The Llyswen Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2007, The Gombach Group.
Photos: from the collection of the Historic American Buildings Survey (memory.loc.gov), [HABS], 1989, David Ames, photographer; National Park Service, Washington, D.C.
Llyswen was founded in 1894 by the Altoona Suburban Home Company on a 100-acre tract of the former Elias Baker estate, Company president John Lloyd, Sr., purchased the land from the Baker heirs in 1893 as part of a private transaction that included a smaller tract in South Altoona and ninety-five acres one mile farther south on (then) Logan Avenue, identified in the deed as Lakemont Park. Lloyd was also president of the Altoona and Logan Valley Electric Railway, which developed Lakemont Park as a resort in 1893 to attract riders to the Altoona-Hollidaysburg route, inaugurated the following year as the first major extension of the trolley service beyond the city limits. In conjunction with this expansion of commuter services and as part of a broad yet tightly integrated development scheme, Llyswen began as Altoona's first streetcar suburb, flanking the double tracks down Logan Boulevard to Lakemont Park and Hollidaysburg, a haven from the noise and soot of the city rail yards yet only ten minutes and a nickel fare from downtown.
The Altoona Suburban Home Company developed Llyswen in three stages, plotting one section at a time and effectively treating each section as a separate speculative enterprise. Section I, originally laid out in 1895 and revised in 1906, is today bounded by Ward Avenue on the north, Logan Boulevard on the east, Ruskin Drive and Morningside Avenue on the west, and Plank Road on the south. Section II was plotted in 1905 and is bounded by East Plank Road, Frankstown Avenue, Logan Boulevard, and Bellview and Eveningtide Avenues. (This section lies completely outside of the historic district boundaries.) Section Ill, on the east side of Logan Boulevard opposite Section I, stretches from Ward Avenue south to East Plank Road, and from Logan Boulevard east to Union Avenue, excluding Llyswen Court off of Union and the eastern corner of the tract, defined by Mill Run and Emerson Avenue. Its plan was surveyed in 1907 and revised in 1920. Section I and II where they center on Logan are being nominated as the Llyswen Historic District. The portion of Section I extends one block to the west to include Coleridge Avenue and the portion of Section II extends one block to the east to include Aldrich Avenue. Section II, known as the Garden Heights neighborhood, is not included in this nomination because it is physically separate from Llyswen, its rigid grid differs in character from that of the nominated area, and its lot sizes, vernacular architecture, massing, and placement of buildings bears no resemblance to the nominated area. Garden Heights (Section 11) differs from Llyswen (Sections I and II) in that Llyswen's flexible grid of avenues maximize the building potential of a varied topography, from Mill Run's level flood plain up the steep face of the South Altoona hill to Ruskin Drive while Garden Heights is a nearly level tract.
Within the city limits, Llyswen is exceptional for the generous size of its individual lots and unique-in a city of rigid grids-for its relaxed and picturesque street layout. Beyond the straight-aways of Logan Boulevard and Coleridge Avenue, Llyswen's avenues take graceful advantage of the rolling site. They also bear the names of poets and writers, a conspicuous mark of refinement in a railroad town whose streets were more commonly numbered, or named for trees, presidents, or local figures. This area of Llyswen is the closest thing Altoona has to a garden suburb in the Romantic tradition, a form that dominated planning schemes for upper-class residential areas from the third quarter of the nineteenth century until its popularity was superseded by City Beautiful-inspired formality at the turn of the century.
Llyswen is significant as much for its representativeness as for its exceptional features. While Sections II and III developed more homogeneously, thanks to closer company oversight, deed restrictions in Section I were minimal, pertaining more to the siting of a house on its lot than to physical aspects of the house itself. The result was a wider variation in forms and features. Section I was also the least "successful" of the three, in that lots sold more slowly, and many, held by small investors, were not built upon even sixty years after their initial sale. The historic district area therefore encapsulates the range of formal, material, and stylistic options available to independent local homebuilders over a period of nearly forty-five years. It serves the present study as a convenient, compact overview of the evolution of fashion in domestic architecture for the middle and professional social strata in this part of the United States from the 1890s to ca. 1940. The varied fabric of the district area also reflects the course of Altoona's fluctuating economic fortunes so closely tied to the business of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
If Llyswen's future as Altoona's aristocratic suburb was fixed by Lloyd's initial provisions for a particular physical character, it was sealed by a cooperative arrangement between the Altoona Suburban Home Company and the Beezer Brothers architectural design firm to establish models for the suburb's architectural character. The development company first hired Louis and Michael J. Beezer in 1894 to design the Llyswen streetcar station on Logan Boulevard at Whittier Avenue. The rustic but recognizably high-style building, finished in local riverstone, so charmed streetcar goers that it became an instant landmark. It also proved tremendously photogenic in development company ads urging Altoonans to "Secure an Ideal Home in Llyswen." In payment for their design and for unspecified materials they supplied, the brothers accepted prime adjacent lots on Logan Boulevard one block south of the station. The arrangement was a sweetheart deal: the 'Cottages," as the residences they built for themselves on these lots were popularly known (306 and 308 Logan Boulevard), served simultaneously as model homes for Llysweners to emulate and as advertisements of the Beezer Brothers' exceptional design skills. (Wallace, 1990)
The affiliation with the Beezer Brothers was a coup for the development company. The twin brothers, originally carpenters from the Centre County, Pennsylvania town of Bellefonte, had opened an office in Altoona in 1892 after a year of professional training in Pittsburgh. They were immediately successful. Altoona's elite embraced their picturesque style, which introduced an ambitious kind of sophistication to Altoona's neighborhoods by way of grand upright forms, substantial materials, and a profusion of ornamental details. The flamboyance-and naivete-of their first residential commissions, overwrought as they were with towers, bays, balconies, dormers, parapets, and balustrades, quickly matured into an easy but more restrained command of a traditional formal language. The brothers developed a keener sense of pleasing proportions and a feel for a balance of textures through the unity rather than the quantity of ornamentation. Brash experimentation evolved into a highly fashionable and distinctively Beezer design accent. (Wallace, 1990)
The suburban "cottages" that the Beezers built in Llyswen were unlike anything else they had been building in central Altoona. Compared to "town houses" they designed both before and after, the cottages were informal, boxy, and solidly anchored to their sites in a manner appropriate to large suburban lots. Other differences from the brothers' intown designs included a wider variety of window types asymmetrically arranged; the use of shingles on the upper story, introducing curves and softening edges; and a front porch tucked modestly under the roof line, lending a simple economy to the street aspect. Houses the Beezers designed in 1896 for Edward Flick in the more affordable Westmont development in Ward Twelve were smaller, less-expensive echoes of these cottages and built on smaller lots, while the whimsical designs presented in their 1893 catalog as "Lakemont Cottages" were quaint in scale and ornament. On page 106 and 107 of their 1897 catalog is the clearest evidence that the Beezer Brothers, at least, believed Llyswen had-or should have-a unique architectural signature. Their proposed cottage for Llyswen melded the most distinctive features of the cottages and the Whittier Avenue station into a "modern" residence at once picturesque and unpretentious, reflecting high style at an affordable scale.
When the brothers' personal cottages at 306 and 308 Logan Boulevard were completed in 1895, there were only two or three other houses in Llyswen.
Although the Beezers' residences were much admired, nothing quite like them followed. The brothers left Altoona for Pittsburgh in 1899, so heavily in debt that they forfeited their homes to creditors. Still, certain elements of the vocabulary they established persisted, largely due to the efforts and attentions of Patrick W. Finn, the contractor who built the cottages and went on to build several of the larger houses that characterized the suburb's first generation. The basic vocabulary expressed in this generation was shingle- over-brick, a set-in front porch, a variety of decorative windows and the same cottage- writ-large play with scale. Complex roof treatments remained popular, often made more complex with conical towers, and several later cottages repeated the distinctive angle of the steeply pitched side gable. Because Llysweners built their homes independently, many chose to adopt some elements but not others, while others in the first generation chose to ignore the Beezer precedent altogether. Certainly no built response to the cottages was ever as artfully conceived or as richly executed as the originals.
The diversity of architectural expression in Llyswen is clear evidence that it was not a planned suburb in any real sense. Although the Altoona Suburban Home Company encouraged the Beezer Brothers to set the fashion for its development, the company only sold lots; it did not build houses on speculation. Although the Company maintained a laissez-faire policy toward the built form of its investment, its strategy for the siting of a house on its lot had a determining effect upon the size, style, and type of houses built in Llyswen through the years. It is because the suburb's development was purposely left to the vagaries of the marketplace that it is possible to pick the threads of a chronology out of the architectural fabric.
By March 1906 the company had sold more than $106,000 worth of lots in Section I, priced from $400 to $900, yet only a handful of houses were built by 1906 due to a delay in the laying of water pipes and sewer lines. Llyswen's first generation buildings were built between 1895 and 1906 while these infrastructure problems were still being worked out and' consisted for the most part of three broad architectural types. The first of these was a form locally known as the "Llyswen cottage," yet completely unrelated to the Beezers' Logan Avenue residences. At least eight of these two-and-a- half-story, three-bay, cross-gabled houses built between 1905 and 1907 are scattered throughout Section I. The majority of them are remarkably similar in appearance and materials, even to identical interior millwork, and the compact efficiency of their three- rooms-to-a-floor plan has enabled most to survive with only superficial alterations. The modest rather ordinary design may have come from a pattern book or the office of a local contractor.
There are only four or five examples of the first generation's second type. These are all houses that directly evoke published Beezer designs for cottages and may have been built from plans they drew, although no evidence for this assumption exists beyond a familiar expression of proportions and the combination of certain signature elements; shingles on the upper story, with either brick or clapboard below; a variety of decorative window types; an exaggerated expanse of roof with porches tucked underneath; and the side-gabled roofs distinctive pitch. It is also possible that these cottages were designed and built by contractors familiar with the Beezers' work, since all were constructed between 1904 and 1907, within eight years of the architects' move to Pittsburgh. One of the best examples is at 206 Logan Boulevard.
What houses of the third "type" have in common is not so much stylistic similarity as an ambitious sense of scale. By 1909, according to the Sanborn Insurance map of that year, most of the lots on the west side of Logan Boulevard and on Coleridge Avenue were built upon. These were Llyswen's most formal streets, and the majority of houses completed between 1902 and 1909 were larger and more elaborate than the two cottage types already discussed. Usually of two or two-and-one-half stories and as wide as they were tall, almost all of these houses presented a full-width columned porch and decoratively finished gabled dormers to the street. Hipped-roof houses had hipped dormers on the street facade. Corner houses were generally as deep as they were wide, with the added street interest of a corner tower (314 Logan Boulevard and 312 Coleridge Avenue, a wraparound porch (300 Coleridge Avenue, 200 Logan Boulevard), or both (201 Coleridge Avenue.
Several first generation houses such as those at 201 and 312 Coleridge Avenue borrowed elements from the Beezer cottage vocabulary, but a more significant number exhibited the fashionable symmetry of the Colonial Revival style (100, 209, and 300 Coleridge Avenue; 108 Holmes Avenue. The stylistic character of these houses, however, is mixed, rendering a hodge-podge of late Victorian, Queen Anne and Colonial Revival designs and featuring elaborate big, upright boxy forms. Although well-built and often beautifully detailed, none of the builders followed through on the high-style precedent set by the Beezers or by the builder of "The Oaks" at 112 Logan Boulevard. (Wallace, 1990)
The majority of Llyswen homeowners of this generation were of a comfortably situated skilled and professional middle class: doctors, dentists, and bankers; foremen, inspectors, machinists, and pattern makers for the PRR; carpenters, electricians, general contractors, retail store owners and managers. In building for their families in this new setting, they often overlaid modern adaptive forms with at least the semblance of a traditional order. The three-bay near-symmetry of the revival era houses at 209 Coleridge and 108 Holmes, for example, both acknowledges and disguises the fact that the front entry is not centered, as it would be if it corresponded with a traditional central hall. Instead, the front door opens directly into one large front room that spans the full width of the house. This room is simultaneously (and informally) entry, stair hall, and living room, and is tacitly zoned by the door replacement, which allows more living room than receiving area, but is still central enough to keep up Colonial Revival-style, for example, appearances.
The most impressive house of this generation, by virtue of size as much as a grand stylistic project, is Sylvester England's sixteen-room residence at 300 Coleridge Avenue. England owned a downtown hardware and building supply business that specialized in roofing materials, furnaces, paints and stoves. Externally, his house is the most telling example of the creative, individualized formal and stylistic combinations most of the Llyswen houses of this period represent. Its conventional central-hall plan, however, along with the modest size of its many rooms and the obvious economy of interior finishes and fixtures suggests that, for the Englands at least, status in the neighborhood was more a function of external appearances than interior domestic refinement. In this regard the England house is the exception rather than the rule.
The majority of first-generation homebuilders chose high-quality finishes for their interior spaces. Intricately carved colonnades separating more formal downstairs rooms, elaborate mantelpieces of marble or exotic woods, ceilings with sculpted plaster swags and medallions, and an impressive array of leaded, beveled, and stained-glass windows survive in a number of first generation houses.
No hard and fast date marks the point at which houses were no longer built to first- generation scale in Llyswen. The brick-and-shingle Colonial at 302 Logan Boulevard, built around 1913, clearly belongs to the early period, while the modest bungalow completed at 109 Browning Avenue in 1909 has more in common with the suburb's second generation of housing. The shift toward more modestly middle- class homes that began around 1909 coincided with a growing discontent among the Altoona Suburban Home Company's shareholders over the way the company was being run. In 1907 the board of directors was expanded and a new president was elected soon after. Whether or not there was a connection between the fading of John Lloyd, Sr.'s influence over the development company and a number of accumulating problems, the fancy of the local "aristocracy" turned elsewhere. Obviously, the automobile was becoming available by this time and the trolley lines were not as useful as a determining factor for the suburbs. Seemingly overnight the suburb-especially Section I-had fallen out of fashion, and the era of grand, showplace residences was over
The houses built during the period 1909-1919, the second architectural generation in Llyswen, signal a broadening public perception of the kind of neighborhood Llyswen was as much as they reflect the more modest means of its new residents. The new houses were smaller, plainer, and more conservative in many ways, and more stylistically dependent upon the familiarity of basic architectural signs such as a distinctive roof form and/or a wide, shady, symmetrically "Colonial" front porch. An unusual number combined side-or-cross-gambrel roofs with full-width columned or brick-pillared porches in several Dutch Colonial variations. These were usually one-and-one-half-story houses, often with brick veneer on at least the first story. The best examples are at 104 Coleridge Avenue and 109 Browning Avenue. A two-and-a-half-story version of the same theme at 303 Coleridge is finished in brick and shingles and clapboard and shingles, respectively. The fad for gambrel roofs in Llyswen peaked and faded before 1920.
Of all the homes built during Llyswen's second generation of housing, the two-story brick Foursquares at 101 and 103 Coleridge Avenue are the clearest indicators of the extent of change in the neighborhood. Llyswen's planners provided large lots for their suburban vision, in keeping with the high status ideal of a home surrounded by private property, commanding its own grounds. In 1915 Percy Rich, the coal company operator who lived at 100 Coleridge Avenue, bought the 75 foot lot across the street from his home, subdivided it, and built identical speculation houses on the half-lots. What this Llyswen resident did was exert a kind of conservative control over his own environment in a manner that seemed to him, both reasonable and appropriate. The development company was in a weakened financial condition; meanwhile, outside speculators were beginning to buy, subdivide, and sell Llyswen lots, often building new houses that were not up to first-generation standards. By offering for sale two respectable brick houses of respectable proportions, Percy Rich may have sought to redefine and preserve the architectural standard for Coleridge Avenue rather than leave it to the abuses of newcomers or outsiders. As the seller, he had the additional power to choose who his neighbors would be. Several similar houses were built in other parts of Llyswen between 1915 and 1930. These homes were built not only in Section I but also in Section 11, and Ill as well. The first houses in these sections, in fact, appear in the second phase, after 1909, of Llyswen's housing development.
The third generation of housing in Llyswen spanned the years between the end of World War I and the stock market crash of 1929. In the general post-war housing boom, the fortunes of the Altoona Suburban Home Company temporarily rallied. City officials agreed in 1919 to run sewer lines along the streets and alleys of Section II if the company's directors would take care of the necessary deed adjustments. The following year, the development company sold twenty-seven lots in Section III and nine more in Sections I and II. Seventeen lots sold in 1921, forty-nine in 1922, and fifty-two in 1923.
The home of choice in Llyswen in the 1920s was the one-and-a-half-story side-gable bungalow, with cottage windows and a full porch supported by battered brick columns. There are eight such residences on Coleridge Avenue and several along Logan Boulevard, Aldrich Avenue and in parts of Section II. The house at 204 Coleridge Avenue is typical of this period. It was built by developer John Seeds, who bought and sold several lots along Coleridge Avenue in the 1920s, subdivided two of them, and built these modest, no-frills, cookie-cutter houses on narrow lots that left no room for a driveway or garage. Seeds turned a quick profit on bungalows so well-built, spacious, and modern in their layout that they survive today virtually unchanged.
The only high-style residence from the third generation was the large brick Prairie-style home architect Julian Millard designed for Jacob and Ida Brett at 208 Logan Boulevard. The west side of Logan Boulevard between Ward Avenue and Mill Run was still the most prestigious address in Llyswen, but by 1925 all the lots were built upon. The Bretts had an existing house demolished in order to have this impressive residence built by Altoona's most progressive architect. The oversized front porch conveys the exaggeration of scale Millard used as a theme in his design. Inside, the more public rooms are also grand in scale, and many rooms throughout the house had custom paneling and built-in features. All of the second-floor rooms open off a gallery surrounding a central open stairwell. The Brett house was one of the last additions to Logan Boulevard.
On February 24, 1926, the directors and stockholders of the Altoona Suburban Home Company voted to dissolve the company and distribute the remaining assets. Fewer than ten lots remained unsold in all of Llyswen. Out of 2,832 shares, 1,291 were held by -the estate of John Lloyd, Sr., who had died in 1921, and 1,420 by the Baker estate. All cash and most of the accounts receivable were directed to the Lloyd interests, while all remaining real estate and a small portion of accounts receivable went to the Bakers.
Regionally, the Llyswen Historic District can be most closely compared to the Westmont Historic District on the heights above Johnstown as a strictly residential suburb serving a nearby city. Llyswen's setting has changed dramatically in the last two decades, even if its fabric has not. The neighborhood is now surrounded by Altoona's busiest thoroughfares. The city's conversion of Coleridge Avenue into a through street in the 1960s led to a significant change in the character of that street in the years that followed, as more and more shoppers used Coleridge as a shortcut to the retail strips and malls south of the city. Commercial development along Logan Boulevard also presses upon Llyswen's limits and in the last several years residents have organized to oppose the encroachment of commercial interests and parking lots upon residential property
The neighborhood's demographics have also changed in recent years, in large part because of the age and condition of its housing stock. Llyswen's first-generation houses were some of the finest in the city, built to last by the best craftsmen available and supplied with the most "modern" features. But tastes along with popular standards of comfort and efficiency changed. By the 1970s and early 1980s the majority of these houses were so devalued that young couples and families could better afford a turn-of- the-century Victorian than a modern new home. A considerable number of old Llyswen houses are also being preserved and restored by middle-aged and retired residents who grew up in or around the neighborhood-or one just like it. Newcomers attracted by Llyswen's reputation and antique look and feel chose to invest in preserving its neighborhood identity, a very real quality of the place that obviously has little to do with architectural unity. The suburb's identity depends instead upon front porches, quiet streets, open yards under a canopy of trees, and a mix of houses and people within a middle socio-economic range-features designed into it from the beginning.