Postcard of James Street, about 1900
Lower James Street was once the most exclusive residential area in
Syracuse. The authors of
Architecture Worth Saving say that, at its peak, James Street was,
"one of the most handsome residential streets in the State of New York.
Its houses, ranging in date from the 1830's to the 1890's, were not only
fine in themselves but they constituted a beautiful ensemble."
Moses Dewitt Burnet probably initiated the mansion competition with an
imposing Greek Revival home completed in 1842. Each subsequent home
builder strove to establish their prominence in the city by creating
something grander than those that had come before. John Wilkinson
had a house surrounded by extensive grounds and gardens at the corner of
James and Hawley Avenue.
General Leavenworth and his family built their
majestic Greek Revival home at the corner of James and McBride.
Howard Soule Residence, James Street, 1878
(American Architect and Building News, 1878 issue)
In 1950, The Leavenworth Mansion was the first of the grand homes to be
demolished. The Gilded Age had ended long ago and few could now afford to
maintain these enormous homes. On West Genesee, across town,
the tree lined street with it graceful homes was being systematically
converted into an auto dealer row. Rather than see the character of James
changed in this way, the city decided to destroy James to save it. The
city fathers welcomed developers who would replace the vacant mansions
with new high-rise apartment buildings and office complexes. The James Street
mansions would be lost, but wasn't that better than seeing them converted
into used car dealerships?
By the early 1960's the grand homes were nearly gone. As AWS puts it, "James Street has as little character today as the average
street from Long Island to Los Angeles."
The loss was not inevitable. The grand homes of South Main Street
in Geneva, New York were preserved through the efforts of its residents. In Rochester, East
Avenue was once the most exclusive residential area.
When homes there started to disappear in the early 1950's the city
took action to prevent further loss. Most of the original East
Avenue homes have survived to this day.