Sycamore Street Historic District
Sycamore Street, between Frost Lane and St. Andrew's Church, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, being noted as the "Newtown Historic District Boundary Extension." The original Newtown nomination is wholly contained within the borough. Sycamore Street is in Newtown Township, the rear property lines bordering Newtown Creek, which delineates part of the borough boundary. Portions of the text on this page were adapted from a copy of the original National Register nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
The Sycamore Street Extension of the Newtown Historic District is located primarily in Newtown Township with one parcel in Newtown Borough and adjoins the existing National Register district in the borough. The existing district forms the eastern boundary of the extension while Sycamore Street forms the western border. Newtown Borough presents a tight, built-up environment with a nineteenth century streetscape. The east side of Sycamore Street is a more casual continuation of this townscape due to a shared historical development out of the Newtown Common.
The northern terminus of the district is the abandoned bed of Frost Lane, a visual break and the historical limit of the Common. The southern edge of the extension is the southern lot line of St. Andrew's Church and graveyard which marks the terminus of historic development in that direction. For its overwhelming majority the proposed expansion is only a single lot in depth. The exception to this pattern is the northernmost fifth of the district which is two lots deep. These rear lots follow the abandoned bed of State Street extending out of the borough which parallels Sycamore Street.
The district includes fifty-five (55) buildings ranging in age from c.1800 to c.1970. Qualitatively, they have been broken down as follows: Significant- 3; Contributing- 40; and Intrusive- 12. The building types included within the District are predominantly dwelling houses with their ancillary structures including garages and carriage houses, barns and sheds. Also included within the district is a church with associated rectory, convent and school; apartment house, and office building. Among the intrusive buildings are several mid-twentieth century service stations and a modern medical office.
Structurally the majority (32) of the buildings are predominantly frame although many have been covered with some sort of siding. A number of structures (13) are constructed primarily of stone. The remainder are built of some form of masonry (3 brick or building tile, and 7 block or unidentifiable masonry). Following local building traditions the majority of the stone buildings were constructed prior to c.1850, including the settler's cabins and the only major exception being the 1893 St. Andrew's Church. The brick or tile structures date from the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. The block structures all are twentieth century. Two of these buildings are intrusive service stations and the remainder small outbuildings. The frame buildings span the entire development period.
With the exception of the church and the apartment house the buildings comprising the historic district extension represent a very vernacular building tradition. They are basically 2-1/2 story, 3 or 4 bays wide, one pile deep with gable roofs. Several of the houses are of the "settler's cabin" type, 1-1/2 or 1-3/4 stories, 2 or 3 bays wide with gable roofs which in some cases are at right angles to the street in south orientation. The composite of buildings creates a "generational" sampling of buildings from cabins to 19th century "comfortable" dwellings to late 19th and early 20th century commercial and apartment designed structures.
There is very little ornamentation on any buildings besides the most basic decorative elements. This helps to define Sycamore Street as a secondary residential and commercial street to the primary State Street in the Newtown District. Both areas were part of the Newtown Common and developed simultaneously after the common's dissolution in 1796. Although several buildings contain suggestive traits of Gothic Revival, Greek Revival and Italianate they lack strict adherence to any distinctive high style and are more modest than the State Street buildings. The structures, in general, have maintained a good degree of integrity and still present an historic atmosphere.
The Newtown Historic District is significant in the fields of architecture as a well preserved assemblage of eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings; community planning for its adherence to William Penn's plan of a central town surrounded by town lots and farms; exploration and settlement for the settlement pattern established by the presence of the Newtown Common; military for its role in the Revolutionary War as the staging area for Washington's famous crossing of the Delaware, and for its being the site of the only recorded skirmish in Bucks County; and in the area of politics and government for its role as the county seat between 1724 and 1813.
Newtown's significance can be broadly recognized as being due to two factors: its unusual settlement pattern and its central location in the lower half of Bucks County. These two factors shaped the town's development. Newtown is one of only two Bucks County townships laid out with a central town square. The township was originally designed with a central common area surrounded by radiating grants of land extending out to the township boundaries. In Newtown, the common area was relatively small (unlike Wrightstown, the other example) with the majority of the town square being occupied by narrow town lots in the possession of the owners of the large surrounding tracts. This design, attributed to William Penn, focused development to the heads of the town lots directly adjacent to the Newtown Common. The village had a common area at its core designed to be left open in the pattern of English parks. The Newtown Common was kept open for virtually the entire eighteenth century and made an indelible impression on the development pattern of the town.
In 1724 Newtown's then central location in the developed area of Bucks County occasioned the removal of the county seat from Bristol Borough. A five acre tract of land was purchased by the county adjoining the south end of the easterly side of the Newtown Common.
The county property was divided into six blocks. One block was reserved for county use and the remainder divided into small lots and sold on ground rent. Typically, the presence of the county seat spurred development. This development, including the establishment of several inns and taverns, was naturally centered on those lots around the court house property. Even today the presence of a large group of eighteenth century buildings on the county tract gives that section of Newtown the impression of a small, well preserved colonial village.
The county property, and not the Common became the focal point of the village. Instead of acting as the centerpiece of the town the Common quickly developed into a barrier diverting growth to the south and east of the county buildings. When the large Strickland estate adjoining the east side of the Common and north of the county land along the road to Yardley was broken up for settlement the pattern for the village's growth had taken shape.
Newtown grew in three directions, north, east and south from the county land throughout the eighteenth century. The common, despite repeated efforts, remained open and the land to the west of it became isolated from the general growth of the town and retained the original town lot pattern of farms. The only exception was the small lot upon which the Newtown Presbyterian Church was built in 1769. By 1796 Newtown had undergone large growth and the Common was finally divided and sold in 55 small lots. The lots adjoining the County property, although much smaller than the other lots commanded the highest prices. These lots were sold in fee simple; while the lots above the present Washington Avenue were sold on ground rent. It is in this upper area that the small "settler's cabins" are found today. Throughout the 19th century development on the former Common grew more rapidly and intensely on State Street, the original eastern boundary, and Sycamore Street, the original western boundary saw a more casual, residential growth.
It was due to the presence of Newtown Common that Newtown grew asymmetrically with its commercial "center" primarily along the eastern edge of the Common and with the bulk of the residential areas spreading out in the generally easterly direction. While initially the Common halted growth to the west, after 1796 the Common became the focus of commercial activity due to its location adjacent to the established area of the village. When Newtown Borough was formed out of the township in 1838 the center line of the Common, being the center line of a double tier of small lots and roughly along the Newtown Creek was chosen as the western boundary of the borough. This division emphasized growth to the east with development along Sycamore Street not crossing to its western side but staying within the parameters of the Common.
The Sycamore Street area was the only village development in the township and began to serve as the township center as the town of Newtown had done before the borough was created. The only tavern in the township, the Union Township House, or more recently "Township House" was established by the 1840's along this stretch of Sycamore Street and an advertisement dated 1859 stresses its location along Sycamore Street "Although not in the Borough, is really in the Town." This advertisement also illustrates Sycamore Street as the focal area of the township, "it is the only public house in the Township where the elections are held, and all Township business transacted." In 1884 when the borough was expanded the borders to the north, east and south were extended while the western border remained intact, assuring the township its operating, commercial and social center. Nineteenth century maps only show four farmsteads (one since razed), and the Newtown Presbyterian Church, as well as a wheelwright shop and a toll house on the west side of Sycamore Street.
Due to its central location on the route from the Delaware River to Philadelphia, and due to its accessibility as a transportation center, Newtown was selected as an important supply depot for the Continental army during the various campaigns in New Jersey. The town served as headquarters of General Washington and his staff before and after the Battle of Trenton and it was from Newtown that Washington reported his victory to Congress. After the battle, Hessian soldiers were taken to Newtown. The officers were quartered at inns and private homes, the soldiers in the Presbyterian Meetinghouse and the Jail. Sycamore Street, which becomes the road to Washington's Crossing and Taylorsville, was the focal point for the army's movements. Washington's headquarters were in the Harris House on Sycamore Street (demolished- mid 20th century) as well as the above-mentioned Presbyterian Meetinghouse.
The only actual Bucks County combat during the war occurred in February 1778 in Newtown when a company of British soldiers on a raiding party encountered a group of revolutionary soldiers. Five Americans were killed and a number were wounded or captured including Newtown's Major Francis Murphy who later became a General of the Militia. In April 1778, a ten-day conference was held at Newtown to arrange an exchange of prisoners. The American delegation was led by Elias Boudinot, Commissioner of Prisoners and included Col. Alexander Hamilton. Sycamore Street has significance, not only in its Revolutionary associations, but also as the section of Newtown which best represents the original planning concept designed by William Penn. Although all of the buildings within the Sycamore street extension fall within the former Common area the west side of the street still retains the "town lot" farmstead pattern. Since the general development pattern moved away from Sycamore Street it has retained much more of its original fabric than the other section of the Common now included within Newtown Borough. With the exception of the St. Andrew's Church and an early twentieth century combination auto showroom and apartment building there are no buildings taller than the standard 2-1/2 story height found on traditional residential and commercial buildings.
Sycamore Street still retains several fine examples of small "settler's cabin" type buildings which undoubtedly were the first improvements erected on the Common. These buildings, 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 stories high, 2 to 3 bays wide, one pile deep with south orientation and gable end facing the street, and in some cases, built into a bank, represent the early housing type of the settlers and mechanics and trades people. This building type has completely disappeared from the State Street streetscape.
Sycamore Street provides a very good resource for examining examples of an architectural style which has almost completely disappeared in the Newtown area which underwent rapid improvement throughout the nineteenth century. It is a collection of vernacular middle-class architecture, primarily residences, arranged on a casual, rural village density and representing the growth patterns and spacial relationship of Newtown by the mid-19th century.
Through the nineteenth century Sycamore Street developed as house lots and small shop or commercial activities. The street itself also was incorporated into other major transportation routes: Route 413, the Durham Road from Bristol to the Durham Furnace and Easton, and Route 532, from Washington's Crossing to Philadelphia. The Durham Road comes up from the south (Bristol) along State Street in the borough and crossed the Common, perhaps at various points in the past, and most recently along Washington Street, then up along Sycamore Street to the end of the district and the Common (the extension of Frost Lane) where the road turns to the west and travels along a patent line out of the township.
According to the 1849 Dripps/Sidney Map of Newtown there were approximately twenty-eight (28) houses along the east or Common side of Sycamore Street, with the farmstead and Presbyterian Church on the west. Very few specific occupations or activities are defined on period historic maps, although the 1876 Atlas shows a blacksmith shop on the lower end of the street, near Centre Street. The Randall Carriage Shop building does not appear in 1876 or 1891, but was built by 1900 as housing for workers at the carriage factory on Jefferson Avenue. Early photographs of this area show carriages lining Jefferson up to Sycamore Street and behind the "Township House" along the creek.
Historical maps throughout the nineteenth century show Sycamore Street as a part of the developed Newtown and the inclusion of this extension in the Historic District represents the development patterns and historical associations that Sycamore Street had held in common with the adjoining Newtown Borough.
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