Central Avenue, c.1915, with the Burgess painted advertisement.
We finally approach Central Avenue in our historical journey down Main Street! This time we are taking a look at 31-33 Main Street which has over the years been referred to as the Union Hall block, the Collins block, and the Burgess block.
But its beginnings are believed to stretch back to about 1815 when Obadiah Boies presumably built his dwelling in that location. We are lucky enough this time to be able to include a story from when his house was being erected that includes a bit of drama:
Nathan Luce and his crew were conducting the joinery work, building up the frame of the new home. Luce struck up a contract with John Dyer to do lathwork for $13, agreeing that the work was to be done on one room alone once it was ready in about two weeks time. Dyer appeared on the appointed day to commence the lathwork, at which time he insisted that the contract was to complete the entirety of the home, so therefore Luce and his crew should clear out. Luce argued with Dyer, accusing him of a “wilful [sic] and corrupt falsehood,” but the gentlemen were able to reach an agreement where Dyer would be able to come back the next day to do the work on the bottom portion of the house, then do the rest the following week.
Luce and his men worked into the night to ensure the bottom story was completed, and Dyer came the next day and started putting up the lath. Upon nightfall, Dyer declared to Obadiah Boies that he would do no more on the job. It would seem Dyer had realized he somehow agreed to doing the lathwork for the whole house for the price of doing one room!
Luce, who was writing up his account of events for publishing in the Cortland Republican, states that he would expect an honest man would complete the work and simply ensure he takes better contracts in the future. But it does seem rather dishonest of Luce that he should allow the discrepancy to occur.
Nonetheless, the house must have been completed but perhaps didn’t remain in use as a residence for very long. By 1830, there is reference to Canfield Marsh taking over as postmaster, and “keeping the office in his store in the old wooden building which stood on the present site of the Union Hall block.”
I found at this point it was actually very difficult to trace ownership and use of whatever structure or structures were present at this location, so must unfortunately leave several decades blank for now. What I do know is that Samuel E. Welch (1820-1900) purchased the lot in 1853 where he conducted a dry goods store. In 1869, in partnership with J. Rose of the neighboring store on the north, Welch erected the Union Hall block, with Mr. T. Allport as architect. I hoped to come upon a description of the new block, or at least of the Union Hall, with no success. Upon its opening, the following businesses and offices took up residence: Ford & Freeman, insurance agents; J.S. Barber and B.A. Benedict, lawyers; William Winters and John Ryan, saloon; Mrs. Clearwood, millinery. Also, Pomeroy’s music store, an auction house, and of course S.E. Welch & Co., dry goods. The Union hall located on the third floor was the setting for various lectures, musical and theatrical performances, and other society functions.
In 1884, the same fire that destroyed the Wickwire and Garrison buildings also took out the Union Hall block. New business blocks were quickly rebuilt, and in 1887 Charles W. Collins purchased the Rose interest while Archie S. Burgess & D.H. Bingham removed from the Garrison block and leased out Welch’s spot at 33. Collins, who had previously been partnered with L.D. Garrison, operated a china store out of 31 Main Street from 1877 until 1900, the spot later taken over by F.A. Hall Co.’s Five & Dime store in 1904.
In 1893, Bingham retired from his partnership with Burgess, and just five years later the business was expanded so that by 1910 Burgess Clothing was considered to be the largest such establishment in this section of the state. Descriptions indicate the store encompassed over 4500 square feet, and in 1914 glass cases were installed, “a radical departure from the old system of showing clothes.” These cases were the first of their kind to be installed in Cortland, and allowed customers to view goods and only bother a salesman when he was ready to buy.
The glass cases were not the only innovation that Burgess employed; the business was noted for its use of the new advertising techniques developed around the turn of the century, and painted a 4-story high billboard on the Central Avenue side of the building. Even today there are barns in the area that still bear the familiar white on black “Burgess Clothing, Cortland” sign, continuing to advertise this long-gone business.
Another fire in February of 1915 destroyed the top two floors of both the Collins and Burgess blocks, and the front part of the Burgess Block- the original S.E. Welch store- was torn down and a modern steel and brick business block was erected that corresponded with the rear addition that had been added on in the 1890s.
In 1919, I found mention of a Citizens’ club that had an athletic arena with raised seating offering some 300 spectators the opportunity to view wrestling matches. In the following year, on the third floor of the Collins block was the Cortland Amusement Parlor bowling alleys, that replaced the Idle Hour billiard hall there previously. Through the 1920s the J.G. McCrory Co. variety store occupied the first floor of the Collins block, until the spot underwent renovations for use by the Home Dairy Co. in 1930. The Home Dairy remained in business at that location until 1976.
The following year, Burgess Clothing too sold its Main Street store and then in 1981 went out of business, closing the Cortlandville Mall store that had opened in 1971.
Our city directories only go up to 1986, and in that year we find Nordic Sports in 31, as well as Lewin Edith Real Estate in 33 with Johnnie’s Barber Shop upstairs. There were also plenty of students and renters housed in the upstairs apartments.
Google Maps affords us a glimpse into the past, and in 2009 we can see that the spot now occupied by New York Bagel was once Mando Books, and more recently Finger Lakes Tasting and Tap Room next door was replaced by Bernard’s.
Looking at the spot now, it can be hard to picture just how much has gone on in that location, even if not in the exact same building. From a residence to dry goods store, clothing stores, a social and performance space, a sports arena, bowling alley…and plenty more that wasn’t covered in this limited post!
Cortland’s Main Street looking north, c.1915. On the right-hand side of the street appears to be the
Burgess building at 33 Main Street post-fire,
Burgess building at 33 Main Street post-fire,