Roman Grandeur in Central New York: The Classical Tradition in a Nineteenth-Century Pioneer Town


Strong elements of the classical tradition exist in central New York.[1] While each city, town, and hamlet has a unique history that is worthy of serious study, in many ways Elmira, New York, in its many references to ancient Greece and Rome, represents the classical tradition of central upstate new York. Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, public leaders and private individuals tried to legitimize and define their pioneer communities by emulating the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The city of Elmira, New York, situated in the “Southern Tier” region of upstate New York and located upon the banks of the Chemung River, was settled by ex-soldiers, farmers, and Indian traders in the late 1780s. In the following decades, it grew into a prosperous, if relatively minor, commercial center, primarily due to canal and railway trade. Elmira began as a small collection of farms, surrounded by wilderness, but by its heyday it was a relatively wealthy, bustling city, linking Buffalo and the Great Lakes region with New York City. Elmira’s greatest period of financial growth occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century. At the beginning of this period, many of the prominent citizens of Elmira were living in log cabins, but within thirty years they inhabited mansions and toiled in civic buildings built in architectural styles inspired by the classical world.

If Elmira, New York, can be used to loosely represent central New York’s classical tradition, then Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery can offer many textbook examples of using funerary monuments to document, interpret, and explain the past and the American use of the classical tradition. In the older sections of the cemetery, large, impressive monuments representing Elmira’s financial and cultural elite mingle with smaller, humbler markers of farmers and urban workers. Not surprisingly, the funerary markers of the second half of the nineteenth century are much grander and ornate than the gravestones of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as this was when Elmira’s economy was at its peak. For the most part, the archaeological record reflects the rise and fall of Elmira’s financial prosperity.

Less than twenty yards away from the final resting place of Mark Twain, one of America’s greatest writers, is the grave of George S. Mc- Cann and his wife, Crete. It appears that Mr. McCann’s wife was named after the land of an ancient culture, the Minoans, with their mythological characters King Minos, Ariadne, and the Minotaur. The grave is marked by a large, imposing rock, more than six feet tall, with a weathered greenish-blue copper relief of Mr. and Mrs. McCann. The monument tells the passer-by that George S. McCann died on March 2, 1900, at the age of seventy-six; while his wife died much earlier, on March 4, 1872, at the age of thirty-two. Mr. and Mrs. McCann lived in the financial glory days of Elmira and the size of their funerary marker indicates they must have been quite wealthy.

What is salient about this monument is how the representations of Mr. and Mrs. McCann possess a striking resemblance to a funerary monument of two married Roman freedman (ex-slaves) almost two thousand years in the distant past. The images of Mr. and Mrs. McCann can easily be interchanged with P. Aiedius and Aiedia, former slaves of Publius.[2] In both cases, only the head and torso are depicted. Furthermore, the much older man is on the left, while the younger woman is on the right. Even though almost two millennia separate these funerary representations, the similarity between the two is uncanny.

It is unknown why this particular marker was chosen for Mr. and Mrs. George McCann. While it could easily be argued that the similarity between the two couples is a complete coincidence, an alternative hypothesis can be offered. It is easy to assume that Mr. and Mr. McCann represented the educated, culturally sophisticated elite within the growing frontier regions of upstate New York. Perhaps they visited the grave site of P. Aiedius and Aiedia or a similar memorial on a stroll outside the city walls of Rome. Whether the McCanns traveled to Rome or saw a picture of a Roman memorial is unknown; however, the gravestone is an example of how nineteenth-century Elmirans emulated the Mediterranean world and incorporated it into their identity as educated Americans.

If this hypothesis is true, the McCanns were not unique. From the beginning of the American Revolution, throughout the antebellum period, and through the American Civil War, the classical world mesmerized America. Classical influence shaped almost every aspect of American life, from politics to women’s fashion and jewelry design. The influence of the classical civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome is seen in central upstate New York in both number and variety, including numerous examples of place names with classical origins, the presence of domestic and civil classically inspired architecture, and, of course, funerary monuments. It is the purpose of this paper to explain and describe the strong tendency for the people of central New York to identify themselves with the Mediterranean classical world and to offer the city of Elmira as a model for many other central upstate New York towns that went through similar historical experiences.

Hobsbawm’s Definition of Tradition

Why would the people of central New York create links to the ancient past in the first place? This is an appropriate question, since, in essence, the inhabitants of Elmira and other American cities created a completely fabricated, artificial link to the classical world. Not only do millennia separate the people of Elmira from the worlds of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, but a considerable geographical distance does as well, and most Elmirans did not have the opportunity to visit Greece or Rome. Furthermore, upstate New York with its rolling hills, lush vegetation, and harsh winters is a far cry from the sunny climates of Italy and the rocky terrains of Greece. In fact, it is safe to say that Americans “invented” this tradition. Eric Hobsbawm writes that “invented tradition is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.”[3] Within Hobsbawm’s framework, the creation of tradition is a universal phenomenon and communities are constantly attempting to establish continuity with a “suitable historical past” whenever possible.[4] The Industrial Revolution encouraged communities to create links to the historic past, in the face of unprecedented economic and cultural change, as well as the new forms of social organization developed during this period.[5]

This creation of tradition frequently occurs when a rapid alteration of a society weakens the social patterns of the “old” society.[6] The use of the ancient world as a modern link to the past is quite common, since ancient cultures tend to have a wide variety of symbolic traditions and legends. In this case, the inhabitants within the frontier regions of central New York were transforming their landscape from a frontier to a civilized, financially successful zone. The economy of Elmira was evolving from low-level subsistence farming to the much more financially profitable railroad business during the nineteenth century. This rapid transformation spurred on new ways for communities to identify and represent themselves. Consequently, the people of central New York raided the treasure chest of symbols, historical figures, and visual images of the classical Mediterranean world in order to establish and legitimize their new social and civil institutions and to establish elite status and social order.

Interestingly, the relationship between the classical world and the frontier communities of central New York evolved throughout the periods of their humble beginnings, rapid success, and eventual decline. These changes are reflected in the early history of Elmira. Consequently, Elmira’s early history falls into three phases. The first period is the “Pioneer” stage, which began with the establishment of settlements in 1778, and ended with the establishment of the Chemung River canal in 1833. The second period is the “Financial Growth” stage, occurring between 1833 and 1860, when the canal and railroad industries were established. The third stage of Elmira’s early history is labeled the “Population Growth” period, 1860–1930, and is marked by a dramatic increase in the city’s population. This stage ends with the advent of the World Wars, the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s, and the beginning of significant economic stagnation for Elmira due to the introduction of the automobile and the subsequent decline of the railroad industry.

The “Pioneer Period” and Towns with Classically Inspired Names

The association of Elmira and almost all of central New York with the Greek and Roman tradition began with the advent of the American Revolution. Often forgotten is the fact that the leaders of the American Revolution lived in the glow of the European Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment was a period when society began to focus on quantitative science and historical data for the answers to life’s major questions. This humanist, pro-Enlightenment attitude was intensely apparent in early America. Carl J. Richard writes that “during the Revolutionary era, the classics provided an indispensable illusion of precedent for actions that were essentially unprecedented.”[7] The Founding Fathers were clearly influenced by the classical tradition in their choice of government, even though their beliefs were most likely based on mythology.

In looking for an organizational model for the new government, the American colonists did not have many options, even if they were subconsciously (or consciously, for that matter) trying to emulate the classical tradition. They could not use contemporary Europe, since despotic monarchs ruled most of that continent, and emulating the organizational structures of the governments of Asia and Africa, both ancient and modern, was simply out of the question. Medieval European governments could not be used either, since they were completely entangled with the Catholic Church and pesky popes. This would not do for the predominately Protestant Founding Fathers, who sincerely wanted to establish a real separation of church and state, another important intellectual by-product of the European Enlightenment. As a result, the classical world of ancient Greeks and Romans provided the revolutionaries with established models and precedents.

There is more than ample confirmation for an American cult of classical antiquity, particularly during the second half of the eighteenth century. Classical quotations were ubiquitous. They littered political pamphlets, newspaper articles, and monument inscriptions. Another common display was the habit of American authors adapting classical pseudonyms and noms de plume.[8] American patriots credited themselves or their colleagues with such names as Brutus, Scipio, Catulus, Solon, and Demosthenes. At the same time, they chastised their enemies with labels like Tarquin, Catiline, and Caesar, the worst of all pseudonyms to the young American Republic.

It should be no surprise that the label “Caesar” was abhorrent to the American Revolutionaries, since Julius Caesar represented a charismatic demagogue who became an absolute despot and was a primary contributor to the collapse of a five-hundred year old republic.[9] Much more desirable was the alias “Cato,” the Republic idealist who stood up to Caesar’s armies at Utica, or “Cincinnatus,” a self-effacing officer who was given unprecedented control of the Roman army in a time of national crisis and then, once the crisis had passed, renounced his power and returned to private life. In fact, almost every aspect of the American Revolution, its justification, the forms of the new government, and the identities of the primary players, were derived from the classical past, most importantly and most numerously from Republican Rome.[10]

One of the most persuasive pieces of evidence for Americans identifying themselves as reincarnated Athenians and Romans soon after the Revolutionary War is the large numbers of classical place names, such as Syracuse, Romulus, Utica, Hector, Pompey, and Ithaca, most conspicuously located in west-central upstate New York. In fact, this concentrated swarm of upstate New York towns is the beginning of a geographical belt with high concentrations of towns named after classical references that extends through the upper Ohio Valley, on to southern Michigan, south-central Iowa, and the Ozark mountains.[11] Obviously, these American town names did not reproduce the world of Pericles or Hadrian in any substantial way, but they testify to the importance of the ancient Mediterranean world to the Americans who were in the position of power to name these towns.

According to data compiled by Wilbur Zelinsky, the state of New York adopted a total of one hundred fifty classical place names by political and settlement units (eighty-two before 1820; fifty-one between 1820 and 1860; fourteen between 1860 and 1890; and three after 1890).[12] How these classical names happened to be sprinkled over upstate New York without any significant association or relationship to one another has sparked some debate in the past.[13]

What is known with historical certainty is that during the Revolutionary War, the New York State government promised many soldiers a basic land grant of 600 acres, if they enlisted in the army.[14] As a result, in 1782, New York State created a “Military Tract” of over 1,500,000 acres, the territory of the Iroquois Confederacy, which was divided into twenty-eight six-mile-square townships. The tract covered much of the present-day Finger Lakes region and included all or portions of the present- day counties of Cayuga, Chemung, Cortland, Onondaga, Oswego, Schuyler, Seneca, Tompkins, and Wayne.[15]

The land-grant program reflected the best of post-Revolutionary War optimism in that, just like the Roman hero Cincinnatus, American soldiers would, hopefully, put down their swords and pick up their ploughshares. In reality, however, much of the land was still under the sovereignty of the Iroquois Confederacy. A military campaign led by General John Sullivan in 1779 systematically destroyed the Iroquois population centers and ended their control in this area. John Sullivan’s campaign culminated in a final battle with the Iroquois Confederacy at the Battle of Newtown, taking place just outside the future boundaries of Elmira. This military campaign opened the wilderness of central New York to European-American colonization.[16] Even after 1779, however, some Indian tribes still lived on this land, squatters existed in large numbers, and many soldiers had sold their land almost immediately to land speculators.[17] In fact, before the distribution of the grants by balloting was completed in 1793, more than 90 percent of the six-hundred-acre military lots were controlled by eastern land speculators, known as “land jobbers,” operating out of Albany and New York City.[18]

With the destruction of Iroquois sovereignty, the newly acquired land had to be surveyed. This task fell to Simeon De Witt, former chief geographer and surveyor of the American Revolutionary army. Legend has it that on July 3, 1790, in New York City, Simeon De Witt presented a map to the land commissioners with most of the townships labeled with classical names. De Witt’s team had been given the task of naming dozens of towns and it appears that De Witt and his team reached back to the ancient past for their inspiration.[19] Almost immediately, Simeon De Witt was given sole blame for the classically named towns. In 1819 Joseph Rodman Drake and Fitz-Greene Halleck lampooned the fact that the frontier wilderness of central New York had been named after places and people of the civilized classical past. As a result the two men published a poem in The Evening Post and The National Advertiser.[20] The poem’s name was “Ode to Simeon De Witt, Esquire, Surveyor General” and consisted of seven stanzas. The following is a selection:

God-father of the christened West!
Thy wonder-working power
Has called from their eternal rest
The poets and the chiefs who blest
Old Europe in their happier hour:
Thou gavest, to the buried great,
A citizen’s certificate,
And, aliens now no more,
The children of each classic town
Shall emulate their sire’s renown
In science, wisdom, or in War.
Surveyor of the western plains!
The Sapient work is thine—
Full-fledged, it sprung from out thy brains;
One added touch, alone remains
To consummate the grand design.
Select a town—and christen it
With thy unrivall’d name, De Witt!
Soon shall the glorious bantling bless us
With a fair progeny of Fools,
To fill our colleges and schools
With tutors, regents, and professors.[21]

Thus, the authorship of the classical names was fixed upon De Witt. The “surveyor general” declared that he “knew nothing of these obnoxious names, til they were officially communicated to him” by the land commissioners.[22] After further investigation, it appears that Robert Harpur, born in Ireland, a former teacher at King’s College (now known as Columbia University) and New York deputy secretary of state in 1790, was given direct orders from the land commissioners to create a list of names for the Military Tract. It seems likely that it was Harpur who was responsible for the classical flavor of these names. Regardless of whether Harpur or De Witt were responsible, the land commission approved the classical place names, and central New York was open for an influx of American pioneers.

The “Financial Growth” Period and Greek Revival Architecture

After Sullivan’s campaign against the Iroquois Confederacy, some of the soldiers from this military expedition were enthusiastic about the beauty of the lakes and hills of central New York. The first permanent settlements in Chemung County were established about 1786.[23] In 1788 a settlement, called Newtown, was founded at the junction of the Chemung River and Newtown Creek. This settlement became Elmira, New York in 1828.

Elmira quickly became a growing, economically successful area. In 1817 construction began on the Erie Canal.[24] Farseeing, ambitious residents of upstate New York realized the possibilities of a canal system covering the entire state; among them were men who were settled in the Elmira area. This idea was not new. In the past, General John Sullivan recommended to President George Washington that a canal be built connecting the Chemung River with the Finger Lakes region. As a result, laws were passed in 1829, implementing Sullivan’s suggestion, which provided for the construction of a canal which would link the Chemung River with Seneca Lake.[25] Four years later, in 1833, the Chemung Canal opened for traffic.[26] The Erie and Chemung Canals were prominent for more than a decade before the railroad reached Elmira. With the introduction of railroad commerce in 1849, Elmira began its most economically successful period.[27] Elmira quickly became a trading station for New York grain, salt, and produce, and Pennsylvania iron and coal. Elmira’s convenient location between Buffalo and Lake Erie and New York City made it even more desirable as a trading center. By 1853, Elmira had rail lines to the four points of the compass and had become a railway center for southern and western New York and northern Pennsylvania.[28]

It was in this optimistic climate that John Arnot, Sr., Elmira’s first business, political, and cultural leader, staked his claim in Newtown. Arnot was born in Perthshire, Scotland, on September 25, 1789, and came to America with his father’s family.[29] In 1819, when Arnot first arrived in Newtown, the growing area did not have many merchants. Nevertheless, in less than ten years, Arnot’s commercial ventures were successful and had surpassed any of his competitors.[30] In a matter of years, Arnot became the richest man in the area. In 1892 Ausburn Towner reflected almost romantically on John Arnot and wrote:

Mr. Arnot was closely connected with every public enterprise in the valley for more than half a century, and often with the large means at his command in times of general financial distress held up the credit of the city and county with a firm and unyielding hand. He became a rock against which the waves of financial trouble, no matter how high they might roll, dashed in vain, and those who sought refuge with him found themselves safe…. But he was a private citizen all his life. Except serving in bodies that looked to the care of the education of children he held no public position. He did not wish it, as he did not need it to make him prominent or powerful.[31]

While Towner considered Arnot an important, yet humble, man, the rich businessman, like many other rich businessmen of the time, publicly and conspicuously displayed his wealth by building an extravagant mansion in the newly popular Greek Revival Style. Arnot’s decision to build his house in this style reflected America’s continued fascination with the ancient world.[32] In large neighboring cities like Albany and New York City, the vogue for classical expression in almost every facet of the cultural landscape was strong. While classical taste had begun to wane to some degree in larger, more metropolitan areas by 1840, rural areas continued to build domestic and public structures in the Greek Revival style in emulation of their urban counterparts.[33]

Initially, neo-classical architecture in America displayed more of an association with the artistic and historical experience of Rome (for example, Thomas Jefferson’s recreation of Rome’s Pantheon in the Rotunda at the University of Virginia and the emulation of a Roman-style temple for the Virginia state capital building at Richmond).[34] During the first half of the nineteenth century, however, the iconography and associations of the United States moved toward a greater appreciation for ancient Greece. The so-called Greek Revival style was usually a hybrid blending of both Greek and Roman facets, but the architectural taxonomic label reflected the reality that America was gradually coming to identify more with ancient Greece.[35] During this period, the Greeks were purveyed as the originators of democracy, theater, the concept of the individual, and the idea of justice from a jury, while Rome was seen as a decadent, lesser copy of everything Greek. Furthermore, the nineteenth-century elite had not forgotten that Pontius Pilate was an obedient Roman governor.

During the antebellum period, prominent businessmen, such as John Arnot, were the leaders of their communities in relatively “frontier” outposts like Elmira. By building a large house in the Greek Revival style, Arnot not only was displaying his own impressive wealth, but also telling his neighbors that he was educated and that erudition, art, and culture were just around the corner, as long as people worked hard and dedicated themselves to the development of the area. As a result, a number of Greek Revival domestic structures, with their typical classical façade and ionic columns, appeared in Elmira in the 1830s.

By 1864, when Elmira became an official city in New York State, the Greek Revival did not limit itself to the homes of the culturally pretentious elite. Elmira civic structures also began to show Greek Revival elements. The Chemung County Courthouse and other civic buildings were built in the Greek Revival style. Even cemetery art reflected the style, as urns, columns of the classical order, Greek meanders, and other classical motifs replaced the skulls and winged spirits of traditional tomb decoration.[36] Talbot Hamlin wrote:

New York in those days was a country of experiment, of striving for the new—a restless, utopian country. It was the home of religious cults of all kinds, the birthplace of Mormonism. It was serious, idealistic, perhaps at times even a little “touched.” And something of this quality seems to have permeated its architecture, given it vitality, made it eager to seize and to use the new Greek forms and to use them and modify them in new and experimental ways, so that even in the experiments there seems to be little that is tentative—on the contrary they indicate a strong affirmation. There is an enormous variety of house types; many of the different schemes found farther west in Ohio and Michigan had their seeds sown in New York State.[37]

The “Population Growth” Period and Neo-Classical and “Renaissance” Architecture

In 1867 a theater called the “Opera House” opened in Elmira. The name was soon changed to “The Lyceum.”[38] The Lyceum in classical Athens was a grove dedicated to the god Apollo, the god of law, reason, and the arts, and was also the location for the school founded by the famous philosopher Aristotle in 335 b.c. It was places like the Lyceum that made Athens the cultural and educational center of the Mediterranean in both the Greek and Roman time periods. By naming this new theater “The Lyceum,” a direct reference to the famous gymnasium in Athens where citizens could exercise their minds as well as their bodies, the theater owners were drawing on the classical past and immediately giving legitimacy to this new center of culture. In fact, New York City producers used the Lyceum as a tryout stage for larger audiences. The reference to Apollo is not just in the name, since the owners of the Lyceum placed a statue of Apollo on the top level of the theater building. Apollo was physically present and looking down on all the Elmiran theater-goers. Because of the statue of Apollo and the theater’s name, the citizens of Elmira were on some abstract level on the same echelon as the Athenian citizens of the distant classical past. Unfortunately, the Lyceum was razed in the late 1920s.[39]

Another important instance of the classical tradition in Elmira is Eldridge Park. Dr. Edwin Eldridge came to Elmira from Binghamton in 1857.[40] Eldridge loved the outdoors and was attracted to the little kettle lake which was soon named Eldridge Lake. Eldridge established a park that soon included a fenced deer park and a bear pit, where the antics of black bears amused the visitors. Eldridge Park became known as “The Beauty Spot of the Southern Tier,” and the Erie Railroad had a station specifically at the park.[41] Eldridge placed classically themed statuary throughout the entire park in order to enhance the visitor’s experience.

The statues of Eldridge Park are no doubt reflective of Eldridge’s and America’s interest in the classical world. In the first half of the eighteenth century, America developed a growing middle class, which was increasingly well educated and felt the need for exposure to European culture that could only come with European travel. As American tourists visited the gardens and museums of Europe, they were struck by architecture, statuary, and historic cultural icons, especially those in Italy, and they brought these ideas back home. In Eldridge Park, students of history could see an attempt to re-create almost a Roman/American hybrid garden park with copies of classical statuary, a bear pit, and deer park.

From the 1870s to the 1930s, the city of Elmira saw its most dramatic growth period. In 1870 Elmira’s population was 15,863, steadily rising each decade and culminating in a peak census year in 1930, when 47,397 people were living in Elmira.[42] After 1930, the population began to drop, since the flow of immigrants into the United States decreased and the introduction of the automobile not only permitted people to live in more rural areas but also heralded the decline in railroad commerce, Elmira’s main source of revenue.

Nevertheless, the dramatic increase in population before 1930 placed unprecedented demands upon civic institutions and presented numerous opportunities for erecting new domestic and civic buildings. The most important architectural firm that met these needs was owned by Joseph H. Pierce and Hiram H. Bickford. They expanded upon the Greek Revival style, which was prevalent in Elmira from the 1830s to the 1860s. By 1894, Pierce and Bickford had formulated a style which the architects termed the “Renaissance” style, based on Greek Revival and neo-classical elements.[43] Soon this Renaissance style was seen in churches, civic buildings, libraries, schools, and private residences in Elmira and throughout central New York.

The firm’s masterpiece of the Renaissance style is Elmira’s City Hall. The “classical” nature of this Renaissance style preserved the basic Greek Revival elements with its porticos, columns, pediments, and tympana. In fact, these classically inspired complementary styles within the civic area of Elmira worked quite nicely, since a number of civic buildings and domestic homes, all in the Greek Revival style, were located in or near downtown Elmira, creating classical architectural uniformity (much like the Romanstyle buildings in Washington, D.C.). For the most part, the main obstacle of designing the City Hall building was the limited city lot in which it had to be built. This resulted in a narrow rectangular structure with shallow classical porticos on both street facades. Each columned portico rises above an arched ground-story entrance. Pierce and Bickford decorated the exterior of the building with richly ornamented decorative details, most notably the French Renaissance columns and the statuary groups in both tympana.

The statuary groups within City Hall’s tympana are quite revealing. On the main tympanum is a group which represents European-American process of civilization within the upstate New York wilderness. What appears to be a personification of Liberty is flanked by two muses, one holding a caduceus, the other a portrait of a bearded man, representing advances in science and art. On the far left side of the main tympanum is a farmer and plow, symbolizing the agricultural productivity of the area; the far right side is filled various items such as a telescope, an art easel, and the head of what appears to be a Greek philosopher. At the bottom of the head of Liberty, a bald eagle is flanked by a cannon and cannonballs; on top of her head is a decorated star. Ultimately, it an eclectic assortment of symbols, but the message is clear: the pioneer town is now established with all the advantages of American civilization, art, science, technology, and freedom.

This message is even further reinforced with the second tympanum over City Hall’s side entrance. A giant head of a snarling wolf is flanked by two American Indian men. The image of the wolf was the symbol or totem of an Indian clan which first occupied the Elmira area.[44] At the bottom of the wolf’s head are stereotypical images which are usually associated with Indians: a tomahawk and what looks to be a tobacco pipe. An anthropomorphic sun rises above the head of the wolf. On the far left are two Indian men grounding a canoe on a riverbed, while the far right contains two Indian men engaged in what appears to be food preparation. While the main tympanum is filled with female images, the side tympanum is strictly masculine.

Both tympana are sculpted in a neo-classic style. However, the buildings of Elmira are no longer designed with a focus on the classical tradition to separate their owners from their humble beginnings, as in the Greek Revival style of the early nineteenth century, but now are glorifying the local history of its earlier predecessors, both Indian and European. For viewers in the twenty-first century, with their relatively new notions of cultural plurality, the Indian tympanum feels foreboding, as much as it is inspiring.

City Hall was Elmira’s last great classical-style building project. The World Wars of Europe ushered in the modern period, and Americans and Europeans no longer found the images of ancient world relevant after so much death and destruction. Most buildings built after 1930 in Elmira took on a very modern feel. Nevertheless, the classically inspired architectural styles served the inhabitants of Elmira for over a century. In fact, the growth and eventual decline of the city of Elmira, and its association with the classical past during its growing and legitimizing phases, is reflective of and is mirrored by many smaller towns in upstate New York. Hundreds of courthouses, libraries, schools, and domestic homes were built in a neo-classical style in upstate New York during this time period. Too often, inhabitants of these towns simply do not realize and appreciate the associations made by earlier inhabitants. Too often, people believe that history occurs only in the classroom and in “made for TV” documentaries. But this is not the case. The classical tradition, the love of the classical world by generations from the not-too-distant past, is pervasive in upstate central New York. This classical tradition shaped the lives of the people of central New York centuries ago, and it still can be strongly felt today, if we, as historians, only take the time to look.


1.� I would like to offer my thanks to Dr. Janeen B. Sheehe, Mansfield University, for reading the initial draft and offering many important suggestions. Additionally, I would like to thank Rachel Dworkin, archivist at the Booth Library of the Chemung County Historical Society, for assistance with the images.

2.�Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum 6.11284. This funerary monument dates from around 30 b.c. and was found on the Via Appia just outside of Rome. Both couples are wearing civic dress and are depicted in the marriage pose by the grasping of each other’s right hand (iunctio dextrarum). The full inscription reads P[UBLIUS] AIEDIUS P[UBLI] L[IBERTUS] AMPHIO; AIEDIA [PUBLI] L[IBERTA] FAUSTA MELIOR.

3.� Eric Hobsbawm, “Introduction: Inventing Traditions,” in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 1.

4.� Hobsbawm, 1.

5.� A great example of this is the creation of an independent Scottish Highland tradition with its strong revival of Highland music, dress, and culture in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. See Hugh Trevor-Roper, “The Highland Tradition in Scotland,” in Hobsbawm, 15–41.

6.� Hobsbawm, 4–5.

7.� Carl J. Richard, The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 232.

8.� Eran Shalev, “Ancient Masks, American Fathers: Classical Pseudonyms during the American Revolution and Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic 23, no.2 (2003): 151–72.

9.� Moreover, a few decades later, another ambitious military general, Napoleon Bonaparte, attempted to conquer large sections of Europe and was consciously trying to associate himself with Julius Caesar. While an infamous European leader was attempting to model himself into a Caesar, America was trying to model themselves after Caesar’s opponents, most importantly Brutus and Cato.

10.� John W. Eadie, ed., Classical Traditions in Early America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961); Stephen L. Dyson, Ancient Marbles to American Shores: Classical Archaeology in the United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 1–21; Richard Gummere, The American Colonial Mind and the Classical Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963) 97–119; Howard Mumford Jones, O Strange New World (New York: Viking, 1964), 251–65; Richard; Meyer Reinhold, Classica Americana: The Greek and Roman Heritage in the United States (Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1984).

11.� Wilbur Zelinsky, “Classical Town Names in the United States: The Historical Geography of an American Idea,” Geographical Review 57, no. 4 (1967): 478.

12.� Zelinsky, 472.

13.� Victor Hugo Paltsits, “The Classical Nomenclature of Western New York,” Magazine of History 13 (1911): 246–49; Charles Marr, “Origin of the Classical Place-Names of Central New York,” Quarterly Journal of the New York State Historical Association 7 (1926): 155–68; Andrew C. Flick, “New York Place Names,” in Andrew C. Flick, ed., History of the State of New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1937), 314–19.

14.� Edward Countryman, “From Revolution to Statehood (1776–1825),” in Milton M. Klein, ed., The Empire State: A History of New York (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001), 263–64.

15.� David M. Ellis and others, A History of New York State (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967), 153.

16.� Francis Jennings, Ambiguous Iroquois Empire (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984); Donald William Meinig, “Geography of Expansion,” in John Henry Thompson, ed., Geography of New York State (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1966): 140–71.

17.� Countryman, 263.

18.� Richard H. Schein, “Urban Origin and Form in Central New York,” Geographical Review 81, no. 1 (1991): 53.

19.� Flick, 316.

20.� Marr, 156.

21.� Marr, 157–58. There is today a town in New York State called DeWitt, but it was named for Moses DeWitt, not Simeon. [Ed.]

22.� Flick, 317.

23.� Ausburn Towner, Our Country and Its People: A History of the Valley and County of Chemung (Syracuse, N.Y.: D. Mason, 1892), 28–38.

24.� Ellis, 244–47.

25.�Chemung County … Its History (Elmira, N.Y.: Chemung County Historical Society, 1961), 13–15

26.� Towner, 123–28.

27.�Chemung County … Its History, 20–23.

28.� Ibid.

29.� Towner, 114–15.

30.� Towner, 115.

31.� Ibid.

32.� For an examination of Greek Revival architecture in another central New York town during a contemporaneous time period, see Joan Buchman, “Owego Architecture: The Greek Revival in a Pioneer Town,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 25, no.3 (1966): 215–21.

33.� Wendy A. Cooper, Classical Taste in America 1800–1840 (New York: Abbeville Press, 1993), 12–13.

34.� Dyson, 7; William H. Adams, The Eye of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1976), 225–29, 294–97, 393–99.

35.� Talbot Hamlin, Greek Revival in America (London: Oxford University Press, 1944); William R. Ware, The American Vignola (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977); Joseph Downs, “The Greek Revival in the United States,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 2, no. 5 (1944): 173–76.

36.� J. Arthur Kieffer, “Lake St.’s First County Court House,” Chemung Historical Journal (1971): 2083–88; James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten (New York: Anchor Books, 1977), 68–72.

37.� Hamlin, 269–70.

38.� W. Charles Barber, “A Great Show Town: Golden Age of Elmira’s Theaters, Movies,” The Chemung Historical Journal (1962): 976–77.

39.� Ibid.

40.� Towner, 328.

41.�Chemung County … Its History, 41.

42.� Roger G. Reed, Architects of Standing: Pierce and Bickford, Elmira, N.Y. 1890–1932 (Elmira, N.Y.: Chemung County Historical Society, 1983), 3.

43.� Reed, 11.

44.� Harry B. Kelsey, “Squash-Cutter and the Wolves of Elmira,” The Chemung County Historical Journal (December 1960): 781.


By: Joseph Lemak



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