season. Both of these innovations were momentous in changing the nature of public entertainment. The circus, originally equestrian and acrobatic exhibitions, was first performed in America in 1793 in Philadelphia in a closed wooden circular arena. Companies would play out their run in a large population center then dismantle the structure and move on. The innovation of the tent allowed companies to set up in small towns and move on quickly. This freedom of movement together with the combined elements of circus and menagerie formed the uniquely American circus.
Lewis Lent, another Somers showman, was the son of Benjamin Lent, an early partner of Hachaliah Bailey in owning "The Royal Tiger Nero. Lewis was employed in menageries from age 13, and at age 22 he joined the Brown & Co. circus, which was owned by Oscar Brown, J. Purdy Brown's brother and successor. Lewis Lent went on to own the New York Circus in 1864, the first successful railroad circus.
By 1830 many "education shows" displaying a variety of rare animals traveled extensively throughout the eastern United States and made their headquarters in Somers and surrounding towns. On January 4, 1835 one hundred thirty showmen, animal owners and investors met at the Elephant Hotel and incorporated as The Association of the Zoological Institute. Articles of Association were drafted and stock was issued to the phenomenal value of $329,325. This group directed the development of the circus business for the next fifty years. The Zoological Institute became a dominating factor in the importation and exhibition of animals and the ownership of circuses and circus equipment. It maintained a collection of animals, wagons and equipment and owned a building at 37 Bowery where performances were held and winter quarters maintained. It organized the numerous menageries into 12 companies for which it established fixed, non-overlapping routes throughout the eastern Untied States. The Association exercised a virtual monopoly on the animal show business. They were known as "The Flatfoots" by those who challenged their leadership "because they put their foot down flat against any competitor bringing a show into the eastern territory." The Association lasted for two short years, until the financial Panic of 1837 effected its dissolution. Animals and equipment were auctioned to pay debts at the Elephant Hotel on August 22 and 23, 1837. In name the Zoological Institute continued to be referenced in show titles for years after. George F. Bailey, a distant cousin of Hachaliah's, toured the last of the flatfoot shows in 1875. These achievements has secured Somers's reputation as the "Cradle of the American Circus."
The Hamlet in Later Years
Hachaliah Bailey's cousin, Horace Bailey, became the owner and proprietor of the Elephant Hotel in 1837, and its register contains references to prominent Americans who had lodged there, such as Washington Irving, Martin Van Buren, Aaron Burr and Horace Greeley. Horace organized the Farmers and Drovers Bank in 1839, which included a number of area circus owners as directors. While the showmen were excluded from the Bank's prosaic name, they surely contributed the lion's share of its assets. The bank's office was installed in a front room of the hotel. According to historical accounts, it was robbed by bandits at least twice. Bailey also donated land on which St. Luke's Church was constructed in 1842. Unlike the older Union Church that the Episcopalians had shared with the Presbyterians, which is known to have been quite plain, the new church was a distinguished addition to the town's architecture. With its monumental Doric portico and cupola, the building epitomized rural church design in the Greek Revival style.
The character of the hamlet had changed from its roughneck days as a cattle town. Success had an impact on its appearance, but it was also responding to outside forces. A dam was constructed on the Croton River at Yorktown in 1842 flooding hundreds of acres in the town of Somers. Ten years earlier, the commissioners of the New York City Water Supply had selected the Croton River as its water source, and it proceeded to take actions that would forevermore have an effect on the town's landscape and land use. These conditions brought the town more closely into association with the city. A station on the Harlem River Railroad was opened in nearby Croton Falls in 1847. The first survey mapped the tracks through the hamlet, but farmers along the route organized in opposition citing, in one instance that smoke from the engines would discolor the wool on their grazing sheep.
The hamlet may have missed out on a legitimate opportunity; yet in its early years, the train carried more people away from the town than it brought in. The advent of the railroad not only sent the turnpike and road-related commerce into recession, but it changed the nature of farming in the area. Cattle raising became less profitable as cheaper beef was transported from the west by rail. Farmers in Somers shifted production to fresh milk, which they could ship on a daily train to the city. With the last of the circus showmen becoming a memory, Somers became like thousands of other rural communities in the Northeast and entered a long period of stasis. The population of the town declined from 2,100 in 1840 to a number just over 1,600 in 1880. Over the next twenty years, another 400 people left. The local farm economy was flat in those years, and city jobs were a decided attraction, particularly to rural youth.
The Civil War had its effect on the hamlet. More than sixty young men from Somers enlisted, and townspeople worked hard to raise bounties to procure substitutes for others. Loyalties were divided as they once had been during the Revolution. A large number of farmers objected to the war and supported Southern succession. They were confronted by a stronger abolitionist sentiment in the region because of their cavalier attitude towards the plight of slaves and labeled Copperheads. The rector of St. Luke's Church was assailed by abolitionists for not preaching in support of the government and its war cause. He resigned in 1863. Soon after hostilities ceased, the local Ladies' Soldiers' Aid Society raised funds and erected a monument at the Ivandell Cemetery "In memoriam of the brave men from this vicinity who fell in the great rebellion."
The Ivandell Cemetery had perhaps the greatest impact on the appearance of the hamlet in this period. It was created in 1866 on seven acres adjacent to the Union Church and burying ground that was separated from the neighboring Ebenezer White Farm (361 Route 202). James W. Bedell, son-in-law of the farm's owner, Samuel White, laid out a serpentine plan for the cemetery and gave it the Romantic name of Ivandell. It became the central place of internment in the town, particularly once the Union Church, long since occupied by the Presbyterians, ceased religious use in 1872. The land for St. Joseph's Cemetery, adjoining Ivandell on the east, was purchased in 1903 to accommodate the burials and grave markers that had to be moved from the St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church burial ground in nearby Croton Falls when the area was planned to be flooded for a New York City reservoir. The earliest internments date back to 1845 and include parishioners who had come to the area to help build railroads and reservoirs. St. Joseph's Church in Croton Falls was also condemned; a new church was constructed in Somers about two miles northeast of the historic district.
Two other events occurred in the 1870s that have had a lasting effect on the hamlet. Horace Bailey's son, William, erected a large and elegant house opposite the Elephant Hotel in the Second Empire style. Ever since that occurrence, the Bailey House has been a local landmark nearly equal to the hotel. William Bailey was the president and principal stockholder of the bank that his father had established, and he continued the family's prestige into the twentieth century. The second event was the organization of a town library in 1875. Miss Ruth Tompkins led the effort by setting up a lending system in her grandfather's house (2 Deans Bridge Road). Miss Tompkins had two prominent grandfathers: showman John Titus and Gov. Daniel D. Tompkins. The library was later located in a house at the intersection of Route 202 and Deans Bridge Road (376 Route 202); it has since moved to a new facility outside of the historic district.
Few other changes occurred, and the nineteenth century concluded with the hamlet looking much like it did in the beginning. It was still the center of an agricultural region although its role as a regional transportation center was on the wane. The circus showmen had all died or moved on. While business generally declined, the Elephant Hotel was still a popular lodging place for road travelers, and its unique cachet was always an attraction. Perhaps more than ever, the hotel functioned as a community center, where local groups convened for meetings, dancing schools were held, plays and musicals were staged, and various balls and benefits were hosted.
The Somers Hamlet looked sufficiently like an old New England village in 1923 to attract D.W. Griffith there to film Revolutionary War segments for his epic film "America." The film included footage of many of the hamlet's houses as a courier, modeled on Paul Revere, rode horseback down the street calling men to arms. Encampments and battle trenches were constructed on open land around the Elephant Hotel, which served as a military headquarters in the film as well as lodging for key actors, such as Lionel Barrymore. Many locals were employed as extras, and the U.S. War Department provided 1,000 troops to participate in the battle scenes. This memorable event has been captured in numerous still photographs taken during the shooting as well as in the film itself.
As in other rural communities close to large urban centers, Somers became a destination for summer tourists content with the unembellished and economical amenities of boarding houses. Many farmers were glad to have the opportunity to turn a spare room or two into cash income. The creation of reservoirs in the rugged terrain of the area created an appealing attraction. While those artificial lakes were off-limits to swimming, boating (without motors) was a popular pastime. Entrepreneurial landowners dammed streams to create recreational lakes on their land and enhance the tourist experience. Church congregations, labor groups, fraternal organizations, settlement houses and other immigrant/working-class collectives found they could pool their meager personal resources and acquire rural havens for their members. Camps were easily established on vacant farms. In one instance, a Baptist fresh air camp was established south of the hamlet. They built camp buildings for that purpose, and when the camp closed in 1968, its meeting hall was moved and attached to St. Luke's Episcopal Church in the hamlet for use as a fellowship building. The rectory was built in 1928 by the then rector, who was a skilled carpenter.
The Elephant Hotel had remained in the ownership of the Bailey family, but it had been leased to a number of tenant proprietors and operated in various residential and commercial functions. The introduction of the automobile had revived the vitality of the old turnpike route and the hotel, which became more of a tea room, endured as a stopping place. The antiquity of the place inspired Romantic associations for spaces within. One bedroom was named the "Washington Irving Bedchamber" in honor of one of the hotel's famous visitors. In 1919 the Old Bet monument in front of the hotel was joined by a ten-ton boulder with a bronze plaque recognizing townsmen who served in the First World War. The hotel, and the hamlet, still represented the town center.
The local significance of the hotel building resulted in the Town of Somers purchasing the hotel and moving town offices into it in 1927. For years prior to this, the town government had met at Tompkins Hall in nearby Lincolndale. Town records were spread among many informal repositories. The Elephant Hotel was the town's first official quarters, and it continues in that function today. The Bailey family was paid $20,000 for the building, and the action was supported in a referendum by a two-to-one margin. The building continued to serve as a community center until after the Second World War. During the war, the local Red Cross unit met regularly there to collect and marshal humanitarian aid. The central front room on the third floor with its large arched window was used as a civil defense control center. Afterwards the large frame annex attached to the east side of the building was demolished and a two-story vault was constructed on the west side. A meeting hall/court room was added in 1959.
New houses were constructed in the hamlet in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as increasing numbers of commuters availed themselves of the benefits of country living. Somers was still an outlying area, but some intrepid souls ventured there. Some of the earliest houses are located on the Purdy's Station Road (Route 116) on the fringe of the hamlet and reflect their owners' positions straddling two worlds. The large Ebenezer White Farm (361 Rt.202), which had land on both sides of the highway, was further subdivided in this period. Earlier, it had been the source of land for the Ivandell and St. Joseph's cemeteries, and in the 1920s house lots were created on the south side of the road opposite them. With the exception of one suburban Tudor Revival style house (360 Rt.202), the houses built there were designed with a more traditional two-story, wood frame appearance.
Motorcycle competitions enjoyed a brief popularity in the period between the wars, and races were held on summer Sundays on a course carved into the hill behind the Ivandell Cemetery. Known variously as Prospect Hill or Brown's Mountain, the events attracted motorcyclists and spectators from miles around. Johnson's Garage (280 Route 202), which was located on the site of Thaddeus Barlow's blacksmith shop, became a well-known service center to enthusiasts of the sport. This site continues to function as an automobile repair shop today. The frame buildings that housed Johnson's Garage burned in the early 1960s, and the present brick shop was constructed in 1962.
Development pressures were more keenly felt after the Second World War as veterans searched for cheap suburban homes. Southern Westchester County was already densely suburbanized and costly at this time, so house seekers ranged farther out the commuter rail lines. Summer bungalows and cabins in the town of Somers were winterized for use as year-round homes and farmers sold land to house builders. Somers's 1934 zoning ordinance (an early planning document) was revised in 1944, and again in 1958, in a large part to address the rapidly changing landscape of the rural town. The hamlet was essentially built out by this time, so little new construction occurred there. However, it experienced a distinct revival as a commercial center, which resulted in the gradual and almost complete conversion of houses and barns to commercial uses. The road, now designated a U.S. highway, was also improved at various stages to accommodate increasing amounts of local automobile traffic. In 1978 the town board designated a Business Historic Preservation District in the hamlet. This ordinance was amended in 1982 and again in 1984 to provide stronger protection.
Today, the old hamlet continues to hold together in the midst of unceasing, intensifying development in the region. The county's largest planned residential community, Heritage Hills (started in 1972), now occupies Prospect Hill on the north side of the district. An immense property containing the corporate headquarters of the I.B.M. Corporation, designed by I.M. Pei and built in 1988, presses up against the south side of the district, and in two places it inveigles its way out to the road. In addition, the Pepsi Corporation built its headquarters in Somers in 1985. These developments have spurred population growth in Somers and its neighboring towns and further enhanced the commercial potential of hamlet properties. In spite of these terrific impacts, the physical characteristics of the historic hamlet have been largely preserved, and in the context of this late twentieth century transformation of the surrounding cultural environment, the Somers Hamlet Historic District emerges as a rare surviving example of a nineteenth-century rural community in the New York Metropolitan Region
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† Neil Larson, Town of Somers, and Peter Shaver, New York State Division for Historic Preservation, Somers Hamlet Historic District, Somers, Westchester County, New York, nomination document, 2003, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.