Maple Avenue Historic District, Elmira City, Chemung County, Elmira, NY, 14904

Maple Avenue Historic District

Elmira City, Chemung County, NY

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The Maple Avenue Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]

The Maple Avenue Historic District contains 128 contributing resources in an area of the city known as Southside, due to its location south of the Chemung River and to the south of the earliest historic core of Elmira. The District extends from the northern end of Maple Avenue (excluding a non-historic gas station and Brand Park) south to the north side of Race Street. The district is limited to properties facing Maple Avenue since these constitute the most cohesive grouping of historic resources and share a history related to transportation and the development of the south end of the city along Maple Avenue.

The properties contained within the historic district largely developed between the 1860s and 1940, with smaller residential lots carved from earlier large farm tracts and vacant land, spurred by the growing population of Elmira. Originally the historic district was part of the town of Southport, the area south of the Chemung River, which was partially subsumed by the village of Elmira when it expanded in 1853 and again in 1864 as the community enlarged its borders to accommodate the expanding population. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the county saw rapid growth at first related to the Civil War, as the population grew from about 7,000 residents in 1860 to more than 12,000 in 1865, with most of these residents in Elmira. The subsequent transformation of the Southside area was further aided by the creation of the Maple Avenue Railroad streetcar line, first established as a horse car line in 1887-1888 and later electrified in 1890. (See: Streetcar Suburbs) The resulting development of Maple Avenue was primarily as a residential district and it retains many excellent examples of mid to late nineteenth century and early twentieth century domestic architecture in a variety of fashionable styles including Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Craftsman and Prairie and their vernacular interpretations. Especially significant are a number of high style late nineteenth century residences at the northeast end of the district, including the Queen Anne style J. H. Harris House (1892), designed by local architects Pierce and Bickford.

In its earliest history, the Maple Avenue Historic District became a suburban retreat for some of Elmira's most prominent business and political leaders. Pioneer settler John Sly was the first to erect his house on what would become Maple Avenue, building his large Greek Revival style house on the parcel at the northwest end, south of the river in 1795. After his death, the large farm tract was parceled amongst his relatives in the 1850s, initiating a period of land subdivision that would span more than half a century. By the 1870s and 1880s, Maple Avenue was distant enough to provide fresh air and a park-like natural landscape with a short commute to the downtown business areas. This attracted the prominent business and civic leaders, including the Brand, Eustace, Robinson and Clark families, to build large residences on the street. As some of the city's wealthiest civic leaders, they could afford the high cost of maintaining a large property and travel to and from the city center.

By the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Maple Avenue began to transition from a street affordable to only the upper economic class to a more middle-class and upper-middle class neighborhood, due largely to the efforts of Colonel David C. Robinson, who owned a major portion of the avenue, made improvements to it, and built the Maple Avenue Railroad in the 1880s. This made the Maple Avenue area of Elmira more affordable and accessible to the newly developing middle class. Robinson also played a large role in shaping the type, size and cost of houses on Maple Avenue through the use of deed restrictions, which directed the growth and ownership of the expanding residential neighborhood. These factors all contributed to the evolution of Maple Avenue into one of Southside's most intact collections of late nineteenth and early twentieth century residential architecture.

The Maple Avenue Historic District is located in an area of the city of Elmira known today as Southside, due to its location south of the downtown area of Elmira and on the south shore of the Chemung River. This area was once known as Southport, part of a separate town with the same name in Chemung County, formed in 1822. Southport has a unique history different from that of Elmira, on the north side of the river, up until the mid-nineteenth century. The vast expansion of Elmira led to a portion of Southport on the southeast side of the river being absorbed into the village of Elmira in 1853; it later became part of the city of Elmira when it was incorporated in 1864.

Settlement in Southport began in the late 1780s with three families (Miller, Griswold, McHenry) migrating north from Pennsylvania, most of them traveling along Seely and Hendy Creeks, which ran through the challenging terrain of the hills and valleys of southwestern New York to arrive at the flatter, more arable land along the Chemung River. Western migration patterns along rivers such as the Chemung and Susquehanna Rivers also brought in settlers from Connecticut and Orange County (New York), generally travelling by flat boat. Among the earliest residents in Southport were Colonel Abraham Miller, who built the first house in the town and a sawmill on a branch of the Seeley Creek. David Griswold, a veteran of the American Revolution, relocated with his family from Connecticut to Southport in 1787, building saw and grist mills on his farm. In 1788, John Sly from Pennsylvania purchased 600 acres in Southport and eventually moved north, building a log house on his property south of the Chemung River. His family operated a ferry on the river, giving the name of "South Port" to the area south of the river. In 1793, Barnabas Tuthill, a Revolutionary War veteran from Long Island, and his son, Samuel, settled in the area of present day Maple Avenue (near the East Miller Street).

During the first half of the nineteenth century, Southport was characterized as a fertile area highly suited to farming, with gently rolling hills. Like much of the Southern Tier of New York State, the earliest pioneers to the region found dense forests, which they cleared and sold for profit. The logging of this abundant natural resource deforested the area, resulting in the clearing of new farmlands. Street development was modest on the south side of the Chemung River, with only a few primitive roadways linking the south shore of the Chemung River to the Seeley Creek to the south. Maps suggest that the present Maple Avenue may have been an early footpath following the south bank of the Chemung River, linking to settlements further east. The primary road in Southport during this era was a route from Newtown (Elmira) south to the Pennsylvania state line, following the course of the present Pennsylvania Avenue. In the early 1800s, this road was in poor condition; however, it served as one of the earliest primary roads in the Southport area and much of the earliest settlement occurred along this corridor.

By the 1830s, there were few buildings and sparse settlement on the south side of the river. In 1831, only five houses were noted as standing in the Southside section of Southport. These included the ferry house, which was occupied at this time by cooper Henry Wormley. Merchant Robert Covell built his house on Pennsylvania Avenue and Mount Zoar Street in 1828. The house of Albert Beckwith, Chemung County's first sheriff, stood at Ann Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. On the west side of Pennsylvania Avenue, just north of the present Chemung Place, was the house of merchant Isaac Reynolds. Reynolds also constructed the first store in Southport in 1832. The following year, John F. Smith built a three-story brick hotel just east of the corner of Maple and Pennsylvania Avenues. A toll house on Pennsylvania Avenue was also present during this era. In 1838, the first schoolhouse was built in Southport.

Before Maple Avenue became a gracious residential street in the late nineteenth century, the area was once part of a sprawling farm owned by the Sly family, one of the earliest and most prominent land-owning families. Michael Sly was one of the first settlers in the Elmira area, purchasing 116 acres in 1792. An additional land purchase in 1793 gave him control of roughly 975 acres lying to the south of the Chemung River, encompassing virtually all of what became the Southside neighborhood. His son, John, built a stately Greek Revival house (no longer extant) at the corner of present day Maple Avenue and Sly Street in 1795, when Maple was little more than a dirt path paralleling the river through the Sly property. Maps suggest that the Maple Avenue may have been part of an early route, following the south bank of the Chemung River, connecting Elmira with Sayre, Pennsylvania, to the east. In its earliest years, Maple Avenue was known as an extension of Ann Street. It was not until sometime around 1869 that the street appears to have received its current name.

As a prominent landmark in Southside, the stylish Greek Revival Sly house remained in the family for nearly 150 years. In 1856, Catherine Sly inherited the house and during Catherine's ownership a new street was developed running just to the south of the Sly house and intersecting Maple Street, named Catherine Street in her honor. She never married and at her death in 1889, she willed the property to her grandniece Kate Sly Spaulding. The house became the property of Kate's husband, Frederick Parsons, after Kate's death in 1915. The house was sold out of the family in 1933 and was demolished in 1961. Currently, the site of the Sly house, which stood at 300 Maple Avenue, is now a gas station at the southwest corner of Sly Street and Maple Avenue. By the end of the 1830s, some attempts to spur development began to occur. In 1839, Mordecai Ogden laid out his farm in lots, but he eventually sold the land to Tracy Beadle, a druggist from Cooperstown, and Captain Samuel Partridge. Beadle and Partridge remapped the tract, which lay to the west of Pennsylvania Avenue, changing the orientation of the planned streets. Despite their efforts, it remained largely vacant land for several years. The Southside section of Southport in the early decades of the 1800s lacked established churches and a post office, forcing residents to travel to Newtown (Elmira) across the river for such purposes. As late as 1842, Southside was characterized as "simply a part of the town of Southport," consisting of open lands and farms, especially to the west of Main Street.

Some improvements in the transportation network in Southport began to slowly spur the development of this area. In 1848, a company was formed for the purpose of turning the crude road between the Lake Street bridge in Elmira and the Pennsylvania state line into an improved plank road. The road was originally widened to a double width and a length of thirteen miles, becoming a significant artery through Southport. Later reduced to a single width, the plank road (present route of Pennsylvania Avenue) became an important and busy thoroughfare. Elmira would also become a significant rail center for the Southern Tier of New York State in the nineteenth century. Opened in 1850 and running through Southport, the Elmira and Jefferson Railroad created a route linking to areas to the north, and the 1854 creation of the Elmira and Williamsport Railroad created a route to the south. When George Sheive moved from Ithaca to Southport in 1852, he commented that he found it to be a settlement laid out in squares as far as South Elm Street (now Boardman Street), but with relatively few houses.

By the late 1860s, Southside began to grow and flourish, as several industries located south of the Chemung River. With the prominence of the rail industry in Elmira, the Northern Central railroad shops were established in 1866, covering over twenty acres with their buildings and yards south of the river, where all trains entering the city stopped at the shops to change engines. Incorporated in 1873, the LaFrance Manufacturing Company also settled south of the river, manufacturing the LaFrance engine and Hayes trucks for fire departments across the country. Other industries were the Payne Iron Works and the Kellogg Bridge Company, both prominent companies employing many workers. Lumber mills also flourished in the Southside area.

The 1868-69 city directory listed several grocers, merchants, farmers and tradesmen in the fifth ward. An ice dealer was located at the west end of Hudson Street and a vinegar manufacturer was located at 6 Broadway. Several boarding houses were located on Gorman Street and at the north end of Miller Street. Hotels began to appear in the area, including the Fifth Ward Hotel at 16 South Lake Street and the Park Hotel at the west end of Hudson Street. Other businesses in this area focused on the rich agricultural tradition long established in Southside, including a hops grower with seven acres of land on Tuttle Avenue, a tannery on Tuttle Avenue, a greenhouse and florist at the corner of South Main and Fulton Streets, and a dealer in fruit and ornamental trees at 40 South Main Street.

Given the promise for further development in the Southside area during the late nineteenth century, many real estate developers began to make significant land purchases of large tracts of farm or vacant land in Southside. The lands were divided into affordable parcels and included improvements such as paved roads, sewers, and sidewalks. The intent was to sell the smaller parcels wholesale for residential development and build houses on the lots to be sold or mortgaged. In 1890, William R. Compton started a real estate development firm, purchasing land and creating residential subdivisions, expanding the scope of his business to include industrial properties, including the Willys-Morrow plant on South Main Street. The following year, a successful carpenter and contractor named Charles J. Soper, was successful in buying land and building numerous houses on speculation. In the early 1900s, William J. and Thomas Lormore and Luther Caldwell, wholesale grocers in the firm of Lormore Bro's & Co., purchased a portion of the former Sly farm. From this land they developed what is now Lormore Street and Caldwell Avenue, both side streets that connect with Maple Avenue.

The Sly family played an early role in settling the Maple Avenue area while it was still a sparsely settled. John Sly bequeathed to his daughter Catherine his house and a large tract of land and left other large tracts of land to other daughters. His daughter Lucinda received a large, nearly seven-acre parcel of land on the east side of Maple Avenue, and another nearly seven-acre tract on the east side of Maple Avenue was given to daughter Emily. On her lot, Emily Locke had a large, fashionable Queen Anne style house built around 1875, (463 Maple Avenue) as a refuge for herself following a divorce, which was finalized in 1876.

As the Sly lands were distributed among family members, the tracts of land often changed hands in subsequent decades but remained largely intact into the early twentieth century, affecting the street pattern and design of Maple Avenue. The intact lands resulted in fewer side streets on the east side of Maple Avenue, creating large blocks in comparison with the west side of Maple, which was divided into smaller parcels with more side streets by the 1870s. Sly Street, which ran just north of the old Sly house, was named in the family's honor sometime before the 1850s.

A 1904 Elmira map named several different developers in Southside, all with tracts of land parceled for development. R.E. and I.R. Jones developed a significant tract of land on the western bank of the Chenango River, establishing Esty and Jones Streets, just north of Luce Street. The Maple Avenue Improvement Company owned a tract of land encompassing Phoenix and Schuyler Avenues, Florence Street and Fair Street on the east side of Maple Avenue just south of the Maple Avenue Driving Park. Perhaps the biggest champion of the development of Southside, especially Maple Avenue, was David C. Robinson, who owned a large tract of land on the east side of the street. The area also attracted developers beyond the Elmira area, as several lots were developed by Buffalo-based real estate dealers Horace B. Blackmer and his wife, Levantia, including the properties at 553 and 555 Maple Avenue. In Buffalo, Horace and his brother, James L. Blackmer, ran the Blackmer Brothers real estate and mortgage company, located in the Ellicott Square Building through the 1910s and 1920s.

A significant factor in the development of Southside, especially the development of the easternmost portion along Maple Avenue, was the establishment of the Maple Avenue Railroad, a horse-drawn streetcar line created by Colonel David C. Robinson in 1887-88, done largely to enhance the value of his family's vast land holdings on the east side of the street. The streetcar line connected downtown business in Elmira to the area, encouraging its residential development, creating a quick and easy connection for the eastern part of Southside with the business and commercial core of downtown. It ran the length of Maple Avenue, accelerating the development of much of the vacant land along the avenue in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the mid-nineteenth century, Maple Avenue was described as "the garden spot of the valley," with the eastern area of Southport along the Chemung River being noted for providing easy access to the downtown business areas of Elmira. These two factors were highly attractive to some of Elmira's most prominent citizens of the time. The wealth and status of some of these early residents helped to shape the street as a desirable and attractive neighborhood in subsequent decades.

Popular literature from the mid-to-late nineteenth century encouraged wealthy city dwellers to seek less developed lands for "suburban" estates. Publications such as Holly's Country Seats, written by architect Henry Hudson Holly in 1863, encouraged families to join together, which he termed "clubbing," to find attractive lands with shade trees and streams to create a park-like setting for their houses. Like many at the time, Holly celebrated the virtues of rural living, with open spaces, fresh air, and peaceful park-like settings, as opposed to the growing noise, dirt and crowding in cities and urban industrial centers. Holly and others advocated for parklike suburban settlements on the outskirts of the cities, with access to urban centers. In an era before public transportation, only those wealthy enough to afford a carriage could manage this type of living, limiting access to the upper social and economic classes. As such, development on Maple Avenue in the mid- to late-1800s was limited to Elmira's wealthy and most prominent citizens.

New York Governor Lucius Robinson (1810-1891) was one of the first to be attracted to the open space of Maple Avenue. Due to health issues, he purchased land in Southport, just outside of the city limits, in 1842 and constructed a stately brick house (no longer extant). His brother, Orrin Robinson (1802-1885), also built his house on Maple Avenue. He owned 43-acres of farmland in Southport in the vicinity of Maple Avenue and built a large house just north of his brother's property. Orrin Robinson worked as an insurance agent and he also served as a member of the state legislature in 1855. He also served as the first secretary of the Board of Education and later as president of the local school board. His house was demolished by the 1890s, shortly after his death in 1885.

Sylvester W. Hall (1815-1902) was another prominent resident attracted to the Maple Avenue area, building his substantial home across from the Robinson family, on the west side of the street. Hall farmed 76-acres of land on Maple Avenue and also worked as a civil engineer in Elmira for many years, until his death around 1902. Like Hall, grain dealer Samuel Waite Clark (1837-1911) was attracted to the Maple Avenue area, buying his Maple Avenue house (352 Maple Avenue) around 1876 from Benjamin Middaugh shortly after its construction. Clark was also the secretary of the Maple Avenue Athletic Association when it was organized in 1886.

One of the most prominent residents of Maple Avenue during this early period was tobacco entrepreneur John Brand, Sr. (1821-1880), who built a stately Italianate house in 1871 (405 Maple Avenue, NR listed 2010). Brand emigrated from Mainz, Germany, to the United States in 1849, settling in Elmira in 1851. He worked a variety of jobs, including farming, working on the railroad lines and brick manufacturing. By the mid-1850s, growing and processing tobacco was emerging as a profitable industry. Brand began planting tobacco on a large parcel of land that he owned between Maple Avenue and the Chemung River in 1859. His land was called "The Buttonwoods" after a large stand of buttonwood (or sycamore) trees. In the early 1870s, Brand began a tobacco packing and processing business and in 1873, he established a tobacco leaf business. His son and business partner, John Brand Jr., also built a spacious, elegant house on Maple Avenue on a lot on the east side of the street that was also formerly owned by the Sly family. He hired Otis Dockstader and John Considine of Elmira to design and build the house, finished in 1889 (351 Maple Avenue).

Located next to John Brand Sr.'s house was the residence of lawyer and prominent politician Alexander Eustace (1854-1913). He served as chief of the state tax department under then state comptroller Lucius Robinson. Eustace built his Second Empire style home (401 Maple Avenue, NR listed 2011) after he returned from Albany and was appointed by Robinson as the Chemung County clerk. The property was part of the John Sly farm that was purchased and divided between Eustace, John Brand Sr. and John Brand Jr. Eustace was appointed to the state civil service commission by Governor David B. Hill in 1889 but returned to Elmira, where he and his brother Joseph had law offices at 334 Water Street, in 1893. Known locally for his philanthropy, Eustace died after an extended illness in 1913. His widow sold the Maple Avenue house in 1919 when she left Elmira for Washington D.C.

While development along Maple Avenue began with the phenomenon of "clubbing," it was the ambitious real estate investments made by Colonel David C. Robinson in the1880s and 1890s that helped the area rapidly develop in a relatively cohesive manner. By the mid-1800s, many developers had already set their sights on the Southside area of Elmira, but it was Robinson who saw tremendous economic opportunities for the lands in Southside, especially those owned by his family. Robinson (1846-1912) was the son of Governor Lucius Robinson and emerged as a powerful business leader in Elmira by building on the political and business interests of his father. A lawyer by training, he also served as his father's private secretary when the elder Robinson served a term as New York governor (1877-1880). In 1880, the younger Robinson was elected as an alderman by the Southside's Fifth Ward. In 1892-93, he served as mayor of the city of Elmira and was also elected to the state assembly in 1907.

In addition to politics, Robinson was also active in business. In 1891, he inherited a large tract of land on the east side of Maple Avenue, stretching roughly from Caldwell Street to the north to around Luce Street at the south and extending nearly to the river. He recognized the tremendous opportunity for residential development through modernizing and expanding the street railroads and public utilities. In 1885, he laid out, built and equipped the Maple Avenue Driving Park (no longer extant), located on the east side of Maple Avenue near Luce Street, with athletic grounds and buildings. He organized the Maple Avenue Railroad on May 16, 1887, a horse-drawn railway that he envisioned as a key part of developing Maple Avenue. Robinson also invested in improvements to the avenue and adjacent streets, installing electric street lights "to encourage home building." Also in 1887, he purchased the house at 463 Maple Avenue, moving from his father's residence further down the street. In 1888, he was instrumental in establishing Riverside Park (now Brand Park) along the bank of the Chemung River at the north end of Maple Avenue as an attractive area for outdoor recreation.

The Maple Avenue Railroad ran from the Robinson Building on Lake Street across the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge and down Maple Avenue and Miller Street to the Erie Railroad tracks. Construction of the line started in July 1887 and was completed July 1, 1888. Always looking to improve the line, he began exploring alternative power options, eventually converting the horse drawn lines to an overhead electric trolley system in 1890, first electrified line in Elmira. Robinson himself piloted the trial trip, where he "manipulated the train like a veteran," as the cars reached speeds of 12 to 15 miles per hour.

The Maple Avenue Railroad continued as a separate entity until it merged with the Elmira Water, Light and Railroad Company on May 28, 1900 and was renamed the Elmira Light, Heat and Power Corporation in 1932. In November 1936, the company was authorized by the Public Service Commission to combine it with others into the New York State Electric and Gas Corporation, owned by the Associated Gas and Electric Co. Changes in company focus and transportation led to the decline of the street railway system and the streetcar lines, which began to deteriorate due to lack of maintenance. In the 1920s and 1930s, individual automobile ownership and the use of buses steadily increased, further spelling the end for streetcar service in many cities across the country. In 1938 the New York State Electric and Gas Corporation asked for permission to abandon the entire trolley system, substituting buses to cover the routes. Elmira's streetcar era ended on March 11, 1939, when car 501 was ceremoniously pulled by a pair of horses to the East Fifth Street car barn to begin its final journey. When the car returned at 4:16 pm, the power was turned off for Elmira streetcar system for the last time.

‡ Jennifer Walkowskie, Architectural Historian, Clinton Brown Company Architecture, Inc., Maple Avenue Historic District, Chemung County, NY, nomination document, 2013, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

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