Penn Yan Historic District

Penn Yan Village, Yates County, NY

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The Penn Yan Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. []


The village of Penn Yan, Yates County, is located at the northeast tip of Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes Region of central New York State, 60 miles south and east of Rochester. Keuka Lake is flanked by foothills which become dramatically steep at its southern end and broaden into a flat plain to the north where Penn Yan is situated.

The Keuka Outlet, a natural waterway connecting Keuka Lake with its eastern neighbor, Seneca Lake, flows east through the village visually defining the southern boundary of the Penn Yan Historic District. Two small creeks flow south through the village emptying into the outlet. Sucker Brook runs along the west side of the village while Jacob's Brook runs through the center, just east of Main Street. These waterways and the power they generated were a principal reason for the establishment of a village on this site.

The Penn Yan Historic District contains 281 structures, 210 of which are contributing, and encompasses the historic core of the village on an area of 65 acres. It contains significant nineteenth- and twentieth-century civic, ecclesiastical, commercial, industrial and residential buildings including four churches, one mill complex, a library, a post office and a winery. Buildings in the Penn Yan Historic District, dating from 1820 to 1929, represent a variety of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American architectural styles including Federal, Greek Revival, Second Empire, Romanesque, Eastlake, Queen Anne, Georgian Revival and Neoclassical, as well as vernacular and eclectic interpretations of these major styles.

The architecture of Penn Yan spans a period of almost 200 years. There are excellent examples of the major styles as well as vernacular interpretations. The commercial center, characterized by connected brick buildings set close to the curb line, extends gracefully into residential streets with predominantly wooden homes, generous lawns and large trees. Buildings in the business district vary in height and decorative treatment, which creates a pleasing rhythm. Corner buildings at the two main intersections (Elm Street and Water Street) such as the Chronicle Building, Birkett Mills, Pinckney's Hardware and the Knapp Hotel, tend to be larger in scale adding emphasis to the beginning and ending of the blocks. Non-contributing structures detract somewhat from the cohesiveness of the village but tend to be located near the edges or outside of the central district.

Main Street, which runs north/south, is the spine of the Penn Yan Historic District. There is a concentration of commercial buildings at its southern end which extends for three blocks. North of the commercial core are two blocks of widely spaced distinctive residential buildings; some of these are used for commercial offices and some are still residential. Mixed with these structures are a twentieth-century Georgian Revival style post office, two nineteenth century churches, one Romanesque and one Gothic style, and a twentieth-century Neoclassical style library. At this point, the Penn Yan Historic District becomes almost totally residential with the exception of the Yates County Safety Building, which is a non-contributing brick structure on the street's east side, and the Yates County Courthouse Park District, which includes the Baptist Church (1871), the Courthouse (1835), the County Building (1889), the Old Jail (1904) and the park adjacent to it on the west side of Main Street (approximately one acre in size) which was entered on the National Register of Historic Places on March 6, 1980 and is included within the Penn Yan Historic District.

The Penn Yan Historic District's industrial buildings are located on Seneca Street and Water Street, which form the southern boundary and run parallel to the Keuka Outlet. Industrial structures include the Birkett Mills and Penn Yan Winery, Wagener Street, Elm Street, Clinton Street, Court Street and North Avenue extend east and west from Main Street and are primarily residential in character with the exception of Elm Street, which contains commercial structures.

The Penn Yan Historic District is anchored at the foot of Main Street by three large and important landmarks: the Birkett Mills (1 East Main), one of the largest active historic mills in the county; the Chronicle Building (2-4 East Main), a late nineteenth century brick commercial building with Victorian Gothic and Italianate style detailing; and the Knapp Hotel (2-8 Main Street), with its distinctive Second Empire style tower with cresting. Between the Chronicle Building and the Knapp Hotel is the Castner House (110 Wagener Street), a residence of one of the early mill owners and a distinctive Italianate style structure. North from this intersection the Penn Yan Historic District includes four blocks of commercial buildings on Main Street, one adjoining block on the south side of Elm Street, and part of two blocks on East Elm Street comprising virtually all of the historic business district of Penn Yan as it existed by 1900.

Buildings in the commercial area are attached and close to the street forming solid blocks of connected facades fashioned in a variety of predominantly nineteenth-century styles. Although the buildings vary in size, they are compatible in scale and material, all being constructed of brick. Most storefronts have not escaped alteration yet, many remain intact with original cast-iron and wooden elements and large plate-glass windows. Cornices crafted in wood, metal and corbelled brick provide a rhythm and texture to the district.

Many buildings in the present Main Street business blocks were built during the Village's period of initial growth and development in the early 1800s and exhibit characteristics of the Federal and Greek Revival styles. Good examples are 105, 107, and 109 Main Street, three Greek Revival style commercial buildings dating from the 1840's. There were several early brickyards near the lake and the use of this fireproof building material ultimately contributed to the survival of the village's early commercial structures. Buildings in a second commercial area along Head Street (now North Avenue), which were made of wood, burned in a major fire in 1831, never to be rebuilt.

Subsequent periods of prosperity and change are reflected by alterations and additions common in many Main Street buildings. It is an important feature of Penn Yan's historic development that many pre-Civil War buildings received stylistic updating later in the nineteenth century. An interesting example is 25 Main Street, a four-story brick Federal style building constructed in 1820 to which a fourth floor and Neoclassical style details were added in 1900. Alterations commonly included the addition of upper floors and of decorative elements such as cornices, which were executed most often in the Victorian Gothic and Italianate styles.

North of the commercial district, Main Street becomes residential with large, elegant homes executed in an array of nineteenth and early twentieth century styles. Each of the streets in this residential section of the Penn Yan Historic District (Clinton Street, Court Street and North Avenue) is lined with tall stately trees, the residences recessed on spacious lots. Main Street contains a number of distinctive examples of major American architectural styles. Notable are the William M. Oliver House (158 Main Street), with transitional Greek Revival-Italianate style features; the Jolley House (333 Main Street) with its vernacular Federal style details; the Wheeler House (301 Main Street), an elegant Queen Anne style mansion; and the Sheppards House (342 Main Street), picturesque with pronounced eaves and random ashlar walls.

Other streets in the residential area of the historic district, Court Street, North Avenue and Clinton Street, contain fewer outstanding residences than Main Street, but the structures found there are intact with good representative examples of various styles. The more vernacular homes on these streets range in style from the Greek Revival period of the 1830s (121 North Avenue, c.1835; 200 Clinton Street, c.1830) to the revival styles popular in the early twentieth century (117 Court Street; 330 Clinton Street, c.1924). Italianate style residences include 221 Clinton Street, c.1865) and 121 Court Street (c.1860). In addition there are a umber of modest late nineteenth century vernacular Victorian period residences (119 North Avenue, c.1885 and 219 Clinton Street, c.1880s).


The Penn Yan Historic District is significant both architecturally and historically as a chronicle of the village's development between 1820 and 1929. It contains representative examples of residential, commercial, industrial, civic and ecclesiastical structures executed in the major architectural styles of the period of significance. Existing structures range in period and style from the Federal and Greek Revival in the early decades of the nineteenth century to the Victorian modes, Colonial Revival and Neoclassical style buildings of the early twentieth century. Though changes have occurred, the community remains surprisingly intact with few non-contributing elements. The Penn Yan Historic District is historically significant as a reflection of the growth of the village from its early beginnings as a trading community for the Finger Lakes region, through its emergence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the regional center for agricultural and viticultural production.

The village of Penn Yan evolved as a center of commerce and agriculture in response to its location. It was situated on a major north-south trade route that connected cities on the eastern seaboard with the interior of central and northern New York State. The Keuka Outlet, a seven-mile channel of water that connects Keuka Lake and Seneca Lake, was a great natural resource harnessed for power early in the village's history. A significant number of mills, manufactories, distilleries, asheries and tanneries proliferated along the side of the watercourse and on the small brooks that flowed through the village and emptied into Keuka Lake. After 1830, paper, linseed oil, wool products, wagons and carriages were manufactured, with the grape industry expanding in the latter half of the century.

Reports of Indian attacks prompted George Washington and Congress to send General John Sullivan with 5,000 men to central New York in 1779. They marched to Elmira (then Newtown), then north to the shores of Seneca Lake, destroying and burning Indian settlements as they went.[1] Soldiers returning from the campaign spoke of the richness and beauty of the lands they had seen. Their glowing descriptions, coupled with the government's desire to populate the area as a buffer against British encroachment, created a favorable climate for the development of settlements.

The earliest settlers came from Pennsylvania and New England. In 1786, Jemima Wilkinson, leader of a small religious sect known as the Society of Universal Friends, set the first of two search parties from Pennsylvania to locate a suitable place to build a permanent settlement. They followed Sullivan's trail and found a favorable area in what is the present town of Torrey. In 1788, twenty-five of her devotees established a settlement called City Hill south of the Keuka Outlet near the western shore of Seneca Lake.[2] This was the first permanent colonial settlement west of Seneca Lake, in what was known as Genesee County.

Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham negotiated with the Indians of the Six Nations of the Iroquois in 1788 to purchase over two million acres of land between Lake Ontario and Pennsylvania west of the pre-emption line which ran north-south slightly west of Seneca Lake.[3] The purchase encompassed most of Yates County. The present village of Penn Yan is situated in the northern part of Lot 37, Township Number 7 (276 acres) known as Milo.

Several individuals contributed significantly to the development of Penn Yan beginning with George Wheeler, who purchased the area on which the village now stands in 1791[4] He divided the land between his two sons-in-law, Robert Chissom and James Schofield. Schofield built a log house west of Sucker Brook but eventually left the county. Chissom remained and built a tavern on Maple Avenue in 1792.[5] (This structure is no longer standing.)

Lewis Birdsall settled in the area in 1792 and built the first saw mill at the foot of Main Street. In 1796, David Wagener purchased 276 acres of land north and south of the outlet from Birdsall.[6] Wagener was a friend of Jemima Wilkinson and, though never a member, had come to the Friend's settlement in 1791 from Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. He became part owner in the grist mill at City Hill and eventually erected another mill on the south side of the outlet on the land that he bought.[7] None of these early mills remain.

When Wagener died in 1799, his estate was left to his sons Abraham and Melchior. Abraham eventually purchased his brother's interest in the tract south of the outlet and played a principal role in the founding of Penn Yan. He built the first frame house in the village in 1800, currently the site of 173 Main Street.[8] In 1801 he constructed a second grist mill on the north side of the outlet and in 1816 built a larger house at the south end of Main Street on the west side called the Mansion House.[9] It later became an inn, and part of the structure was integrated into the present Knapp Hotel building at 2-6 Main Street.

Abraham was instrumental in implementing the survey and construction of a highway from Canandaigua to Elmira. The road, which came through Penn Yan, became a major route with a post office operating out of Wagener's house. He also created and laid out the Main Street and donated two acres of land for the county buildings in 1823. Yates County was formally organized on February 5, 1823 by an Act of the New York State Legislature.[10]

At the turn of the century, mills continued to develop in the southern portion of the village near the outlet, while at the upper end of Main Street at the intersection of North Avenue, a residential and commercial district was being established. Asa Cole built a popular hotel there. North Avenue, then Head Street, was a major stagecoach route. Morris Sheppard arrived in 1800 from Pennsylvania and built a tannery on Jacob's Brook which runs south through the village and empties into the outlet. This was followed in 1818 by a cloth mill on Sucker Brook, and in 1824, a five-story commercial building on North Main Street, none of these early buildings survive.

Men like Sheppard, whose stone house still stands (342 Main Street), worked hard to ensure that the north end of the village would not yield its commercial importance. Wagener's location on the outlet with the availability of water power, proved to be an advantage. Although commercial buildings continued to stand at the corner of Main Street and North Avenue until the end of the nineteenth century, the area became primarily residential and the two sections of the village grew together, with the principal commercial and industrial hub at the southern end of Main Street.

One of the more significant events that contributed to the growth and development of Penn Yan was its designation as county seat in 1823. As a result, population and commerce increased. Another was the completion of the Crooked Lake Canal in 1833. The subsequent use of the area's waterways for commerce followed the route of the outlet between Keuka and Seneca Lakes. The canal was a curious structure with 27 locks to compensate for its dramatic descent of 269 feet over its relatively short eight-mile length. Steamboats were used on Keuka Lake beginning in 1837 and major steamboat companies developed in the area.

With the canal nearing completion in 1832, William Oliver established the first bank. His Greek Revival style residence (158 Main Street) is one of the most prominent buildings in the Penn Yan Historic District. Some fine brick commercial buildings already existed by 1830, such as the former tannery (165 Main Street). The most extensive development of brick commercial buildings on Main Street began during the canal period. Many were altered above the second floor level during the latter half of the nineteenth century, but among those that are intact, the Greek Revival style buildings at 105-109 Main Street and 124 Main Street are noteworthy. Despite major fires on the west side of Main Street in 1837 and on the east side in 1840, the prosperity of the village was such that losses were quickly replaced.

Another great period of growth began in Penn Yan in the 1880's. The canal was active for about 40 years, supported for a short time by manufacturers and interested citizens, and finally abandoned by the state in 1877. In 1880 several leading businessmen in Penn Yan organized the Penn Yan and New York Railroad Corporation. They obtained a railroad right-of-way along the outlet and commissioned the Fall Brook Railroad Line to build a railroad which followed the canal route between Penn Yan and Dresden. When the line was completed in 1884, they sold it to the Fall Brook Railroad. At the same time these men invested their own money to purchase the Birkett Mill (c.1824), a three-story frame building with gambrel roof, which they moved 17 feet back from the Main Street. In the years through 1915, seven additions were made to the original structure, a complex of wooden and brick buildings. At the same time that the mill was purchased, a new stone bridge was constructed spanning the outlet at the mill site.[11]

Wild grapes growing in abundance were discovered by the earliest settlers in Yates County. The climatic conditions were ideal for viticulture and the first plating in the Keuka Lake area was made in Hammondsport in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The prosperous grape industry burgeoned in the latter 1800's with many prominent businessmen in the area investing in one phase or another of the business.

The first grapes in Yates County were set in Benton in 1855 by W.W. Shirland and were probably Catawbas. Isabellas and Concords made their appearance in the 1860s in vineyards which sprang up in other parts of the county, mainly along the slopes overlooking the lake. From 1865-70, much new planting was done and earlier, small vineyards were greatly expanded. Other grape varieties were introduced, but the bulk of the harvest were table grapes which were sent to eastern markets via boat and rail. Only a few grapes were turned into wine. However, in the 1860s, the largest vineyard in New York State was the Seneca Lake Grape and Wine Company, having upwards of 125 acres in the town of Milo. The vineyards were established in an area approximately 5 miles east of the village boundaries and are not included in the Penn Yan Historic District.

The grape industry spawned yet another manufacturing business, that of making baskets. Containers were needed to ship this perishable fruit to keep it intact during transportation. The first factory in Penn Yan established for this purpose was founded by the Hopkins Brothers in 1866.[12]

Steamboat traffic on the lake was increasing, partly as the result of the growth in agricultural productivity and the expansion of the grape industry. The activity initiated a building boom in the commercial district and changed the character of the downtown. This expansion coincided with the general economic recovery of the country beginning in 1879 and resulted in a fifty percent increase in agricultural output from the level which had been achieved in 1873.[13]

Periods of prosperity in the village were followed by the subsequent remodeling or construction of buildings in the central business district. Blocks of connected buildings constructed primarily of brick with some stone, cast-iron and wooden details and designed in a variety of major nineteenth and early twentieth century architectural styles remain as a record of the commercial district's growth and development. The earliest extant example is the Federal style building (c.1820) on the southeast corner of Main and Elm streets, 25 Main Street. Greek Revival style commercial structures such as 105-109 Main Street received later storefront alterations but clearly retain the characteristics of their original style. Typically Greek Revival style is the fenestration in the upper floors, consisting of symmetrically arranged bold windows. Numbers 20 and 22 Main Street, Greek Revival style buildings (c.1840) with added storefronts and fourth floors (c.1890), have intricate High Victorian Gothic tapestry-like corbelled brick cornices. The integrity of the brickwork in Penn Yan is evident and readily visible in the cornice areas of the buildings in the business district.

Number 131 Main Street has a complex brick facade executed in the Victorian Gothic style in the upper floors with a Queen Anne style storefront at the street level; the Cornwell Building (121-23 Main Street) is organic in character with its Romanesque style facade and Sullivanesque style terra cotta cornice; and the Oddfellows Temple (19-23 Main Street), with added fourth floor (c.1891), has a whimsical gable in the parapet and delicately designed brick and terra-cotta cornice.

Penn Yan's growth during the early years of the twentieth century slowed considerably. The buildings of this period are characterized by the prevalence of revival styles, among which the Georgian Revival was the most popular. A number of buildings reflect this trend including the 1912 Federal Building (161 Main Street), and the 1914 Masonic Building (117-29 East Elm Street). Although it has been altered, 140 Main Street is distinctive for its Neoclassical stone facade added in 1911.

The residential areas of the Penn Yan Historic District also reflect the village's history with representative examples of major nineteenth and early twentieth century architectural styles. Main Street contains the most distinctive examples, among them the Federal style Foster-Hatch Building, constructed in 1820 (165 Main Street), to which ornate Italianate and Eastlake style details were added later in the nineteenth century; Greek Revival style residences such as the William M. Oliver House (158 Main Street) and the Wells Struble House c.1831 (306 Main Street), with their massive pedimented porticos, and 164 Main Street, c.1825, which was remodeled in the Italianate style in 1866. Noteworthy is its "Penn Yan porch," a unique feature of the village's architecture. This and other imaginative wooden porches were fashioned with elaborate scrolled brackets, colonettes and round or ogee arches, the work of an inspired local craftsman who created similar porches throughout the village and in some of the outlying areas in Yates County. (Other examples within the Penn Yan Historic District include 201, 225 and 227 Clinton Street and 107-09 Court Street.)

Good examples of late nineteenth and early twentieth century styles include the Nathan Lusk House, c.1876 (171 Main Street), a complex structure with Italianate style details and prominent pyramidal tower; 301 Main Street, c.1885, a unique Queen Anne style mansion; and 309 Main Street, c.1909, a Georgian Revival style residence with bold classical detailing.

Court Street, Clinton Street and North Avenue generally contain a mixture of residences, smaller in scale and more vernacular in character than those found on Main Street. Examples include 121 North Avenue, c.1835, and 200 Clinton Street, c.1830 two modest Greek Revival style houses; 128 Clinton Street, c.1862, 121 Court Street, c.1860, and 221 Clinton Street, c.1865 designed in the Italianate style, one that is prevalent in the historic district both in the residential and commercial areas. Typical of the village's late nineteenth century residences are 219 Clinton Street, c.1880's, 303 Clinton Street, c.1898 and 119 North Avenue, c.1885. Many of the Penn Yan Historic District's early twentieth century residences are concentrated on these streets, among them: 117 Court Street, c.1906, in the Georgian Revival style; 123 North Avenue, c.1925, and 330 Clinton Street, c.1924, designed in an English country house mode.

There are five churches in the Penn Yan Historic District, two of which are twentieth century structures and non-contributing. St. Mark's Episcopal Church (179 Main Street) and the First Baptist Church (224 Main Street) are both constructed of brick. The Episcopal Church is one story and Gothic in character while the Baptist Church has both Gothic and Romanesque style characteristics. The United Methodist Church, located at 168 Main Street, is the Penn Yan Historic District's largest ecclesiastical building. It is an impressive building, constructed of rock-faced Medina sandstone in the Romanesque Revival style. An outstanding feature is its distinctive rosette windows.

Several civic buildings are interspersed with both commercial and residential buildings along Main Street. Significant structures include the U.S. Post Office (157-161 Main St., 1912), a one-story brick Georgian Revival style building; the Public Library (212 Main Street, 1905), a one-story brick Neoclassical style building and the structures within the Yates County Courthouse Park District, a complex of four significant buildings designed in styles ranging from the Greek Revival to Neo-Renaissance and a one-acre park (entered on the National Register in 1980).

The Penn Yan Historic District's industrial buildings are all located along the north side of the Keuka Outlet fronting on Seneca and Water Streets. They are properties belonging primarily to the Birkett Mills and Penn Yan Winery concerns. The Birkett Mills (1824-1915) complex located on the southeast corner of Main and Seneca Streets consists of the original wooden three-story building and its subsequent additions. Warehouses for the mill are located along Water Street in two three-story wooden buildings adjacent to the Chronicle Building. The Penn Yan Winery buildings, consisting of a wooden and brick warehouse built in the late nineteenth century and a stone structure with pyramidal tower built in the early twentieth century, occupy a large site in the western section of the Water Street side of the industrial area.

The historic resources in the Penn Yan Historic District reflect the growth and change in the evolution of this vital village. The architectural styles represented encompass both vernacular and high-style interpretations of American architectural styles spanning the entire nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. The buildings in the Penn Yan Historic District tell an important story of the area's development and are a visible record of its social, economic and architectural history.


  1. Cass Lewis Aldrich, History of Yates County, New York (Syracuse: D. Mason & Col, Publishers, 1892), p.53.
  2. Ibid., p.79.
  3. Ibid., p.68-69.
  4. Walter Wolcott, Penn Yan, New York (Penn Yan: Peerless Printing Co., 1912), p.13.
  5. Ibid., p.13.
  6. Ibid., p.13.
  7. Aldrich, p.298.
  8. Ibid., p.299.
  9. Ibid., p.299.
  10. Ibid., p.18.
  11. Ibid., p.267.
  12. Ibid., p.243.
  13. Ibid., p.244.


Aldrich, Lewis Cass. History of Yates County, New York. Syracuse: D. Mason & Co., Publishers, 1892.

Wolcott, Walter. Penn Yan, New York. Penn Yan: Peerless Printing Co., 1912.

Larry E. Gobrecht, New York State Division for Historic Preservation, Penn Yan Historic District, Penn Yan Village, Yates County, N.Y., nomination document, 1984, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
Central Avenue • Chapel Street • Clinton Street • Court Street • Elm Street East • Main Street • Mill Street • North Avenue • Seneca Street • Wagener Street • Water Street

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