Settlers from New England began pushing into the New York wilderness in earnest after the Revolutionary War. Three who made their way here in 1800 - Hart Massey, Henry Coffeen, and Zachariah Butterfield - were attracted by the energetic Black River that promised the potential of power for early industries.
Indeed water-powered mills and factories would soon take their places along the river. In 1805 Jefferson County was founded and Watertown was tabbed as the county seat a decade before the village was incorporated in 1816. When the War of 1812 broke out the bustling village became a center of supplies to the soldiers coming to Lake Ontario. Now as the legal and industrial center of the “North Country,” Watertown was on the fast track to becoming a significant city. The progress was slowed by a devastating fire in 1849 that wiped out a large swath of the business district but rebuilding was swift and certain.
Meanwhile the mills and factories hummed along the Black River. Paper-making was important and so was cotton and wool manufacturing. Watertown-manufacturedcarriages were in demand across the country. The first portable steam engine was developed here in 1847 and the Davis Sewing Machine Company was a big employer as Watertown was incorporated as a city in 1869 and entered into its greatest period of prosperity - one that would last more than fifty years.
Our walking tour will visit many structures from those heady times and we will begin where six roads pour out of and where Watertown history has been made for over 200 years...
Arsenal Street at Washington and Court streets
Public Square, first known as the Mall, was deeded by Watertown’s early settlers in 1805as a common reminiscent of the New England greens they knew from their home villages. The grounds were left as an unlandscaped open space for its first fifty years. After crippling fires raced through town, especially in 1849, the square was formally laid out to visually bring the rebuilding central business district together. When Watertown became an incorporated city in 1869, one of the celebration events was the erecting of a cast-iron fountain in the center of Public Square which has a depiction of Xenia, the Greek goddess of hospitality on the top. Its cost was under $700 and has recently been refurbished.
FROM THE FOUNTAIN AT THE CENTER OF PUBLIC SQUARE WALK EAST ON THE ISLAND, TOWARDS THE CHURCH. ON YOUR LEFT IS...
89-99 Public Square
This time-worn commercial building began life in 1871 as the Doolittle and Hall Block. In 1908 the three-story, fifteen-bay structure was given a major facelift by Watertown architects Albert and Edwin Charlebois with a glazed white brick facade. In 1919 it was renamed The Lincoln Building in honor of the Lincoln League, a fraternal organization located there.
First Baptist Church
207 State Street at Public Square
This is the fourth church for the congregation that organized in 1823. Their first, a wood frame structure, rose in 1828 and was later sold to the town’s pioneering Catholic congregation and renamed St. Mary’s. After the second wooden church burned in 1846, Otis Wheelock designed a new brick church for the Baptists in the Greek Revival style. In 1891 that building was razed, save for the east and west walls that became the foundation for the present church, crafted of native gray limestone and blending Romanesque and Gothic detailing. The four-sided clock in the imposing tower is owned and maintained by the City.
FROM THE EAST END OF THE ISLAND, TURN AND WALK BACK TO THE HEAD OF PUBLIC SQUARE, TOWARDS THE MONUMENT. ON YOUR LEFT IS...
112 Franklin Street at Public Square
Nelson Burdick, a carriage manufacturer and mayor of Watertown from 1882-83, constructed this Romanesque-inspired block in 1891. The 18-bay, three-story brick building was one of the lucky ones - it picked up a painstaking restoration in the 1990s.
Soldiers and Sailors’ Monument
Public Square at Washington Street
The monument was dedicated in 1890 after Mr. and Mrs. George Cook spearheaded a fundraising campaign bolstered by $10,000 of their own money. The monument was designed by American sculptor Henry Augustus Lukeman and architect Edward Pearce Casey. At the top of a granite pedestal, a figure of a woman holds a wreath of Victory. Near the stepped base stand bronze figures of a Civil War soldier and sailor.
STANDING AT THE WEST END OF THE ISLAND IN PUBLIC SQUARE, TO YOUR RIGHT IS...
122 Court Street on Public Square
Frank A. Empsall got his start in retailing in North Adams, Massachusetts where he was the first president of the North Adams Merchants’ Association. In 1907 he bought the Roth Dry Goods Store in the Rothstock Building that had been constructed four years earlier as Watertown’s first high-rise. Empsall soon liquidated his North Adams assets and settled permanently in Watertown, renovating the Roth Store into Empsall’s Department Store. From the very start it was Watertown’s premier emporium billed as “The Store that explains the North Country’s decided preference for shopping in Watertown!” Inside, shoppers were greeted by a grand staircase and the finest fixtures. Frank Empsall was an early promoter of the automobile and was founder of the Jefferson County Automobile Club. He donated large sums of money to help improve roads - the same roads and cars that would lead to suburban malls and kill off grand downtown department stores like his decades later. That demise finally happened to Empsall’s in the 1990s. The upper six floors, which originally formed an upscale hotel, have been redeveloped as apartments.
...AND DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF YOU IS...
F.W. Woolworth Building
southwest corner of Arsenal and Washington streets on Public Square
As a young boy growing up in Jefferson County, Frank Winfield Woolworth knew he was going to be a merchant. He thought store, he dreamed store, he played store. Often in the evening he and his brother would arrange make-believe merchandise on the dining room table and take turns selling to each other. Yet the man who was to build the largest chain of stores in the world was turned down time and again in his quest to land his first retailing position. in 1871, at the age of nineteen, Woolworth drove around Watertown in an old sled looking for a sales job. Finally he was offered an opportunity at the dry goods firm of Augsbury-Moore. Of course he wasn’t going to be paid, but he wouldn’t be charged anything for being around and learning, either. By 1877 Woolworth was running Moore’s store for ten dollars a week. In the spring of 1878, Woolworth arranged a number of slow-moving items on an old sewing table and priced them for five cents each. All the goods, heretofore unattractive to customers, sold on the first day. It was the beginning of Woolworth’s career selling an assortment of goods at one low price - accepted practice today but a novelty in the 1870s. In 1916, by which time he had constructed the world’s tallest building in New York City and paid the entire $13 million price tag entirely out of his fortune amassed by nickels and dimes, Frank Woolworth purchased the American Building on this location that housed the store where he got his start 40-plus years earlier. He planned to demolish it and erect a grander building in its place but he died in 1919 before he could get the job done. The company followed through with his plans, however, and the new six-story Woolworth Building opened in 1921. It remained in operation until 1971.
TURN LEFT ON WASHINGTON STREET.
119 Washington Street at Public Square
The YMCA Building was constructed in 1913 on the corner of Washington Street and Public Square in Watertown. The building was erected as a new home for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), replacing its old quarters in Washington Hall. The YMCA still occupies the building today, while the upper floors constitute an apartment house.
1 Public Square at Washington Street
This indoor shopping arcade greeted its first customers in 1850 and has done business ever since making it the oldest continuously operating covered shopping mall in the United States. There was bit of a craze in the building of downtown arcades that clustered businesses in the 1840s and Loveland Paddock hired Otis Leonard Wheelock to build him one after The Great Fire of 1849. Wheelock, the only architect in town at the time, was busy in rebuilding Watertown before he moved to Chicago in 1856 but few of his creations survive today. He gave the Paddock Arcade a Gothic style, covered with a glass roof that allowed sunlight to filter through to the shops below. Customers entered through a trademark Wheelock arch. After its adjoining Paddock Building was demolished in 1919 to make way for the Woolworth Building the Arcade underwent an extensive redesign in the 1920s that obliterated much of its Gothic interior but it still functions today as the beating heart of Watertown’s downtown district.
Slye & Burrows (Smith & Percy)
104-06 Washington Street
This sharp Art Moderne addition to the Watertown streetscape appeared in 1932, a storefront for the antique and clothing emporium of Smith & Percy.
Roswell P. Flower Monument
head of Washington Street
Roswell Pettibone Flower was born in Theresa, north of Watertown, in 1835. After an early career in mercantile and manufacturing pursuits he obtained his first public position as assistant postmaster of Watertown in 1854. In his thirties he moved to New York City to engage in banking and emerged into the United States congress where he served three terms before resigning and winning the governorship of New York in 1891. He died in 1899 and this monument was commissioned the next year by the legal firm in which Flower was a partner. Famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens was paid $25,000 for the project and he delivered a heroic bronze statue of Flower in a long coat with outstretched hand.
Black River Valley Club
131 Washington Street
The Black River Valley Club, a private business and social club for men and women, organized in 1904, picking up the pieces of the Union Club that had started in 1876. The new club razed the stone house on this site that had been used by its predecessor and its new building was ready by 1907. The stately Neo-Georgian design was provided by architects Thain & Thain of New York City.
Agricultural Insurance Building (Morgan Stanley Smith Barney)
215 Washington Street
The Agricultural Insurance Company organized in 1853 and grew to be one of the largest and most successful businesses in New York state. Its strength was exemplified by this Neoclassical headquarters constructed in 1923. Edward York and Philip Sawyer of New York City, leaders in designing buildings for financial institutions, drew up the plans for this sprawling symmetrical building that features restrained Ionic pilasters and a pedimented entrance.
228 Washington Street
Loveland Paddock began his business career working with his brother in the family mercantile business and made his fortune supplying the nascent American military during the War of 1812. He began investing his monies in real estate and became one of the wealthiest men in Jefferson County. His fortune was estimated at $800,000 and described by the New York Reformer newspaper as “”one of the largest out of our large cities, unaided by land or other speculations, that has ever been made in the state.” His son Edwin, a local banker, built this house between 1876 and 1878. Edwin and his wife Olive were frequent travelers in Europe where they developed definite and very differing aesthetic tastes. He was a fan of the exuberant Queen Anne Victorian style while she favored the graceful design of Swiss architecture. Rather than resolve the dispute architect John Hose incorporated elements of both styles in his plan for the mansion. When Olive Paddock died in 1922 she left the home to the Jefferson County Historical Society and it opened as a museum in 1924.
Flower Memorial Library
232 Washington Street
Industrialist Andrew Carnegie funded the building of over 2,500 libraries around the world in the early 1900s and Watertown put in a request. Emma Flower Taylor, daughter of Roswell P. Flower, believed the community should take care of its own and offered to match the offer and conditions laid out by the Carnegie Foundation - and threw in the land to boot. She asked only that the new library carry her father’s name. Addison F. Lansing, a local architect who hailed from the legendary firm of McKim, Mead and White, delivered a grand domed Beaux Arts library executed in gleaming white marble. Inside, under the three-story rotunda, the library is stuffed with glorious murals and paintings that elaborate on local themes.
242 Washington Street
This Neoclassical Greek temple with an order of fluted Doric columns supporting a wide triangular pediment was constructed in 1914 as a lodge for the Watertown Masons. The building that includes a theater, commercial kitchen and gymnasium was sold to the Adirondack Jewish Center in 2010.
Watertown Daily Times
260 Washington Street
Watertown’s daily newspaper goes back 150 years to its days as the Daily Reformer in 1861; it has published under the masthead of the Daily Times since 1870. Harold B. Johnson joined the paper as an editor in 1907 and acquired the publication in 1932. The Johnson family has controlled the Daily Times ever since, including 52 years under the guidance of John B. Johnson.
First Presbyterian Church
403 Washington Street
The first religious ceremonies in Watertown were held in pioneer co-founder Hart Massey’s cabin in 1800. The roots of the Presbyterian church extend back to a gathering of 13 men and women before the Reverend Ebenezer Lazelle in a barn on June 3, 1803. In 1820, a site was obtained at the corner of Washington and Academy Streets, and a church structure of stone was erected at the cost of $9,000. Two stories tall, with a dome-like tower over the entrance, it was dedicated on January 1, 1821. The current brick structure, designed by Otis Wheelock, replaced the stone church in 1851. The current appearance reflects the alterations and additions to Wheelock’s core building, including the slender steeple that came on board in 1892.
TURN RIGHT ON MULLIN STREET. TURN RIGHT ON SHERMAN STREET.
Trinity Episcopal Church
227 Sherman Street
The congregation formed in 1828 and constructed a fine wooden Gothic church on Court Street in 1833. It perished in the Great Fire of 1849 and was quickly rebuilt. The site was prized as the location for the new City Hall in 1890 and the Trinity congregation moved to this location. William Pitt Wentworth used elements of the multi-chromatic Richardsonian Romanesque and Gothic styles to create this massive new Episcopalian home in 1889.
TURN RIGHT ON ARSENAL STREET.
Jefferson County Court House
southeast corner of Arsenal and Sherman streets
Prolific Syracuse architect Horatio Nelson White designed three nearly identical courthouses like this one in New York between 1857 and 1862; only Jefferson County’s from 1862 survives. The vibrantly decorated Italianate structure features rich red brick with limestone trim. It is highlighted by a square, three-story tower. For many years the building was coated and a sandblasting in 1952 revealed its lavish details but also hastened deterioration.
Post Office/Surrogates Office
163 Arsenal Street
This former post office shows how tastes in government buildings changed over the final half of the 19th century. Out is the lavish ornamentation and in is the dignified austerity of the Neoclassical style in this four-story graystone federal building. Congress appropriated $77,000 for its construction in 1906. The first Watertown postmark from this post was dated 1909. Today it is part of the County court complex.
TURN RIGHT ON ARCADE STREET.
northwest corner of Stone Street and Arcade Street
This hulking graystone structure began as the Watertown post office in 1890 a short distance away on Arsenal Street. When that building was replaced in 1908 the stones were dismantled and carted to this location where contractor Milo L. Cleveland reassembled it, adding an additional story. During his life Cleveland constructed hundreds of miles of railroad, many bridges of the stone arch type, and he deepened and widened many canals such as the Welland, Galoop, & North Channel canals in Canada. His resume also included many Watertown buildings such as the now-departed Opera House, the Elks building, and the C. R. Remington paper mill at Glen Park. This was one of his final projects before dying in 1912 at the age of 61 after a long illness.
behind Jefferson County Historical Society off Stone Street
This is the Watertown’s oldest standing structure, believed to have been built around 1802 by Hart Massey to replace the log cabin he erected in 1800 as one of the town’s founders. It originally stood not far away on Public Square at the site of the Paddock Arcade. While Hart Massey might be able to find his old house today he would probably not recognize it as it was extensively remodeled around 1876 when it came here to be attached to the ice house and barn that served the Paddock Mansion out front.
TURN LEFT ON STONE STREET AND LEFT ON WASHINGTON STREET TO RETURN TO PUBLIC SQUARE AND THE START OF THE WALKING TOUR.