Bloomsburg Historic District
The Bloomsburg Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
Bloomsburg is nestled between gently rolling hills along the northern banks of the Susquehanna River. The town is bounded on the north and west by Tishing Creek. Like its comparably sized neighbors, Berwick and Sunbury, Bloomsburg was once served by the Pennsylvania Canal and numerous rail lines. Today, interstate route 80 links Bloomsburg to the interstate highway system.
The streets in the proposed district were laid out in a grid pattern. Major streets run east-west and minor streets run north-south. Main street (Second Street) provides the major town axis and is also part of U. S. Route 11. The eastern terminus of Main Street is Carver Hall on the Bloomsburg State College campus. Market Street intersects Main Street nine blocks west of Carver Hall and serves as a pivotal axis and focal point. The open space at the intersection of Main and Market Streets features Civil War memorial statuary that lends a sense of grandeur to the town.
The existing land use pattern in Bloomsburg consists of well defined industrial, residential and commercial areas. Buildings associated with business and government are concentrated on Main Street between West and East Streets. Most of the town's industry is located along a narrow belt that parallels Sixth Street and the old railroad tracks. Bloomsburg State College dominates the eastern fringe of the town. The western edge, narrowed by hilly terrain, Fishing Creek and the Susquehanna River is occupied by the Bloomsburg Fair Grounds. A large community park comprises the southern edge of the town while steep hills and a cemetery form a natural northern boundary. Residential development fills the remainder of the town.
Within Bloomsburg's proposed historic district, commercial and residential land use predominates. The district does not contain the sort of homogeneous streets common to nearby towns. Instead, Bloomsburg is characterized by a diversity of styles, scale building material and design elements. Intrusions have little affect on the district since only 6% of the approximately 700 structures are intrusive. Attractive streetscapes created by the linkage of buildings, well tended lawns and common porches, well maintained buildings, and regularly spaced shade trees add to the character of the proposed district.
A turn of the century ambience is maintained by the high density development in the district. Excluding the avenues where parking lots and garages are concentrated, each block has between six and nine buildings. The density of buildings is greatest along Main Street where structures are only occasionally separated by alleys or walkways. In the residential area, lot sizes vary. The largest residential lots are located on Market and Fifth Streets and the smallest lots are wedged between larger lots in the alleys and along Third Street. In both the commercial and residential areas, the sizes of the buildings vary. On Main Street three story commercial buildings and imposing institutional and religious structures, including the Courthouse, the town hall and St. Paul's Episcopal Church reflect the town's important regional commercial role and social prominence.
The commercial building facades, particularly those of older commercial buildings, form a nearby continuous line along the sidewalk along Main Street. Most of the commercial structures are divided vertically by a storefront base and a band cornice for signage, the upper floors have window openings and projecting horizontal cornices.
Turn of the century postcard views of Main Street show a profusion of color. This feature is even more pronounced today. Characteristic red brick and white wood frame buildings, signs of modest scale usually placed at a right angle to a building facade, retractable awnings and porches with shed roof were common in Bloomsburg eighty years ago. Today, pent roofs are frequently used instead of awnings, but buildings still display a variety of color. Along with a few wood frame buildings with synthetic siding, many of the structures on Main Street are brick, concrete or structural steel with brick or stone facades The result is a colorful textured streetscape.
Like the commercial portion of the district, the residential area is diverse in character. Although pre-1860 buildings appear on First and Third Streets, the majority of Bloomsburg's residences are associated with the expansion of manufacturing and commerce that accompanied the iron industry boom in the 1870's. The residential styles include Eclectic Victorian, Queen Anne, and Colonial Revival houses. The most substantial and stylish residences are on Market, Fifth and First Streets, and at the east end of Second Street. Generally these structures have retained much integrity despite many conversions to apartments. Many of Bloomsburg's larger dwellings, especially along Market and Fifth Streets are brick. Gracious verandas front these 2-1/2 story buildings. The residences are often topped by irregularly massed roofs with a variety of wings, bays, dormers or towers. Along with the most substantial residences, there are many modest single family dwellings throughout the town. Generally older and smaller than their counterparts, the structures exhibit Italianate or restrained Victorian features. Constructed of wood or brick, the integrity of the smaller houses is generally intact.
Overall, the residences within the district are in good physical condition. The William Street area, which contains the district's most blatant intrusions, mobile homes, is the only area where there is a concentration of buildings in poor condition.. Some of the mobile homes, owned by the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority are slated for demolition. Another area with problems is along East Street where the number and extent of alterations stem from residences being adopted for commercial use.
Alterations to residences generally consist of unsympathetic improvements: aluminum siding, wrought iron porches with aluminum awnings, enclosed porches and inappropriate shutters. Fortunately, local pride and an appreciation of good design values has kept the number of intrusive alterations to a minimum, especially along the district's main thoroughfares. While there are cases where alterations have compromised the integrity of a structure, most changes are reversible.
The seat of Columbia County since 1845, Bloomsburg has been an important industrial, commercial and educational center in the region for over a century and a half. Once served by six railroads, the North Branch of the Pennsylvania Canal, and the Susquehanna River, the town was also an early transportation hub. The steady growth of Bloomsburg throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is reflected in the varied architectural styles found throughout the town.
The first settler in the Bloomsburg area, James McClure, came from Lancaster County in 1772. McClure settled on a tract of land that the local Indians called "Beauchamp" which meant "beautiful field." The site of an Indian campground along the Great Warrior Path, Beauchamp provided the half-dozen families who followed McClure with abundant natural resources including fertile soil, lumber and iron ore. Indian troubles in the late 1770's and 1780's deterred further settlement until the 1790's.
Bloom Township was created in 1798. Four years later Ludwig Eyer, a native of Northampton County, laid out Bloomsburg within Bloom Township. The town plot extended from First Street to Third and from West to East (Iron) Street. Within those boundaries were thirty-two blocks containing three lots each. At the time the town was laid out, Bloomsburg consisted of only three buildings — a Protestant Episcopal Church, a hotel, and a deserted log cabin. By 1814, the year after Columbia County was created, the town had grown to 13 buildings. The economy of the town during those early years revolved around home industries. A tannery operated at the intersection of Main and Light Streets, a wagon maker opened a shop in 1816, and coopers supplied containers for goods being floated down the Susquehanna. During the next twenty years Bloomsburg grew at a slow but steady rate.
The construction of the North branch of the Pennsylvania Canal during the late 1820's ushered in a new era for Bloomsburg. Begun in 1826 and completed five years later, the canal brought new industry to the upper Susquehanna Valley and generated a host of local manufacturing concerns. The waterway also linked Bloomsburg to larger communities in the east. Expanding opportunities in business and farming led to an expanding population which required the services of doctors, lawyers, carpenters, blacksmiths and other small businessmen. The town's first weekly newspaper, the Bloomsburg Register, and a growing number of travelers further fostered an exchange of ideas and popular tastes within the town.
Between 1840 and 1860 the construction of iron furnaces and the advent of the railroad accelerated the socio-economic development of the town. The construction of the Irondale Furnaces in 1844 and the Bloom Furnace in 1852 gave Bloomsburg an important new regional status. Along with new opportunities and an influx of both workers and capital, the expanding industries brought a degree of social ordering that became apparent in the town's dwellings. During this period there evolved two basic types of residences. Workers houses were small, plain houses while more elaborate Italianate and Victorian homes and commercial buildings were erected by a local business/manager class. Cupolas, gracious verandas and decorative finials became characteristic on these Italianate dwellings and gave Bloomsburg a certain elegance.
The establishment of the Irondale Furnace in Bloomsburg was followed by the relocation of the county seat from Danville to Bloomsburg in 1845. From the time the county had been created, the location of the county seat was a much debated issue. The relocation of the seat was greeted with enthusiasm in Bloomsburg. A courthouse and jail were built soon afterward. Designed by Napoleon Le Brun, the courthouse was originally a Greek Revival style brick structure. The building was later enlarged and redesigned in the Romanesque Revival style. For the people of Bloomsburg the courthouse was a forceful example of the important governmental role the town assumed when it became the county seat.
Bloomsburg became a regional educational center in 1866 with the institutionalization of the Bloomsburg Literary Institute. The Institute had been chartered in 1856, but was inactive during the early 1860's. In 1866 six locally prominent residents reactivated the charter and drew up plans for the construction of a new school building. The directors also elected Henry Carver principal of the school. In September 1866, classes began in a temporary facility. The Institute's building was completed a year later. Built on a slight hill at the east end of Main Street, the structure, now called Carver Hall, immediately became a visual focal point in the town. Today, the Bloomsburg Literary Institute is Bloomsburg State College and Carver Hall remains a visual focal point in Bloomsburg.
Between 1850 and 1890 new railroads brought additional prominence to Bloomsburg. By the turn of the century six railroads carried goods to and from the town. Expanding commercial activity was accompanied by an ever expanding population. In 1870 local residents considered establishing a municipality. Realizing that Bloom Township could not survive financially without the revenues from the proposed town, the town boundaries were extended to include all of Bloom Township and Bloomsburg become the only incorporated town in Pennsylvania. The incorporation spurred improvements in local roads, the creation of a new fire company and a police service.
By the 1880's the iron industry in Bloomsburg was in serious decline. Low grade ore, depleted local deposits, the development of the Bessemer Process, and a westward shift in manufacturing activities adversely effected the industry. Likewise, the railroads undermined the economic feasibility of the Pennsylvania Canal and in 1889 a flood ended canal service altogether. Nevertheless, economic development continued in Bloomsburg. The increasing availability of water, light and heat provided by the Bloomsburg Water Company, the Bloomsburg Gas Company and the Irondale Electric Light, Heat and Power Company as well as the growing population and the railroads provided hundreds of jobs. Meanwhile local manufacturing was sustained by merchant and service sectors of the economy: This slow but steady growth continued through the 1920's.
The growth of Bloomsburg throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century is reflected in the town's architecture. Bloomsburg contains a dense collection of residential religious commercial and civic buildings of virtually every style popular between 1830 and 1920. An unusually large number of these structures are wood frame. A few early Federal style buildings occupy lots on First and Second Streets while Italianate dwellings can be found throughout the town. Associated with the iron boom in the 1870's and 1880's the most stylish structures in Bloomsburg are Eclectic Victorian, Colonial Revival and Queen Anne style buildings. Having irregularly massed roofs with numerous wings, bays and dormers, these large wood frame dwellings are often topped by decorative finials. A few Art Deco style commercial structures, built in the early part of the twentieth century, are also within the proposed historic district. The diversity of Bloomsburg's architecture clearly reflects over a century of growth and development within the town.
Walker, G. A. and Jewett, C. F. Atlas of Columbia and Montour Counties Pennsylvania, New York: F. W. Beers & Co., 1876; reprint ed., Evansville, Ind.: Unigraphic, Inc., 1975.
Hopkins, G. M., Jr. Cummings Map of Columbia and Montour Counties Pennsylvania, Chillisquaque, PA: J.A.J. Cummings, 1860
Sanborn Map Company. Bloomsburg, Columbia County, Pennsylvania. New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1923
Battle, J. H. ed. History of Columbia and Montour Counties, Pennsylvania. Chicago: A. W. Warner and Co., 1887. Reprint ed. Evansville, Ind.: Unigraphic Inc., 1974
Nichols, Charles M. International Magazine of Industry; a review journal of American Progress, Special Souvenir Edition, Columbia County. V (June 1910)
Souvenir Book of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. Bloomsburg, PA: Columbian Printing Office, 1901.