Published August 10, 2005 in Trumansburg Free Press (Trumansburg, NY)

Land & People
Architectural Distinction

by Bill Chaisson

When people come to visit us in Trumansburg I encourage them to go out for a walk in the neighborhood. When they return they have a somewhat confused expression on their faces.  The question that they ask, in one form or another, is “Where did all the money come from? Those houses are nice.”

The neighborhoods of the village include a fairly broad spectrum of architectural styles, although very few of them are “pure” styles. Although Trumansburgers had money in the 19th century, it doesn’t look like they spent it on the services of an architect all that often. Instead the houses were probably “designed” by the builders in rough correspondence to a contemporary style or styles. There is a house on Washington Street that contains elements of at least three different Victorian styles: “Stick” (a shuttered central window with decorative woodwork), “Gothic Revival” (the gingerbreading) and “carpenter Victorian” (the general four-gabled lay-out). This sort of mix-and-match approach is the rule in the village, but there are exceptions.

The Second Empire house on the corner of Bradley and Seneca Streets is a fairly straightforward example of that style, although I don’t think I have ever before seen one where the decorative miniature windows on the porch roof mimic the shapes of the real dormered windows in the mansard roof. That kind of sense of humor is something that I associate with builders and home-owners, not architects.

The Federalist houses in town seem to be rather undiluted examples of their type.  Two examples are the McLallen homesteads on Congress Street.  One, on the corner of McLallen Street, apparently had a porch added to its front, which has since been removed. A porch would not be a very “Federalist” feature, but in small upstate towns architectural features are generally removed because they are irritating to maintain, rather than to restore architecturally purity.

A common architectural style in Trumansburg and in much of upstate New York is the Italianate Victorian. This style, which was popular between the 1850s and 1870s, is almost the default 19th century house in this part of the country. They are ultimately modeled on 
Italian villas and are distinguished by very tall, thin windows and very high ceilings (which gives the whole structure a vertically attenuated appearance), and a hipped roof with a very low pitch, broad overhanging eaves that are punctuated by decorative brackets.

They may or may not have a cupola on the roof. Cupolas are puzzling features in that they at times have an actual purpose, but usually (on Victorians houses) are purely decorative. When they have a purpose it may be for ventilation (most barns) or to admit light (many churches), but some cupolas are accessible by stairs from the interior of a house. These are often called “widow’s walks” are named for the haunts of the sailing captains’ wives on houses along the New England coast. On Italianate Victorian houses the cupola is often merely decorative and in that sense may be a compact distillation of all the architectural elements of the house.

Our house on the corner of McLallen, Bradley, and Old Main Streets is one of an original threesome of Italianate Victorians that once stood where all of these streets come together; they were called “the Three Sisters”. Until 1962, when Rt. 96 was re-directed and widened, entry to Trumansburg from the north involved going up the hill next to the fire station, past the Three Sisters and then down into the village proper. The ‘sister’ on the corner of Bradley and Old Main Street was torn down in the late 60s when it became derelict and the Calvary Baptist Church was built on the site. But for decades they must have served as a sort of northern ‘gateway’ to the village.

In early November 2003 the Ulysses Historical Society organized a historical house tour through the village. It happened to occur the day before we closed on our house and we were delighted to be allowed to see other homes in the village. We found ourselves asking the same question that our visitors have asked many times since “Where did the money come from to build these beautiful houses?”

As mentioned in earlier columns Abner Treman did well by siting his grist mill where he did, but efficient transportation of goods into and out of Trumansburg became important in the early 19th century. Topic of a future column:  Trumansburg and the canal system.

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Last revised:  January 2, 2006