The Woodruff Hotel
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The Woodruff Hotel

Steven Snodgrass

            Public Square. The name itself is synonymous with Watertown. The vast buildings and history of it can be traced around at the old Woolworth Building, the YMCA, and the many other historic locales, there seems to be something missing. A large grassy knoll on the north side of the Square makes one wonder what had been there. That grassy knoll was once the majestic symbol of grace and elegance for Northern New York; it contained the Hotel Woodruff.

            In 1849, a devastating fire destroyed a major part of the Watertown business section.1 Soon after, a massive reconstruction project was begun to repair burned stores. Also during this time, Norris Woodruff began the building of his hotel. However, it is not known today who the architect or the building company was. All that is known is that A.N. Weston laid the first brick in the hotel2 and that Woodruff’s son-in-law Howell Cooper, Henry Keep, and Pearson Mundy, helped in the construction.3 The construction was done on land in the public square that Woodruff later bought on February 7, 1852, for $10,000.4

            During this time of construction and reconstruction, an interesting story is revealed.  According to the Jefferson County Historical Society Bulletin, “One forenoon . . . Norris Woodruff . . . strode out onto Public Square to spot a little west of where the Soldier and Sailor monument now stands, and began to throw his hat up in the air, catching it while shouting at the top of his lungs, ‘Hey there! Hey there!’ Soon the workmen on the nearby buildings quit their hammering and sawing to watch and to hear what he had to say. When their clatter had subsided, he called out, ‘Woodruff is paying a dollar a day. All cash money.  No scrip.’ Thereafter so many wage earners in the village refused to accept the process of building his hotel, had also established a new norm for economic operations in the city.

            The building itself was 300 feet wide at its front.6 The style was quite plain and common. The exterior had no true fancy details to it. For sturdiness it was made of brick, and in grandeur it was approximately five stories high. Apart from those five stories stood a tower, or cupola, that extended one hundred feet above the square. The hotel’s first floor contained the hotel lobby, about eight stores (which were later increased to about fifteen) and a pathway leading to the Rome, Watertown, and Ogdensburg Railroad depot behind the hotel,7 for which Woodruff gave land under the stipulation that it always be used as a train depot.8  The 150 rooms the hotel contained were elegantly furnished and heated by steam when it was originally built. Electric bells connected the rooms with the main office.9 The Woodruff even saw some firsts for the city. Receiving one of the city’s first telephones in 1885,10 the building had much historical significance for Watertown.

            However, the hotel was not always a source of beauty and good times. In 1897, a gas explosion “wrecked the Woodruff house bar.”11 It was reported that during delivery of some ice cakes, the ice men unknowingly broke a gas line. So, after smelling a strong gaseous odor, the hotel manager called upon M. Harbottle & Co.’s store for a plumber. Mr. Joseph LeMay then reported to the scene to investigate the smell. As he entered the basement with a plumber’s torch, a large explosion shook the hotel, causing much damage. The disaster caused injuries to several workers and shattered a multitude of windows, spewing pieces of glass over the entire block. The estimate of damage costs, however, difficult to assess, totaled at least $1,500.12

            By the early 1900s, the Woodruff Hotel was a prominent part of the Watertown region, making Watertown visible in the nation’s eye.13 Because of its great size and modern facilities, the hotel “compared favorably with the Hotel Astor in New York City.”14 Some said that the dining-salon of the Woodruff was even better than that of the Astor.15

            Oftentimes the Woodruff was used as the general headquarters or meeting and sleeping areas for large groups that came to town.16 One such example was the New York State Firemen’s Convention and parade in August 1910. Then the Woodruff serves as the general headquarters for visiting firemen as well as the headquarters for the parade and circus put on by the group.17

            The hotel had some odd moments as well. According to the Watertown Standard, sometime between 1912 and 1918, a mental patient from the local sanitarium escaped one day, naked, and sprinted from the Ruby Sanitarium all the way to the Woodruff Hotel, where he proceeded to ask for a room.  He was given one so that he could be held until the police arrived. No one, except for some postal workers and some deliverymen, seemed to notice the gentleman on his brisk run, however.18

            The early 1900s also saw some change for the hotel with the removal of the cupola on top of the building.19 That was the only true destruction of the Woodruff then. Many other buildings on Public Square, however, were completely torn down. A caption from a 1976 Watertown Daily Times photo explained how, “The Woodruff House outlived many buildings on the Square, and in 1913 the hotel’s windows . . . looked out upon the demolition . . . “ of the Washington Building, another prominent part of the Watertown region.20 The Woodruff Hotel was seen as the more needed of these buildings on the Square because of the many stores and businesses that its walls accommodated.

            Many people remember the hotel as the center of celebration after victories at war. Quite often it was decorated with a hundred flags.21 Also, Mrs. Julie Stevenson and Mrs. Dorothy Decker both recalled evenings during which they would go dancing inside the hotel.22 Graceful movement to match a graceful building. However, as the years drew on, the hotel became less and less a dominant part of the activities of the region, and sadly, “No longer a practical economic operation in 1973, the hotel closed its doors.”23

            Demolition of the building began on January 19, 1976.  The Northern Demolition, Inc., of West Seneca, was given $198,383 by the city to demolish the building, and they were to complete the work within 90 days.24 They began destruction in the back, and in March, 1976, they began to demolish the face of the hotel.25 Demolition was practically complete in April of 1976,26 but not before a crane fell over backwards, destroying part of the Empsall building, its roof and a small section of the side.27 After the tearing down was finished, most of the Woodruff was scrapped, but some parts were salvaged. Some bricks, for example, were used to build a fireplace in the Partridge Berry Inn on Black River Road.28

            But now the hotel is little more than a memory and a large grass field on public square. The City Council wants to develop the Woodruff site, however. They see the need for a new building or a parking lot.29 Presently, the site is used as a gathering place for concerts and group activities on the square.

            The hotel is dearly missed by the townspeople, and many will remember it from their fond memories of dances or adventures at the bar or shopping at the stores before going to sleep in one of its lush rooms.


1Ernest Gould, “A Little Known Historical Event,” Jefferson County Historical Society Bulletin, viii, 14-15.
2Emerson Laughland, Watertown Historian, Interview, 18 Oct. 1994.
3Samuel Durant and Henry B. Pierce, A History of Jefferson County.  1797-1878 (Philadelphia, 1887), 219.
4Deed for Woodruff land, signed February 7, 1852.
5Gould, 15.
6Laughland, interview.
7Laughland, interview.
8Durant, 144.
9Hamilton Child, Geographical Gazetter of Jefferson County New York, 1664-1890 (Syracuse, 1890), 773.
10Laughland, interview.
11Waterown Daily Times, 21 Aug. 1897 (Archives).
12Watertown Daily Times, 21 Aug. 1897 (Archives).
13Laughland, interview.
14Woodruff House (1851-1976).  Wall painting/Information Sheet, Flower Memorial Library, Watertown, New York.
15Laughland, interview.
16Watertown Daily Times, 14 Feb. 1991 (Archives).
17Watertown Daily Times, 13 March 1976 (Archives).
18Watertown Daily Times, 26 Feb. 1976 (Archives).
19Watertown Daily Times, 11 Feb. 1976 (Archives).
20Watertown Daily Times, 13 March 1976 (Archives).
21Laughland, interview.
22Dorothy Decker, Julie Stevenson, interviews, 18, 14 Oct. 1994
23Woodruff House painting information.
24Watertown Daily Times, 8 Jan. 1976 (Archives).
25Watertown Daily Times, 16 March 1976 (Archives).
26Watertown Daily Times, 10 April 1976 (Archives).
27Watertown Daily Times, 31 Jan. 1976 (Archives).
28Watertown Daily Times, 25 March 1976 (Archives).
29Watertown Daily Times, 21 June 1989 (Archives).