Borough municipal offices are located at 140 Church Street, Phoenixville, PA 19460; phone: 610-933-8801.
The Phoenixville Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Portions of the content of this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document [†] Adaptation copyright © 2012, The Gombach Group.
The Phoenixville Historic District is significant as the location of an important nineteenth century iron and steel company, as the commercial center of northern Chester County, and as a locally outstanding collection of architecture. Phoenixville is the home of Phoenix Iron and Steel, which was one of the largest nineteenth century iron and steel companies in southeastern Pennsylvania. As an outgrowth of the flourishing iron and steel industry, Phoenixville became the largest marketing and trading center in northern Chester County. Phoenixville Historic District is also important because it has one of the largest collections of vernacular design worker housing and high-style Italianate, Queen Anne and Second Empire buildings found in northern Chester County. Phoenixville began after the mid-eighteenth century as a site for grist milling and iron milling. This small scale industry brought permanent residents so that by the end of the eighteenth century homes were clustered near the banks of the French Creek. James Starr, one of the area's first settlers, erected the aforementioned grist mill and his home, 10 North Main street which later housed successive iron industry proprietors. Thomas Robinson's farm house juxtaposed beside the old cartway near Starr Street, is the only other building remaining from this early period.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the iron industry expanded enormously, fostering a rapid increase in Phoenixville's population. Despite periodic flooding, rendering the necessity for major rebuilding, the iron industry grew from a few small rolling and slitting mills at the end of the eighteenth century to several larger blast furnaces and finishing mills by the middle of the nineteenth century. With the completion of the Chester County Canal in 1828 and the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad in 1837, the iron industry gained easier access to raw materials and more efficient transportation of finished products. This led the industry to build more blast furnaces in Phoenixville. A cotton factory, no longer standing today, was constructed by Edward Garrigues in 1828. This cotton mill enhanced the villagers primary industry and brought a degree of industrial diversity to the town. After the mid-nineteenth century Phoenix Iron and Steel became the largest iron and steel producer in Chester County, and one of the largest in southeast Pennsylvania. By 1881 Phoenix Iron Company used 60,000 tons of ore annually in the blast furnaces to produce 30,000 tons of pig iron, and employed 1,500 men. The firm's largest competitor in Chester County was located in Coatesville. This firm, Huston, Penrose and Company, which later incorporated as Lukens Iron and Steel Company, employed only 100 men and operated four heating and three puddling mills in 1881. No other iron or steel mill in the county approached the size of Phoenix Iron and Steel at this time.
Phoenix Iron and Steel was also important as an innovator in iron and steel production with numerous inventions and improvements in productivity to their credit. They erected an experimental furnace to make wrought iron from ore and undertook extensive experiments to determine the strength of beams and other shapes. In 1862, the company vice-president Samuel J. Reeves introduced the Phoenix Column to the marketplace. The fabricated column, which joined together rolled wrought iron flanged sections in order to obtain greater strength with less weight, became widely used in this country and abroad. Other company firsts of national prominence included producing 15" wrought iron beams, I-beams, wrought iron window frames and sashes, and double-lipped wrought iron railroad cars. The clay house, foundry and template shop in which these innovative products were manufactured still stand on both sides of French Creek.
The expansion of the iron and steel industry in Phoenixville fostered commercial growth so that Phoenixville became one of the largest commercial centers in Chester County in the second half of the nineteenth century. Before 1860 businesses were established in Phoenixville mostly in the 100 block of Bridge Street. Between 1860 and 1900 commercial establishments spread westward on Bridge Street and southward on Main and Gay Streets to Church Street. In 1875 there were approximately 150 establishments that included produce dealers, physicians, jewelers, stone and tinware stores, hotels, restaurants, dry goods, milliners, sewing machine dealers, livery stables, banks, plus fish and meat markets among others. Phoenixville had more and a greater variety of businesses than that any other town in Chester County. Its nearest commercial rival in the northern part of the county was Spring City, which had less than four dozen commercial establishments in 1875. Only Coatesville near the western edge of Chester County, Downingtown in central Chester County and West Chester near the eastern edge of the county had numbers and varieties of businesses similar to those found in Phoenixville in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The expansion of the iron and steel industry also fostered population growth that in turn spurred the construction of worker housing, especially between 1846 and 1873. In 1846 Reeves, Buck and Company, which was the forerunner of Phoenix Iron and Steel, erected 1-31 Mill Street for employees at their nearby nail factory. The construction helped alleviate an acute housing shortage when the mill increased its work force to 300 men and the town's population doubled during the mid-1840s. As the work force of Phoenix Iron and Steel continued to grow during the 1850s, the firm erected more housing on Hall, Walnut and Morgan Streets. Phoenix Iron and Steel as well as private developers built still more worker housing into the early 1870s.
Phoenixville has the largest collection of mid-nineteenth century worker housing in Chester County. Most of this housing is vernacular in appearance and has little ornamentation. In scattered cases where this housing shews any stylistic influences, it portrays elements of the Federal and Italianate styles. Other large collections of industrial worker housing in Chester County were built later. In Coatesville, for example, 'workers' houses were constructed primarily in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This housing shows elements of the Gothic Revival and Craftsman styles popular at the time. In keeping with their stylistic influences, worker housing in Coatesville have more ornamentation that workers' homes in Phoenixville.
Phoenixville's collection of worker housing stands out in another way. Phoenixville has the largest collection of company-built and company-owned worker housing in Chester County. Phoenixville Iron and Steel dominated the nineteenth century town in all areas, including, housing. The company chose to build residences for its workers rather than leave such construction solely to private developers. In other Chester County towns dominated by a single firm, housing was not similarly controlled by the company. In Coatesville, for instance, Lukens Iron and Steel left the construction of most housing to private developers. Although Lukens Iron and Steel exerted great power over other areas of Coatesville's development, it did not directly control the town's housing.
Phoenixville also has an outstanding collection of high-style residences owned by industrial entrepreneurs. The growth of iron and steel mills in Phoenixville led to construction of high style buildings for company owners and entrepreneurs. The Samuel Reeves mansion is the historic district's most significant and palatial structure. Begun in 1846 for Phoenix Iron and Steel Company's vice-president, it is an outstanding example of the formal Italian Villa style. Dr. Levi Oberholtzer and John Vanderslice adhered to the Second Empire style for their mansions overlooking the valley on the north side of French creek at 307 Vanderslice Street and 303-305 Vanderslice Street. Phoenixville has one of the largest collections of high style mansions built by mill owners and entrepreneurs in northern Chester County. Coatesville, another large mill town, has significantly fewer mansions owned by industrial entrepreneurs. For instance, only one mansion in Coatesville, the Abram Huston House, compares favorably with the elaborate ornamentation of the Thomas F. Byrne mansion on South Main Street in Phoenixville. Other smaller towns in northern Chester County have few or no mansions. Businessmen did not build large high-style houses in Elverson, Honey Brook or Spring City.
Phoenixville's collection of Italianate commercial buildings constructed between 1850 and 1890 is unique in northern Chester County. Businessmen erected Italianate buildings in the 200 block of Bridge Street and along nearby Main Street. For example, Vosburg Shaffer and John L. Dismant, as well as Philip, Christian and Frederick Wall popularized the Italianate style with their commercial buildings at 203 Bridge Street, 224-228 Bridge Street, and 214-216 Bridge Street. L.B. Kaler and M.E. Wagoner also utilized the Italianate style for their business buildings at 59-61 North Main Street. No other town in northern Chester County has such a substantial collection of Italianate commercial buildings. Other northern Chester County towns possess smaller commercial sections that developed later than Phoenixville's business center did. Thus Elverson, Honey Brook and Spring City have smaller collections of business buildings constructed primarily in Second Empire, Queen Anne or Gothic Revival styles. Very few commercial buildings were erected in the Italianate style in these three towns.
Phoenixville continued as a major commercial and industrial center in Chester County through the first three decades of the twentieth century. The Phoenix Iron and Steel Company continued to be the largest employer in Phoenixville. The firm also continued engineering and product research, and expanded its plant. For instance, a machine shop was constructed next to the blooming mill to facilitate growing production. Phoenixville Iron am Steel's expansion in turn spurred further residential and commercial growth in town. However, during the early twentieth century Phoenixville was eclipsed as a steel production center in Chester County by Coatesville. Lukens Iron and Steel Company expanded enormously during the early twentieth century, and Bethlehem Steel Company established a large subsidiary plant in Coatesville.
Phoenixville's industrial base has gradually changed and declined since World War II. The steel industry has felt the brunt of burgeoning foreign competition and intense national competition. As the steel mills laid off workers, smaller service-oriented businesses opened to employ some of the jobless. Today, Phoenixville's industrial might in Chester County is a thing of the past. Yet the iron and steel mills remain as vivid examples of Phoenixville's industrial importance during the nineteenth century. Many of the town's historic commercial buildings survive to portray Phoenixville's past commercial role. And the outstanding collections of worker housing and industrial entrepreneurs' mansions serve to illustrate Phoenixville's architectural prominence in Chester County.
† Jane L. S. Davidson Chester County Historic Preservation Office and William Sisson, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Phoenixville Historic District, Chester County, PA, nomination document, 1986, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.