The Williamsburg Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
The Williamsburg Historic District is located in the Borough of Williamsburg, a former canal port and papermill town of 1,460 residents situated along the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River in east-central Blair County. Blair County is part of central Pennsylvania's Ridge and Valley region, a part of the Appalachian Mountains system within the eastern United States. The northern quarter of the town stands within the Juniata River floodplain on the outer edge of an oxbow curve while the southern three-quarters stand upon slightly higher ground. Williamsburg has developed following a gridiron plan rotated roughly 45 degrees from the north-south axis centered upon a "diamond" or central square formed by the intersection of two principal Streets, High and First (Front). The district contains 436 properties, 95 percent of which are contributing, and encompasses about 75 percent of the town's 207 acres. Of the remaining 25 percent of the Williamsburg Borough, about two-thirds is vacant land, resulting in a district that incorporates about 90 percent of Williamsburg's developed area. The Williamsburg Historic District consists of a commercial area located principally along High Street (PA Route 866); several residential neighborhoods to the east and west of High Street; eight churches concentrated primarily around Second, Third and Black Streets near the commercial area; the Big Spring, a natural limestone spring at Union and High Streets; a public schools area between Third Street and Sage Hill Drive; and the linear site of a former canal and railroad right-of-way. The historic resources of the Williamsburg Historic District span a period of about 194 years (c.1800 to 1944) and represent three periods of local history: (1) the canal era (1832-1875) when the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal accelerated village growth and commerce; (2) the railroad era (1873-1905) when a Pennsylvania Railroad branch line extended the town's industrial and commercial markets; and (3) the paper mill era (1905-1944) when paper manufacturing prompted Williamsburg's greatest period of development. The district's oldest surviving buildings are found within the commercial village area — confined largely to High Street, and to First and Second Streets between Spring and Plum Streets. This area contains a cross section of residential, commercial and mixed-use structures dating from the 1800s to 1900s. The village also contains the town's social institutions such as churches, schools and social clubs. The newer all residential neighborhoods, which date from 1905 onward following the opening of the paper mill, are found beyond the village center — east of Liberty Street and west of Black Street. The district's range of historic architectural styles is typical of central Pennsylvania towns Blair County, PA dating from the early 19th to 20th centuries; these styles or types include gable fronts, gable front & wings, Foursquares, I-houses, various Georgian types, Bungalows, Gothic Revivals, Queen Annes, and various vernacular types. The district's architectural character is largely intact overall; its integrity is affected more by the common use of synthetic siding and inappropriate alterations than by noncontributing infill.
Williamsburg was planned on an orthogonal grid with a central "diamond" or town square, a very characteristic plan for central Pennsylvania that probably owes its origins to the 1682 town plan for Philadelphia (the diamond area was omitted from the district due to a lack of architectural integrity on all four of its corners). Like many central Pennsylvanian towns with grid plans, Williamsburg contains large blocks subdivided generally by fifth-acre lots, each block being divided by a common service alley that provided access to carriage houses and small barns. This dense urban pattern remained the norm through the 19th century as the town very gradually expanded beyond its original 120 lots.
The Williamsburg Historic District is primarily residential in character, a characteristic common to most small towns in this region. About 83 percent of the properties are single-family dwellings. The principal building type is a two-story, single-family frame house built during the paper mill era (1905-1944). A very limited number of duplex or double houses were built (one percent of the district inventory) judging by the extant building stock. Mixed-use structures, which combine residential and commercial functions, also constitute about one percent. Exclusively commercial, professional or retail uses make up about 4.5 percent. One of the largest commercial buildings is the Schwab Hotel (c.1910), a three-story yellow brick structure, built by the industrialist Charles Schwab on the east side of High Street. The former hotel now contains apartments. A good mixed-use example is the Hollidaysburg Trust Company dating from 1873 at the southeast corner of High and Second Streets. The upper floors contained meeting rooms and apartments with the bank on the ground floor.
Those buildings in the Williamsburg Historic District constructed during the early to mid-19th century are generally situated at the front property line of their lots. This location allowed for deep backyards where domestic uses, like drying yards, vegetable gardens and fruit trees, were located, along with service structures like summer kitchens, smoke houses and carriage barns. This typical site arrangement, traditional during the 18th to early 19th century for mid-Atlantic communities, illustrates how people maximized parcel space for intensively-used backyards. Many houses in Williamsburg from this period also had two-story, rear kitchen wings with second-story sleeping and drying porches. Within the village commercial area, which is centered around High and Second Streets, side yard setbacks are very limited if nonexistent. This traditional urban pattern holds true whether the building was a tradesman's dwelling or the home of a prominent citizen. By contrast, most single-family homes constructed from 1900 onward were set back at least 10 feet from the street. In these exclusively residential neighborhoods, overall lot sizes expanded as well allowing for larger side yards, a pattern in keeping with national trends toward a suburban residential ideal.
The district contains a range of residential designs typical of central Pennsylvania towns that developed from the early 19th through the 20th century. Listed in their order of frequency, these include the gable front (83 percent) and its variant, the gable front & wing (3 percent), Foursquares (13.5 percent), various vernacular types that defied easy categorization (12.5 percent), I-house types (11 percent), a range of Georgian types (7.3 percent) from two to five bays wide, Bungalows (7 percent), Gothic Revivals (6.8 percent), and Queen Annes (4 percent).
All of the examples within the Williamsburg Historic District are vernacular types created by local builders who employed the traditional construction methods of their time. The oldest surviving houses, for example, as built for the average person, are either I-houses or double-pile Georgian types of hewn log construction with V-notch corners. The early to mid-19th century houses built for the more affluent are hand-made brick, while the late 19th to early 20th century are wood-frame or factory-made brick.
The district experienced its greatest period of growth between 1905 and 1920 when nearly 40 percent of the extant buildings were constructed. This period coincides with Williamsburg's boom days as a paper mill town. The most common house type built during this period was the wood-frame gable front. Most houses of this type were modestly ornamented with either Queen Anne, Craftsman or Colonial Revival detailing. A secondary period of growth occurred between 1830 and 1870 during the town's canal era. During this period, nearly 15 percent of the district's extant buildings were constructed. Common building types from this period include the I-house (23 percent), the various Georgian types (23 percent), the Gothic Revival (21 percent), and the gable front (21 percent).
Most of Williamsburg's buildings built after the railroad's arrival at mid-century was a conservative version of Victorian and early 20th century styles. As a general rule, few if any of Williamsburg's buildings have been architect-designed. Most were built by local carpenters combining conventional building methods with vernacular styles of their day. This principal applied regardless of whether the project involved pre-industrial log construction or turn-of-the-20th-century suburban style housing. From c.1800 through the late 1870s, this tradition produced a variety of ubiquitous I-houses and double-pile Georgian types, Gothic Revivals, and gable front and gable front & wing types. All of these building forms were decorated with applied trim or other ornamental elements meant to indicate Victorian style. But beneath the applied fashion remains traditional house forms. One good example is the Schmucker House at 417 W. Second Street built in 1865. This large two-story, brick residence has a centered front gable with pointed arch window and wide roof eaves supported by wooden brackets, all of which mark it stylistically as a late example of Gothic Revival. But beneath the decorative elements is a five-bay, center-hall double-pile, Georgian house plan. Its elaborate cast-iron porch supports, balusters and roof cresting may be surviving products of the local iron industry which remained active until the mid 1880s. Next door (to the right), the Fluke House also contains a very decorative cast-iron front porch. Another more restrained example of applied stylistic decoration is the Peter Van Devander House at the southwest corner of Union and Piney Creek Road. Built about 1870 for a prominent ironmaster, its Gothic Revival style is indicated by the centered front gable, the simple window hood moldings and the overhanging roof eaves with supporting brackets. Otherwise, like the Schmucker House, it is a symmetrical five-bay, center-hall, double-pile Georgian type in plan.
About 75 percent of the buildings are two or two-and-one-half story, while about 65 percent are wood-frame, underscoring the fact that the two-story, wood-frame, single-family dwelling is the single most common building type in the district. Most of the Williamsburg Historic District's contributing houses were also built with full length or wrap-around front porches, many of which remain intact. Typically, these porches were wood construction with classical detailed posts and roof cornices; others retain decorative cast-iron supports and balusters, most probably created during the town's iron-making period (1810-1888).
While most of the district is wood-frame construction, log construction still accounts for 6 percent of the extant buildings. After wood, the second most common building material is brick, especially for structures built during the paper mill era (1905-1944) when 40 percent of all brick structures in the district were erected. Brick, which was somewhat more expensive than wood, was generally reserved for the merchant class during the canal era and for the managerial class during the paper mill era. The surviving examples of brick construction, accounting for nearly 19 percent of the overall building stock in the Williamsburg Historic District, typically possess Flemish-bond front walls and common bond side walls. People of lesser means seemed to have continued building log houses well into the mid-19th century. Judging by the number and age of the district's extant log houses, Williamsburg builders did not abandon the use of log for walls and floor joists until cut lumber and nails were sufficiently affordable. The district's remaining buildings are either concrete block (three percent), stone (one percent) or cinderblock (one percent).
Between 1900 and 1920, concrete block molded to look like rock-face ashlar became nationally popular as an economical alternative to stone, wood and brick. While the Williamsburg Historic District contains several examples of concrete block buildings (129 E. 1st Street, a c.1925 residential example, and 214 High Street, a c.1915 commercial example), local acceptance extended mostly to foundations where 7 percent of the district's foundations employ the material; most of these examples were built between 1920 and 1940. Before that period, stone predominated as the foundation material of choice. From the 1940s onward, cinderblock and poured reinforced concrete became the preferred material. Most of the original roof materials in the district were wood shingles, metal sheeting (raised seam or pressed pattern) or slate shingles. While a fair number of metal roofs survive, many others have been replaced for economy or convenience with modern composite shingles. Overall though, the district's basic historical construction methods and building materials appear to be consistent with those of western and central Pennsylvania.
The Williamsburg Historic District contains eight church buildings (seven Protestant and one Catholic) built between 1841 and 1924. The oldest surviving is the Presbyterian church (1841) at 509-15 W. Second Street. This large brick structure with three Palladian windows in the north wall is Federal in style, yet was remodeled by subsequent generations, including once in the early 1860s with the addition of a bell tower and spire. Most of Williamsburg's congregations replaced their early 19th century church buildings after the turn of the century when new-found prosperity from the paper mill swelled membership and parish treasuries. One example from this period is the Zion Lutheran Church at 217 Plum Street. The church and attached parsonage were built in 1907 after the congregation moved from an 1836 building (demolished) that had stood in the middle of their cemetery at 320 Plum Street. Like the Lutheran's 1907 church, most of the second generation structures built during the paper-mill era were neo-Gothic types such as the Church of the Brethren (1911) at 521 W. Third Street. One noncontributing example of this latter trend is the United Methodist Church, a brick building constructed in 1952 at 431 W. Second Street, replacing a brick Greek Revival predecessor from the early 19th century.
Four of the district's congregations — Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran and Catholic — also have contributing historic cemeteries. Many of the town's founding families are buried either in the Presbyterian cemetery (c.1824) on Clover Creek Road, or the Methodist cemetery (c.1831) at Union and Plum Streets, or the Lutheran cemetery (c.1836) across the street in 300 block of Plum Street. A fifth, the old combined Lutheran and German Reformed burying ground at 200 E. Second Street, is the oldest in Williamsburg (c.1804), but has largely been abandoned. Many of the graves have been removed, beginning in 1835, when a small stone church originally serving both Lutheran and Reformed congregations was abandoned.
Two other contributing sites in the Williamsburg Historic District are the Big Spring at Union and High Streets, and the Main Line Canal and Pennsylvania Railroad right-of-way, located at the north edge of the district between High and Canal Streets. The Spring, which maintains its prodigious output of water, is rated contributing as the natural feature that inspired the town's original settlement. The canal and railroad right-of-way, while cleared and abandoned, is a contributing site as a former transportation corridor that significantly influenced the character and development of the town. Between 1832 and 1875, when the canal ran through Williamsburg, the town functioned as an inland canal port. Between 1873 and the 1970s, a branch line of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) also connected Williamsburg's commerce and industry to regional markets. This Williamsburg Line of the PRR, which extended as a spur from Hollidaysburg to the west, was completed in 1873 and initially terminated at an iron foundry (demolished) at First and Spring Streets. The PRR, which bought the canal system from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, filled in much of the canal prism in the 1870s to create new rail beds. In other places, where canal boats had operated in the Juniata River's slack water, the railroad company built new right-of-way.
In the historic district between High and Canal Streets, these two modes of transportation followed the same route over successive periods of time. This former right-of-way is now devoid of any above-ground artifacts, but remains a legible and interpretable linear site through the Williamsburg Historic District. The extent and quantity of any possible below-ground resources within the site is unknown. The district contains no other known below-ground sites.
Downstream or east of Williamsburg, going toward Alexandria and Huntingdon, the canal continued to operate until being abandoned about 1875. As a result, Williamsburg was served briefly by railroad and canal. In the 1880s, the PRR extended the Williamsburg branch on to Alexandria, connecting with its Main Line a short distance away in the village of Petersburg. The Williamsburg branch was eventually abandoned in the late 1970s after the demise of the paper mill.
The Williamsburg Historic District contains two locally significant school buildings: the Williamsburg High School, whose original section and entrance at 517-19 W. Third Street was built in 1918, and the Community Elementary School built in 1941. The three-story, brick high school, which fronts on West Third at Black Street, was designed in a Classical Revival mode and expanded four times, including twice in the 1930s (1933 & 1936) with Works Progress Administration funding. The one-story brick elementary school was built to the south on Sage Hill Drive in a generally Colonial Revival mode.
The architectural integrity of the district remains largely intact and readable overall. The district's integrity is affected more by the appearance of synthetic siding and scattered examples of inappropriate alterations to historic buildings than by noncontributing infill. The district's three pockets of noncontributing infill are located in the village area at 229-31 and 321-25 High Street, and at Second Street between Liberty and Spring Streets; these areas consist of a supermarket at the northeast corner of Second and Spring Streets, and townhouse apartments built in 1980 and 1985 for elderly residents at Second and Liberty. The scattered examples of noncontributing properties dating from beyond the period of significance are typically post World War II houses built as infill; a typical example is the brick house at 623 W. Third Street; other obvious examples include a scattering of mobile homes, accounting for 11 noncontributing resources in the district's inventory.
Overall, 15 percent of the district is rated noncontributing. Eight-six percent of this figure consists of buildings constructed after 1944; the remainder are buildings from the period of significance that have lost their architectural integrity through substantial alteration. These alterations generally consist of major character-altering changes in fenestration, roof line, or facade. Examples of these are randomly located and vary according to the remodeling schemes of individual property owners. In general, a slightly higher percentage of inappropriate alterations may be found in lower-income areas where issues of economy appear to have taken priority over stylistic integrity, especially where rental properties are concerned.
The pattern of alterations to historic commercial buildings in the Williamsburg Historic District is more easily traced. Periodic facade changes in commercial buildings reflect a long-term trend among American merchants, whether in small towns or large cities, to periodically update their storefronts for a more contemporary image. A prominent example of this is the Hollidaysburg Trust Company building built in 1873 at the southeast corner of Second and High Streets. The present appearance of this Second Empire facade is actually the result of three renovations: the first occurred in 1903, as the new paper mill was being built, when the original 2/2 first-floor windows were replaced with the large elliptical-headed windows and a storefront was inserted in the High Street facade (now removed). The second alteration occurred in the early 1960s when the original bank interior was removed and the current steel-frame double-wing doorway was inserted. A third renovation (date unknown) converted the High Street storefront back into a wall with a window.
A relatively small percentage of the district has experienced substantial change through noncontributing additions or alterations. Many additions, for example, have been restricted to the rear of buildings where they are less visible from the public right-of-way. Most alterations are relatively superficial and reversible if desired. Many wood-frame buildings, for example, have been covered with synthetic siding, primarily vinyl or aluminum, a common approach to home maintenance in this region. Despite this, most of these buildings still retain their significant architectural features such as original doors, porches, windows, chimneys, foundations, dormers and rooflines. The wide-strake siding and plastic awnings pictured along East Second Street near Locust typify the level of architectural alteration often found in the district. In other instances, additions or remodelings, especially of porches, occurred within the period of significance and have become part of the property's significance. A good example is the front porch added to the John Neff House sometime earlier in this century.
While survival of the basic architectural features has left most of the historic building stock visually readable, applied decorative elements, which helped distinguish one 19th century style from another, have often been lost. These details, which helped define, say, a Gothic Revival from a Queen Anne when applied to a gable-front & wing form, have been removed in many cases. The result is a collection of buildings, which still collectively conveys a sense of the district's historic fabric, yet is now classifiable primarily by building type rather than by style.
Overall, the significance of the Williamsburg Historic District lies in its ability to accurately convey a physical sense of the town's commercial and architectural development through these periods of local history.
See also: Williamsburg Borough: Beginnings
By 1800, the spring was turning water wheels for grist and saw mills at the southwest corner of Spring and Second Streets, a site now occupied by the borough building. By 1857, the spring was powering the bellows of an iron furnace at the northeast corner of First and Spring Streets (demolished and cleared). Between 1905 and 1974, the spring also provided a vital source of pure water for paper production.
Before the opening of the Pennsylvania Canal, Williamsburg's early growth was modest. By 1810, 15 years after the town's founding, Williamsburg contained only 34 developed lots, out of the 120 originally laid out for founder, Jacob Ake. Like many of the oldest towns in the region, early commerce centered around a grist and saw mill and a leather tannery. Between 1815 and 1832, commercial trade was limited to pack-horse traders and wagons from the Cambria Huntingdon & Indiana Turnpike, the area's main road located five miles out of town (now PA Rt. 22). Commercial trade from the river was seasonal, dependent upon spring floods that allowed rafts to move downstream to the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay. The area's principal occupations were farming and various labor-intensive jobs related to charcoal-based iron smelting. Between 1809 and 1885, for example, four charcoal-fired iron furnaces and three forges operated within a five-mile radius of town. During this pre-canal period, the village functioned primarily as a market town and manufacturing (iron) and processing center (wool, saw and grist mills). Farmers in Morrison's Cove, a broad fertile valley just to the south in Woodbury Township, used Williamsburg for various services. By the 1820s, for example, the village contained blacksmiths, barrel makers, distillers, weavers, leather tanners, cobblers, shopkeepers, stable operators, and tavern keepers. Williamsburg physical development confined itself primarily to Ake's original subdivision, which consisted of High and First Streets, the principal cross streets that intersect at the diamond, and Plum and Spring Streets that run parallel to High. By 1827, the village had apparently grown sufficiently for the town leaders to seek incorporation from the state as a borough. While no known early industrial structures survive from this period, several houses from the period remain along First Street.
In 1832, the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal opened. This early state public-works project, built to compete against New York's Erie Canal, followed the Juniata Valley upstream from the Susquehanna River to Hollidaysburg just west of Williamsburg. Canal boats were transferred at Hollidaysburg to the Portage Railroad for passage over the Allegheny Mountains. In Johnstown, they were transferred back to the canal and towed by mules or horses to Pittsburgh. The state canal was never financially successful, but until railroads replaced canals as the commercial transport system of choice in the 1850s, the system provided Pennsylvania with a major transportation artery between the eastern port of Philadelphia and the western frontier gateway of Pittsburgh via the Ohio River.
Trade with the canal, which ran through town along the northern edge of First Street, accelerated Williamsburg's growth as a market town and inland port for iron-making, farming and associated commerce. However, the canal's dominance as the region's prime commercial carrier lasted only 20 years until 1852 when the Pennsylvania Railroad Company (PRR) opened its Main Line between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The PRR, which provided faster and more reliable service, bypassed Williamsburg, leaving the town out of the region's new transportation system. While the canal did not close immediately, passenger service and premium cargos soon abandoned the waterway for the railroad. Canal towns like Williamsburg and Alexandria, the next substantial town downstream, suffered commercially and their growth slowed. Fortunately for Williamsburg, the canal remained open until 1875, carrying heavy bulk cargos like pig iron, forged bar iron and quarried limestone, all produced locally. Within this period, between the bypass of Williamsburg by the PRR and the opening of a branch rail line in 1873, the town's primary industry was the Williamsburg Paper Manufacturing Company, operator of the Juniata Iron Furnace at the foot of Spring Street next to the river (outside the historic district). Only a very disturbed below-ground site remains here. The furnace, which burned anthracite coal shipped by canal boat from the Wilkes-Barre region in northeast Pennsylvania, was built in 1857 by John K. Neff to supply pig iron to the PRR's foundry in Altoona.
The PRR's Williamsburg branch line opened in 1873, and two years later the canal was abandoned altogether by the railroad company. By this time, local limestone quarries and iron ore mines, which supplied the iron industry in Johnstown and Pittsburgh, were helping carry the local economy. Iron furnace and quarry workers were drawn to Williamsburg for shopping and entertainment. Farmers received and shipped goods at the rail depot, and transacted business with various store keepers and tradesmen. Together, these activities kept the town afloat economically during much of the late 19th century.
The paper-mill era began with the opening of the Williamsburg Paper Manufacturing Company in 1905. By 1900, the town's economy had grown depressed — the local iron-making industry had already collapsed in the late 1880s due to cut-throat competition from larger, more modern competitors in Pittsburgh and Johnstown. Several local limestone quarries had also lost substantial business as the regional steel industry had sought new raw material suppliers in the mid west, and small-scale local iron production had declined sharply. In 1902, a group of local leaders approached Charles M. Schwab (1862-1939), the former president of United States Steel Company and Bethlehem Steel Company, and persuaded him to build a paper mill in Williamsburg. Schwab, who had been born just outside of town, then lived in Loretto (Cambria County), but because of family ties continued to regard Williamsburg as his hometown. Attracted by the Big Spring's supply of clean water necessary for paper production, Schwab agreed to the proposal and underwrote the construction of a large new paper mill built between 1903 and 1905.
The mill, officially known as the Williamsburg Manufacturing Company, became Blair County's third such operation. The county's first paper mill was established in 1865 in the town of Roaring Spring, the second in 1878 in Tyrone north of Altoona. Unlike the Roaring Spring, which its founding family controlled until the 1960s, the Tyrone and Williamsburg mills were bought out (in 1899 and 1906 respectively) by a large New York firm, the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Co. (Westvaco). Construction overruns initially made the Williamsburg plant very unprofitable, forcing Schwab to sell out at a substantial loss to Westvaco. Schwab continued to serve as a patron of the town until his death in 1939, despite being financially embarrassed by the new mill. He became a director of the First National Bank, built a downtown hotel, and developed mill worker housing at the east end of town. Under new ownership, the Williamsburg mill became the town's economic mainstay for the next 70 years. During its best years, the paper mill produced high-grade book paper for lithography and glossy stock for expensive publications. At one point, it supplied stock for the Saturday Evening Post in Philadelphia. Its peak years, and indeed the town's, were the 1920s when seven trains a day stopped in Williamsburg for various reasons. Through this period of prosperity, Williamsburg drew larger numbers of people from around the immediate region, especially on weekends when its sidewalks became crowded with moviegoers, shoppers, and people attending various social club functions.
In 1900, on the eve of the paper mill era, Williamsburg's population stood at just 935. Historically, its population had grown rather slowly through the previous century despite the commercial stimulus of the canal and railroad. Between 1840 and 1890, for example, the population rose by a little over 250 from 637 to 888. This modest increase occurred despite the fact that limestone and ganister quarries just outside of town employed about 1,000 workers by the end of the century. Due to the mill's growth, however, the borough's numbers rose rapidly during the first decades of the century. By 1960, the population had increased to 1,790. Since that time, with the closing of the mill in 1974, the population fell to 1,400 in 1980 and posted a slight rebound to 1,456 by 1990.
When the mill closed in 1974, it had been reduced to producing corrugated stock for packaging and boxes, a far cry from its glory days of making expensive glossy stock in the 1920s. The complex of some 15 brick and stone buildings sat vacant until being demolished in 1979-80. The former owner, Westvaco, operates a modern envelope manufacturing plant located next to the site, now landscaped into a grassy field just west the Williamsburg Historic District.
The local significance of the Williamsburg Historic District is two-fold: It is found in the large number and range of surviving historic resources, which under Criteria A are associated with the broad patterns of Williamsburg's commercial and architectural history. While many of these resources may lack individual distinction, as a whole they possess distinctive characteristics of several historic methods of construction and styles of architecture that represent, the town's local historic significance between c.1800 and 1944.
Most buildings from Williamsburg's earliest years, before the advent of the canal, were made of logs and generally were built in one of two forms: the one-room-deep I-House and the two-room deep Georgian type. Although log construction is popularly associated with primitive frontier life, many of the examples found in Williamsburg, like many others that survive throughout the region, are often quite large, surpassing the one-room log cabin stereotype. A dramatic example is the Fluke House at 436 W. Second Street, a large log house from c.1830 remodeled some time in the 1870s, judging by its Gothic Revival detailing. Since expanded substantially in the rear, the house was originally built as a double-pile Georgian type. It now stands as an interesting local example of a vernacular domestic building that was expanded and remodeled by a later generation in a new style bearing little resemblance to its original appearance.
In the late 18th to early 19th century, hand-hewn log construction joined by V-notches, the typical mid-Atlantic notching method, was the common man's affordable alternative to masonry construction throughout central and western Pennsylvania. Log buildings could be quickly erected by skilled hands, and once made watertight by chinking, were extremely durable if properly maintained. Wood siding, which was generally clapboard, provided added insulation and a more refined finish, especially for in-town houses. One example is the gable-front Firemen's Auxiliary building constructed about 1830 at 416 W. Second Street. This structure was originally built as a house for the Schmucker family but has undergone several commercial renovations since then. Like the Firemen's Auxiliary, all of the known log houses in the district are preserved under wooden siding, which is often covered in turn by modern synthetic siding. The relatively large number of surviving log buildings in the district (6 percent or 21 of 348 contributing dwellings) is not unusual given their regional context — many older yet smaller settlements in central Pennsylvania have not experienced substantial change and still retain large numbers of these structures, due to the remarkable durability of the material when maintained.
During the heyday of the Pennsylvania Canal (1832-1852), the commercial and architectural character of Williamsburg was largely influenced by trade with the canal. The village center filled in with more houses, churches, shops, and small cottage industries. A woolen mill, making carpets, yarn and blankets, was powered by the Big Spring between the early 1830s and 1850s. An iron foundry, established in 1855 at the foot of Spring Street, provided hardware for the canal trade, but was absorbed by the Juniata Iron Furnace in 1857. None of the buildings from these early industries survive.
Some of the oldest log buildings were replaced by brick homes for the more affluent, although log remained a common alternative for the working class. Several good examples of the new brick construction from the 1830s include the Samuel Royer House at 226 High Street. Royer was a member of a locally prominent iron-making family that operated a furnace and forge at separate locations outside of town. The Flemish-bond facade of his house is typical of regional brick-masonry construction before the railroad (pre-1852), when building materials tended to be handcrafted, not factory-made, and produced locally rather than rail shipped from beyond an immediate locale. Since Flemish bond was more difficult and, therefore, more expensive to create, its application was usually limited to front facades, such as those of the Royer House and other houses. By contrast, the side walls of these houses were built using the less difficult and expensive common bond method. Another more substantial example is the John K. Neff House built in the 1830s. Neff (1802-1876) operated the village gristmill in 1830, but would establish the Juniata Iron Furnace at the foot of Spring Street in 1857. His large brick house, suitable for a well-to-do entrepreneur, was built overlooking the Big Spring, which he used to power his gristmill and the machinery for his iron furnace.
The Williamsburg Historic District's oldest surviving church building dates from the canal era. Designed and built for the Presbyterians in 1841 by David S. Rhule (d.1887), this late Federal style church, at 509-15 W. Second Street, was actually the Presbyterian's second building, replacing an 1824 building that had stood within the Presbyterian cemetery at Union Street and Clover Creek Road. Rhule, who was Williamsburg's most prominent early 19th century builder, built the Blair County Jail in 1868 and subcontracted to Williamsburg's mainstream religious denominations reflected the 19th century ethnic make-up of the community. Presbyterians, for example, were generally Scotch-Irish. Lutherans, German Reformed and Methodists were generally German. Baptists tended to be German, English or Scandinavian. The last major denomination to establish a parish church was St. Joseph's Roman Catholic, founded in 1860. Many of the local Roman Catholics were late 19th to early 20th century immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, who worked in the stone quarries at nearby Ganister and Carlim. Some of town's earliest Catholics were Irish laborers who settled in Williamsburg after the Pennsylvania Canal was completed in 1832.
As with the Roman Catholic parish, many of the town's churches drew their worshipers from beyond the borough, thereby helping extend Williamsburg's commercial role to a cultural one as well. By the early 20th century that role had expanded into education since Williamsburg now served as the immediate region's center for public secondary school education. The Williamsburg High School building, the oldest surviving public school in the district, dates from 1918 when population growth induced by the paper mill compelled the construction of a larger building. The three-story brick core section was designed in a Classical Revival mode. As the town grew with the mill, more additions were made to the school, one of which was underwritten by the WPA in 1933. After 1852, the decline of commercial trade on the Pennsylvania Canal significantly slowed the development of Williamsburg. The canal continued to operate until 1875 under the Pennsylvania Railroad's ownership, largely as a low-profit bulk carrier, but passenger traffic and more lucrative cargos left the canal for the railroad. Williamsburg would not experience any noticeable growth again until after the mid 1870s after the PRR opened a branch line from Hollidaysburg in 1873. Even then, its economy was never robust enough to stimulate any significant redevelopment of the town through the remainder of the 19th century.
An 1873 map of Williamsburg shows a very late view of the canal after it had been abandoned west of town and replaced by the PRR's branch line. The railroad company filled in and constructed its right-of-way over those sections of the canal where slackwater routes weren't used over the Juniata River. A second railroad, extending toward the southwest on the map, was a gravity-fed narrow-gauge line that carried iron ore and limestone to the Juniata Furnace (labeled "Williamsburg Manufacturing Co.") from quarries and mines to the south in Morrison's Cove. Mules pulled the small hopper cars back up the grade to the mines.
In the years between the 1852 and 1873, various vernacular construction methods and styles underwent substantial change throughout the United States. Many vernacular building traditions, like hewn-log construction and handmade brick, essentially disappeared in central Pennsylvania, giving way to more modern practices, like balloon-frame construction and factory-made brick. Railroads now provided quicker and less expensive access to regional and national markets, making factory-made building products available to local builders. Construction materials, like pressed-tin roof sheeting and decorative components like jigsaw-cut window architraves, once unavailable or unaffordable for the average homeowner, were now available through mail-order catalogs and readily shipped by railroad. Mass production of finished components, like doors and windows, once made painstakingly by hand, now allowed a growing middle class to enjoy more finely appointed homes once formerly afforded only by the wealthy a century before.
Design books and construction trades magazines became more common as well. Local builders often began taking advantage of mail-order design services and trade journals that offered tips on new styles and construction techniques being adopted across the country. As a result of this homogenizing process, Williamsburg's building trades gradually abandoned older regional traditions, like log construction and flemish-bond brickwork, and joined a new national mainstream of American building practice and style. In this sense, the late 19th to early 20th century buildings in the Williamsburg Historic District are typical, not extraordinary, examples of architectural styles and construction techniques found in many towns across central Pennsylvania. Their significance lies not in their stylistic distinctiveness, but in their power to demonstrate how architectural styles and construction practices in central Pennsylvania became homogeneous with national trends in the decades following the Civil War.
One prominent example of this trend is the Schmucker House at 417 W. Second Street (five-bay brick house). Built in the late 1870s, this Gothic Revival brick house, owned since 1912 by the Fraternal Order of the Eagles, is typical of the limited examples of redevelopment that occurred within the village between the canal and paper mill eras. As part of a national trend, the Gothic Revival look became especially popular in small towns of central and western Pennsylvania for several decades after the Civil War. This house still possesses exceptional decorative ironwork on its front porch, a product, no doubt, of either local or regional iron smiths, but just as plausibly manufactured by an out-of-state iron manufacturer who rail-shipped his products.
In the early 1900s, the paper mill became more than Williamsburg's principal employer, it became the town's principal catalyst for development. In 1905, the mill's first year of operation, several hundred workers were hired, most requiring new housing. In response, Charles Schwab built worker houses at the east side of town, expanding the street grid beyond Spring Street where the original town plan had ended. In the 300 blocks of East Third and Fourth Streets, he built dozens of homes in a neighborhood still known locally as Schwabtown. These buildings were primarily large wood-frame gable-front houses. During the same period before the First World War, the west end of town expanded as well, extending out Second and Third Streets beyond Black Street to Taylor and Dean Streets where nearly 100 new houses were built. Whether by design or accident, the new east side development became a blue-collar neighborhood, while the west side became predominately white-collar. By contrast with the older village area, which had filled-in with development during the canal era, these paper-mill era neighborhoods of single-family houses conveyed a more suburban ideal, with larger front and side yards. Unlike the village area, where stores, offices, and social institutions intermixed with houses, they were almost exclusively residential with few, if any, shops within their blocks.
The paper-mill era produced the Williamsburg Historic District's largest number of gable-front and Foursquare house types. A limited number of slightly higher style Queen Anne houses were also built, usually for merchants, businessmen and mill managers. Most of the Queen Annes built in the early 1900s are late examples of this eclectic style, often trimmed with neoclassical or Colonial Revival details. A substantial number of Foursquare types were also built, sometimes modestly detailed with Craftsman or neoclassical trim. In the 1920s and 1930s, a limited number of wood-frame and brick Bungalows appeared.
By the mid-1930s, Williamsburg's growth had slowed. Construction was limited to new house infill scattered among existing neighborhoods, and to some replacement of older commercial buildings around the commercial village area. Part of the reason could be traced to the Great Depression, but perhaps a larger reason was the tremendous damage done to the paper mill by the St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936, the most destructive flood to hit Williamsburg and much of the region in its history. The town did not expand again in any significant way until after the Second World War when a tract of farm land south of West Third Street was subdivided for residential development. This area, served by Sage Hill Drive, contains a typical variety of modest post-war suburban houses, but has been excluded from the historic district because the development dates from beyond the district's period of significance.
The commercial character of the district is represented by several buildings which span the range of the period of significance. Historically, most of Williamsburg's commercial activity concentrated itself either along the river — to be close to the canal (and later the railroad) — which is near High and Front Streets, or up one block in the vicinity of High and Second Streets. Within this commercial village area, the most common building type was the mixed-use ground-floor shop and upper-floor apartment combination. A good example is 410-414 W. Second Street. The second floor of this extended wood-frame building has most probably served as dwelling space since the structure was built around 1830. Portions of the ground floor, by contrast, have functioned as shop and office space.
An excellent example of a more commercial looking building from the late 19th century is the former First National Bank at the southeast corner of High and Second Street. The only example of the Second Empire style in the Williamsburgh Historic District, this three-story brick building was erected in 1873 as a branch of the First National Bank of Hollidaysburg, which failed in 1896. Two years later, the building reopened as the Farmers Bank, and operated as such until 1903 when it became nationally chartered as the First National Bank of Williamsburg. The large bay windows of the ground floor date from remodeling sometime between 1896 and 1903. The current noncontributing steel-frame doorway was added in the 1960s. In the 1870s to 1890s, the building's upper floors probably functioned as a hotel with meeting rooms. This use was certainly true of the six-bay Federal style house on East Second Street next door to the bank. Originally built as a private home during the 1830s, it had been converted to a hotel by the 1870s. Other dwellings in the district, like the Samuel Schmucker House at 420-22 W. Second Street, saw their ground floors converted to commercial use as the need for commercial space grew with the prosperity brought by the paper mill. The two-and-one-half-story brick dwelling was built in 1844, originally as a three-bay Greek Revival house (four roof dormers). The building has been associated much longer, however, with the Pattersons, a family locally prominent in business and politics, who enlarged the house by two bays sometime during the 1870s to 1880s. In 1909, George B. Patterson remodeled the ground floor of the two-bay addition into a storefront for his Farmers and Merchants Bank. Patterson's carpenter created a rather old-fashioned Italianate-like storefront with bracketed cornice, a look quite out of step with current fashion; a new bank in 1909, would normally have called for a Classical Revival facade. Patterson, however, may well have known his customers better, realizing that for rural farmers and small-town merchants a familiar look was more reassuring than new untested styles that smacked of big-city ways. This largely intact storefront now houses the Williamsburg Public Library.
A large number of social and fraternal clubs existed in Williamsburg through the late 19th to early 20th centuries. This multiplicity of social organizations was fairly characteristic of many small central Pennsylvania communities. Various clubs and societies typically met in the downtown area in meeting halls often located above storefront buildings. A local example of this arrangement is the Firemen's Auxiliary building at 416 W. Second Street (white-frame, gable front), which maintains a second-floor meeting hall originally created in 1888 for the Civil War Veterans Association. The ground floor has served a variety of commercial enterprises including general store, department store, and auto parts supply. Like most historic mixed-use properties in the commercial area of the district, the building is domestic in character, while its site placement, with no front yard and extremely narrow side yards, is urban in character.
One of the village's fully commercial buildings was the Schwab Hotel, built by Charles Schwab in 1911 at 223 High Street. This boxy three-story building, which often hosted businessmen traveling to the paper mill, stood out in the village with its unusual cream-colored brick walls. Converted to apartments in more recent years, its vernacular exterior remains little changed from its original appearance in 1911. A commercial building from the same era exhibiting a little more style due to its function is the former Dean Theatre, built about 1911 at 415 W. Second Street. Closed as a theater since 1957, its Roman classical detailing surely attracted many to its doorways n the century when Williamsburg attracted overflow crowds on weekend evenings.
The architectural and commercial significance of Williamsburg is best understood in its context with four other towns in the region: the Huntingdon County borough of Alexandria, and the Blair County boroughs of Hollidaysburg, Roaring Spring and Tyrone. Alexandria, Hollidaysburg and Williamsburg all began as small settlements founded in the 1790s along the upper Juniata River. All three developed architecturally and commercially in similar ways until the early 1830s when the Pennsylvania Canal connected the trio as the last three port towns east of the Allegheny Mountains. Differences arose from that point forward.
Hollidaysburg became a magnet for commerce as a terminal for canal boats transferring to rail cars for transit over the mountains. Because of that role, Hollidaysburg evolved into a regional transportation center. In 1846, in large measure due to its commercial importance, the borough was selected as the seat for newly created Blair County. This combination of governmental seat and regional shipping terminal gave Hollidaysburg distinct advantages over Williamsburg and Alexandria, affecting its rate of growth and architectural character. Hollidaysburg's domestic and commercial architecture became more stylistically sophisticated. Unlike Williamsburg, for example, none of the its early log buildings survive due to successive waves of redevelopment that removed many of its oldest buildings through the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
When the canal terminal closed in the early 1870s, Hollidaysburg was already relatively well insulated from the economic shock. A rail link to the Pennsylvania Railroad's main trunk line in Altoona had already been established. The town boasted as well a larger concentration of merchants and industrialists with better access to capital. Just one example of this financial connection is the quick redevelopment of the abandoned canal basin into iron foundries, furnaces, and a railyard. Williamsburg, despite its proximity to limestone quarries and iron ore mines, failed to grow significantly after the railroad replaced the canal. The town was literally off the main line, removed from the commercial mainstream that the business communities of Altoona and Hollidaysburg enjoyed with their links to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. This period of stagnation, though economically unfortunate, resulted in the survival of a higher number of older buildings and the construction of smaller numbers of late Victorian examples. Only after the founding of the paper mill in 1905 did the town experience significant growth again, reflected in its more substantial stock of early 20th century architecture.
Alexandria began its existence much like Williamsburg and Hollidaysburg — a small river hamlet with a gristmill and several tradesmen's shops established in 1793. Like Williamsburg and Hollidaysburg, it grew steadily as a port town on the Pennsylvania Canal between 1832 and 1852, a period of growth reflected in its notable collection of late Federal-style architecture. In the 1850s, however, when the Pennsylvania Railroad bypassed Alexandria and Williamsburg for a more northern route, Alexandria's population and commercial growth stagnated. The town remained a backwater until the early 1890s when the PRR extended the Williamsburg branch line through town to Petersburg where it connected with the Main Line. Like Williamsburg, Alexandria's much reduced growth after 1852 is reflected in its architecture. Many of its more prominent houses, mostly late Federal examples, were built during the canal era. Its next largest collection of housing, mostly vernacular examples of Colonial Revival and Craftsman types, dates from the early 1900s when a firebrick manufacturer built a factory in 1904 just outside of town. Federal Refractories Company, which made firebrick linings for steel furnaces and boilers, supplied the Pittsburgh steel industry until the 1970s although its greatest productivity occurred in the 1900-1920s.
Roaring Spring and Tyrone, by contrast, were younger communities that managed to avoid the economic doldrums caused by changing transportation routes and systems that Williamsburg and Alexandria experienced, Tyrone, north of Altoona on the Juniata River, had been located since its founding on the PRR's Main Line. By 1878, when its paper mill was built, it already boasted a significant PRR railyard operation and other associated industries. Roaring Spring, on the other hand, was not connected to a PRR branch line until 1871. That connection, however, made a significant impact on its future development by opening regional and national markets to the town's locally owned paper mill. In the case of both towns, the rail connection also had a transformational effect on their architectural development, a fact reflected today in their variety of late 19th century architecture.
Like Williamsburg, the regional characteristics of early 19th century vernacular architecture disappeared during the second half of the 19th century in all of these towns due to the various affects of the railroad and the industrial revolution. With rail access to the outside world and other improvements in communications, like the telegraph, and with the rise of mass markets and national merchandising, the new building styles and methods that appeared almost simultaneously in these towns reflected nation-wide trends rather than regional vernacular traditions. The result was a national homogeneity of building styles rather than just a regional homogeneity. As one example, a typical late Federal-style brick house, built in a small town anywhere in central Pennsylvania during the 1830s, likely possessed the same commonalities as an equivalent house built in eastern or western Pennsylvania, or even Ohio, during the same period — as long as it was located within the same cultural migration path of pioneer settlement. By the 1910s, however, following the nation-wide affects of late 19th century modernization, a wood-frame, Foursquare house, whether built for a paper-mill employee or a brick refractory worker in central Pennsylvania, now possessed the same similarity on a nation-wide scale with a Foursquare house built for, say, a shoe factory worker in New England or a farmer in the Mid West.
The result is that the architectural context for Williamsburg and its neighboring towns in central Pennsylvania should be understood from within a regional cultural context before the coming of the railroad, and from a national context after the railroad and the associated modernizing affects of the industrial revolution during the second half of the 19th century.
In summary, the Williamsburg Historic District is locally significant for its collection of historic resources significant in the areas of Architecture and Commerce between c.1800 and 1944. Overall, the significance of the historic district is found in its ability to accurately convey an architectural sense of the town's commercial and architectural development through this 144-year period of local history.
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† Richards, Frederick L., Richard C. Sutter & Assoc., Williamsburg Historic District, nomination document, 1994, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
1st Street East • 1st Street West • 2nd Street East • 2nd Street West • 3rd Street East • 3rd Street West • 4th Street East • Black Street • Canal Street • Clover Creek Road • Dean Street • High Street • Juniata Street • Liberty Street • Locust Street • Mill Street • Park Street West • Plum Street • Sage Hill Drive • Spring Street • Taylor Street • Union Street