Since the early 1880’s, rumors had circulated throughout Westchester County that New York City needed more water. Nothing, however, prepared the citizens of Katonah for the 1893 New York Times headline: “Destruction to Katonah.” What followed is a unique and inspiring story of a community that refused to be drowned out of existence.
“Old Katonah”, an offshoot of Whitlockville and daughter of a nearby area known as Cherry Street, was a small but thriving mill town huddled on the banks of Cross River in New York’s Westchester County, northeast of the junction of today’s highways 684, 35, and the Saw Mill River Parkway, approximately a half mile north of where the Katonah Village library stands today. That fortuitous location on the river gave the young village its livelihood. New York City’s coveting that water spelled Old Katonah’s doom, as the City had secured broad rights to dam rivers and thereby to establish reservoirs throughout Westchester and nearby counties.
At a meeting of the Katonah Village Improvement Society, the people of Old Katonah pondered New York City’s decision to condemn and submerge their village. Reflecting the strong sense of community, they decided to move the hamlet – literally, buildings and all. The Katonah Land Company purchased a farm south of the old village and hired landscape architects G.S. and B.S. Olmstead to design new Katonah with broad islands and tree-lined streets arranged in a Celtic cross design. This design, centered at the intersection of Bedford Road and Parkway Avenue, remains clearly visible today.
To avoid some of the problems of old Katonah, where residential and commercial uses mixed, the Katonah Land Company imposed deed restrictions placing commercial uses nearer the railroad tracks and limiting the area surrounding the Greens to residential and institutional uses such as libraries and schools. This was a true innovation in 1896, as community planning was rare. (Zoning laws did not appear in New York State until the late 1920’s, resulting in the often haphazard design of many New England towns.) More remarkably, residents moved roughly fifty-five of Old Katonah’s original homes, stores, barns, and even a church, to sites in new Katonah. Some buildings were dismantled and rebuilt, but most were moved whole. Families even lived in the houses as they were pulled along soaped rails by horses. The result is a beautiful hamlet of well preserved 19th century “painted lady” Victorian homes listed on the National Register of Historic Districts, charming independent family-owned shops, and a strong sense of community and a warm, welcoming heart.
For more information about Katonah’s history, please pick up a copy of Francis Duncombe’s Katonah: A History of a New York Village and its People available at Charles Department Store or Kelloggs & Lawrence in the center of town. To explore the hamlet firsthand, spend an afternoon enjoying a walking tour of significant homes and buildings in Katonah’s historic residential and commercial districts.
photos courtesy of the Katonah Village Library