History of the The University Neighborhood
As Syracuse grew from a small crossroads trading town to a bustling business center fed by the Erie Canal and railroads during the 19th century, the area south and east of the city center reaped the rewards of a rather steady and healthy economy, enlightened political and civic leadership, and enterprising professional and worker population.
In the mid-1800’s vast farmlands covered the area. Situated along early travel and trade routes, these agricultural properties were used primarily for orchards and vineyards and included farmhouses, barns, greenhouses, and stables. In 1872 Judge George F. Comstock purchased the 200-acre Stevens Farm, which was east of Oakwood Cemetery and the newly established Syracuse University, and extended from E. Genesee Street south to the Onondaga Town line. From this large property, Comstock donated a small parcel near the juncture of the Cemetery and University for use as a public park, with the balance of this land probably remaining in active agricultural use through leases Comstock had with local farmers.
Southeast of and contiguous to Comstock’s new holdings, and including land up to the Meadow Brook, where farms of various sizes were owned or managed by the Rose, Haffenden, Hooker and Kimber families. Further east, and south of the well-known Bastable and Stanton Farms (that is, south of Croton [Euclid] Avenue, east of Westcott Street) was farmland owned by the O’Brien and Cathers families.
In 1890, Harry H. Loomis and Welton B. Ostrander began to market the Westminster Tract, land which was platted the previous year and extended from Clarke (Clarendon) Street on the north, Westcott Street on the east, Broad Street on the south, and Ackerman Avenue on the west. In May of that year, the University Homestead Tract Association was formed to purchase approximately 40 acres in the Westminster Tract; that is the westernmost section, which extended from Clarke (Clarendon) south to Broad, and from Ackerman east to Lancaster Avenue. The intent was for 150 persons to purchase 236 shares of stock for $500 per share, paying $2 per week per share for one year. At the end of the year, each shareholder would provide a security for the unpaid balance of the assessed value of a lot. As the shares did not represent specific individual lots, a lottery was to held at year’s end to assign lots to the shareholders.
In the meantime, Loomis and Ostrander agreed to lay “3 miles of cement sidewalks, stone gutters, grade streets, set trees and have a street car line in operation.” Just two months later, however, several shareholders took exception to the terms of the agreement and certain practices by the Association’s officers. They refused to pay their weekly allotments and withdrew from the organization. The Association responded through the courts and, although the exact outcome has not been verified, it may be that the dissenting shareholders were able to resign from the Association – which most likely slowed sales and new construction significantly.
The next year, in October 1891, an auction was held to sell the remaining 426 lots of the Westminster Tract, with each approximately 40′ x 130′. Beginning at the summit of Westminster Hill and its south slope and eventually moving to lots north of the hill and Croton (Euclid), all lots were sold for between $200-$710 each – with some individuals purchasing multiple lots. Within a year, some of the new landowners built homes for their families on these properties, but many others sold the lots they had acquired to local real estate speculators, leading to sporadic development of this outlying area.
In 1892, Maurice Graves, a successful local businessman and developer, purchased 105 acres from Judge Comstock’s widow, Caroline. He likely believed this large parcel, between the University on the west and the University Homestead Tract on the east and south of Major Alexander Davis’ country estate Thornden, would support the logical extension of the successful residential development, The Highlands.
In 1902, Graves sold 90 acres of this former Comstock property to the University Heights Land Company, which he had created, and set about developing the area as a middle-class residential neighborhood. The platted area included some blocks originally in The Highlands and extended from University Place and Clarendon Street on the north, to Sumner Avenue on the east, Poplar (Stratford) Street on the south, and Comstock Avenue and College Place on the west.
Both single – and two-family dwellings were constructed on the Heights’ long narrow lots, with many properties having a garage in the basement level of the house or as a detached structure in the rear yard. Although news accounts described many of the houses as “bungalows”, these new residences reflected a range of architectural styles popular at the time, with most being variations of English and Dutch Colonial Revival. Full-width front porches, bay windows and decorative shutters were just some of the features that no doubt made these homes attractive to potential buyers.
Initially development of the Heights was concentrated north of Euclid Avenue, but the new neighborhood proved to be extremely popular, allowing Graves and his partners, William Rafferty and Clarence Congdon, to expand south to the proposed Poplar Street. They were able to boast that the area offered excellent neighborhood amenities including paved streets and sidewalks, electric and sewer service, and easy access to the streetcars.
The streetcar was used as a marketing tool, with the developers claiming that the lots in University Heights were serviced every 6 minutes by the Euclid streetcar line, making the trip downtown in only 10 minutes. As a result, from 1911-1915 it was reported that houses were built at a rate of one for each working day. And in 1914, sixteen houses were constructed on Ostrom, Livingston, and Sumner in the expanded area.
In 1908, just prior to University Heights reaching its peak of development, Congdon purchased forty-one acres south of Poplar (Stratford) from his partners, land that was being held by their company for further expansion of The Heights. A Syracuse University-trained architect, Congdon radically altered the initial design for the area. Rather than extending the grid pattern found in University Heights, he designed the subdivision to conform to the natural contours of the parcel’s dominant topographic feature, a drumlin. Congdon worked closely with his former partners to secure sewer service to the area, and when it became a reality in 1911, the development and promotion of Berkeley Park began in earnest. The overall layout for the subdivision resulted in wide, deep lots with generous setbacks, a sinuous road and sidewalk system, and substantial vegetation that included 150-year old oaks as well as substantial new plantings. The buildings were designed in the various revival styles by noted architects including Ward Wellington Ward, Gordon Wright, Merton Elwood Granger, and Dwight James Baum. The target market was upper and upper-middle income families, and buyers ultimately included long-established citizens and the next generation of community leaders. Congdon was the primary agent for the subdivision and had sold 28% of the lots by 1919, when he left to manage the Scotholm development. His success, however, continued with 80% of lots sold and houses built on them by 1928, 90% by 1932.
In addition to University Heights and Berkeley Park, less formal residential development expanded the city further east during the early 20th century. Intermittent sale and development of lots in the Westminster and University Homestead Tracts continued, as did sale and conversion of the last farms into additional land for housing. The increased number of new residents demanded municipal services such as fire protection and neighborhood schools. Fire Station No. 10 at the intersection of Euclid and Westcott Street (today the Westcott Community Center) provided neighborhood-based emergency services to the new residents. Edward Smith Elementary School at the corner of Broad and Lancaster was built to accommodate the growing number of school age children. Increasingly active recreational needs were met when the former Davis estate was transformed into Thornden Park.
During the 1930s and early 1940s, neighborhood growth slowed considerably as a result of the Depression and onset of World War II. But by the end of the 1940s, and into the post-war years, the city’s southeast side was once again the focus of intense residential development.
With changes in cultural influences and preferences, however, neighborhood streets and houses took on a decidedly different aesthetic from previous decades. Lots were less deep, with the longest dimension placed along the street frontage. Few, if any buildings were individually designed, and most were based on one of a limited number of standard floor plans. Houses were less elaborate in both size and degree of architectural detail, and often lacked front porches, expansive windows, and exterior decoration. Two house types soon occupied many of the lots in this outermost edge of the neighborhoods. One, commonly referred to as a Cape Cod, took its general form from the traditional Eclectic style house, but lacked its decorative aspects. The other, the Ranch, was loosely based on the rambling form of Spanish Colonial houses in the American Southwest, minus any ornamental embellishments.
The once again expanding population demanded increased city services, and in partial response the city developed Barry Park to meet neighborhood recreational needs. Built during an era of open space design, the primary purpose of the Park was to accommodate active recreation by providing for field sports. At about the same time, the adjacent lands and Meadow Brook were identified as critical to flood control for the surrounding low-lying land. Ultimately they were incorporated in the Onondaga County Meadowbrook Flood Retention System, effectively expanding park opportunities by allowing for passive recreation on the flood control lands.
From the mid-1960s to the mid-80s, the southeast neighborhood saw a huge increase in their population, mostly from the great influx of baby-boomers attending the local universities and colleges. At first, these transient residents rented the flats found in many of the two-family dwellings built as part of the University Heights, the Westminster and University Homestead Tracts, or other early 20th century development ventures.
For at least two decades, the off-campus student population steadily increased and, coupled with other factors, changed neighborhood dynamics. Gradually many permanent residents moved out of the area and single-family homes were converted to student rentals. By the late 1980s, however, that trend was stopped and conditions reversed. The number of students – living both on and off campus – dropped considerably, reducing the demand for rental units in the neighborhoods. At the same time, many first-time homebuyers flocked to the area for its attractive housing stock, excellent elementary school, extensive parks, and proximity to University Hill and Downtown Syracuse. The result has been the rehabilitation of numerous older houses for owner-occupancy and a better balance between the number of permanent and transient residents throughout the area. The population is now an exciting mix of owner-occupants and renters, young professionals, families and seniors, life-long Syracusans and individuals from a variety of communities around the world.
From the time the first farms began to give way to more intense urban development, local civic and political leaders realized the economic and cultural value of the dramatic natural features in the community’s southeast sector. In addition, they understood the importance of building city neighborhoods here that offered a variety of housing options and architectural styles. They also recognized the need to support neighborhood populations that were economically mixed.
Today, Syracusans of the southeast neighborhoods continue to appreciate both the tangible and intangible value of the area’s spectacular topography and urban forest. They are proud of the attractive houses and apartments they call home. And they celebrate the economic and cultural diversity that defines the resident population. The very characteristics that originally gave birth to the southeast neighborhoods continue to provide their residents with an outstanding quality of life today.
Christine Capella Peters
Resident, Historic Preservationist
Member, UNPA Board of Directors