Perched at the southern end of Cayuga Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes, Ithaca has always been defined by its unique topography. The gorges and waterfalls for which it is famous are ballyhooed today to attract people to the city; historically they have made it difficult for folks to get here. In the 19th century the railroads went elsewhere along easier routes and in the 20th century the interstate system similarly bypassed the city - there is no highway within a half an hour of Ithaca.
The first settlers with names like Yaple and Dumond and Hinepaw came west from the Hudson Valley after the Revolutionary War to claim land in the Finger Lakes region offered as a reward for service. Ithaca was planned by Simeon DeWitt, the State Surveyor General, and it was named by him in 1804 because of its location within the Town of Ulysses - the ancient Greek whose home was on the island of Ithaki.
In the 1820s New York was in the throes of a canal craze and Ithaca saw itself as a budding water-based metropolis. In 1821 businessmen put a steamboat, The Enterprise, on the lake. Ground was broken in 1825 for a grand new hotel, the Clinton House, to accommodate the anticipated water traffic. The village bustled into the 1830s but those railroads didn’t come and the Panic of 1837 did and Ithaca’s growth essentially stagnated.
One who came and stayed was Ezra Cornell, an itinerant carpenter who was hired by Colonel Jeremiah S. Beebe to manage his flour mill of Fall Creek. Cornell became involved with the construction of lines for the new telegraph and invented the idea of protecting wires on wooden poles with glass insulators. He parlayed his ingenuity into a fortune as a founder of the Western Union company. Cornell drifted into the New York State Senate and Assembly and used the state’s Morrill Land Grant to create Cornell University on farmland located on East Hill.
Ithaca was known for producing high-quality shotguns and clocks as well but it would be Cornell University and the Ithaca Conservatory of Music that opened in 1892 and became Ithaca College in the 1960s that came to define the city, that was incorporated in 1888. Today there are about 30,000 residents of Ithaca and 30,000 students in the city. We’ll probably see plenty of both on our walking tour that will start on a patch of land that has remained undeveloped since it was set aside 200 years ago...
northwest corner of Buffalo and Cayuga streets
Abraham Bloodgood once owned all the land that comprises today’s downtown Ithaca, about 1,400 acres. In 1795, Bloodgood transferred 1,000 acres to his son-in-law, Simeon De Witt, in exchange for services rendered. DeWitt would double his holdings and laid out the town that would become Ithaca. This lot became the town’s first park, a portion of which DeWitt sold to the Presbyterian Church in 1810. It was known as Public Square Park until its name was changed to honor the town founder. Over the years the park has been ringed by historic churches and decorated with monuments to local war veterans.
FROM THE CENTER OF THE PARK WALK OVER TO THE NORTHWEST CORNER OF THE PARK AT CAYUGA STREET.
First Presbyterian Church
315 North Cayuga Street at Court Street
This Romanesque stone building is the third church for the congregation that began in town in 1804 with a membership of 14. The first meetinghouse was raised in 1816. For the foundation of this building in 1899, all the stone of its 1853 predecessor was used. the church’s seven stained glass windows were all designed by Maitland, Armstrong and Company of New York.
WALK CLOCKWISE AROUND THE PARK. THE NEXT BUILDING ON THE SQUARE IS...
Second Tompkins County Courthouse
121 East Court Street
Simeon DeWitt provided land for the first county courthouse in 1817 and a primitive wooden structure hastily erected to help prevent Tompkins County from being spliced back onto Seneca and Cayuga counties. it stood until 1854 when it was replaced by this six-bay brick building, since covered in stucco. John F. Maurice designed the courthouse in the Gothic Revival style and it is the oldest such courthouse in New York and the oldest public building in Tompkins County.
TURN RIGHT AND FACE THE EASTERN END OF THE PARK.
First Baptist Church
309 North Cayuga Street
Founded after the harvest season of 1821 by 23 people in Danby, New York, the church moved a few miles north to Ithaca in 1826. The first home for the First Baptist Church in Ithaca was built in 1831, with a young Ezra Cornell serving as one of the carpenters. Upon the building’s destruction by fire in 1854, a second structure was raised and used until the growing community required a larger building. The present structure was completed in 1890, with financial assistance from John D. Rockefeller. Its architect was William Henry Miller, who designed a number of major buildings on the Cornell campus and in downtown Ithaca. Now widely recognized as an example of Romanesque architecture, the building has been called the “Jewel of DeWitt Park.” In 1971 it was designated a historic landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission of the City of Ithaca. It is also listed on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Landmarks.
CONTINUE WALKING CLOCKWISE AROUND THE PARK OUT TO BUFFALO STREET AND TURN LEFT.
120 East Buffalo Street
This Italianate brick house, trimmed in brown, was constructed in 1866 for George McChain of the Geneva, Ithaca and Athens Railroad. English-born carpenter and self-taught architect, Alfred B. Dale, designed the house. Judge Douglas Boardman, who was later to become the first Dean of the Cornell University Law School, purchased the house in 1886. In November 1910, Grant Egbert decided to purchase the house and make it the architectural centerpiece of what was then known as the Ithaca Conservatory of Music, soon to be Ithaca College. It remained the hub of Ithaca College’s downtown campus for decades and even after the school moved to its present location on the South Hill Campus, the Boardman House continued to house the Ithaca College Museum of Art. It was sold in 1972 and today serves as private offices.
CONTINUE TO TIOGA STREET AND TURN LEFT.
Tompkins County Courthouse
320 North Tioga Street
This courthouse is the third to serve the county, constructed in 1932. It was designed in a more traditional classical style intended to invoke the majesty and power of the law that its predecessor, created in a Gothic style associated with ecclesiastical architecture, may not have.
Temple Beth El
402 North Tioga Street at Court Street
The Jewish community in Ithaca began stirring in 1906 in the home of Isadore Rocker. Temple Beth-El was formed in 1924 and there were only about 60 Jewish families (plus hundreds of students) in town when this brick, Middle Eastern-influenced temple was constructed in 1929.
TURN RIGHT ON COURT STREET.
St. Paul’s United Methodist Church
402 North Aurora Street
The roots of Methodism in Ithaca go right back to 1790 when the town consisted of four cabins and about 25 souls. When a circuit-riding Methodist preacher named William Colbert was denied the chance to speak tot he good people of Ithaca a Presbyterian named Mrs. McDowell invited him to preach in her house. A meeting house would come along about 1818 and today’s handsome Romanesque church building was dedicated in 1909.
TURN RIGHT ON AURORA STREET.
The William Henry Miller Inn
303 North Aurora Street
There was no architecture program at Cornell University when 20-year old William Henry Miller arrived on campus in 1868. He would be the school’s first architecture student although he was soon too busy to worry about graduating. Miller would design over 70 buildings around Ithaca and the Cornell campus, including this eclectic brick house for the Stowell family, prosperous wholesale grocers, in 1878. Confectioner R.C. Osborn bought the house in 1914 and his family lived here until 1996 and was opened as an inn three years later.
First Unitarian Society of Ithaca
306 North Aurora Street
Unitarians from Boston began preaching around Ithaca in 1865 and gathered in their first church, a wooden Carpenter Gothic meeting house, in 1873. For a brief time James Smith Bush, great-great-grandfather of President George W. Bush taught Sunday School in the structure that burned in 1893. Go-to Ithaca architect William Henry Miller provided the Romanesque-flavored design for the stone replacement church, donating his services in memory of his mother.
TURN RIGHT ON BUFFALO STREET. TURN LEFT ON TIOGA STREET.
215 North Tioga Street
This was one of many post offices across New York State that was designed by the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department, James Knox Taylor. Constructed in 1910, the single story stone and brick building stands as a splendid example of the Beaux Arts style of architecture that was the go-to design for Americanpublic buildings in the early 20th century. The exuberantly decorated Tioga Street facade sports fluted Ionic columns flanking large arched window openings. In 2000 the building was re-adapted for use at Ithaca town offices.
Cayuga, Tioga, Aurora, and Seneca streets
This pedestrian mall rode into existence in 1974 on a wave of similar urban renewal spaces that engulfed American downtowns at that time to combat suburban malls. The Commons was the first pedestrian mall constructed in New York, built entirely with local funds. Landscape architect Marvin Adelman won awards with his design. Most pedestrian malls lost out tot he big box stores with their convenient parking by the 1990s and re-opened to vehicular traffic but despite a similar decline Ithaca Commons - named in a contest whose winner evoked the country’s first park at Boston Common - sidestepped that fate. Several festivals are hosted here through the year with the main celebration coming during the summer with the Ithaca Festival.
First National Bank of Ithaca
202 East State Street at Tioga Street
The First National Bank of Ithaca took its first deposits in 1864 and through mergers developed into a major financial force in the community as evidenced by this six-story Art Deco headquarters that was built in 1932. Architect Richard Metzger sheathed the building in Indiana limestone and polished granite and decorated the sleek entrance with marble and bronze. The space behind the bank along Tioga Street was once the site of the Cornell Public Library, started with some of Ezra Cornell’s Western Union millions in 1863. Ithaca’s largest building was then constructed between 1864 and 1866, capped by an open octagonal cupola. Cornell contributed 3,000 volumes, with a goal of eventually holding 30,000. To make the library self-supporting, the building contained commercial space for a post office, a bank and other businesses. The fabulous building was sold to the First National Bank of ithaca in 1960 which immediately demolished it to make way for drive-in windows.
TURN RIGHT ON STATE STREET ON THE COMMONS.
158 East State Street at Tioga Street
Italianate was the dominant commercial style of architecture in American downtowns of the mid-19th century. This four-story corner anchor is one of the best restored representatives on the Commons with exuberant cast-iron window hoods and a decorative cornice at the roofline. Bookstores occupied this space for many decades; Dudley Finch was the first when the building opened in 1868.
TURN LEFT ON CAYUGA STREET.
Tompkins County Public Library
101 East Green Street at Cayuga Street
Lending books has a long, but not always smooth, history in Tompkins County. Circulation got off to a rousing start on March 4, 1867 in a magnificent facility that was the vision of town benefactor Ezra Cornell. Over the years the Library was home to many businesses and organizations and the large lecture hall was used as the Happy Hour Movie Theater from 1908 to 1929. That all crashed to an end with the Great Depression. After actually closing for a time in the early 1930s the library embarked on a peripatetic existence that brought it to its latest home here, in a converted Woolworth’s five and dime store, in 2000.
TURN LEFT ON GREEN STREET.
108 East Green Street
The stripped down classicism of the Art Deco style is apparent in this brick building that was constructed in 1939 for the New York State Electric and Gas Company. Today’s billion-dollar company started humbly on October 28, 1852 with six Ithaca businessmen pledging a total of $75,000 and incorporating as the Ithaca Gas Light Company. The following year methane gas lights appeared on Ithaca’s streets for the first time. The city purchased the building for its government offices in 1964. The brick Greek Revival building on the northeast corner of Seneca and Tioga streets that had served as the Ithaca City Hall since 1844 became the first victim of an energetic urban renewal program.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON GREEN STREET BACK TOWARDS CAYUGA STREET. CROSS AND CONTINUE ON EMORE BLOCK TO GENEVA STREET. TURN RIGHT. TURN RIGHT ON STATE STREET.
Cornell Daily Sun
139 West State Street
The Cornell Sun was an upstart publication when it was founded in 1880 by William Ballard Hoyt to challenge the school’s original publication, operating since 1868, the Cornell Era. In its opening salvo the Sun boasted, “We have no indulgence to ask, no favors to beg.” It has been an independent, entirely student-run Monday-Friday newspaper ever since. One of the nation’s oldest dailies, the Sun became the first collegiate member of the Associated Press in 1912. Among the distinguished alumni who graced the masthead of the Sun are E.B. White, long-time contributor to The New Yorker magazine and author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little; novelist Kurt Vonnegut; and pioneering sports journalist Dick Schaap. Since 2003 the paper has operated out of this one-time Elks Lodge, constructed in 1916.
123 West State Street
The newspaper that would become the Ithaca Journal put out its first edition in 1815. By 1870 there was finally enough going on around town to merit printing daily. The paper was purchased by Frank Gannett in 1912 and became an early cog in the media empire that would one day result in USA Today. The paper has used these offices since 1905 and was printed here for a century before moving to a facility outside Binghamton in 2006.
107 West State Street
The State Theatre began life as an automobile showroom and garage for the Ithaca Security Company in 1915 - the expansive upper floor display windows betray its origins. Prior to that the two-story Bank of Newburgh occupied this site for nearly 100 years before it was hauled over to Court Street in 1912. The Berinstein family purchased the building in 1928 with designs on converting the space into a movie and vaudeville house. Not that Ithaca was lacking in entertainment options - at one point downtown boasted seventeen grand theaters. But the Berensteins saw their new venue as a place to transport patrons to exotic locales of the mind and hired architect Victor Rigaumont to incorporate Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance motifs into the transformation of the old garage. Tiny lights resembling stars were inserted into the painted ceiling and movie-goers on opening night, December 6, 1928, were greeted by an indoor cloud machine. The State survived until the 1990s, outlasting every other movie palace in Ithaca. Ultimately it dodged the wrecking ball and has been revived as an active stage by volunteers.
TURN LEFT ON CAYUGA STREET.
120 North Cayuga Street
When it was constructed between 1828 and 1829 at a cost of $25,000 the Clinton House was more than worthy to carry the name of DeWitt Clinton, two-time governor of New York and prime mover in the construction of the Erie Canal. The massive five-story hotel was designed in the Greek Revival style with each of the front columns composed of a single oak tree, surrounded by layers of brick, with a stucco outer coating. The building contained over 150 rooms for guest and offices and stood out of all proportion in a rural community of less than 4,000 folks, clearly looking towards the future. A local newspaper, the Casket, described the Clinton House as “a hotel of superior order and of the first class...equalled by few and surpassed by none in the State.” In its nearly 180 years the Clinton House has survived a Victorian makeover by prominent local architect William H. Miller in the 1870s, a fire that destroyed the upper two floors in 1901 and various additions and remodelings in the 20th century. In 1972 Historic Ithaca purchased the Clinton House and carried out extensive restoration work; it now rents the property out.
TURN LEFT ON SENECA STREET.
Immaculate Conception Church
113 North Geneva Street at Seneca Street
Circuit riding preachers ministered to Ithaca’s small band of Catholics until a parish was formed in 1848. There were two churches erected here before this Gothic Revival structure by architect A. B. Wood was raised in 1896. It is actually constructed of two colors of stone - pinkish brown beneath the water table and orange buff above. The entrances on Seneca Street are beneath Gothic arches and the outer architraves are supported by pink marble Corinthian columns.
St. Catherine’s Greek Orthodox Church
120 West Seneca Street at Geneva Street
The first to worship at this site were members of the Protestant Reformed Dutch Church who erected a simple Greek Revival meetinghouse here in 1831. The congregation became disenchanted with the Reformed Church in the 1870s and had to go to court to sever their bonds and form an independent Congregational church they called the First Church of Christ. The first church of the First Church of Christ wasn’t going to be that Dutch Reformed church so they tore it down and replaced it in 1884 with an impressive Romanesque building of orange brick set upon a stone foundation based on plans by William Henry Miller. Louis H. Tiffany contributed two of the stained-glass windows in the church that is dominated by a corner belltower. The congregation stayed until 1959 and after a short tour of duty as the home of the Ithaca College music department the church returned to ecclesiastic service when St. Catherine’s bought the building in 1966.
TURN RIGHT ON GENEVA STREET. TURN RIGHT ON BUFFALO STREET.
St John’s Episcopal Church
210 North Cayuga Street at Seneca Street
St. John’s Episcopal Society was organized on April 8, 1822 at a meeting held in the Methodist chapel. Prior to then the Reverend Dr. Babcock and a Father Nash had ministered to the Episcopal community in a missionary capacity. In 1824 the church purchased a lot on the corner of Seneca and Cayuga Streets where they built a house of worship. Bishop Hobart consecrated the building on September 11, 1826. In 1844 the church was altered and enlarged, and in 1855 a parsonage was purchased. The church was torn down in 1860 and a larger building was constructed.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT DEWITT PARK.