West Onondaga Street was once
one of Syracuse’s grandest thoroughfares, lined with Italianate and Queen
Anne style mansions designed by Syracuse’s most prominent architects,
including Archimedes Russell and Charles E. Colton. Some of these
structures, such as 515 West Onondaga Street, are already listed on the
National Register of Historic Places as individual sites.
West Onondaga Street was, for a long time before the opening of
interstate route 690, the gateway to the city from the west, a resplendent
elm-lined drive (the New York State Republican party was organized beneath
one of these elms in 1856). In 1879 the street was advertised as “second to
none.” West Onondaga Street experienced its Queen Anne heyday during the
latter part of the 19th century, and the street continued to flourish during
peak years of Syracuse’s growth, from 1890 - 1930. Trinity Episcopal Church
of Syracuse was built to serve the wealthy elite of West Side and to further
embellish the street with monumental architecture.
Beginning in the early 20th century, however, the wealthy tycoons began
to move out – many heading east to settle in the newly developed Sedgewick
Farms tract – now the city’s only designated residential historic district,
and still the urban neighborhood of choice for the well-to-do. More
businesses and clubs moved onto West Onondaga – occupying many of the
mansions – and changing the character of the street.
Even in the 1940s, the street maintained its grandeur. A 1942 article in
the Herald-Journal wrote “it was the style of the times to build a house in
which the individual could exhibit to the world that it was in his power to
spend money. No neighborhood in Syracuse exhibits this quite so well as the
500, 600 and 700 blocks of West Onondaga Street.” Perhaps the writer
exaggerated a bit. For many, James Street on the East Side of the city
remained the luxury artery par excellence.
Apartment houses were erected, and older residences were cut-up as
boarding houses. Demolition of poor downtown and east side neighborhoods for
“urban renewal” caused a shift of low-income into neighborhood. The street
became increasingly run-down. Some old houses were demolished and new infill
low-income housing complexes were erected, almost all architecturally
unsympathetic to the historic character of the street. The poor appearance
of the neighborhood deterred more extensive redevelopment, however, despite
proximity to downtown. Unlike James Street, West Onondaga was considered too
risky for white-collar office development.
Today, however, we cannot judge, as most of the mansions on James Street
were demolished in the 1960s and 1970s. West Onondaga was spared that fate,
though its building fell into terrible disrepair. Some have been lost, a few
have been restored. The majority – like the fate of this once-great street
itself – are in the balance. The character of the street is changing again.
Since 1989 more old houses are being maintained, and a few have been
reclaimed as residences. New commercial development, however, such as a
large Rite Aide threaten to introduce a strip like appearance, with low
box-like stores and lots of up-front off-street parking. Several
organizations including the West Onondaga Street Alliance, are making a
concerted effort to improve the quality of life on the street and restore
West Onondaga’s historic character.
Today it is simple enough to get from South Clinton Street to South Ave,
but before 1830, travelers trying to traverse the area would have found
themselves in the midst of a large swamp. It is said that West Onondaga
Street started out as Cinder Road, so called because a man with a horse cart
put down cinders all the way to the edge of Elmwood Park to create an access
road to Mickle’s Foundry, a producer of arms for the War of 1812. When the
swamp was drained in the 1830s, the area was opened for residential
Before long, a number of Greek Revival mansions shaded by elm trees lined
the street. Henry West Slocum, a local attorney, lived on the northwest
corner of West Onondaga Street and Slocum Avenue, then called Russell
Avenue. He entered the service as an artillery captain during the Civil War.
By 1864, Slocum was promoted to major general and participated in Sherman’s
famous march from Atlanta to the sea. The Greek Revival home of Syracuse’s
first mayor, Harvey Baldwin, stood on the northwest corner of West Onondaga
and South West Streets. During the later part of the 19th century, the area
was favored by well-to-do Syracusans who liked to live in Queen Anne homes
and occasionally made do with a Second Empire or a Richardsonian