Historic districts are geographically distinct concentrations of buildings, structures, sites, objects, and landscapes that collectively share some historic distinction.
–The City of Ithaca Historic District and Landmark Design Guidelines (HDLDG) adopted May 14, 2012.
In 1971 the City of Ithaca joined a nationwide preservation movement when DeWitt Park Historic District was designated as the first of three historic districts to be listed at the local, state and national levels. The purpose was to protect the city’s cultural, aesthetic and historical heritage as means to promote the economic, cultural, educational and general wellbeing of its citizens. Ithaca’s historic preservation ordinance allows individual properties and groups of properties exemplifying special historic character to be designated as local landmarks and local historic districts. In 1973 and 1974 the designation of singular structures as Individual Local Landmarks—first with Lehigh Valley Railroad Station located at 806-810 West Buffalo Street followed by St. James AME Zion Church located at 114-116 Cleveland Avenue—was initiated. Forty-four years later, the city has identified 22 individual local landmark structures and 9 historic districts with overlapping periods of significance ranging from 1818–1954.
In Ithaca: A Brief History, author Carol Kammen thoughtfully describes how landscape and water, government, educational institutions, technology and prominent individuals have shaped and enhanced Ithaca’s evolution for the past two hundred years: from its “period of settlement through the anxious early years to 1870”; followed by what Kammen calls “a time of organization and diversification leading through the twentieth century to 1975”; and the most recent past which looks at our own time.
The Military Lot
After the Revolutionary War (1775 – 1783), New York soldiers were to be paid for their wartime service with a generous plot of land. Once New York State gained control of Iroquois lands, surveyor general Simeon DeWitt was dispatched to identify and map the New Military Tract comprised of 26 towns each with 100 lots of 600 acres. By the time the state distributed the land by lottery in 1790 many people had lost interest and either sold or traded their lot of 600 acres. DeWitt bought the central flat portion of Lot 94 in Town 22 (Ulysses), acquired additional acreage to the west and south eventually holding over 1,400 acres. He anticipated that this area he named Ithaca would become a transportation hub and manufacturing center due to its location on Cayuga Lake; the potential water-power provided by the three creeks of Fall, Cascadilla on East Hill and Six Mile located between East and South hills; high quality farmland and overland shipping of goods through the valley south to the Susquehanna River in Owego. DeWitt subdivided the area into a rectilinear village plan with narrow lots that he both rented and sold off over time as more people arrived to start a new life.
The hamlet of Ithaca was incorporated as a village in 1821 with a population of just over 1200 residents. The city’s fortunes over time fluctuated with national financial trends, and suffered from a series of floods and fires that destroyed building stock that was rebuilt using the latest technology and building materials. Cornell University, founded in 1868 by Ezra Cornell and A. D. White with a Morrill Land Grant, began with a student population of 412 students that needed housing, goods and services provided by the village. By 1888 Ithaca was chartered as the 29th designated city in the state. The city was set on its course of serving a University community that has since expanded beyond its original focus on agriculture and engineering to become a world-class university with 21, 850 students. Today the city of Ithaca is undergoing significant building construction to accommodate students, residents and tourism.
The city’s nine historic districts—listed below chronologically according to their period of significance—contain a multitude of architectural styles popular between 1818 and 1954 such as: Federalist, Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Italian Villa, Second Empire, Shingle, Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival, Renaissance Revival, Colonial Revival, Arts and Crafts, and Moderne.
Ithaca Downtown Historic District
This area, which is also a National Register Historic District, is the city’s earliest commercial area with its period of significance between 1818 and 1954. The downtown core buildings constitute an intact representative example of a Central New York commercial district. The area retains a high degree of architectural integrity with several examples of the city’s notable architects’ work that illustrate Ithaca’s development from a small settlement at the intersection of two turnpikes—today’s State and Aurora streets—in the early 19th century to the commercial center of the city today. The various structural and decorative technologies used to construct these structures during the period of significance—including a largely intact collection of attached masonry commercial buildings—represent a variety of architectural styles popular during that time. The first Ithaca Commons, built in 1974, turned this historic urban core into a pedestrian walkway that encouraged continued use of these buildings with street-level retail space and banking, and upper level office space and apartments. Center Ithaca and the former Rothchild’s building are excluded from the historic district. Today’s Ithaca Commons—recently reopened after three years of reconstruction—features a fresh new design that continues to provide a setting for: people-watching, shopping, dining, services, music and community events.
DeWitt Park Historic District
This part of the city is, like downtown, also a National Register Historic District. It was named for Ithaca’s founder Simeon DeWitt. Its period of significance is 1820 to 1930 because of its association with many of Ithaca’s early leaders and citizens. The district is comprised of 64 locally designated primary structures with 54 structures listed on the National Register. Representing the early days of settlement this area preserves a concentration of religious, educational and governmental structures as well as some of the city’s oldest surviving residential buildings. Although the district contains several non-contributing buildings—such as the old library—myriad historical architectural styles illustrate social and cultural shifts, progressive building technologies while continuing to provide a “... distinct urban setting for the city’s commercial, social, political and religious activities” according to the HDLDG.
Clinton Block Historic District
This district has a period of significance between 1830 and 1901 with three locally designated primary structures that, according to HDLDG, represent “the city’s last remaining unified group of commercial buildings in the Greek Revival style, popular locally between 1830 and 1860, and are the sole stagecoach hotel and ancillary commercial grouping surviving in Ithaca.” Clinton Hall’s third floor had a 500-seat auditorium used for public meetings and as a theatre for vaudeville and early motion picture screenings.
Henry St. John Historic District
This area south of Clinton Street has a period of significance between 1830 and 1932 with 80 locally designated primary structures. There were two distinct phases of development. The area between West Green and West Clinton streets was developed at the beginning of the 19th-century with some of downtown’s oldest homes comprising a mix of high-style and modest. The area immediately south between West Clinton Street and North Titus Avenue was initially too swampy for building construction. It was drained and improved by Charles M. Titus allowing newly affluent Ithacans to build homes in styles popular after 1870. Because of its association with several prominent businessmen and politicians in the village and the early city, it became one of the most fashionable neighborhoods close to downtown. Many properties retain the original carriage houses and early automobile garages.
This is another National Register Historic District and has a period of significance between 1830 and 1932 with 264 locally designated primary structures and 264 primary structures listed on the National Register. During the 1830s and 1840s East Hill was primarily rural with some milling activities near Osmun Place and Williams Street. The oldest structures are concentrated in the 400 blocks of East Seneca and East Buffalo streets. As Cornell University—established in 1868—expanded and grew during the last quarter of the 19th-century, the need for close-by housing and services initiated dense development that gives this district its present-day character and appearance. It contains a broad spectrum of architecturally and historically significant 19th and early 20th century residential, commercial, and institutional structures. The last surviving remnants of early 20th -century brick street paving are the sandstone pavers at the intersection of Ferris Place and South Quarry Street and red clay brick pavers along Stewart Avenue between Cascadilla Creek and East State Street.
University Hill Historic District
University Hill has a period of significance between 1867 and 1927 with 46 locally designated primary structures and panoramic views of the city, Cayuga Inlet and the Cayuga Lake valley. This area is also significant for its connection with two important Ithaca families—the former homes of the Cornells and the Tremans—who arrived in the early 19th-century without significant financial resources. By the second half of the century, both families accumulated substantial wealth and property that they later offered to the community, serving as benefactors or directors of the city’s major financial, civic, and educational institutions. Ezra Cornell owned a significant portion of the hill. His widow and relations eventually acquired all of the land between University Avenue and Stewart Avenue north of the City Cemetery. By the first decade of the 20th century the Treman family—founders of today’s Tompkins Trust Company and donors of the three urban creeks to the city of Ithaca and Cornell University for public use—purchased substantial portions of Cornell family holdings to build family homes. This district displays a wide range of American domestic revival and vernacular architectural styles popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Cornell Arts Quadrangle
The Arts Quad has a period of significance between 1868 and 1919 with 11 buildings, two statues and one memorial that are locally designated primary structures. Morrill Hall is a National Historic Landmark. Just outside of the campus’s historic district are five buildings of note. The A.D. White House is listed on the National Register, while locally designated landmarks are: Sage Hall, Barnes Hall, Sage Chapel and The Foundry.
Downtown West Historic District
This area has its period of significance between 1880 and 1922 with seven examples of residential architecture. These structures remain, according to HGLDG, from when “West State Street, originally known as Owego Street, was the principal thoroughfare leading from the inlet and railroad station areas into the downtown core of Ithaca.” The West State Street and South Albany Street area was a prominent residential neighborhood for a local physician and many of the city’s important businessmen who were active in civic life and local politics. This district serves as a complement to the fashionable houses in the nearby Henry St. John Historic District.
Another National Register Historic District, Cornell Heights has a period of significance between 1898 and 1937 with 147 locally designated primary structures and 186 primary structures listed on the National Register. According to the HGLDG this district is “.... an exceptionally intact example of a turn-of-the-century planned residential suburban community placed in an outstanding natural setting ... located along the northern rim of Fall Creek gorge overlooking the city and the southern tip of Cayuga Lake. The district’s historic character is defined by its curvilinear street plan, lavish landscape features, dramatic geographical setting and strictly residential character.”
The Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) and a staff historic preservation planner regulate all exterior and site alterations of the city’s locally designated landmarks and local historic districts. General guidance—for property owners, developers, architects, and tradespeople planning appropriate repairs, renovations and alterations within these historic environments—is provided in “The City of Ithaca Historic District and Landmark Design Guidelines” (HGLDG). Revised in 2012, the HGLDG provides recommendations for building materials and features such as: roofs, windows, doors, porches, exterior siding, foundations, decorative architectural details; site materials and features such as: parking, drives, walkways, patios, fencing, walls, lighting, accessory structures, signs, landscaping; mechanicals, utilities and fire escapes; new construction and additions; demolition and non-contributing structures. The guidelines can be accessed on-line at www.cityofithaca.org or by contacting preservation staff in the city’s Department of Planning and Development at (607) 274 6555. The ILPC uses these guidelines to make decisions about changes to locally designated historic properties. §