Public Square History 1850-1900

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Rebuilding: 1850-1900[edit | edit source]


Photos, l-r: Paddock Building, Iron Block, Universalist Church, Woodruff House. Click each photo to enlarge.

Rebuilding the square began almost immediately. All new construction was mandated to be of masonry, and the square’s appearance changed dramatically. Any timber structures that remained standing were replaced by numerous brick row buildings, giving the square a handsome appearance that still survives today. Some of the square’s most famous structures were built during the building boom of the 1850’s. Loveland Paddock rebuilt his block, along with the Paddock Arcade. The American Building was built on the site of the old American House, and Washington Hall was built on the corner of Public Square and Washington Street. Norris Woodruff rebuilt his block with an iron frame, which became known as the Iron Block. Woodruff also erected the 80 room, five story Woodruff House. This hotel became the show piece of Public Square and was considered one of the finest hotels in New York State .[1]

Much of the new construction was designed by local architect Otis Wheelock. Wheelock’s Public Square creations included the Paddock Buildings and Arcade, the Iron Block, the Woodruff House and the twin spired Universalist Church, as well as numerous other buildings around Watertown. The only Public Square structures of his still standing today are one quarter of the Iron Block, and the Paddock Arcade. It was Wheelock’s vision, however, that set the example for further construction on Public Square, right down to the present day.

Up until 1850, the center of Public Square remained empty. The decision was made to beautify the square by the creation of three parks in the center. This green space was further enhanced by the planting of trees, and the erection of a fountain in the center park.The first fountain, built in 1855, was called Cory's Punch Bowl after Benjamin Cory, a local newspaper editor who donated it in the spirit of civic pride. In 1853, gas lines were laid, and gas street lights were installed, replacing the cumbersome kerosene lamps that were used. [2] The square was illuminated at night like never before. The square's first flag pole, 122 feet tall, was erected on the squares east center island.The Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument was donated to the city and erected on the square’s western center island in 1888, as a tribute to those who fought in the Civil War.

Fountain 1895.jpg

Photos, l-r: Streeter Block, Washington Hall, Fountain, Taggart Building. Click each photo to enlarge.

The square’s rapid recovery from the fire was made possible by Watertown’s increasing industrial wealth. The square was no longer just a business district, but became the social heart of the city as well. The square attracted many illustrious visitors during the latter half of the 19th century. Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass spoke in Watertown in 1857. He was at first denied entrance to the Woodruff House by the manager. Under intense pressure, the manager relented, so long as Douglass took his meals in his room and did not enter the hotel’s public dining room. Douglass refused to do this, but was admitted to the hotel anyway. President Ulysses S. Grant spoke to an estimated crowd of 15,000 from the first floor balcony of the Woodruff House in 1872. This was a return visit to Watertown for Grant, having been stationed at nearby Madison Barracks as a young soldier .[3]]

Watertown celebrated its incorporation as a city in 1869 with the erection of a new fountain in the center of Public Square. This fountain remains the centerpiece of the square today.[4]] In 1870, The Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) was established, and found its home in Washington Hall.

Rodman native Frank W. Woolworth moved to Watertown in 1872, and became a clerk at Smith and Moore’s store, located in the American Building. During the Jefferson County Fair in 1878, Woolworth conceived of setting up a table with fixed price merchandise, and thus the concept of the five and dime was born. Fixed price merchandise was then unheard of. Prices of goods fluctuated on the standard of supply and demand. Woolworth’s idea revolutionized mercantilism, and his success in Watertown led to his founding of the Woolworth Chain of department stores. Smith and Moore’s eventually joined the Woolworth chain .[5]


Photos, l-r: American Building, Hibbard Block, First Baptist Church, Mohican Building. Click each photo to enlarge.

Watertown’s first telegraph office was opened in the Arcade in the 1850’s, and the square’s first telephone poles were erected in 1879. Public Square’s dirt roads were first paved in 1896. [6]

Construction of new buildings continued on the square well past the 1850’s. The Hibbard and Benadio Blocks and the Winslow Block (later known as the Taggart Building), all on the corner of Public Square and Franklin Street, were built in the 1860’s. In 1870, the five building block on the square’s north side (which today includes the Crystal Restaurant) was built, as well as the Doolittle and Hall Block. The Buck Building, located next to the First Baptist Church, and the Streeter (later known as the J.B. Wise) block, located on the corner of Public Square and Mill Street. The First Baptist Church was torn down and rebuilt with the current limestone structure in 1891. This structure, with its familiar clock tower, has become a Public Square landmark. The Smith (later known as the Mohican) building was built next to the Universalist Church in 1895 .[7]

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