The Public Square of Watertown, New York

The square, downtown, the mall, the green, and the commons. In America, these words refer to a city's main hub. They are names for public spaces that often serve as the cultural, historic, governmental, and commercial centers of their communities.

Public Square in Watertown, New York is one such place. Situated along the Black River, the Square was deeded for public use in 1805 after a series of land grants from the city's original settlers. These New Hampshire transplants designed Public Square to replicate an eighteenth-century New England town center. In the two centuries since its founding, the Square has been a literal and figurative center of urban living in an otherwise rural area.

At its height in the first half of the twentieth century, lavish department stores, shopping malls, luxury hotels, and fine dining establishments comprised the majority of Public Square. The Square’s Italianate train station served as the nexus of Northern New York's railroads. The railroad brought tourists to the city’s upscale amenities from across the state. Tourism in the city was supported by hydropower from the Black River. The abundant energy source sustained the booming industries that surrounded the Square and fueled the town's economic and commercial development. According to many residents, Public Square was a millionaire’s playground.

Like many mill towns of the nineteenth century, Watertown’s factories began to close in the second half of the twentieth century. The loss of its industries depressed the city economy. Its infrastructures and historic structures fell into a state of neglect. Tourism in the Square declined along with the buildings and the city shut down its train station. The Square’s anchor hotels, restaurants, and department stores soon followed suit.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Watertown’s city council responded to this decline with a series of urban renewal policies. Derelict nineteenth-century buildings were demolished to accommodate modern constructions. To entice drivers into the heart of the city, the Square’s roads were redesigned. In the 1980s, the expansion of Fort Drum, a nearby Army base, might have reinvigorated the Square, but construction of the Salmon Run Mall, located just off the interstate in the far west of the city, pulled commercial developments away from Public Square. In an attempt to halt further destruction of its cultural and architectural heritage, Public Square was added to the National Register of Historic places in 1984. Today half of the Square's original structures survive.

This walking tour looks into Public Square’s past. It uses buildings to glimpse the city’s golden age and explore what life was like before and after deindustrialization and urban renewal. Some structures like the Woodruff Hotel, are long demolished. Others like Empsall’s Department store and Woolworth’s Five and Dime have been repurposed, while still others such and the Paddock Arcade and the Crystal Restaurant have survived despite economic upheaval.

Click on the sites below to begin the tour.

The Paddock Arcade

On its official website, the City of Watertown designates the Historic Paddock Arcade as the keystone of the Public Square. After the Westminster Arcade in Providence, Rhode Island closed its doors permanently in 2008, The Paddock Arcade was…

The Woolworth Building

Although it is now the site of vacant office spaces, income-adjusted apartments, and a lone optometrist, the Woolworth Building was once a bustling department store. In 1873, Frank Winfield Woolworth, a Rodman, New York resident and future…


When construction of the Brighton Building completed in 1903, it was the city’s first skyscraper. The eight-story building is an Art Deco interpretation of the popular Italianate architectural style as seen in its Renaissance-inspired cornices,…

The Hotel Woodruff

The Hotel Woodruff was a five-story, luxury hotel that once stood in the center of Watertown’s Public Square. Originally called the Woodruff House, the Victorian stone structure was built in 1851. The Woodruff House was greatly expanded when it was…

The Crystal Restaurant

The Crystal Restaurant is the oldest restaurant in Watertown. It has been continually operated since 1925. The Crystal Restaurant and the building it which it resides, are currently owned and operated by Watertown residents Peter and Libby…