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A century-old gem will get new purpose in city

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This week, Neighbors of Watertown is set to purchase the former Empsall’s Department Store building on Court Street.

Empsall’s operated for more than 80 years inside the Brighton Building until it closed in 1993 because of competition from newer retail stores on outer Arsenal Street.

Gary C. Beasley, executive director of Neighbors, said the organization plans to restore the building’s original interior and adapt it for downtown businesses.

“The previous owner had converted it into an indoor mall and altered the inside,” Mr. Beasley said. “The key elements that remain are the storefront windows, the original revolving door entrance, the tin ceilings, the staircase to the second floor and the stone tile flooring. We will incorporate all of that in our rehabilitation.”

Mr. Beasley said Neighbors plans to maintain as much of the building’s historic character as possible.

Empsall’s began in 1907 when Frank A. Empsall, a local dry goods merchant, purchased the eight-story Brighton Building. After several months of renovations, Mr. Empsall reopened the building, complete with sculpted terra cotta masonry, glazed brickwork and red mahogany interiors. The first two floors housed Empsall’s Department Store, which would include 33 departments by 1923. With its elaborate, Renaissance-style cornices and neoclassical window moldings, the building is an eclectic blend of the Italianate and Art Deco styles that feature prominently along Court Street.

In 1992, Neighbors raised $3.2 million to renovate the top six floors of the Brighton Building and convert them into 36 apartments. Today, Mr. Beasley said, the organization plans to enlist the help of local contractors and carpenters to renovate and restore the first two floors of the building.

“We’re looking to add new apartments on the second floor and clean up the storefronts on the ground level for local businesses,” he said.

The benefits of restoring the Empsall building far outweigh the costs of renovation, said Jeffrey Eley, architectural historian and member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“While rehabilitation can be expensive, the cost is much less than new construction,” he said. “This building has been an important part of the architectural, I dare say, the entire community for many years. It tells many stories about Watertown’s past.”

Between 1880 and 1920, Watertown’s population nearly tripled. When construction of the Brighton Building was completed in 1903, it was considered the city’s only skyscraper. Four years later, Empsall’s opened to meet the needs of the growing city, offering upscale clothing, home furnishings, framing, bedding, a photography studio and a tearoom. Empsall’s, like many of Watertown’s downtown businesses, survived the Great Depression, growing to house 50 departments by 1938.

“I can’t imagine such a remarkable building not being there for the next generation,” Mr. Eley said.

He said he’s glad to hear Neighbors’s plans to update the historic structure for contemporary use. “Mixed use is usually a good way to go,” Mr. Eley said. “Encourage creativity; give it some 21st century style. Its personality and architectural power will adapt.”

Neighbors plans to begin restoration of the building as soon as possible.

@blurb-inset refer, editors not:Editor’s note: Nicholas Dephtereos is a senior writing student at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

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