Oak Hall Historic District
The Oak Hall Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historc Places in 1979. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. Adaptation copyrigh © 2008, The Gombach Group.
The Oak Hall Historic District consists of the western portion of the small village of Oak Hall in College Township, Centre County, Pennsylvania. The eastern portion of the village was adversely affected by the construction of the State College By-Pass in 1971. At this time the core of the community, including its store and post office building, was demolished.
The present Oak Hall is predominated by the farm residence of General James Irvin, Oak Hall's most prominent citizen and an influential figure in the prosperity and growth of the village. The district includes his mansion house, stone barn, grist mill site, and appropriate historical setting.
There are 5 principal historic buildings in the district, associated outbuildings and artificial landscape features, 2 other visually compatible older houses, and 2 intrusions.
The village of Oak Hall at one time or another boasted a foundry, brick mill, feed and flour mill, store and Post Office, woolen mill, tinsmith shop, cannery, quarry and blacktop preparation plant and in 1976 can claim only a quarry with blacktop plant, and the scientific laboratory.
In 1883 Centre County historian John Blair Linn wrote that Oak Hall owed its importance to the energy and enterprise of General James Irvin. Irvin, who looms large in local history as a prominent ironmaster, US Congressman, military figure (state militia), and public benefactor, began his career in Oak Hall in 1822 as operator of a newly built grist mill and keeper of a general store.
Oak Hall was a very small community at that time but enjoyed location on one of the county's earliest and most travelled roadways (connecting Bellefonte in Nittany Valley with the Sunbury road in Penn's Valley by skirting the end of Nittany Mountain). The village experienced modest growth in the 19th century. After a Pennsylvania Railroad depot was built in 1884, the community became known as Oak Hall Station. In 1886 a post office was established. As a small rural community Oak Hall survived with little change until 1971 when highway construction obliterated one end of the village.
Significant primarily in the areas of Agriculture, Industry, Architecture and association with prominent local historical figure, the proposed Oak Hall National Register Historic District concentrates on the Irvin mill and mansion farm but also recognizes adjacent buildings and landscapes features which make up a cohesive historic environment. Preservation of the Oak Hall National Register Historic District encourages continued recognition of the community's heritage and the survival of Oak Hall's identity in light of the damage done by the highway.
Centre County's fertile limestone soils have historically supported a large farm economy. Farming and clearing land for farming were the principal occupations of the earliest settlers.
The Oak Hall National Register District while not taking in large amounts of farm acreage, nonetheless effectively represents the agricultural heritage of the community. Included is a representative and significant portion of the Irvin Mansion farm with barn and outbuildings still in use and the land worked or pastured. The 5 dwellings south of Route 871 appear to be enveloped by the surrounding agricultural land and one of these, the Benjamin Peters House is, historically, a farm house in its own right.
Agricultural development was aided by the presence of several rushing streams which provided the power for milling flour and feed. Mills built along these streams became centers for congregation and settlement.
Oak Hall, located on Spring Creek in Nittany Valley was one of Centre County's earliest communities and was a prominent site for milling. While historical descriptions of the community normally commence with General Irvin's arrival and the construction of the Irvin mill in 1822, official Centre County records suggest the presence of earlier milling activity. The chain of title for the Irvin mill property reveals that the tract was owned by a succession of millers before 1822.
The mill tract traces back to a larger piece of property surveyed in the warrantee name of Benjamin Bayless with letters of Patent granted to Samuel Wallis. In 1768 Wallis deeded the land to Reuben Haines who in turn, in 1805, sold it to George McCormick, Sr.
McCormick is known to local history as a miller who was the first settler of Spring Mills, (now),, Centre County before 1800. McCormick's name appears in the Ferguson Township assessments of 1801 (which would have included the Oak Hall vicinity) as owner of a grist mill and saw mill. In 1811 McCormick sold a portion of his Oak Hall tract to his son George McCormick, Jr. and a 132 acre portion to John Irvin, Sr. Two years later, McCormick's son sold his portion to Jacob Hubler. Hubler is known to have constructed the first mill at Millheim, Centre County, prior to 1800.
In 1820 Jacob Johnstonbaugh purchased Hubler's property at Oak Hall. Johnstonbaugh was married to Hubler's daughter Susannah, and had as early as 1819 been assessed for a grist mill and a saw mill in the township. It is not known if Johnstonbaugh and his wife occupied the herein described Johnstonbaugh House, but the house's apparent age, modest character, and proximity to the mill site tantalizes speculation. In 1858 the house would be sold on 1/4 acre of property as the property of Thomas Johnstonbaugh. The buyer at that time, a blacksmith named Frederick Kaup, has the same unusual surname as a man who ran the Irvin grist mill in the 1850's. These simcellaneous details suggest that the Johnstonbaugh House may have had historical identity as the miller's house for the nearby mill site.
While it is difficult to get a clear picture of milling activities prior to the construction of the Irvin Mill in 1822, the subsequent history of the property is fairly well documented. Sold by the Irvin estate in 1864 the mill passed into the ownership of several men prominent in local agriculture including D.C. Gingerrich (from 1877-79); William Allison (from 1879-85); William Thomas (1885-99); and Clayton Etters (from 1899-1939). The mill, which had served the local agricultural economy for over a century, closed for good in 1948. It was last operated by George and William Stover of Centre Hall.
Although only a portion of the Irvin mill survives, this portion, complimented by the land forms of the head and tail races and mill dam is strongly expressive of the milling industry.
34 historic Centre County mill sites have been identified by local historian J. Marvin Lee, but only a handful of these have even portion of a mill still standing. Of masonry grist mill buildings only Centre Mills (c. 1802; Miles Township) and the Brockerhoff Mill (1862) and Gamble Mill (1894), both on Spring Creek at Bellefonte, survive.
Pennsylvania historian Sylvester K. Stevens once characterized General James Irvin as "a figure typical of the ironmaster of the Pennsylvania iron industry in the days of 1830 and to the Civil War; men prominent in public life, locally and otherwise; men of tremendous influence and power, and generous to a fault, but keen to an unusual degree in the conduct of business affairs." Stevens also described General Irvin as "the last of the old school ironmaster." Although Irvin would become one of the most distinguished ironmasters of Centre Furnace and the Milesburg Iron Works, his association with Oak Hall appears more intimate and exclusive.
James Irvin (1800-62) was one of 12 children born to John and Ann Watson Irvin of Linden Hall, Centre Co. James' father, an Irish immigrant and mason by training, operated a grist mill, a saw mill and a store at Linden Hall and resided there until his death in 1843.
Whether by chance or design several of the Irvin children were joined in marriage to members of the most prominent local families. The list of spouses, including such names as ironmaster Moses Thompson, Andrew Gregg, Jr., and Roland Curtin, Jr. is a veritable Who's Who of Centre County history and indicates the family's enormous involvement in business and social affairs.
In 1822 James Irvin married Julianna Gregg, daughter of the Honorable Andrew Gregg, Sr., the first local person to serve in the US congress. In the following year James began milling and merchandising activities in Oak Hall on property his father had purchased in 1811. James and Julianna were the first occupants of the Irvin Mansion.
In 1832 James and his father purchased a one third interest in the Centre Furnace and Milesburg iron works industries. James presumably moved from the Oak Hall farm at this time and established himself at Centre Furnace. In this same year he was elected major-general in the 10th Division of the State Militia and thus received the title by which he came to be known.
In his subsequent career General Irvin would serve as a member of the U.S. Congress (1841-45), run unsuccessfully for Governor on the Whig Ticket (1847), and become the most enterprising and successful local ironmaster of the era. At various times General Irvin owned all or part of Centre Furnace: Milesburg Iron Works; Martha, Monroe, Julian, Mill Creek, and Hecla Furnaces. He leased or managed the Mercer Iron Works at Greenville and the Washington and Hopewell furnaces.
Like other ironmasters, Irvin sought to promote improvements in transportation facilities and was an initial subscriber to the Bald Eagle and Spring Creek Navigation Company canal in 1836 and the Bald Eagle Valley Railroad in 1857. General Irvin is also remembered for his gift of 250 acres of farm land as inducement for the location of a "Farmers' High School" now Penn State University, in Centre County.
The Oak Hall farm, following the General's departure, was occupied by his brother, John Irvin, Jr., who had left school at an early age to run the grist mill and saw mill business. John would inherit the farm from his father in 1843 and, though selling it to James Irvin as part of a larger transaction in 1848, continued to occupy it in the 1850's.
General Irvin suffered significant financial reverses during the economic panic of 1857. In October of that year the farm was sold to a Robert Foster who held it for only a few months. The mill property, however, remained in the Irvin estate until 1864 when it was sold at public sale.
In 1858 the mansion farm was purchased by Reverend Robert Hamill with help from members of the Spring Creek Presbyterian congregation. Reverend Hamill, who served for 45 years as pastor for the Spring Creek circuit, occupied the house until retiring from the ministry in 1895.
J. Irvin Ross purchased the property from Reverend Hamill on March 25, 1895, but sold it to Daniel B. Lowder on April 1st of the same year. Daniel B. Lowder's son, Elmer, was the next owner. When he died he had lived in the mansion for 68 years. The current owner, Mrs. Richard A. Humphreys, is the daughter of Elmer S. Lowder.
Native limestone was a choice building material in the early days of Centre County as well as being an important ingredient for the enormously successful local iron industry. The Oak Hall National Register Historic District offers 3 examples of the most skillful use of native limestone in the service of traditional design.
Cited by Linn in 1883 as being "one of the finest old mansion houses in the county," the Irvin Mansion is a building of impressive scale and quality. Its facade of smooth limestone blocks, symmetrical window placement and simple arched entry is dignified and traditional. Apart from the large size of the house, prosperity is expressed in a quiet way — in sound workmanship and adherence to formal proportioning.
This attitude of reserve was interrupted by alterations made after mid-19th century. At this time Victorian bracketing was added to the eaves and 3 Victorian dormers were installed as part of the facade.
One interesting addition was made to the mansion around mid-19th century in the form of an ornate, copper-roofed porch added to the main entrance and flanking bays. Formed of cast-iron the porch's supports offer a lacy pattern of floral, foliate, and scroll motifs. Bird and cornucopia ornaments are spaced about the eaves of the porch roof. Believed to be the product of some Southern foundry, the porch is a rarity in this area.
While the mansion was clearly intended as one of the finest homes in region, it is obvious that the Irvin barn and mill were built with a sensitivity to their appearance and that they were not meant to suffer by comparison. Both the barn and the mill's foundation story exhibit the high quality of masonry construction evident in the mansion. Apart from general quality, however, each building offers features which otherwise distinguish the building from common construction. In the case of the barn, an unusual degree of refinement is evidenced in the regularity of window placement and, especially, in the introduction of a Palladian window (ventilator) at the top of the gable end facing the mansion. The mill, meanwhile, has thick corner buttresses at the two corners nearest the race and has paired arched openings at the race's entry and exit. No other grist mill surviving in the county displays these features.
The excellent masonry construction seen in the Irvin buildings could be the result of the close supervision, or active participation, of John Irvin, Sr. Irvin is recorded as being a stone mason early in his career and he owned the land on which these buildings were erected from 1811 until his death in 1843. Further speculation connects the Irvin mansion at Oak Hall with the Andrew Gregg, Jr. House in Gregg Township, Centre County (NR 1977). Also built c. 1825, the Gregg House is a model of limestone masonry and features a simple arched 4 entrance in the stone wall as does the Irvin mansion. It is historically related in that Gregg married John Irvin's daughter in 1824 while Gregg's sister had married James Irvin in 1822.
The outbuildings of the Irvin farm include 4 of heavy wooden construction which appear to be contemporaneous with the mansion. Painted a brilliant white, these buildings, along with other more recent outbuildings near the barn, provide's more complete suggestion of farm life.
As if to balance the obvious prosperity of the Irvin buildings, the Johnstonbaugh House offers the unpretentious personality of vernacular architecture. First as a small log house of undetermined antiquity and then as a 4-bay clapboarded dwelling, the Johnstonbaugh House was the home of men of a different social rank and their families — laboring men. The white-painted Johnstonbaugh House is an integral part of the Historic District.
The Benjamin Peters House of c. 1860 is a very fine example of the sort of dignified country residence that was being built in this area around the time of the Civil War. Although it doesn't rival the earlier Irvin Mansion's substantiality, the Peters House nevertheless conveys a clear image of refinement. In this case, classically-inspired proportioning and detailing seems to make up for any deficiency of substance. The house suggests an owner whose social rank stood somewhere between that of the entrepreneur-and-gentleman-farmer and that of the laboring man — a middle class figure whose aspirations in society could now be reflected with the advances of construction technologies and proliferation of design information in the early Victorian era.
Together, the buildings, landscape features, and setting of the Oak Hall Historic District furnish a meaningful record of the historical basis of the community.