Every day, those who commute around the City of Cortland usually go to their destination for a few reasons. It could be for a day of work, grabbing their cup of coffee, or enjoy one of the many local restaurants around town. While most people know these buildings for the businesses that are in them today, they don’t often look up at the structures that are located above them. While many of these well-designed structures today are most likely apartments for rent or available office space, they also hold a lot of history that has helped develop the City of Cortland as we know it today.
Cortland was settled in 1791 and was made into a village in 1853. As the population grew into the new century, it was soon incorporated as the 41st city in the State of New York in 1900. As it developed during those years, many remarkable events took place that have enhanced the future of the city. Major businesses like the Wickwire Brothers Company and the 1st National Bank ran through the city during this time along with local organizations that are still around today.
While most of the businesses today in Cortland are found within eye level of their potential customer or employee, the history behind the buildings that the businesses are in are standing over the person, out of their site. With this in mind, if you’d like to learn a bit of history about Cortland before you reach your destination, LOOK UP!
If you aren’t sure on where these bits of history are located, follow this list of some key locations and learn some more historic information about your favorite buildings around town!
Special thanks to Bonnie Quackenbush, who hosted an architecture tour around town during the Steampunk Festival. The inspiration for this list wouldn’t have been possible without her guidance.
1) Hopkins Block
- Location: 83-85 Main Street (above Sacred Art Tattoo Parlor)
This 4-floor building with stamped galvanized sheet metal façade was originally built and owned by local contractor L.R. Hopkins in 1891. While the building ran dry goods stores until 1961, the 2nd floor housed the elite “Tioughnioga Club” that started the same year the building was erected. According to the Grips historical souvenir of Cortland, the club was “more strictly social than a matter of business convenience” as various events were held there. These events included young people’s parties, Billard games, and more!
2) B.F. Taylor Building
- Location: 44-46 Main Street (across from Jimmy’s Nails)
This building is often known for its red orate wooden bay window with a stamped metal floral designed panel on the bottom. The structure was named after B.F. Taylor, the founder of Waterworks, who lived on the second floor as a bachelor. While Taylor lived on the 2nd floor, hardware stores occupied the 1st floor for a long time.
3) Firemen’s Hall
- Location: 38 Main Street (Above State Farm)
In 1854, the City of Cortland organized its own fire services through the formation for the Water Witch Fire Company and the Water Witch Hose Company. As the years went on, many companies were established within the department including paid and volunteer services throughout the city. During the years of 1875-1914, two volunteer fire companies were housed here.
4) Burgess Block
- Location: 33 Main Street (Above Cheerful and Creative)
This building was the site of the well-known Burgess Clothing store from 1887-1977. In 1884, a young man named Archie Burgess invested $500 into the business and became successful throughout his career. During the early morning of February 5, 1915, a young musician noticed smoke coming out of the 3rd floor adjacent of the store as he was returning home from playing at a dance. As the fire took place, Archie's younger brother, Harris, was at the scene (while Archie was on vacation) providing gloves to firefighters and helping as much as he can for his brother’s business. After the fire was put out, the roof and 4th floor had to be repaired due to both floors collapsing. While the floors were a loss, Archie gained a new business partner as he promoted his brother from employee to partner as a thanks for his efforts during the fire. For more information about the Burgess legacy, watch the presentation given by Carolyn Burgess here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uK_XbgGaBAI&t=763s
5) Schermerhorn Block
- Location: 43-49 Main Street (Above Wild Ginger Asian Fusion and Jimmy’s Nails)
Being built in 1880 and have housed several businesses, the Schermerhorn block was home to one of J.J. Newberry’s stores from 1927 to 1992. Before the American five and dime store chain arrived at this location, several small shops occupied it and were converted into one big store once the larger chain arrived. After J.J. Newberry’s store closed in 1992, the space returned to its original layout and two shops have occupied the space since 2006.
6) Wickwire Building
- Location: 23-29 Main Street (next to The Finger Lakes Tasting & Tap Room)
This large structure was the original location of the Wickwire Brothers Hardware store and soon to be factory. As then 22-year-old Chester Wickwire ran his hardware store, a customer from Elmira came in to purchase some plant stands. Although he couldn’t pay for the stands in cash, Rowland Hall traded several dog muzzles, rat raps, and more in exchange for the plant stands. Wickwire accepted the offer and used those items to create different wired products. From then on, Chester partnered with his younger brother Theodore to create the Wickwire Brothers Company. The Factory remained in this location until 1880 when the company outgrew the building and moved to south main street to erect their new 40-acre factory.
7) Beard Building
- Location: 7-9 Main Street (Next to McNeil & Co.)
Sticking out between the smaller buildings surrounding it is the old Beard Building. The structure was built in 1884 and housed the Beard & Peck furniture & Undertaking business until 1903. Despite the word “beard’ being in the name, the company didn’t have a specialty in facial grooming. It was instead a Furniture store developed by N. Jay Peck that carried the heaviest assortment of furniture and allied lines of any house in Cortland County. The business was in close touch with the best sources of supply and, with their high business standing and unquestionable integrity, it enabled them to buy in the best markets and of the best markers.
8) Emerald Hose Company
- Location: 45 Central Ave (above Catholic Charites)
Now being occupied by Catholic Charities and residents that live upstairs, the Emerald Hose Company building was once part of the Excelsior’s Fire Company. The Emerald Hose Company, in addition to the Orris Hose Company and the Hitchcock Hose Company, ran the first horse drawn apparatus in the Cortland fire service. While the structure has been remodeled since the 1920’s, it still shows designs of mid-1880's terra cotta firefighting themes on the top and sides of the building. As you view the front of the building from Church street, you’ll see a design at the very top of a baby sitting (bundled up in cloth) in a tree waiting to be rescued while two fountains with flowers and eagles dispense water to fight the fire on the left and right sides of the front of the building. If you’re viewing the building from Central Ave, you’ll find the head of Mercury (god of swiftness to a fire) and a lion’s head, which is the astrological fire sign and symbol of courage.