The land-grant program offered to veterans of the Revolutionary War spurred development of the north bank of the Chemung River in the 1780s. Most of the soldiers sold their interests to land speculators but some packed up and came to carve a homestead out of the wilderness. Captain Curtis Ramsey is given the credit as being perhaps the first, building his log cabin in the vicinity of Miller’s Pond that is named for him. The hamlet was called Newtown in its formative days at the intersection of Newtown Creek and the Chemung River. The adoption of the name Elmira in 1828 is smothered in the historical muck but local tradition hands down the colorful tale that a rambunctious child’s mother spent so much time calling her name that the townsfolk grew to accept their village as “Elmira.”
The town was kick-started into the national economy with the opening of the Chemung Canal in 1832 that connected the Chemung River here with the rich timberlands surrounding Seneca Lake and thus the new Erie Canal and New York City by water. In the canal building craze that was gripping New York at the time a feeder canal made connections with Corning to the west. In 1836 Chemung County was organized with Elmira the county seat. By 1849, the New York and Erie Railroad was completed to Elmira and was soon crossed by the New York Central in the town. The canvas was now complete for the emergence of Elmira as a transportation center. The New York & Erie Railroad tagged Elmira as the “Queen City of the Southern Tier.”
Elmira’s most significant growth began during the Civil War when it was a major troop staging area with a large prison camp. In 1864 the village was incorporated as a city and that same year the Union camp was converted into a Civil War prison. Hastily patched together, “Hellmira” became one of the most notorious prison camps of the conflict. Roughly one in four Confederates died at Elmira, either wasting away from malnutrition or perishing during a brutal winter. Wood lawn Cemetery, about two miles north of the original prison camp site was designated a National Cemetery in 1877; all traces of the camp today have vanished under a residential area. On Christmas Eve, 1866, a fire destroyed most of the buildings in the downtown area. In retrospect it served mainly to wipe the platter clean before Elmira’s most prosperous period. Between 1870 and 1890 the population doubled. Its superior transportation facilities made Elmira a manufacturing center. There were metal foundries and woolen mills and lumber mills and processing plants for the surrounding dairy region. Other products that poured from Elmira factories included glass bottles, office equipment, tools and wood pipe.
It was also during this period that Elmira welcomed its most distinguished guest, Mark Twain, who married local girl Olivia Louis Landon in 1870. The couple moved to Hartford, Connecticut but returned to the Landon family’s Quarry Farm each summer where Twain authored many of his most famous works, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in a small writer’s cottage set up on the property. The Samuel Clemens family would be buried in Woodlawn Cemetery and his grave is adorned by a monument 12 feet high or “mark twain,” the expression from which his adopted pen name derived.
The city’s population reached 47,000 in 1930 and essentially stopped growing after that. In June 1972 flood waters from Hurricane Agnes filled buildings along the Chemung River with as much as six feet of water, wiping out most of the downtown area. Many of the buildings that survived the subsequent urban renewal program are civic buildings and it is a fine collection reflecting Elmira’s one-time status as the the most important city in New York’s Southern Tier. But before we visit them our walking tour will begin at the oldest commercial building in the city, one that was standing back when that mischievous Elmira was still alive...
Chemung Canal Bank Building
415 East Water Street
This is the oldest commercial building in Elmira, constructed in 1833 when the Chemung Canal opened and a place was needed to store all the new cash pouring into town. Constructed of brick during a time when most town structures were wood, the building has indeed endured. An Italianate-flavored third floor was added to the transitional Federal/Greek Revival styled building in 1868 to rent out as living space. A more classical appearance arrived in a 1903 remodeling by Pierce and Bickford. The Bank moved out in 1920 and after a half-century of use as office space the property was purchased by the Chemung County Historical Society which renovated the building in 1993 to house the area’s largest history museum.
WITH YOUR BACK TO THE MUSEUM AND FACING THE CHEMUNG RIVER, TURN RIGHT AND WALK OVER TO THE CORNER OF LAKE STREET. TURN RIGHT, WALKING AWAY FROM THE RIVER.
Chemung County Courthouse Complex
210-228 Lake Street
Organized in 1836, the county seat settled in Elmira and this group of four government buildings evolved through the remainder of the century. The oldest building in the group also sports the last addition, an Ionic portico installed in 1899. The building was designed to handle the overflow business of the original courthouse and jail and new houses the District Attorney. The centerpiece Italianate courthouse with its three-story belltower was started in 1861 and stands as an important work of architect Horatio Nelson White, who authored several other courthouses in New York State. At the southern end of the complex two castle-like buildings, the Chemung County Clerk’s Office and Court House Annex, were constructed in 1875 and 1895, respectively. The pair were designed to blend with the existing courthouse with Italianate-styled decorations and painted brick.
Arnot Art Museum
235 Lake Street
Scottish-born John Arnot came to this area in 1819 as a 30-year old merchant and became one of the young community’s first business and political leaders. By 1833, when he constructed this brick Greek Revival house with fluted Ionic portico, Arnot was the town’s richest man and first president of the Chemung Canal Bank. His son Matthias followed him into the banking game and became an early promoter of manned flight in the United States and an avid collector of paintings and sculptures. At his death, Arnot bequeathed the house he was born in as well as $10,000 for remodeling it, $200,000 for an endowment fund, and his art collection, to the community for a public art museum, which was opened in 1913. The permanent collection includes works of the Flemish, Dutch, German, and French schools.
Chemung County Commerce Center
400 East Church Street at southeast corner of Lake Street
This was the second home of the Steele Memorial Library, built in 1923 with a $110,000 gift from the legacy of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. It was one of only a few of more than 2,500 Carnegie-financed libraries worldwide which did not carry the Carnegie name. The two-story red brick building trimmed with limestone was designed in a Colonial Revival style; it now houses county offices.
Lake Street Presbyterian Church
300 Lake Street at northeast corner of East Church Street
In 1861 a group of 116 members of the First Presbyterian Church and four new converts set out to form the Second Presbyterian Society and purchased ground on this corner. The core of today’s church was completed the next year and received an extensive Italianate makeover in 1876, bringing its appearance into harmony with the government buildings to the south on Lake Street.
TURN LEFT ON EAST CHURCH STREET.
Elmira City Club
320 East Church Street at Lake Street
The private Elmira City Club has held an esteemed place in the local social scene since it was established in 1889. The first president was Spencer Meade, son of General George Meade, the Union commander at Gettysburg. The Renaissance Revival brick building on a rough stone foundation anchors this prominent corner opposite City Hall.
317 East Church Street
Busy architects Joseph H. Pierce and Hiram H. Bickford were most responsible for shaping the look of Elmira from their office on Lake Street between 1885 and 1925. They designed several hundred buildings around town. Here they brought the ornate Neo-Renaissance style to the streetscape in 1895. The pediments are terra cotta figures representing agriculture, science, and the arts. With decorations on nearly every inch of the building City Hall stands as an early representation of the style that was to dominate American municipal buildings in the years to come. It also represents the height of architectural achievement in Elmira at the peak of its prosperity.
214 East Church Street
The Century Club was organized in Elmira in 1880 with Alexander Samuel Diven at its head. Diven had been a United States Congressman from New York and an officer in the Civil War. He later was famously engaged with the operation of the Erie Railroad. The club’s stated purpose was “to provide for social intercourse among the professional and business men.” One who frequently sought recreation at the club, initially located in the Masonic temple and then the Robinson Building, was Samuel Clemens. Billiards was a popular activity although club bylaws prohibited drinking of intoxicating liquor, and “playing for stake, bet or wager.” In 1905 the club moved into this handsome Neoclassical stone building awash in pilasters and a columned portico. Bowling alleys were in the basement, lunch served upstairs and separate card rooms were provided for the wives of members. The club’s 600-member roster dwindled through the first decades of its namesake new century and the building was sold to the Knights of Columbus in 1933. Since 1988 it has been owned by Yunis Realty.
U.S. Post Office and Court House
East Church Street at Clemens Center Parkway
Built in 1903 at the cost of $275,00 under the direction of James Knox Taylor, supervising architect of the United States Treasury, the federal government received a new monumental Neoclassical home, replacing an office in the Masonic Temple. The lobby contained Vermont marble walls and staircase and featured oak woodwork.
Steele Memorial Library
101 East Church Street
The son of an itinerant New York Methodist minister, Joel Dorman Steele emerged from the Civil War as an educator who earned a reputation for discipline and academic excellence. He was recruited in 1866 by the Elmira Free Academy and over the next several years began putting his lesson plans on paper. His guides and textbooks proved so successful that Steele abandoned teaching in 1872 to devote himself full-time to writing. His sales would number in the hundreds of thousands of copies and Steele texts would be used for decades after his death in Elmira in 1886 at the age of 50. In 1893 his widow Esther Baker Steele spearheaded a drive to create a memorial library to here husband. A spectacular five-story French Renaissance building was constructed at the corner of Lake and Market streets to begin lending books - most from the 6,779-volume collection from Steele’s personal library. The library moved up Lake Street to East Church Street in the 1923 and into its current digs in 1979. The original Steele Memorial Library was razed in favor of a parking lot in the 1960s.
First Baptist Church121 West Church Street
First Baptist was founded in 1829 with 38 members who met in each other’s homes. This is the third building to serve the congregation, dedicated in 1892. The church is a variation of the Richardsonian Romanesque style pioneered by Henry Hobson Richardson, the most influential American architect of the post Civil War era. It features such hallmarks of the style as rough-hewn stone trim around orange brick; powerful arched doors and windows, a corner turret and mini-pillars and windows grouped in sets of threes. The building remained in service until 2009.
302 North Main Street at Church Street
The first Episcopal services in Elmira were conducted in 1832 and Trinity Church was incorporated as a parish the following year. The present brick church was constructed between 1855 and 1858 on plans drawn by Henry Dudley who populated towns across New York with Gothic-styled churches, The Arnot Memorial Chapel was designed by another master of the Gothic form, Richard M. Upjohn, in 1880.
Elmira Popcorn Truck
North Main and Church streets
Italian-born Frank Romeo began selling “the best popcorn in town” in 1922, several years after returning from World I, where he was disabled. Beginning in 1929 the popcorn was dispensed from a hand-crafted truck assembled on the top of a Chevrolet chassis. Romeo worked this corner with his “Red Wagon” until 1971 when he finally called it quits at the age of 76. He sold the truck which put in another year of duty before being retired as well. In 1986 the truck’s owner, Kenneth White, offered to donate the Red Wagon to the city, which ignored him. Instead, a group of antique car enthusiasts formed the Popcorn Truck Preservation Society and restored the vehicle and later constructed a Carriage House for permanent display at no expense to the taxpayer. Today the Red Wagon makes regular appearances around Elmira, still dispensing the town’s best popcorn.
TURN LEFT ON NORTH MAIN STREET.
208 West Gray Street at Main Street
The congregation dates to the 1840s and is steeped in abolitionist and anti-slavery history. Thomas Kennicott Beecher, one of 13 children of Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher and brother of fiery preacher Henry Ward Beecher and sister of influential author Harriet Beecher Stowe, was an early pastor here from 1854 until his death in 1900. The eclectic Turkish-influenced church of limestone and brick was designed by Horatio Nelson White and constructed between 1874 and 1876. A bronze statue of Thomas Beecher stands in the churchyard.
155 North Main Street at Gray Street
Opened in 2000, the multi-use facility has played host to minor league hockey, college basketball, concerts and conventions with a seating capacity of 3,800.
Iszard’s Department Store and Tea Room
150 North Main Street and Market Street
Samuel French Iszard was born in New Jersey in 1868 and earned his retail chops in the dry goods business in Philadelphia. In 1904 he came to Elmira and quickly built a reputation as a merchandiser in his shop at Baldwin and East Water streets. On November 15, 1924, Iszard’s moved into Elmira’s first modern department store designed by local go-to architects Pierce and Bickford. The store became the standard-bearer for the shopping experience in the Southern Tier for generations before closing in 1993 after being sold to McCrory’s of Rochester. Since the 1990s the old emporium has been home to Exotrope, a software development company.
WALK BACK A FEW STEPS TO GRAY STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
Mark Twain Hotel
147 West Gray Street at Main Street
When a world-class hotel opened in Elmira on March 23, 1929 there was little doubt it would carry the name of Elmira’s most revered citizen. The 250-room brick Colonial Revival hotel hosted the city’s most illustrious visitors until it closed after 44 years and was converted into housing for the elderly. The second floor contains murals and a museum devoted to Twain.
207 Clemens Center Parkway at Gray Street
The Clemens Center was formed in 1975 and boasts two spectacular performance spaces. Mandeville Hall is available for intimate performances and recently restored Powers Theater transports patrons back to the exotic majesty of going to the movies. The 1,618-seat hall is festooned in gold leaf with spectacular murals and reconstructed opera boxes harkening back to its glory days when it opened as Keeney’s Theatre in 1925. Frank Keeney owned a string of vaudeville houses in New York and New Jersey; Fanny Brice made her amateur debut as a solo singer at Keeney’s popular Brooklyn stage.
201 Baldwin Street at Gray Street
The paper was founded as the weekly Elmira Gazette in 1828; it became an evening daily in 1856. In 1906 Frank Ernest Gannett, a 30-year old Cornell University graduate, purchased a half-interest in the paper, sowing the seeds for a news empire that would result in USA Today some 75 years later. Gannett took the Gazette and merged it within a year with the competing Evening Star to create the Star-Gazette. The paper became a morning publication in 1982.
TURN RIGHT ON BALDWIN STREET.
Chemung Canal Trust Company
One Chemung Canal Plaza at East Water Street
The community’s oldest bank took its first deposits on November 2, 1833. After a year in temporary quarters, this is the bank’s third headquarters, opened in 1971. The first now serves as the home of the Chemung County Historical Society; the second was cleared for the parking lot here. For its new home Chemung Canal Trust Company turned to an equally venerable local firm, the architectural shop of Haskell, Conner & Frost that had been started in 1893 by Joseph H. Considine. They produced a modernistic six-story truncated eclipse of a building. The firm still operates in Elmira as Foor & Associates Architects.
TURN LEFT ON EAST WATER STREET AND CONTINUE BACK TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT, WHERE THE CHEMUNG CANAL TRUST BEGAN ITS OWN JOURNEY.