What do you think of when you think of Geneva’s South Main Street?

I believe many Genevans think of the beautiful row houses often referred to as “Rainbow Row.” There is no doubt that South Main from Seneca Street south to Jay Street is beautiful, with many different architectural styles in its 4,660-foot length. However, how much of that beauty is perceived depends on how old you are, what you remember, if you are a native Genevan and what point in Geneva’s history you are using for a reference point.

The oldest buildings on the street are the Pulteney Apartments built in 1796 (then the Geneva Hotel); the rectory of Trinity Church, which was at one point a bank; and the Chapman House, the former home of the Reverend Jedidiah Chapman, now a bed and breakfast. Many of the row houses around Pulteney Park and across South Main Street from the park date back to the 1820s when the Village of Geneva was first settled. At that point they were both homes and businesses for the village’s citizens.

An article written by Philip N. Nicholas and published in the Geneva Gazette during December 1908 gives information about many of the houses on South Main Street in the early to late 1800s. While some of the statements Nichols made are not always accurate, he still provides readers with a reasonable description of the history of those South Main Street homes.

It is not surprising to see that many of the buildings were used as both residences and businesses when they were built. They were designed with that purpose in mind. Of the 40-plus buildings Nicholas mentions he only lists 19 as being primarily residential. The rest were used not only as residences but also as shops, a tavern, a printing office, a book bindery, a bank, a school house, a jail of sorts, a millinery shop, an ice cream shop, a boys’ school, at least two girls’ schools, a few fraternities and some buildings were owned by Hobart College.

A check of the 1923 City Directory shows the buildings numbered 330 to 459 were home to three funeral homes or undertakers, several physicians, a dentist, a milliner, the Fireside Tea Room, the Woman’s Club, the Masons, the First Methodist Episcopal Church and the Geneva Bottling Works.

By 1953, the stretch between 330 South Main and 859 South Main had about 30 multi-family houses or apartment buildings, the Woman’s Club, Boy Scouts of America, the Geneva Youth Bureau, the Primrose Beauty Salon, MacBerns Antiques, Alvaro’s Barber Shop, Masonic Lodge, the Geneva Community Chest, the American Red Cross, a second beauty shop, the Disabled American Veterans, an accountant, an insurance business, a nursery school, at least seven medical offices, a salad dressing manufacturer, six fraternity houses, the City Board of Education for Dairy Products and a second antique shop.

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In 1973, that same stretch had 19 apartment houses listed and several more multi-family homes, the Arwood Corp., Alvaro’s Barber Shop, two beauty shops, the Geneva Adjustment Service, the Geneva Appraisal Service, two insurance agencies, MacBern’s Antiques, Masonic Lodge, The International Association of Machinists, the Boy Scouts of America, Mah Jong Oriental Antiques, Corwin Funeral Home, an attorney’s office, a chiropodist, two podiatrists, two physicians’ offices, Morning Nursery School, the Elks Club, an architect, the Geneva Historical Society, a dentist, nine fraternities, a monastery, Finger Lakes Cerebral Palsy Happiness House plus numerous properties owned by Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

In the 1960s some of the homes on South Main Street began suffering from age and neglect. Dr. Warren Hunting Smith provided funds for revolving loans to be administered by the Geneva Historical Society to assist building owners in restoring and maintaining the exteriors of their historic houses. In at least one case, Ludlow House, the Historical Society purchased the building from the Geneva Board of Education for $5. The Pulteney Street house was then moved to a lot next to the Masonic Temple, restored and sold — thus returning it to the tax rolls. Upon completion of that project two other houses, numbers 394-398, were restored to much of their original appearance also with the help of the “Fund for Historic Geneva.” This fund, coupled with interest in preservation of Geneva’s historic houses, helped South Main Street rebound and become one of the most charming streets in the Finger Lakes.

Was Geneva unique in using its homes as both residential and commercial spaces? Not really. In the 1790s-1800s row houses built on the wharves of Baltimore were also used in much the same way with the owner living on the top floors and the lower floor or “high basement” used as commercial space. Also, the redesigned boulevards of Paris in the 19th century (the idea of Georges Eugène Haussmann, Prefect of the Seine) were completed with residences on the upper floors of buildings and commercial shops or offices on ground level.

The use of Geneva’s South Main Street homes has changed through the years from single-family residences and shops to apartments, bed and breakfasts, Air B&Bs, single-family homes and college residences. The appearance of the buildings has changed through time and by owners’ intent. Some changes were made for aesthetic reasons. An example would be a Federal style entrance being replaced with an Italianate entrance. Other changes resulted from the lack of funds to properly repair the wear and tear on an old building. Whatever the reason, the city now takes pride in the history and the architecture not only of South Main Street, but of the other historic districts (Genesee Park and Downtown) and buildings in Geneva.

While change is inevitable, it is sometimes for the better.

Osburn is the Geneva city historian and Geneva Historical Society archivist.