The Essex Village Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. 
The Essex Village Historic District is located on the eastern boundary of Essex County, on the western shore of Lake Champlain.
The Essex Village Historic District is approximately 1.5 miles long and .3 miles wide. From the intersection of Route 22 and Main Street, it extends approximately .8 miles to the north, with the Farrell property being the northern most property to be included. It extends approximately .6 miles to the south with the Sanborn property being the most southerly. The shore of Lake Champlain is the eastern boundary and the western boundary is a line .3 mile from the intersection of Route 22 and Main and running parallel to Main Street. The most western property included in the Essex Village Historic District on Route 22 belongs to the Kinneys.
The Essex Village Historic District contains approximately 150 structures which predate the 20th century. Of the structures in the Essex Village Historic District, there are only 15 which were constructed after 1900. Of these, only 3 were built after 1910. Four or five structures are of the 18th century; the rest are all 19th century. Of these, only 7 were constructed after 1860. The predominant building materials were clapboarded wood frame, brick, and native stone. No structure exceeds 2-1/2 stories, thus taking the fullest advantage of the natural beauty of a location between wooded ridge and a rocky and irregular lake shore. Essex Village is nearly unique in that, established in the 1780's, it reached its maturity in less than 60 years, thus containing buildings of only three closely-related architectural periods: Federal, Greek Revival, and early Victorian. These styles are displayed, virtually unaltered, in their residential, commercial, and ecclesiastical forms. The Dower House, Lake Shore Road, built by Daniel Ross, son-in-law of William Gilliland, prior to 1793, is the oldest documented structure in the area. Probably the first clapboarded wooden framed structure (residence) to be erected in the hamlet, its gambrel roof and five-bay layout displays its 18th century character beneath later alterations.
Wright's Inn, constructed on Main Street by General Daniel Wright in 1798, was originally a five-bay center-hall clapboarded structure, subsequently doubled in size by extending it to the north. While the interior has been extensively altered, the facade with its portico has been carefully restored to its appearance in the opening years of the 19th century. A classic example of the commercial inn of its period, the window division, roof pitch, cladding technique, and architectural style elements are the same used elsewhere in the village in more modest structures, and relate it harmoniously to them.
The stone building now known as the Essex Free Library on Main Street was erected in 1818 by General Ransom Noble for use as a store and warehouse in conjunction with his tannery (the foundations of which may still be seen in the rear). Constructed of native limestone, its Federal proportions retain their elegance, although a later "Swiss chalet" pair of balconies were added to the facade, and diamond-paned sash installed.
"Hickory Hill" on Elm Street, and "Rosslyn" on the Lake Shore Road represent the residences of the wealthy merchants and lawyers who dominated Essex in the early days of its prosperity.
Two-and-a-half-story brick structures whose design combines Georgian and Federal elements, both "Hickory Hill" and "Rosslyn" were built before 1830. The building of "Hickory Hill" (1822) built by Henry Harmon Ross for his bride, was taken from a five-bay design in Salem, New York. It displays great grace and lightness in its Palladian window, Neo-classic portico, and elegant cornices. Its setting in its own spacious grounds on the ridge which overlooks the village and the lake adds much to its beauty. "Rosslyn", the William D. Ross house, originally constructed as a three-bay side hall dwelling, was expanded (1835-40) into five bays. Presently restored to its appearance in 1840, it commands a superb view of the lake and the Green Mountains in Vermont.
The "Old Brick Schoolhouse" on Elm Street (1830) stands on the probable site of the first school in Essex, erected in 1787. Expanded to the north in 1837, this one-story building served as the village schoolhouse until superseded by the large frame schoolhouse of 1867 (still surviving, and restored). Surmounted by a small belfry, the building has the simple dignity given it by good proportions and mellowed brick. It has been sensitively restored for use as a dwelling.
"Block House Farm" on the Lake Shore Road (1836) is a small clapboarded and Doric-porticoed Greek Revival dwelling in its purest form — with the exception of added dormers (for practicality) to the north and south. Its temple effect is accentuated by its site set high above the lake on its terraces, with fields and orchards about it, its portico and gable toward the road.
Another somewhat richer version of Greek Revival may be seen in the Stafford-Spear House on Route 22. Built by Cyrus Stafford in 1847, its design was taken from the pattern books of the period: the front entrance, in particular, was copied directly from a plate entitled "Design for a Front Door" in Minard Lefever's The Modern Builder's Guide, published in 1833. The house, brick and two-and-a-half stories, has corner pilasters, full entablature and pediment, a raking cornice and a sunburst panel almost filling the tympanum. The great distinction of the structure is in the beautiful and harmoniously-realized detail of the entrance.
"Greystone" was built by Belden Noble in 1853. Of local limestone in two-and-a-half stories, it is a late Greek Revival mansion, characterized by superb stone work on the exterior and magnificent Federal plan and plaster work in the interior. Still in the possession of heirs of the Noble family and set in broad, park-like acres, its condition today is as fine as the day it was built.
The unique quality of Essex Village lies in the fact that its structures — residential, commercial, and ecclesiastic — were almost entirely built before the Civil War, and have remained substantially unaltered, with the exception of an occasional Victorian porch or bay window. The stone fire house with its added Greek Revival colonnade (1840's) was previously (1830's) a law office.
The stone Masonic Hall, also on Main Street, was once a warehouse and factory loft (1858). It now boasts a modern addition in the form of a Palladian window and (modern) porch. The local liquor store (1836) on Main Street is a charming brick Greek Revival building with an early Victorian roof. The Federated Church (formerly Presbyterian) on the corner of Route 22 was built of native limestone in 1853. Its interior represents a remarkable survival of the Federal style into later periods.
The Noble-Schreiber House, brick (1835), located on the Lake Shore Road has on its grounds a small, octagonal, one-room schoolhouse built in the 1850's for the use of the Noble children and their tutor. Of clapboard with a conical Gothic roof and slender pillars supporting the porch which entirely surrounds it, the schoolhouse is of a surprising elegance and very well preserved.
It should be added that it is the sense of Essex as an architectural whole without intrusive modern elements, and with a wealth of imaginative taste in the use of detail, that is the village's finest heritage.
Visually, both in layout and architecture, Essex has retained the character of an early 19th century village, a character determined by its geographical and historical position.
The history of Essex began in 1764 when William Gilliland, a veteran of the British army, acquired twelve grants of land lying between Crown Point to the south and Cumberland Head to the north, along the western shore of Lake Champlain. One of these grants contained the area which is the present hamlet of Essex. Gilliland's original settlement was made in the village of Willsboro, four miles to the north, with his outlying meadows and scattered homesteads where Essex now is. A thriving community in the decade before the Revolution, the area lay in the path of skirmishing Revolutionary forces caught between Benedict Arnold and Burgoyne, the countryside was laid waste. No documented structure in Essex County appears to have survived. By the 1780's, however, Gilliland and his son-in-law, Daniel Ross, had re-established a community in Essex. Its harbors on either side of Shipyard Point made it ideal for the shipping needs of a growing Republic. Land speculation was opening up the northern frontier.
In the 1820's, Essex was "the busiest port on Lake Champlain." Through it funneled the timber, iron, cattle, and hides of the western shore of the Champlain Valley. Its inns (and there are two surviving of a documented five) swarmed with drovers, lumbermen and "lakers."
McNeil's ferry, already operating in the 1790's, shuttled between Essex and Charlotte, Vermont. Three wharves (of which one still retains its warehouse (1830's), now a restaurant) and two shipyards hummed with activity. Since before 1810, Eggleston's shipyard on South Bay had been turning out sloops and other crafts in great numbers. At the Eggleston yards in 1813 were built four sloops — the President, the Eagle, the Growler, and the Rising Sun for MacDonough's crucial campaign on Champlain in the War of 1812. In addition, Eggleston built 250 row galleys and bateaux for MacDonough. The Morse Marina on the site of that shipyard still builds custom-made pleasure craft. There was also the shipyard of Winslow, Hoskins, and Ross during the period 1810-1860. In 1823, with the opening of the Champlain Canal, the building of canal boats became important. Later, Essex was a port of call for freight and passenger steam boat traffic. The Fort Ticonderoga docked here.
Such economic prosperity accounts for the large number of charming Federal, Greek Revival, and early Victorian structures of humbler pretensions, as well as for the homes of the "great families." The ensuing post-Civil War decades of technological and industrial development (railroads, improved metallurgical methods, greater industrial centralization) condemned Essex to a slow decline. The population, 2,351 in 1850, fell within a decade to 1,633. During the remaining decades of the century, it fluctuated between 1,400 and 1,800. In the census of 1960, the population of Essex Township was 880. With a declining population there was little demand for new housing, and dwellings already available were lived in and preserved. The fact that the village, as it presently stands, could not have housed the population of the 1850's suggests that only the better homes remain and that shacks and cabins were demolished.
Ironically, the 20th century sees Essex as a village preserved by its very loss of economic importance from the attrition which has befallen busier places. While its industry has vanished, its charm and the great beauty of the Champlain Valley have given it a vacation population upon which the economy of the area principally depends. In increasing numbers also, its homes are being bought and preserved or restored by young families as well as retired persons who (partly through the guidance offered by the Essex Community Heritage Organization) know how to value and preserve its quality.
Everest, Allan S. Our North Country Heritage: Architecture Worth Saving In Clinton and Essex Counties. Plattsburgh, New York. 1972.
French, John Homer. Gazetteer of the State of New York, R.P. Smith. Syracuse. 1859.
Gorden, Thomas F. Gazetteer of the State of New York. T.K. & P.G. Collins. Philadelphia. 1836.
McNulty, George F. and Scheinin, Margaret D. Essex: the Architectural Heritage. Bulington, Vermont. 1971.
Smith, H. Perry, ed. History of Essex County. Syracuse, New York. 1885.
Watson, Winslow C. Pioneer History of the Champlain Valley. Albany. 1863.
Watson, Winslow C. The Military and Civil History of the County of Essex, New York, (and a General Survey of its Physical Geography, Its Mines and Minerals and Industrial Pursuits, etc.). Albany. 1869.
Beggs Point Street • Church Street • Elm Street • Lake Shore Road • Main Street • Orchard Street • Ross Road • School Road • Station Street