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South Main Street’s Miller Block and Townhouse

By Diane Janowski, Elmira City Historian

 

In my capacity as Historian of the City of Elmira, New York, one of my greatest pleasures is assisting in the preservation of historic structures. Elmira has a few significant houses and commercial buildings remaining. I am happy to report that, as of this writing, a large and important building on South Main Street is under consideration for placement on the National and New York State Registers of Historic Places. This honor will help preserve the property and enable the owners to apply for benefits for upkeep and improvements.

 


The Miller Block and townhouse as it looks today. Photo courtesy of the Diane Janowski.

I’m talking about the “Miller Block,” located at 228-230 South Main Street at the corner of Henry Street. Valentine Miller was a German immigrant and businessman in Elmira for forty-five years. He and his wife, Kate, had ten children. They were early settlers of “Southport.”  Valentine Miller was a grocer on the Southside and a city councilman. He helped to establish the South Main Street shops. His first store on the northeast corner of South Main and West Henry was remembered for its “excellence and variety.”

 

Valentine Miller raised prize-winning short horn cattle, namely “Strawberry Second” and “Strawberry Third” in 1902 and “Elmira Boy” in 1906.

 

In 1887, Miller hired Architect Huron O. Smith to design and build the Miller Block and Townhouse directly across the street. In the Italianate style, it is a three-and-a-half-story commercial building on South Main and a double townhouse on West Henry connected by a narrow arch. The townhouse is two stories with eight bays and an ornate second-story porch.

 

A prominent stone at the top states, “V. Miller Block 1887.” The building was designed for use by stores, offices, and meetings. The ground floor was used first as Valentine Miller’s grocery, then it passed on to his son Frank Miller.

 

After a fire in 1913 across the street at the Chemung Grocery store, the owners purchased the Miller property two days after the fire. They moved what was left of their contents into the store and held a “fire sale,” including canned goods whose labels had burned off and all of their smoked meat.

 

Over the years, all sorts of businesses and organizations used the Miller Block. The top floor was used as a lodge for the International Order of Odd Fellows until 1934. As Elmira's housing needs escalated, the upper floors were converted into apartments in the 1930s and 40s.

 

The second floor once held a chiropractor’s office and law offices. The third floor was a large open space, big enough for banquets and meetings. Behind the building was a smokehouse and coffee roaster.

 

In 1950, the first floor was a shoe repair store and a tobacconist. The last alterations to the building were made in 1952 when the storefront windows were updated. Everyone in the present generation should remember the ground-floor storefronts as the Panosian family’s “Street of Shops.”

 

The application for the official designation and placement on the State and National Registers of Historic Places comes from Michael Lynch, Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer and Director of the Division for Historic Preservation. In his application, he writes: “The Miller Block is one of the only remaining architecturally and historically significant buildings along a once vibrant commercial corridor that stretched from Partridge Street to the Chemung River.’

 

“Huron O. Smith’s design for the Miller Block was an eclectic mix, rich in decorative features and detail that was far more stylistically expressive than earlier commercial local block buildings. […] The Miller Block’s presence represents this important chapter in Elmira’s history of how a building was adapted to meet the needs of new clients and community in general.”

 


Sources:

Elmira Telegram April 16, 1911Elmira Star-Gazette January 15, 1913

Elmira Star-Gazette February 7, 1913

Application for the State & National Register of Historic Places 2017. Michael Lynch

 

 

 

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