America’s Best Downtowns: Watertown, New York

Author: Alecia Pirulis

Watertown Public Square

Tall, narrow buildings stand in neat rows like 18th-century sentinels standing guard around the town square, a vibrant green space accentuated by a curvy fountain. Modern architecture blends seamlessly with historic, mirroring the flat façade and tall, skinny windows of their vintage counterparts. And while cars and pedestrians with shopping bags populate the brick-paved streets and wide sidewalks, echoes of the past surround them. This is downtown Watertown, New York – and it is one of America’s best downtowns.

Watertown is located just 30 miles south of Canada and roughly 70 miles north of Syracuse. It was settled in the early 1800s by pioneers who chose this stretch of land along the mighty Black River to harness its power for an industrial center. The beauty of the location is part of what makes Watertown so desirable – the mighty Adirondacks, nearby Lake Ontario, the 1,000 Islands region, and the Black River combine to make an amazing setting. Those who enjoy outdoor adventures will find it – rafting, boating, camping, fishing, hiking, and skiing, just for starters.

One of Watertown’s most outstanding features is the stunning Paddock Arcade. Located at the top of the Public Square, the Paddock Arcade is sandwiched between two other historic buildings. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Paddock Arcade was built in 1850 and it has been in continuous use ever since, making it the nation’s oldest continuously-operating covered shopping mall. Paddock Arcade is still a popular destination, containing antique stores, restaurants, the Paddock Club tavern, a bakery, and other stores.

From May to October, the Watertown Farm and Craft Market takes place downtown along Washington Street, starting at the State Office Building Plaza and continuing to the Morgan Stanley Building. The market began in 1977 and is a popular event that includes fresh, local produce, baked goods, handmade crafts and jewelry, local artisans, and more.

Historic Thompson Park is a large park with an 18-hole golf course and the New York State Zoo. The park also contains playgrounds, a swimming pool, picnic areas, hiking trails, tennis courts, sledding hills, cross-country skiing trails, and great views. The park is the smallest city park designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park in New York City.

All great downtowns have some quirky facts and claims to fame, and Watertown is no different. This was home to F.W. Woolworth, the “King of the Five-and-Dime.” As a young man, he worked at a store on the square. He had an idea to set up a table of discount items – nothing over five cents. In 1905, the original FW Woolworth store was open on the Public Square.  A chain of “dime stores” soon followed. When Woolworth died in 1919, he had a personal fortune of over 27 million dollars. The house where Woolworth was born still stands in town.

In addition to the start of the five-and-dime, Watertown is home to several other useful inventions, including the car-must-have Little Tree air fresheners, the first portable steam engine, and the safety pin. Watertown also has the longest-running county fair in the country and the oldest semi-professional football team.

A vibrant downtown needs a strong economy, and Watertown has a flourishing tourism industry (especially with its proximity to the Thousand Islands region and Lake Ontario). It is also the county seat for Jefferson County, and it is home to Fort Drum. This 107,265-acre US Army military reservation is home to the 10th Mountain Division and it trains nearly 80,000 troops annually.

Are you searching for a charming, pedestrian-friendly downtown with plenty of historical architecture, great shopping destinations, a variety of restaurants, and a terrific public square that hosts events and festivals? If so, consider renting an apartment in Watertown, New York – this terrific downtown truly does have it all.