Utica’s existence has always been tied to transportation, and not because the town lies only 20 miles east of the geographic center of New York state. It was at this point that early travelers could best ford the Mohawk River for miles in either direction. The land was part of a grant of 22,000 acres made by George II of England to William Cosby, governor of the Province of New York in 1734. During the French and Indian War in 1758 the British erected Fort Schuyler near the ford but it was never garrisoned and abandoned after the war. Despite its advantageous location the swampy environs delayed settlement beyond a few traders until the early days of the Republic.
A bridge was constructed across the Mohawk River in 1792 and stagecoaches were running from Albany the next year. One of the first to take advantage of the increased traffic was Moses Bagg who shod horses from his blacksmith shop and operated a much-frequented tavern. Utica’s main streets came to radiate away from Baggs’ little fiefdom and Bagg’s Square would be a focal point of city life for the better part of 200 years until it was obliterated by modern access roads.
No one prospered more from transportation in Utica than John Butterfield, who left his family farm in Berne, New York to come to the nascent village of Utica as a mail carrier. A single trip in a one-horse wagon each week was enough to supply all the demands of the inhabitants. At length with the accumulations of his small earnings, he purchased the right to carry the mail on his own account and was soon able to open a small livery stable and provide a stage service. After the Erie Canal was completed in 1825 Butterfield would move into packet boats and become an early investor in the railroads. In 1850, Butterfield convinced Henry Wells and William Fargo to consolidate their express companies with his own Butterfield & Wasson Company to form the American Express Company, which Butterfield then directed. Butterfield lived at #30 Whitesboro Street, was elected mayor in 1865 and died after a stroke in 1869 at the age of 68.
Meanwhile the textile industry that was to become the backbone of Utica’s economy began with the opening of woolen mills in 1847 and cotton mills the following year. But there was also locomotive headlights and firearms and beer and fishing tackle all being produced and shipped from Utica plants. The population would peak at over 100,000 in the 1930s and 1940s when the Utica freight yards were the largest in America east of the Mississippi River.
The early settlement lay wholly south of the Mohawk River, chiefly upon one street, called Main, running parallel with the river. Our walking tour will focus on the Lower Genesee Street Historic District that is the oldest part of the city of Utica as it inched away from the river. Despite extensive alterations and demolition buildings can be found that date to Utica’s charter as a city in 1832. But first we’ll start at one of those replacement buildings, where decisions affecting the fate of Genessee Street are hatched...
1 Kennedy Plaza
Utica’s first right and proper City Hall was constructed in 1852 of yellow bricks in the Italian Renaissance style on plans drawn by Richard Upjohn. Dominated by a tall, square campanile the building stood on the southeast corner of Genesee and Elizabeth streets for 115 years before the elegant City Hall was torn down over the objections of hardly anybody. This is its replacement.
Tower of Hope
1 Kennedy Plaza
Utica-born Edward Arnold Hanna was elected to two terms as mayor twice, once in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. His administration was among the most active and controversial of recent times, including an appearance on a prime-time CBS News show when he peppered his comments about Utica with four-letter words the network was forced to bleep out. Among his most bewildering legacies is the Tower of Hope which he constructed outside City Hall in honor of Bob Hope, who has no particular connection to Utica. Hanna had the carillon in the tower play his favorite tune - “My Way” by Frank Sinatra - on the half-hour.
WITH YOUR BACK TO TOWN HALL, TURN LEFT ON BROADWAY AND WALK OVER TO HANNA PARK DRIVE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BLOCK. WALK DOWN THE SHORT HANNA PARK DRIVE TO ITS END AND TURN RIGHT ON WASHINGTON STREET.
Westminster Presbyterian Church
714 Washington Street
This Gothic Revival church was completed in 1855 to replace an earlier church on Devereux Street that was destroyed by fire. The congregation paid $6,000 for the lot at the head of Washington Street and another $25,000 for the building.
WALK OUT TO GENESEE STREET AND TURN LEFT.
Genesee Street at Washington Street
Here is an island of hearty 19th century survivors of Utica’s urban renewal wars. The block displays a healthy dose of Romanesque arches and is anchored by the city’s own flatiron building, the Carlile Building from 1884. Dressed in red brick and terra-cotta, this is one of downtown Utica’s most photographed structures.
The Savings Bank of Utica
233 Genesee Street
Irish-born John C. Devereux arrived in the trading post village on the Mohawk River that was Utica in 1802 and set up a general store. Soon joined by his brother Nicholas the two Devereuxs established a reputation for honesty that was as solid as the new brick store they would build in 1814. Customers began leaving cash in their establishment for safekeeping and the seeds of a savings bank were sown. In 1821 a formal bank was chartered by the state of New York, with John Devereux as president; in 1839 a second charter established the Savings Bank of Utica.The bank moved into this Italian Renaissance vault in 1898, designed by Robert W. Gibson, an English architect who first made his mark in Albany in the early 1880s. Gibson gave the bank its landmark 52-foot dome covered with 23-karat gold leaf that earned it the popular moniker around town as “The Bank with the Gold Dome.” That bank is no longer the Savings Bank of Utica, having been absorbed by M&T Bank in 2007.
Bank of Utica
222 Genesee Street
The Bank of Utica, family-operated since its founding in 1927, contributed this Art Deco-influenced addition to the Utica streetscape.
Grace Episcopal Church
193 Genesee Street
Grace Church organized in 1838 with the first services held in a small frame meetinghouse at the corner of Broadway and Columbia streets. The parish was successful enough to acquire this site and begin construction of the current stone church in 1856. The design was supplied by America’s leading cheerleader for the Gothic style, Richard Upjohn. The entrance tower, added in 1870, came from the pen of Upjohn’s son, Richard M. and a third generation of Upjohns worked on the church in the 1930s when Hobart B. Upjohn directed renovations.
First National Bank Building/Adirondack Bank Building
185 Genesee Street
America’s foremost designers of bank buildings, York & Sawyer, came to town in 1926 to deliver this 14-story Romanesque-style home for the First National Bank. It features arched windows at the base and attic levels and string courses of corbelled arches. among its more memorable occupants have been WIBX radio that broadcast from its 9th floor studios and Kresge’s store that operated on the ground floor. Today the tower has been assumed by Adirondack Bank.
City Center Building/Fraser’s Department Store
173-181 Genesee Street
Robert Fraser started his career as a merchant in New York Mills by carrying and selling his goods from a pack, going from door to door. In 1876 he came to Utica and began peddling his wares from a storefront across the street. He moved here four years later to establish Fraser’s Department Store which came to be hailed as the finest emporium between New York City and Buffalo. Disaster struck on May 10, 1905 when fire broke out in the cotton batting stock in the basement. Within minutes smoke was pouring from every window as clerks and customers made their escape down ladders and across rooftops. There were no casualties but the loss to Fraser’s was pegged at $450,000. Dutifully Fraser had his buyers in New York City the very next day to purchase replacement stock and he was in business again across the street within 30 days. The six-story Fraser’s Department Store was rebuilt by March 1907 and would continue in business until 1939. The following year the F.W. Woolworth Company remodeled the lower two floors and began a stay of 50 years. Frank W. Woolworth had launched one of the world’s greatest retailing empires, built on nickels and dimes, from a storefront on the corner of Bleecker and Genesse streets back in 1879. Despite a promising start, that store would fail within the year and Woolworth would have to perfect his business model in Lancaster, Pennsylvania before his chain of five-and-dimes returned to Utica.
102 Lafayette Street and Seneca Street
The first guests to the 10-story Renaissance Revival-style Hotel Utica signed the register on March 11, 1912. The hotel was the brainchild of a group of prominent city businessmen who would spend$610,000 on its construction, causing the Utica Saturday Globe to rave, “Its equal does not exist elsewhere in this portion of the State and in some features it surpasses the best in many States. It has been built by Utica contractors and as far as possible Utica material has been used in its construction.” The architects were the celebrated Buffalo firm of August Esenwein and James A. Johnson. In the years to come four stories would be added to increase the room total to 250 and theguestbook would swell with such luminaries as Judy Garland, Mae West, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle and the Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor. The demand for a world-class downtown hotel in Utica waned over the years and in 1972 the Hotel Utica was converted into a pair of adult care residences. In 2001 a 13 million dollar restoration brought back the crystal chandeliers and rich mahogany interiors and the Hotel Utica became a guest house once again.
THE INTERSECTION OF LAFAYETTE STREET, GENESEE STREET AND BLEECKER STREET WAS HISTORICALLY KNOWN AS “THE BUSY CORNER.” CONTINUE ON GENESSEE STREET.
Utica City National Bank/Genesee Tower
110 Genesee Street
Incorporated in 1848, the Utica City National Bank Building, was built in 1902-03 as Utica’s first skyscraper. Architect Robert W. Gibson followed the style of the day in composing the tower in the form of a classical column with a distinct base (the architectural embellishments of the lower floors), an unadorned shaft (the middle floors) and a crown (the decorative cornice). In later years it housed the offices of Utica Fire Insurance Company. In its death throes, the building was purchased and redeveloped into 66 apartments for elderly.
TURN RIGHT ON JAY STREET THAT IS THE PARALLEL ROAD SOUTH OF ORISKANY STREET.
221 Oriskany Plaza
Eliasaph Dorchester put out the first issue of the Utica Weekly Observer, a single sheet of paper, on January 7, 1817. The Observer became a daily newspaper in 1848 and along the way several other publications were melded into what became the Observer-Dispatch in 1922. Frank E. Gannett, who founded the Gannett Company best known for USA Today, added the paper to his media family the same year. After more than five decades of producing two daily papers – the Daily Press (acquired in 1935) in the morning and the Observer-Dispatch in the afternoon, the Observer-Dispatch emerged in 1987 as a morning daily and the sole editorial voice in Utica. The paper’s Oriskany Street complex is located where the original Erie Canal once ran. The current Observer-Dispatch building is a product of the 1920s that has seen additions through the years.
TURN RIGHT ON JOHN STREET.
St. John’s Church
240 Bleecker Street at John Street
With its twin spires this red brick Romanesque church dominated the Utica skyline when it appeared in the 1890s, bolstering a church that had been built in 1869. The first mass took place on Christmas Day of that year. This is the third house of worship for the congregation, following the original in 1820 and a larger structure from 1836.
TURN RIGHT ON ELIZABETH STREET AND WALK DOWN TO THE COURTHOUSE.
Oneida County Courthouse
200 Elizabeth Street at Charlotte Street
The first Utica school, courthouse and town hall were all constructed in 1818. A new courthouse on John Street was built to the rear of the old one in 1851. This Neoclassical house of justice was constructed in 1909 over the objections of the County Board of Supervisors which had to be defeated in court to obtain the necessary one million dollars for its completion. The building originally featured Ionic column-supported pediments at either end but they have been removed to expose more of the Palladian windows that march across the facade.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS AND WALK EAST ON ELIZABETH STREET TO JOHN STREET. TURN RIGHT AND WALK TO ITS END AT RUTGER STREET AND CROSS THE ROAD INTO RUTGER PARK, A HALF-BLOCK OFF THE STREET.
1 Rutger Park
Rutger Park is the architectural showcase of Rutger Street that reflects the prosperity of Utica between 1830 and 1890. Its elegant mansions present a compelling inventory of 19th century American domestic architecture. This splendid Italian villa was created by Alexander Jackson Davis in 1854 and was so well regarded that the architectural plans are in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The house was built for John Munn, a banker who made his fortune in Mississippi. Munn returned to Utica not only with sacks of money but a southern belle wife, Mary Jane with whom he gained a reputation for entertaining in lavish “southern style.” Later occupants included Samuel Remington, whose company supplied pistols for the Union Army in the Civil War. More recently the building did duty as the Dowling Nursing Home before being purchased by the Landmarks Society of Greater Utica in 2008.
3 Rutger Park
The area that is now the park was planned by Judge Morris Miller, private secretary to John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States. His son Rutger built this house in 1830, the first to be completed in an area so remote from the village at that time it was called “Miller’s Folly.” The two-story Colonial-style house with a three-bay main section topped by a hip-roof was designed by Philip Hooker who was responsible for nearly every important building in early Albany. The Miller gardens originally covered the entire park but began to be divided into house lots in 1850. Roscoe Conkling, a 34-year old lawyer, bought the house in 1863. Conkling began a political career as mayor of Utica and eventually wound through the United States House of Representatives and into the Senate. The landmark house retained its glory into the 1950s and is today also a Landmark Society of Greater Utica property.
4 Rutger Park
Egbert Bagg, a civil engineer and land surveyor, built this 18,000 square-foot Italian villa for his home in 1854. When its days as a family residence passed the building served as a home for unwed mothers and the Swancott Home for senior women in 1954.
5 Rutger Park
This reddish-brown stone house was built in 1889 for Thomas Kinney in between split terms as mayor of Utica. Local architect Jacob Agne adapted the brawny Romanesque style of Henry Hobson Richardson, the leading architect of post-Civil War America, for the three-story residence. The house was purchased by the Teamsters Union in 1955.
WALK BACK OUT TO RUTGER STREET AND TURN LEFT, WALKING WEST.
Rutger Bleecher of Albany was the original owner of the land surrounding Rutger Street. But he never lived here. It was his grandson, Rutger Bleecher, who built “Miller’s Folly,” who began development here. With Rutger Park at its core, many fine homes, most in the popular Italianate villa style of the day, came to Rutger Street. Today these 150-year homes are doing duty as apartments and offices and organizational headquarters. They display varying degrees of upkeep but with minimal alterations most would still be recognizable if their original owners walked this way today.
The properties surrounding this greenspace reflect the opulence of Rutger Park with Italian villas and Queen Anne-style homes from the late 1800s. The three-tiered central fountain that had proved no match for a wayward automobile has recently been replaced.
Tabernacle Baptist Church
13 Clark Place at Hopper Street
The first church in Utica was organized by an enthusiastic band of 22 newly arrived Baptist emigrants from Wales on September 12, 1801. The congregation met in a crude log house on Varick Street, near the Globe Mills. In 1819, seventeen persons were dismissed from this church to form the Second Baptist Church of Utica, now the Tabernacle Baptist Church. The reason assigned for this harsh rebuke was ignorance of the Welsh language. That beginning has spawned a decades-old interest in refugees within the congregation. In 1828, the sent printer Cephas Bennett and his family on a mission to Burma and he subsequently produced the first Burmese bible. For more than a century, Tabernacle had at least one church member serving in Burma and many of the displaced immigrants from some 31 countries who have recently settled in Utica have joined the church.
TURN LEFT ON GENESEE STREET.
Stanley Center for the Arts
261 Genesee Street
Jules and Stanley Mastbaum opened their first theater in Philadelphia in 1897. Their entertainment empire expanded to over 250 theaters across the mid-Atlantic, several of which carried the name of the founder. Thomas Lamb, the premier theater architect of the day, with over 300 projects on his resume, was retained to design this movie palace located four blocks south of Utica’s then-thriving theatre district in 1927. Lamb’s style was to use architectural details to transport patrons to exotic locales of the mind - in the early Hollywood game the ambiance was as important to the movie-going experience as the film. Here, Lamb blended Moorish influences with twisting columns about the stage and a star-spangled ceiling with Mexican motifs in terra-cotta and tiled mosaics. He tied it all together with a rich Baroque interior riddled with angels and cherubs. Opening night was September 10, 1928 with the silent film Ramona, the tale of forbidden love on a California sheep ranch, appropriately starring the first Mexican movie star, Dolores Del Rio. But the Stanley Company was not around to see the curtain go up - three days earlier the entire theater chain was sold to Warner Brothers which has remained affiliated with the theater ever since. The 2,943-seat classic dodged the wrecking ball in the 1970s and today hosts live music acts and performances by the Broadway Theatre League.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO THE INTERSECTION OF GENESEE STREET WITH COURT AND HOPPER STREETS.
New (Green) Century Building
253 Genesee Street
The New Century Club in Utica was one of many progressive upper class women’s groups that sprung up across the country in the years approaching 1900, dedicated to social improvement and charity as well as women’s suffrage. For many years the organization operated out of this Greek Revival townhouse built in 1826, typical of the architecture found in the then emerging southern end of Genesee Street 175 years ago. Today the house has been claimed as headquarters for the Utica branch of Rust to Green New York State, an academic, citizen, and community collaborative to explore and advance green futures for New York’s rust-belt cities.
Fort Schuyler Club
254 Genesee Street at Court Street
On April 2, 1883 a covey of Utica “business and professional men” assembled to form a private club and within the year had purchased the John C. Hoyt House at this location. The new club named Horatio Seymour, former Governor of New York State and presidential candidate against General Ulysses S. Grant as their first club President, although he was unable to take an active role in the organization. The original senior membership was limited to 150 - the initiation fee was $50.00 and the dues were $40.00 a year. For many years women had to use an area in the back of the clubhouse and were not allowed to walk through the main entrance. In 1981 the membership opened to women and today the private club is 25% female.
TURN LEFT ON COURT STREET.
Bosnian Islamic Association Mosque
306 Court Street at Broadway
The first Bosnian refugees arrived in Utica in 1993, eventually growing into a community of several thousand. In 2008 the group purchased the crumbling former Central United Methodist Church, whose congregation departed in the 1990s, sparing the City the million-dollar expense of demolishing it. The Bosnian community set out to convert the church into a mosque covering the red bricks with foamboard and gray stucco and converting the steeple into a minaret, the traditional Muslim call to prayer. The job would require a half-million dollars and countless volunteer hours to complete the transformation.
TURN RIGHT ON BROADWAY AND WALK A FEW STEPS TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.