Created By: The History Center in Tompkins County
This tour was developed by Historic Ithaca Inc.
DeWitt Park has been the heart of Ithaca's religious, educational, and governmental activities from the community's earliest days and is one of the oldest residential neighborhoods in the city. It received both local and National Register Historic District designations in 1971. The district contains a wealth of architectural styles, reflecting the work of some of Ithaca's most distinguished architects.
The land on which Ithaca is situated belonged originally to the Cayuga Indians. The Cayuga, like the other Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, were forced off traditional lands in New York State during General John Sullivan's campaign of 1779. In 1789, the former Cayuga lands were ceded to the American government, subdivided, and awarded as payment to soldiers of the Revolutionary War. The first settlement in the area was near present-day DeWitt Park. Most early land use was residential, occurring to the east, west, and north of the park. The commercial district was conentrated to the south, serving traffic along State Street, which connected to the Owego and Catskill turnpikes.
Simeon DeWitt, after whom the park and district are named, was appointed surveyor general of New York in 1784 and later created the plan for Ithaca. The grid of streets surrounding the park today appears on a map drawn by DeWitt in 1806.
DeWitt Park has been the principal open space in downtown Ithaca through most of the city's history. Buildings face on the square rather than away from it, much like the traditional New England commons. In 1826, DeWitt confined new construction to the northern part of the park. The southern section was to be "at all times kept as a public walk and promenade, . . . that no houses or other buildings, except ornamental improvements, be erected . . . thereon, and that no dead bodies be interred therein." In 1827, additional legislation made it illegal to drive oxen or cattle on any part of the square other than the gravel walks.
Please use discretion when approaching private property. Thank you, and we hope you enjoy the DeWitt Park Historic District Walking Tour!