Butler Historic District
The Butler Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document submitted to the National Park Service. Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The Butler Historic District ... [is] anchored by the previously-listed Butler County Court House which is located near the center of the district; the Butler City Hall, reflecting patterns of local government and politics, is also in the district. ... The district is significant for its architecture, since it contains a locally-significant concentration of historic buildings dating from the late 1820s through the fifth decade of the twentieth century, executed in a variety of styles including Greek Revival, Italianate, Gothic and Romanesque Revival, Richardsonian Romanesque, French Second Empire, Neo-Classical Revival, Colonial Revival, and Art Deco; the district is also significant because of the presence of the work of Butler master builder Harry Wimer, local architect F. J. Porter, New Castle, Pennsylvania school architect W. C. Eckles, and the New York architectural firm of Mobray & Ufiinger. The period of significance begins in 1828 with the platting of the town and the approximate date of the construction of the earliest building in the district (the Sen. Walter Lowrie House), and ends in 1952 and the approximate date of construction of the most recently-constructed of the historic buildings in the district (St. Mark's Lutheran Church). The historic context of the Butler Historic District is that of a county seat whose beginnings date to the early years of the nineteenth century and which gained prominence during the western Pennsylvania oil and gas boom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Topographically, the Butler Historic District lies in an area which straddles a ridge dividing the watersheds of the Allegheny and the Beaver Rivers. Geologically rich in natural resources, early salt exploration in Butler County revealed the existence of substantial deposits of oil and coal, and for much of its history, the county's fortunes have risen and fallen according to the fortunes of these resources, along with that of natural gas. The County of Butler was organized in 1800 from portions of Allegheny County. It was named for Gen. Richard Butler (1743-1791), who was considered by George Washington and Anthony Wayne to have been one of the ablest soldiers in the American Revolution. The County was settled initially by Scotch-Irish and Pennsylvania Germans. The Borough of Butler was laid out in 1828 and two years later was formally incorporated from portions of the Township of the same name. The district occupies lands once owned by Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris. John and Samuel Cunningham obtained grants of the land and subdivided their property into lots. It soon became a heavily industrialized center, including a variety of mills on Connoquenessing Creek (south of the district), as well as a series of metal-fabricating shops and plants. No industrial properties are extant within the district.
Since its establishment, the community has grown from a settlement of fewer than five hundred to its population zenith, which was recorded with the 1940 Decennial Census, when 24,277 lived within the confines of the city. Beginning with the 1820 census, the city's population reflected the growth and development of the community as well as the rise and demise of the local economic and industrial sector.
The 1870s saw the completion of the railroad (1871) and the development of oil exploration in the northeast portion of the county. The near-doubling of the population in the first decade of the twentieth century corresponds to the decade during which the Standard Steel Car Company, the Forged Steel Wheelworks, and other major industrial employers were established in Butler and the peak population in 1940 corresponds to the production heyday of local industrial giants such as Pullman-Standard and Armco. The 2000 Decennial census recorded a population of population of 15,179, and reflects the passing of most of the same industrial base which accounted for the 1940 population zenith as well as late twentieth-century suburban development outside the city limits.
Growth of the community was slow during its first thirty years of existence. Butler was little more than a rural western Pennsylvania village with small-scale residential and commercial buildings and modestly-scaled and designed institutional architecture. The first Court House, which burned in 1883, was a two-story Greek Revival-style temple-form building on the site of the present Court House. Butler's architecture was of one or two stories in height until 1852, when the three-story Lowry House Hotel (not extant) was built at the northeast corner of North Main and Jefferson Streets.
In August, 1859, Edwin L. Drake discovered oil on Oil Creek near Titusville — about forty miles north of Butler — and within a year the first of the major Butler petroleum operations, the Butler Oil Company, was established. Between 1860 and 1900 the Butler fields produced prodigious wells, some of which were so large that they controlled the market price of petroleum. Major strikes in Butler County included those at Petrolia, Karns City, Millertown (at Chicora) and Thorn Creek (at Butler); these strikes occurred considerably closer to Butler than to any other substantial population base, and therefore directly affected the economic growth of Butler, rather than, for example, other oil communities such as Franklin, Oil City, or Titusville.
A leading figure in the Butler fields was Thomas Wharton Phillips, who with his brother drilled successfully for oil on Oil Creek, Venango County, in 1861 and amassed a considerable fortune. The Panic of 1873 temporarily wiped out Phillips' wealth, but in 1885, on Thorn Creek, Butler County, the Phillips Brothers drilled a well which produced a massive 4,200 barrels on the first day, a significant strike. Even this well was eclipsed by the nearby Armstrong well, which produced 8,000 barrels on its first day. The City of Butler became the regional center of activity for the oil industry of the late nineteenth century and also became home to a number of pioneering manufacturers of oil field equipment including the Palm Machine Shop, Kessleman & Co., the Star Iron Works, Shufflin & Co., and Spang & Co.
Late in the nineteenth century, significant deposits of natural gas were found in Butler County and according to historian C. Hale Sipe, these reserves became "known as the most productive gas sands in the United States because of their vast extent." T. W. Phillips re-paid the debts he incurred in the 1873 Panic and in 1896 established the Phillips Gas Company, later – and today – known as the T.W. Phillips Gas & Oil Co. He became a leader of the independent producers and refused to permit his operations to be absorbed by John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil. From 1892-1896 he served as a "trust-busting" Congressman and at the time of his death in 1912 he owned 850 oil and gas wells and 900 miles of gas pipeline. The T. W. Phillips Company's 1920s office building at 205 North Main Street occupies a prominent corner site within the district.
Both the economy and the physical scale and character of downtown Butler improved significantly as Butler's industrial base grew in the late nineteenth century and in the early years of the twentieth century. Industrial growth developed outside the district, including the 1884 establishment of the Standard Plate Glass Company and the 1902 construction of the Standard Steel Car Company's plant to produce rolling stock for the railroads. In 1906, the Forged Steel Wheelworks began to produce railroad car wheels, working closely with Standard. In 1930, Standard's merger with the Pullman Car Company created the Pullman-Standard Car Manufacturing Company, which became one of America's foremost builders of freight and passenger cars. In 1926, the Columbia Steel Company acquired the Forged Steel Wheel Company, only to be absorbed the following year by the American Rolling Mill Company (Armco), which erected a large facility in Butler, adding considerably to the prosperity of the community and the economic stability of the downtown. In 1929 Butler's American Austin Company produced the first Austin automobile pattered after the English car of the same name and the American Bantam Company produced the first jeep in Butler. The plants for these operations were outside the historic district, but their rise is clearly linked to that of downtown Butler, which served as the region's political, commercial, and financial center for well over a century and whose own fortunes during the period of significance ebbed and flowed in direct relationship to the fortunes of industrial initiatives in the community.
The Butler Historic District reflects the pattern of politics and government both on a local and county level. The Butler County Court House is a massive, High Victorian Gothic-style stone building located on the west side of the Diamond. The significance of the Court House is also derived from its architecture, which represents a public-sector application of the Gothic Revival style on a large scale, incorporating lancet-arched windows, corner towers and a multi-stage clock tower which towers over the historic district. It was completed in 1885 and has served as the seat of county government continuously from that time. Federal government presence in the district is represented by the former Butler Post Office, completed in a Neo-Classical Revival style in 1912 and enlarged in 1933, while patterns of municipal government are represented in the Butler City Hall at 140 West North Street. City Hall was designed by F. J. Porter, the city's leading early twentieth-century architect, as the home of George A. Troutman, a leading regional merchant; the building was converted for its present use in 1930 and was sensitively rehabilitated in the 1990s.
In addition to its reflection of the patterns of government in the community and county, the Butler Historic District clearly mirrors the commercial growth of the City of Butler during the heyday of the Butler oil fields and the city's industrial expansion, whose combined significance was eventually surpassed by that of the "boom" years of the production of natural gas in the region. Butler's position as a major manufacturer of steel and rail cars brought with it additional growth and prosperity, all of which was physically manifest in the fortunes of the downtown, reflected in the scale and character of the commercial buildings found primarily along Main, Cunningham, and Jefferson Streets. Among the many buildings which reflect the district's association with patterns of commercial growth and development are properties at 302,224,208, 144, 136, 102, 109, and 143 North Main Street, 200, 212-214, 238, 240, 318, 324, 326, 218, 338, 247, 245, 23, and 229 South Main Street, as well as 115 East Jefferson Street, and the Reibler Block at 117-121 East Jefferson Street, the Flack Building at 115 West Jefferson Street, and 119-123 West New Castle Street.
Several large banks in the district illustrate the role which the district played in the business of regional finance. Chief among these are the eight-story 1925 Art Deco-style Butler Savings & Trust Company building at 100-110 South Main Street and the previously-listed Butler County National Bank Building at 302 South Main Street.
The institutional growth and maturity of Butler is reflected in the Butler Historic District by the presence of a variety of institutional buildings, religious and secular alike, which are dispersed widely throughout the district; most of these properties are significant for their architecture. Two widely diverse educational properties lie within the district. Schoolhouse No. 1 (200 East Jefferson Street), known variously as the Upper School and the "Little Red School House" is a modest gable-fronted single-story brick building erected following the passage of the Pennsylvania Public School Law of 1834 which required municipalities to create school districts and permitted the levy of taxes to support such endeavor; it was the first building erected for public education in Butler County and is a distinctive example of architecture from the very earliest generation of public school buildings in Pennsylvania. It is owned by the Butler County Historical Society and is operated as a museum of early public education. In contrast to the "Little Red School House" is the substantial Neo-Classical Revival-style Butler High School of 1917 which occupies a half city block at 225 East North Street.
Religious institutions dot the cultural landscape of the Butler Historic District and represent not only the spiritual life of the community but also the finest in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century local and regional architectural tradition, reflected in their designs, which reflect many of the individual styles popular for ecclesiastical design of the period. Among the churches found in the district are the 1902 Second Presbyterian Church at 123 East Diamond Street, St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church at 207 West Jefferson Street and its adjacent 1925-1927 Sunday School Building, the 1914 First Baptist Church at 221 West New Castle Street, the 1924 Church of Christ at 224 West North Street, the Bethany Reformed Church (1911) at 215 West North Street, St. Andrew's United Presbyterian Church (1894) at 201 East Jefferson Street, St. Peter's Episcopal Church (1895-1896) at 218 East Jefferson Street and the adjacent Butler Presbyterian Church (1874) at 230 East Jefferson Street, St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church of 1909 at 128 North McKean Street, and the ca. 1900 First Methodist Episcopal Church at 200 East North Street.
Three major private-sector secular institutions erected substantial buildings in the heart of the district. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I. O. O. F.) Building sits on a corner lot at 201-203 North Main Street. It is an early twentieth-century Renaissance Revival-style brick building that housed a clothing store on the ground floor and a spacious lodge hall on the third. Further to the south, at 344-346 South Main Street, the local Masons erected a substantial Neo-Classical Revival-style temple-fronted building which was dedicated in 1911. In 1895 the local Y. M. C. A. built their first institutional home facing the Diamond; in 1913, reflecting the growth both of the community and of the YMCA organization, a new building was erected at 113 South McKean Street.
The district ... [is] a locally-significant concentration of historic architecture dating from the late 1820s through 1952, representing examples of styles of architecture including the Greek Revival, Italianate, Gothic Revival, French Second Empire, Romanesque Revival, Eastlake, Colonial Revival, Late Gothic Revival, and Art Deco. The district also contains the work of regionally-prominent architects and builders, including Butler architect F. J. Porter, New Castle designer W. G. Eckles, the New York City firm of Mobray and Uffinger, and Boston's Cram and Ferguson.
F.J. Porter was born in 1875 in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania and lived in the western Pennsylvania oil region counties of Venango and Warren until locating in Butler early in the twentieth century. He built a highly successful practice in the community and was responsible for residential architecture as well as commercial building and churches throughout Butler and beyond. Within the district, he designed the home of regionally-prominent merchant George A. Troutman, which has been adaptively re-used as the Butler City Hall. His other prominent commissions included the Nixon and New Willard Hotels (not extant). Within the district, examples of his work include the ca. 1900 Koch Building at 126 North Main Street, the 1904-1905 Majestic Theater Building at 133 East Cunningham Street, and the ca. 1905 Kemper Apartments at 151 East Cunningham Street, and the 1904 First Methodist Episcopal Church at 200 East North Street; Porter collaborated on the M. E. Church with noted Uniontown, Pennsylvania church architect J. C. Fulton.
The 1917 Butler High School is the work of architect W. George Eckles (1867-1932), the prolific school specialist from New Castle, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, west of Butler. His practice began in New Castle in 1898 and by the World War One era he had designed a variety of buildings from Cleveland, Ohio to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Institutional architecture became his specialty and according to a 1915 feature in a professional journal, "Mr. Eckles has made a special study of school buildings and of the one hundred which have been erected according to his designs, the large majority are the better type of schools and college buildings."
Nationally-reputed architects are represented in the Butler Historic District by the Boston firm of Cram and Ferguson, who were responsible for St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church at 201 West Jefferson Street. This firm was established by internationally-known church architect Ralph Adams Cram and over the years also included Bertram Goodhue and Frank W. Furguson. Biographers Henry and Elsie Withey described Cram (1863-1942) as a
Distinguished ecclesiastical architect, philosopher, and author and in the latter years of his life America's leading proponent of the Gothic Revival. Of the many splendid churches throughout the country which stand as a monument to the genius of Mr. Cram, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York remains his supreme achievement in architecture.
The firm gained an international reputation for its design of major religious and institutional buildings across the nation as well as academic campuses including West Point, Princeton, Wellesley, and Mt. Holyoke. St. Mark's Church was designed by the firm in 1944, two years after Ralph Adams Cram's death, but was not completed until 1952. Its design was likely supervised Cram and Ferguson architect John Doran.
The New York firm of Mobray and Uffinger designed the 1925 Art Deco-style eight-story bank building for the Butler Savings and Trust Company. This firm was active as early as 1895 (when they lost a design competition for the Hoboken, New Jersey Public Library). They went on to design substantial buildings across America, including the 1907 Dime Savings Bank in Brooklyn, New York, the Barnett National Bankin Jacksonville, Florida (1926), and the America Savings and Trust Company's skyscraper office building in Birmingham, Alabama in 1912.
Master builder Harry Wimer (1874-1950) was a leading contractor in this part of Pennsylvania, and within the district has been identified with the construction of the 1925 Butler Savings & Trust Building, the T. W. Phillips Office Building, which likely dates from the 1920s, the 1920s Butler "Eagle" Publishing Company Building, and the 1917 Butler High School.
J. S. Hobaugh was another of Butler's master builders and within the district built several of the designs produced by the aforementioned Butler architect F. J. Porter. Among these are the c. 1900 Koch Building at 126 North Main Street and the c. 1905 Kemper Apartments at 122-124 East Cunningham Street.
One of the region's finest cast iron facades appears on the 1898 Rockenstein Building at 328 South Main Street. This three-bay, two-story masonry building has a metal facade produced by Mesker Brothers, a leading manufacturer of cast iron and pressed metal storefronts and architectural ornament. Operating from St. Louis and Evansville, Indiana, Mesker Brothers supplied more than 5,000 storefronts across America beginning in 1887, and published an ambitious mail-order catalog of fronts and ornament. Historic photos suggest that cast iron and pressed metal ornament was popular in downtown Butler, but successive storefront and facade remodelings have removed most evidence of this popular design motif.
Viewing the Butler Historic District in comparison to other similar districts in the region, several observations are apparent. The downtown areas of Zelienople and Ellwood City, west of Butler, are far smaller and possess more of a "small-town" character than does the Butler district. Emlenton, located in Venango County north of Butler, is an Allegheny River oil town whose historic district (listed 1997) is very small and of a village scale. In contrast, the Butler district is a small city" commercial district more akin to those found in New Castle (Lawrence County), Beaver, Beaver County (listed 1996), Franklin, Venango County (listed 1984), or Oil City (listed 1997). The Butler district retains far more integrity than does the downtown area of New Castle which was ravaged by Urban Renewal. Except for the six-story Butler County National Bank Building and the eight-story Butler Savings and Trust Building, the Butler district is similar in scale to the commercial portion of the Beaver Historic District, the Franklin Historic District, and the Oil City Downtown Historic District. The commercial roles played by the downtown areas of Zelienople, Ellwood City, and Emlenton are far more locally-oriented, while those of Franklin, Oil City, and Beaver, like Butler, are more regionally-focused. As county seats, Franklin and Beaver are of equal importance in the areas of politics/government as is Butler.