Commercial Historic District
The Mechanicsburg Commercial 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.
The Mechanicsburg Commercial Historic District is the central business area in Mechanicsburg. It is a three block section of Main Street, which is the primary east-west route in the borough. Settled in the early nineteenth century, the original buildings were small, one and one-half or two and one-half story, gable roof, Georgian houses of frame, log or brick, set back from the street. Generally, these early buildings were altered or replaced in the mid-to-late nineteenth century by the three, four and five bay, two or three story, brick, Italianate buildings that characterize downtown Mechanicsburg today. Built as residences and commercial establishments, these later structures retain many of their original architectural details; lintels; sills, cornices, brackets, and storefronts. The district is densely built. The buildings abut the sidewalk and are close together or attached. Of the 102 buildings in the district (not including outbuildings), 11 are intrusions because of age or inappropriate alteration, 18 are individually significant, and 73 are contributing. In the district are included two churches, two banks, two fire companies and the police department. The balance of the buildings are stores and residences. The district maintains a high degree of integrity. Where there are alterations, they generally involve the storefront only.
The prevailing style of architecture in Mechanicsburg during the first half of the nineteenth century was Georgian. The buildings were generally constructed with the gable ends parallel to the street, with three, four or five bays, modest cornices and brackets, and six-over-six lights. According to Professor D. Rupp in 1845 there were "133 houses ... 41 of brick, 67 of frame and 25 plastered." Although most of the 133 buildings that are in the district have either been demolished or altered, several good examples of early construction are still extant. 25 East Main Street is a rare, frame house with some log construction visible in the rear. 110 West Main Street, 71 West Main Street and 73 West Main Street share architectural details common to the early buildings.
Frequently, the brick Georgian buildings were enlarged to three stories. 1-3 East Main Street was altered and modernized in 1858. This pattern continued throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The roofs of 7-11 West Main Street and 39 West Main Street were raised in the twentieth century.
Bridgens' Map reveals that most of the central section of Mechanicsburg had been developed by 1858. There were few vacant lots. Most subsequent construction was either replacement of early frame houses or enlargement of the sturdier brick structures.
By the 1850's, the Italianate style had replaced Georgian as the favored architecture on Main Street. For the rest of the century and into the twentieth century, most new buildings were constructed in this style. Italianate became the most enduring form of architecture in Mechanicsburg and one-half of the buildings in the district are of Italianate derivation.
The economic prosperity in Mechanicsburg in the 1850's is reflected in the buildings of the period. Commonly three bay, three story structures, these buildings had simple lintels, straight friezes and multiple brackets. Constructed of local brick, they incorporate fine craftsmanship, material and design. Notable examples of this style are 59 West Main Street, 27 East Main Street and 39 East Main Street.
In the late 1860's and 1870's, after the economy had recovered from the Civil War, the architecture became somewhat more sophisticated. It was during this period, c. 1868, that Mechanicsburg's three major hotels (The Merchants, the National and the American) were built. These later buildings are possibly influenced by the architecture of Franklin Hall (now demolished) which was built by prominent local architect/builder John W. Hershman in 1866. These large, commercial buildings characteristically had pedimented window headers and elaborate brackets and cornices. 48-50 West Main Street, 17 West Main Street, 100-104 West Main Street and 63 West Main Street share similar architectural features.
Italianate architecture was never abandoned in Mechanicsburg and was reflected in several notable commercial buildings constructed at the turn of the twentieth century. 106-108 West Main Street, 26-28 West Main Street and 15-19 East Main Street are important, large scale structures with Italianate features.
Although three-quarters of the buildings in the district are either of Italianate or Georgian influence, eleven of the remaining buildings are fine examples of other late nineteenth century architecture. Significant among the eleven are 55 West Main Street and 36 West Main Street, two outstanding Romanesque buildings, 38 West Main Street, a fine Second Empire structure, and 55 West Main Street, an excellent Queen Anne house. These later buildings are situated at intervals within the district rather than clustered in one area.
Several of the buildings retain their early storefronts. 36 East Main Street, 47-49 West Main Street, 71 West Main Street, and 12-14 North Market Street are notable for excellent architectural details that remain: dentils, modillions, brackets and cornices, and early glass. 41-43 West Main Street has a fine, formed composition and glass facade and 17 West Main Street has an excellent Art-Deco first floor facade. Close inspection of the commercial buildings reveals that early storefronts often lie behind contemporary alterations.
There are only eleven intrusions in the district. Seven are on Main Street and four are on the side streets toward the rear of the blocks. Four have two or three stories as is usual in Mechanicsburg, but seven are small scale, one story structures. Eight are built of brick, to conform with the prevalent building material in the district. The intrusions generally are so located that they do not detract from the surrounding buildings.
Seventy nine percent of the buildings that are not considered intrusive are either unaltered or altered on the first floor only. The second and third floors are usually not altered. There is, consequently, a high degree of integrity within the district, and the late nineteenth century streetscape has been well preserved.
The 1890's was a period of optimism and growth in the Mechanicsburg borough, which encouraged R. H. Thomas, editor of the Independent Journal, to publish an Industrial Edition on August 2, 1893, to endorse the special opportunities in Mechanicsburg. As it was in 1893, Mechanicsburg can still be considered "The Gem City of the Famed Cumberland Valley."
The Mechanicsburg Commercial Historic District reflects the economic growth and prosperity of the borough and the district survives as an excellent example of provincial commercial development of the latter half of the nineteenth century.
See also: Mechanicsburg Borough: Beginnings
Mechanicsburg's reputation as a transportation center continued to grow. New transportation related industries were founded and wagon and carriage manufacturing companies became major employers. By the time of the Civil war, Mechanicsburg had emerged as a very desirable place to live and work. Throughout the nineteenth century, it continued to attract merchants and manufacturing entrepreneurs. It cannot be stated with certainty why the commercial area did not continue to develop in the twentieth century. However, it can be presumed that the borough's economy, based largely on the manufacture and repair of wagons and carriages, was affected by the growth of the automotive industry which rendered the wagon obsolete. This economic factor and the general conservatism of the area in general may account for the lack of change and the infrequency of intrusions in the commercial district.
In the 1850's and 1860's, the new merchants and businessmen most frequently chose to build their residences and storerooms on Main Street, the heart of the commercial area. The buildings incorporated a residence for the merchant and a storeroom for his business. The structures generally were attached, three story, three bay, and built of brick in the Italianate style. Since brick was locally plentiful, it was the favored building material and eighty one percent of all structures in the district are of brick. This architectural style, scale, and building material is characteristic of the district. The later Italianate buildings are often larger in scale, but still follow the same architectural pattern of the earlier buildings. Although modest and restrained compared to their urban counterparts, the buildings in the Mechanicsburg Commercial Historic District have in common rich and varied architectural details. Elaborate cornices and brackets, detailed entryways, doors and window headers, a variety of moldings, and fine, early storefronts are typical in the district. The intrusions are scattered throughout the three block area but do not detract from the character of the district.
Despite business competition from nearby shopping malls, the Mechanicsburg Commercial Historic District remains a viable commercial center and still provides the shopping services that it has historically. The current operation of Eckel's Pharmacy (est. 1879), Biddle's Department Store (est. 1867), Weber's Hardware (est. c. 1855), Daniels' Pharmacy (est. c. 1850) and the Ryan Store (est. c. 1910), attest to the commercial continuity in the borough. The district continues to reflect Mechanicsburg's most prosperous commercial period.
Beers, F. W., Atlas of Cumberland County. (New York: F. W. Beers and Co., 1872) pp. 18-19
Bridgens, H. F., Map of Cumberland County Pennsylvania. (Philadelphia: 1858)
Insurance Maps of Mechanicsburg. (New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1885, 1890, 1896, 1902, 1911)
Keefer, Norman D., A History of Mechanicsburg and the Surrounding Area. (Mechanicsburg Area Historical Committee, 1976) pp. 17-18
Rupp, I. Daniel, The History and Topography of Dauphin, Cumberland, Franklin, Bedford, Adams and Perry Counties. (Lancaster: Gilbert Hills, Publisher, 1846) pp. 429-430
Strong, J. G. Map of Mechanicsburg, Penna. (Carlisle, 1867)
Wing, Rev. Conway P., History of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. (Philadelphia: James D. Scott, 1879) pp. 208-210
History of Adams and Cumberland Counties, Pennsylvania. (Chicago: Warner, Beers and Co., 1886) pp. 249-256, 405-442, 539-540