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February 17, 2014

Effort to establish Oneonta historic district began in 1970s

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The Daily Star

---- — 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.”

Residents of the neighborhood and many others around Oneonta felt this area of the city was worthy of the designation. The area still had the appearance of a time when Oneonta’s merchants and professionals, supported by the growth and prosperity of the Delaware & Hudson Railway and State Normal School, became attracted to Walnut Street, where they built grand and imposing homes. Between 1850 and 1915, numerous mansions replaced hop warehouses and a scattering of more commonplace homes.

What began was a nearly four-year process to be placed on the register. Mayor James Lettis had received some inquiries from residents in this proposed historic district about their rights as property owners, if it was to be designated.

Lucy Breyer, a field representative with the state’s Historic Preservation Department, told residents and members of Common Council on Tuesday, March 21, 1978 that their rights would not be affected, and that owners could become eligible for federal grants-in-aid and some federal tax deductions. Breyer also said what might have happened to Walnut Street in the 1940s through ‘60s would be much more difficult to repeat.

“It doesn’t mean that a federal highway won’t go through the property, but it does mean that a review of the impact on the property will be undertaken and perhaps the highway would be rerouted,” Breyer explained. 

By 1979, the Walnut Street area had been nominated to the National Register. The document was prepared by Daniel D. Mayer, then an executive with the New York State Historical Association. During the course of that year, an inventory of houses and other structures were taken in an area including Walnut, Maple, Elm and Church streets, and Ford Avenue.

The Walnut Street Historic District was placed on the National Register in February 1980. A similar state historic designation came several years later.

This weekend: Efforts were made over the years to put an end to the often-unruly ways of Oneonta’s Silver Creek.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.