Old Conemaugh Borough Historic District
The Old Conemaugh Borough 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.
Old Conemaugh Borough Historic District is a well preserved working class neighborhood of several hundred vernacular working class houses with several Victorian era mansions, a neighborhood business district, and several institutional landmarks. The major thoroughfare is crescent shaped Railroad Street, which intersects and borders the northerly end of the district along which neighborhood businesses are concentrated. Residential streets project form Railroad Street at roughly right angles, up a gradually sloping hillside interlaced with narrow alleys. The district is located one block east of Johnstown's historic warehouse district, which separates Old Conemaugh from downtown Johnstown. Located one quarter mile north of the district is the former Gautier Division (later J. T. Pitt Steel) on the Little Conemaugh River. Heavily altered residential properties are located to the east, and to the south there are open lots interspersed with deteriorating housing. Within the district, vacant Hudson Street School, St. Joseph's Parish and the German-Austrian Hall are all centrally located. Former company houses are concentrated on two residential streets in the eastern part of the district. The district includes 335 buildings: 313 residential, 15 commercial, and seven institutional buildings. It is characterized by architecture from the mid-to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Over 90% of buildings were built before 1920. There are 313 contributing buildings, most with a high degree of integrity, and only 22 noncontributing ones.
The district's principal resource, comprising more than 85% of the building stock, is its privately built vernacular housing. Most houses are two to two and one-half story plank or balloon frame buildings with side or front gable roofs and front porches. With the exception of larger homes built for several entrepreneurs, vernacular owner occupied and rental homes dominate the residential streets of the district. The ca. 1850 Young House, 146 Coal Street, is a plank building enclosed within a larger balloon frame house expanded in later years. It retains end chimneys, door latch hardware, two ornamental fireplace mantels with carved Indian heads, peaked doorway lintels, and a large basement cook stove in an end wall. The ca. 1870 side gable house at 136 Hudson Street has decorative sawn window and door trim, transom windows, roof returns and original clapboard siding. Another example is the 1888 Christian Kakuck House, 117 Adams Street, a large balloon frame dwelling with a full length porch, shiplap wood siding, a rear L wing and dormers. The ca. 1890 Sponger House, 795 Railroad Street, is a two story residence constructed with a storefront. The residence's door and window moldings are intact as are the storefront's boarded-up plate glass windows.
Comprising 50% of the vernacular housing stock are rental units in doubles, flats and units in apartment buildings and two row house buildings. The ca. 1900 two unit brick apartment house at 116 Kingston Alley is a three story building with a large intact three story porch and a hip roof. The four unit row house building at 106-112 Coal Street, constructed ca. 1880, has a side gable roof and dormers. The ca. 1900 home of Josephine Cable, a side by side double at 138 Hudson Street has a center cross gable with fishscale shingles and decorative peaked window caps.
A visually distinct residential subgroup is the cluster of company-built homes built for mill workers, all two to two and one-half story side by side doubles. Chapin Street's 10 houses (ca. 1900) are four by two bay; Gautier Street's nine houses (ca. 1883) are larger with four by three bays and a pair of dormers facing the street. The former company house at 114-116 Chapin Street retains two inside end chimneys, clapboard siding and window trim. The example of the former company house at 126-130 Gautier Street has round headed dormers and a front porch with turned posts and balusters. The Gautier Street houses have large attics and kitchens located in rear two story wings.
There are a few high style homes in Old Conemaugh Borough Historic District, namely two Greek Revival, four Second Empire, and three Queen Anne examples. Attributes of this group include machine sawn details, stonework and complex rooflines. Larger houses are interspersed throughout the district's closely packed rows of vernacular houses rather than clustered together. The oldest style represented is Greek Revival, in two identical ca. 1850 homes at 116 and 122 Singer Street. Unlike neighbors, they were sited on large lots, set back from the street and built with the broad dimensions of a temple front design. Although extensively remodeled, 116 Singer Street is classified as contributing, containing two original fireplaces with pilastered mantels and original wainscot.
The most prominent Victorian era mansion built in Old Conemaugh is the ca. 1870 brick Second Empire style W. H. Smith residence at 125 Singer Street. This richly textured work, the building itself, is highlighted by a complex stickwork porch including sunburst and turned moldings, stone watercourses and window sills with carved floral motifs, and three tall chimneys. A second prominent home is the Queen Anne style E. Zang House, 784 Railroad Street, built ca. 1890. Its distinctive horseshoe theme ornamentation is reflected in a stone arched window and decorative cross gable over a front balcony. There are intact paneled double doors, fishscale shingles and intact interior hardwood trim. A more modest Queen Anne style house is the 1904 Otto M. Hornick House at 115 Peter Street. This two and one-half story multi-gable residence features fishscale shingles, original clapboard siding, and a projecting two story bay window.
The commercial district lining Railroad Street is also comprised of mainly vernacular buildings interspersed with one Federal, two Second Empire, and one Romanesque, style buildings. The 1832 Federal style American House, 1002 Church Avenue, is one of two surviving canal-era hotels. Although the front roofline was altered, this brick landmark retains characteristic double end chimneys and stone window sills with carved bullseyes. Carpenter's Food Store is housed in the ca. 1890 brick Second Empire building at 912-916 Railroad Street. The ca. 1890 wood frame Second Empire style commercial building at 799 Railroad Street, is occupied by the Brass Rail Bar. It is distinguished by a mansard roof and a rich display of decorative woodwork in brackets, corbels, inset wood panels, and applied sawn ornament. The two and one-half story brick Romanesque Revival block at 764-768 Railroad Street, built ca. 1900, displays a corbelled cornice and arched windows. Dutch Colonial Revival stepped gables, a carved floral modillion and cast iron storefront adorn the ca. 1890 brick building located at 758 Railroad Street.
Although classified vernacular, the majority of commercial buildings on Railroad Street have notable features. The former Kingston Hotel, built ca. 1850, is located at 734 Railroad Street. It is built in brick covered with a thin coat of plaster, has original curvilinear tie rods, entryway with segmental arch, and a two story porch on the rear wing. Nearby 740 Railroad Street, a former tailor shop and hotel built ca. 1870, is the oldest intact storefront in the City of Johnstown. Paneled shutters over store windows, etched glass and ornate applied woodwork survive. The ca. 1885 commercial building at 770 Railroad Street, constructed in a popular vernacular residential style featuring a five bay front, side gable roof and a center cross gable, is adorned with ornate millwork in brackets and corbels.
Institutions built the largest buildings in Old Conemaugh Borough Historic District. St. Joseph's German Catholic Church, 739 Railroad Street, is the centerpiece of a large parish complex. This 1868 Gothic Revival landmark, severely damaged by the 1889 Johnstown Flood, has a bell tower with octagonal spire, pointed arch windows, stucco covered brick walls, and small corner spires with crockets. The next oldest parish building is 1890 Bishop Pelczar Manor, 749 Railroad Street, a former convent. This three story brick building, built by C. C. Hornick, features Gothic arch windows with keystones and a steeply pitched roof added by Otto M. Hornick in 1928. The 1906 school, Central Catholic, is an ecclesiastical Gothic Revival building designed by the prolific Johnstown architect Walter R. Myton. It displays corbelled brickwork, large crenelated towers, and a rock faced stone foundation. The 1925 Parsonage, another Myton design, and 1934 St. Joseph's Hall are additional vernacular brick buildings in the parish complex. The neighborhood's public school is Hudson Street School, 115 Hudson Street, built in 1895 and expanded in 1924. This 2 story brick building is highlighted by a projecting three story hip roof bell tower with a rock faced round arch stone entry portal.
Noncontributing buildings number 24, and have little effect on the overall integrity of the district. They make up less than eight percent of the total building stock and are widely distributed. Some, such as the building at 810-812 Railroad Street, fall within the period of significance but have been severely altered. In this case, the dimensions of both window and door openings have been altered, and newer doors and windows installed. The house at 724 Duke Alley is sheathed in vinyl siding and has had many of its original windows replaced with new vinyl windows. In several cases, buildings are newer than the end of the period of significance. The large cement block garage at 1129 Steel Street was constructed ca. 1950. The former firehall, 900 Railroad Street, also dates from around 1950.
Alterations to contributing buildings are reversible or alone do not completely degrade a building's architectural integrity. The most common alterations include asbestos shingles, vinyl and aluminum siding, removal of architectural ornamentation, replacement of original windows and doors, altering openings, and enclosing porches. Other homes, such as 148 Gautier Street, have been converted from a double into a single and have one of the two front doors blocked off. Despite these typical alterations, homes retain their historic character and contribute to the district.
The Old Conemaugh Historic District maintains high overall integrity despite wide acceptance of vinyl siding and other minor alterations. Buildings retain overall building dimensions, original placement of door and window openings, and basic window and door trim. The district's essential character, of tightly packed rows of working class houses in a residential neighborhood and a concentration of businesses serving residents along the major thoroughfare, is still preserved today.
The Old Conemaugh Borough Historic District is significant in the industrial development of Johnstown, specifically for the Gautier Division (later J. T. Pitt Steel) of the Cambria Iron Company, which provided employment for many residents of the neighborhood. The Gautier Division (1878), Cambria's wire mill, later became the company's center for specialty steel production and provided relatively steady employment for this millgate neighborhood up until the 1970's. A number of company houses were built here for the mill workers, many surviving today. Old Conemaugh Borough Historic District is also significant in containing Johnstown's oldest neighborhood commercial area, which dates from the early nineteenth century when it grew along the edge of the Pennsylvania Canal basin. A third area of significance is under Criterion C, the district's well preserved vernacular architecture dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Several examples of high style architecture, in residential and institutional buildings, are also presented in the district. The period of significance starts in 1832, the year the American House was built, and ends in 1934 after which very little new construction took place.
The area now known as "Old Conemaugh Borough" initially developed as a canal settlement on the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal and Allegheny Portage Railroad, opened in 1831. John Levergood donated land to the state for a canal basin, located at the juncture of the canal and railroad where boats and railroad cars were loaded and unloaded. Levergood also sold lots to developers who built warehouses along the docks and a variety of other enterprises. By 1849, a separate Borough of Old Conemaugh was formed from Conemaugh Township. With over 800 residents by 1853, the Borough was already the site of industry with the Johnstown Mechanical Works and commercial activity with several hotels, docks and warehouses, the state weighlock and repair yards and a steam grist mill. Institutional growth included two Catholic churches and four public schools.
A neighborhood commercial district emerged on crescent shaped Railroad Street running along the south side of the canal basin, with hotels and eateries serving both canal traffic and the local population. Captain Thomas Young, owner of a large boatyard on the basin, erected the Federal Style ca. 1832 American House. The former ca. 1850 Kingston Hotel, 734 Railroad Street, is a vernacular canal-era hostelry, later used as a rooming house. The ca. 1870 building at 740 Railroad Street, which housed a tailor shop in the storefront and a hotel in a two story rear wing, boasts Johnstown's most intact canal-era storefront, now vacated and threatened with demolition.
Residential streets radiated south from Railroad Street like spokes from a hub, lined with small working class homes. Privately constructed, they were generally modest vernacular two story plank and balloon frame houses. The ca. 1850 Young House, 146 Coal Street, is typical. The ca. 1870 house at 136 Hudson Street has decorative sawn ornament applied to an otherwise vernacular house. Another modest vernacular home built at the end of the canal era is the ca. 1870 C. C. Hornick House at 117 Peter Street, owned by the first of several generations of Hornick family carpenter/builders. In addition to his own house, Hornick built the ca. 1890 Bishop Pelczar Manor (formerly St. Joseph's Convent) and several other landmarks in the City of Johnstown. High style residential construction in Old Conemaugh Borough was less common. Two nearly identical ca. 1850 Greek Revival style houses were built at 116 and 122 Singer Street. The first was the home of Isaac Singer, a blacksmith. Although altered, both homes display characteristic broad temple fronts, are setback further from the street than neighboring houses and are sited on larger lots.
Germans were the dominant immigrant group settling near the canal basin in the mid-nineteenth century. They split from the predominantly Irish St. John's Catholic Church, forming St. Joseph's in 1851. The first church, built on Singer Street ca. 1850, no longer stands. The present day church, constructed at 739 Railroad Street in 1868, is one of Johnstown's oldest Gothic Revival landmarks.
Rapid expansion of the Cambria Iron Company after 1854 and simultaneous growth of the Pennsylvania Railroad revived Old Conemaugh following the canal's demise in 1863. In 1878 Cambria purchased the Johnstown Mechanical Works, establishing the Gautier Division which manufactured wire and agricultural implements. The company brought 1,000 new employees to the neighborhood in just four months during 1878, increasing the Borough's population by one-third and causing a major housing shortage. Cambria responded by laying out Gautier and Chapin Streets and building 24 tenements. Additional lots surveyed on Chapin and Catherine Streets at the time were built up after 1890. There are nine of these former company houses surviving on Gautier and 10 on Chapin, spacious two to two and one-half story doubles, some converted into single family homes.
Private home builders also met the need for additional housing. Larger vernacular style homes like the 1888 Christian Kakuck House, a two and one-half story balloon frame house at 117 Adams Street, demonstrate the wider availability of milling machinery. W. H. Smith, a prominent building contractor who had worked as a construction supervisor for Cambria, lived in the two and one-half story Second Empire mansion at 125 Singer Street built ca. 1870. He built the second German-Austrian Hall on Hudson Street in 1895.
By 1886, just three years before the Great Johnstown Flood, the neighborhood commercial district on Railroad Street was well established with five groceries, an equal number of saloons, a confection shop and cobbler, two hotels and the local fire company, A building added during this period is the ca. 1885 building at 770 Railroad Street, which housed a cobbler shop.
The 1889 Johnstown Flood did not effect the historic district except for a small area on the north side of Railroad Street, because of higher terrain and deflection of the flood waters. Because of the high costs of rebuilding infrastructure, Old Conemaugh Borough relinquished independent borough status and joined several other municipalities in forming the City of Johnstown in 1889. The flood washed away everything in the Borough north of Railroad Street, opening new opportunities for industrial and commercial growth. Cambria rebuilt and expanded the Gautier Mill, the Pennsylvania Railroad (P.R.R.) purchased abandoned Public Works (canal) rights of way for expanded rail service, and the B & O Railroad rebuilt its line crossing Railroad Street. By ca. 1900, the P.R.R. had built a new freight station on the former canal basin site.
Economic growth after the flood spurred new residential construction. The elegant ca. 1890 E. Zang House, 784 Railroad Street, was built for a successful shoe merchant with a store in Johnstown's central business district. A half dozen modest Second Empire style buildings were erected, including the ca. 1890 example at 111 Chapin Street. The ca. 1890 house at 137 Singer Street has a Queen Anne touch in its attached two story octagonal tower. Builder O. M. Hornick designed and built his own modest Victorian home at 115 Peter Street in 1904. He also built St. Joseph's parsonage, designed by architect Walter Myton; added the third floor and entry to the convent; and built a rental property at 111-113 Peter Street. Hornick worked on a number of homes in the City, including several in the exclusive Westmont neighborhood.
Many Old Conemaugh merchants rebuilt on the north side of Railroad Street and several on the south side where space permitted. On the street's north side is #799, the ca. 1890 Brass Rail Bar and Hotel, an exuberant ca. 1890 high style Second Empire style commercial block replacing the flood demolished Cambria Borough House. A neighboring combination residence and shop at 795 Railroad Street, built ca. 1890, has the original storefront still intact. The ca. 1890 brick store at 758 Railroad Street, with cast iron storefront pillars, was constructed by W. M. Smith, owner of a local machine shop.
St. Joseph's Church, the 1868 institutional landmark, is one of a handful of buildings on the north side of Railroad Street which withstood the 1889 Flood and the only survivor today. Following repairs to the church, rebuilding continued with the Convent (1890), School (1906), Parsonage (1925) and Dining Hall (1934). German residents, organizing the German-Austrian Music and Benefit Society in 1885, built a hall at 139 Hudson Street in 1890. Fire destroyed the first and second buildings (1895); the present hall was erected in 1925. An influx of new ethnic groups after the turn of the century, Slovaks, Italians and blacks, further increased the population. Construction of the massive Hudson Street Public School (1895/1924) followed shortly after by St. Joseph's School (1906) reflects the fact that Old Conemaugh Borough had reached 4,500 residents by 1903.
The 1920's brought Bethlehem Steel's purchase of the Midvale Steel Company (formerly Cambria Steel) ca. 1920 and Gautier's transition to a specialty steel mill. The Great Depression, an aging and crowded neighborhood housing stock, and citywide streetcar service providing workers transportation to more desirable neighborhoods, retarded further growth in Old Conemaugh. By the 1930's. Old Conemaugh's reputation was that of a lower class section with deteriorating housing stock. Many private homes were sold as rental units, resulting in poorer maintenance and some residential demolitions. These trends, together with an aging population and lower household size, have contributed to a decreased population figure of 1,248 today.
Despite stagnation in the neighborhood, the district's neighborhood commercial district, defined as Railroad Street between Adams and Hudson Streets, proved more resilient averaging 36 businesses between 1910 and 1950. This strength may be attributed to Old Conemaugh's diversity of industrial, wholesale and transportation employment and loyalty of neighborhood residents. Business numbers fell in the 1960s, shortly before the dramatic decline of Johnstown's steel making facilities. Core business types persisting from the mid-nineteenth century to the present are hotels, groceries, and taverns/bars. Restaurants, first recorded ca. 1900 have also maintained a strong presence. Up until ca. 1960, there was at least one tailor, shoe store and meat market. The diversity and overall number of businesses peaked around 1929, when there were six groceries, five confectionery stores, five restaurants, four barbers, two tailors, two shoe stores, three meat markets and many additional stores. Today the total number of businesses is 14, with only office use showing growth in recent years. Old Conemaugh Borough's context is of millgate neighborhoods which grew up around other Cambria mills. Old Conemaugh Borough's dominant German born population and substantial numbers of residents with Irish and English roots, remained the majority even after the turn of the century. Old Conemaugh did not obtain the "foreign colony" label of Cambria City and Minersville neighborhoods, where northern European groups were replaced by southern and eastern European immigrants after the turn of the century. This difference may be traced in part to Cambria's designation of Gautier as a specialty steel mill retaining more highly skilled workers of mostly northern European heritage, while other mills utilized greater numbers of lower skilled workers who emigrated from southern and eastern Europe after the turn of the century.
Old Conemaugh retains a predominantly vernacular architectural legacy which, unlike other mitigate neighborhoods, begins in the mid-nineteenth century. The Old Conemaugh Historic District was largely spared Cambria City's losses from the 1889, 1936 and 1977 floods and Minersville's losses during 1960's urban renewal. As a result, Old Conemaugh Borough Historic District retains examples of both commercial and residential buildings dating from the mid and late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There are also a few examples of high style architecture from each period, including Federal, Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Second Empire, and Queen Anne, lacking in Cambria City and Minersville.
Cambria built company houses in all three neighborhoods as well as Westmont, a mixed working class and white collar neighborhood built by Cambria out of the flood prone valley after the 1889 Flood. Former company houses, with the exception of Cambria City, survive in Minersville, Westmont and Old Conemaugh. Minersville's doubles are smaller than Old Conemaugh's, one and one-half rather than two stories tall. In contrast, Westmont's company houses include seven small singles and 10 doubles built for working class employees, and 11 spacious single family homes built for management. Old Conemaugh's company houses, all doubles, were built for mill workers and like Minersville's were in easy walking distance of the neighborhood mill.
Old Conemaugh's neighborhood commercial district is smaller but more concentrated than Cambria City's. Minersville's no longer exists and Westmont never had more than a few scattered commercial buildings. Cambria City retains a wider variety of services on its principal commercial street. Old Conemaugh's main commercial area, although never as extensive as Cambria City's, is more compact. Its beginnings, in the canal area, predate any other of the city's other neighborhoods commercial districts by several decades.
Gable, John E. History of Cambria County, PA. 2 volumes. Topeka: Historical Publishing Co., 1926.
Shappee, Nathan D. A History of Johnstown and the Great Flood of 1889: A Study of Disasters and Rehabilitation. University of Pittsburgh, doctoral dissertation, 1940.
Storey, Henry Wilson. History of Cambria County, PA. 3 volumes. New York: Lewis Publishing Co., 1907.