Syracuse - An Historic Outline
By Henry W. Schramm
If you were traveling through Central New York two centuries ago, unless you had a death wish, there is little likelihood you would have spent much time in the dismal, fetid swamp that occupied what is now downtown Syracuse. The tiny settlement of Salina to the north as well housed but a motley collection of "salt boilers" who died by the score each summer when the fever struck.
The Onondagas of the Iroquois Nation were far shrewder. Their village was several miles to the south in what is now Onondaga Valley. Most early settlers, while developing salt wells along the Onondaga Like shore, went home at night to the Valley or the highlands near Onondaga Hill.
But the downtown area had a lot going for it. It was level. It was close to the salt supplies. And it had some talented pioneers supporting it, among them James Geddes, salt producer, politician and engineer. Through his efforts and those of Joshua Forman, an attorney, the state legislature was convinced a canal through the region would enable east to meet west. Geddes took things a step further. He surveyed the route from Albany to the west, leading it through what is now downtown Syracuse. Almost overnight, a lively community of hotels, shops and factories appeared along the canal's bank and the paralleling Genesee Turnpike, at what is now Clinton Square.
Named Syracuse in 1820 by John Wilkinson after a city of similar geographic appearance in Italy, the village continued to expand as the railroad came through in 1839. Nine years later, the Villages of Syracuse and Salina voted to merge, forming the City of Syracuse.
By the mid-19th century, Syracuse was well established as the heart of the Upstate region, with roads, rails and canals extending north, south, east and west. The salt industry was reaching its peak. A water system was established. And banks were formed to finance new businesses and a growing agricultural economy.
Architects such as Horatio N. White, who built the Gridley Building on Clinton Square, John Lyman Silsbee, designer of the Syracuse Savings Bank and the White Memorial Building, and Archimedes Russell, architect of the towering Crouse College on Syracuse University's campus, the County Court house on Columbus Circle, and the Dey's department store at Jefferson and Salina streets, all brought their talents to bear in the creation of many unique, beautiful and lasting monuments through the downtown and campus areas.
When the salt industry declined after the Civil War, it wasn't long before talented inventors and engineers from Cornell took up the slack with a variety of manufacturing plants manned by the skilled craftsmen who had served the machines and equipment supporting salt production and transportation. They made traffic lights, specialty electrical items, typewriters, the world famous Franklin Car, and much more. The area's vast salt and limestone deposits were put to work as well by William Cogswell in the production of soda ash at his Solvay Process Company.
Downtown continued to emerge as the center of the city which by the pre-World War II days had a population of more than 210,000. Besides a number of prominent local department stores, the core area offered fine entertainment through such theaters as the Bastable, the Wieting Opera House and later the movie palaces -- Loew's, Keith's Paramount, and the Strand. Restaurants, including the original Schrafft's, and hotels such as the Empire and the Yates were joined in 1922 by the Hotel Syracuse.
The status quo ended dramatically in the years following World War II.
The city's population declined as the move to the suburbs began in earnest. New school systems and shopping centers drew from the city's base. Movie houses closed and television took over. Urban renewal resulted in demolition of dozens of downtown blocks. Both good and bad old landmarks, unprotected by law, were victims of the wrecking ball. New buildings arose, including the twin towers of MONY Center, the War Memorial, Civic Center and I.M. Pei's Everson Museum of Art. All added significantly to the area, as did new government buildings, and numbers of high rises dedicated to modern banking, financing, and core city apartment dwelling.
As the railroad declined, the automobile became king. Overhead roadways carried arterial traffic and interstate highways lead in all four directions. This hodgepodge threatened to engulf the region until local government and visionary planners began to protect the truly historic -- the Erie Canal's Weighlock Building, Clinton and Hanover Squares, Columbus Circle, Armory Square, and such areas as the Nettleton and Franklin Square developments, located north and west of downtown.
It was too late, however, to save the mansions of the community's early leaders, spaced along elm-lined James Street, West Onondaga and West Genesee streets. Their homes could not withstand the inflationary maintenance costs and property taxes following World War II. As residents fled to the suburbs, street widening projects and development of the sites for commercial use soon wasted these avenues. One section remains architecturally secure - the protected Sedgwick Farms historical tract to the north of James Street, where homes blend the English Tudor concepts of Ward Wellington Ward with Colonial and Moorish style homes on graciously landscaped grounds.
We have come a long way from pestilence and desolation. Preservation of our valuable heritage has become a community concern and continues to provide for an exciting blend of old and new.
Commerce and Industry