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Columns

February 17, 2014

Effort to establish Oneonta historic district began in 1970s

Many can still remember when the Walnut Street area of Oneonta was in the crosshairs for the development of an “urban arterial” route around the city’s downtown business district from the late 1940s through the early ‘60s. 

The idea was to take the congestion of traffic away from Main and Chestnut streets, thus making downtown a better place to shop and do business. It was a hard-fought battle at times, but residents of the Walnut Street area convinced Oneonta’s leaders to find another route, which eventually led to the creation of the present pathway of Interstate 88.

In a sense, this attractive Oneonta neighborhood dodged the bullet of development during a time when America was enduring the effects of urban renewal, a federal program that this city was also pursuing. Displaced downtown businesses were moving elsewhere, some slowly migrating toward, or eyeing the possibility of, the Walnut Street area.

Across America, many didn’t like what they saw with the resulting destruction of landmarks and attractions. Even Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady of the United States, authored a book in the mid-1960s that triggered public awareness of the issue and led to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. A few Oneontans were likely influenced by this act and, by the mid-1970s, an effort was begun to make the Walnut Street area a historic district.

“Historic houses along both sides of the four blocks of Walnut Street are all so distinctive and well preserved as examples of nineteenth century architecture they are being documented and photographed as the Walnut Street Historic District,” it was reported in The Daily Star of Monday, March 1, 1976.

“Also application will be made for the district to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”

“Diantha D. Schull, consultant in history and preservation for the Upper Catskill Community Council of the Arts, and Rita J. Dibert, instructor of photography and printmaking at Hartwick College, are conducting the project with a grant from the America the Beautiful Fund.”

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