St Marys Historic District
The St. Mary's Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomintation document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The St. Marys Historic District, also known as Sanct Marienstadt, is a mixed-use area of approximately 170 acres, consisting of the historic core of the City of St. Marys, which is the largest community of Elk County, in north-central Pennsylvania. The St. Marys Historic District contains the central business of the community as well as adjacent residential areas and St. Joseph's Convent. Interspersed in the central business district are several institutional buildings, and the residential areas contain several historic churches in addition to the aforementioned convent. The majority of the buildings are two to three stories in height. Construction methods are divided equally between natural masonry and wood, along with several early examples of locally-produced "artificial stone." Styles represented in the St. Marys Historic District include Greek Revival, Italianate, Romanesque Revival, Gothic Revival, French Second Empire, Queen Anne, Neo-Classical Revival, Colonial Revival (including Dutch Colonial Revival), American Foursquare, Tudor Revival, and Bungalow, along with vernacular adaptations of most of the individual styles. No single area within the St. Marys Historic District contains a preponderance of any particular style, although the ubiquitous American Foursquare is found on virtually all of the streets within the residential portions of the district. The business district is characterized by two- and three-story buildings built flush with one another, while the residential areas are typified by detached homes with front, side, and rear setbacks and well-tended lawns. The overall character of the St. Marys Historic District is that of a light manufacturing community with a central business district surrounded by neighborhoods of modest workers' and middle-class homes along with substantial residences of owners, with which are interspersed a number of churches. A unique feature of the St. Marys Historic District is the Convent, whose history is inextricably linked to that of the community as a whole. The St. Marys Historic District contains a total of 499 resources, of which 408 (88%) contribute to the character of the district and 91 (12%) are non-contributing. A total of 487 buildings are in the St. Marys Historic District, along with 8 objects (both religious and military commemorative in nature), 2 contributing structures (Lake Benita and the Elk Creek Bridge), and the "Diamond" and the St. Joseph's Convent Cemetery, both contributing sites. Of the buildings in the St. Marys Historic District, about 85% are residential in character and the remainder are commercial or institutional. One previously National Register-listed property, the John E. Weidenboemer House (124 N. Michael Street), is found within the district. It is not included in the district's resource count. The district retains integrity; non-contributing resources are dispersed widely throughout the nominated area.
The St. Marys Historic District consists of the historic central core of the community as well as portions of several early additions and subdivisions. The oldest building in the St. Marys Historic District is a c.1845 stone building (on South St. Marys Street). No particular section of the district is characterized by buildings dating from any single period. An unusual feature of the St. Marys Historic District is the plan of the earliest section oriented around the "Diamond," which is a generally triangular quasi-public space at the center of town which since the 1860s has been bisected by railroads. Radiating outward from the Diamond in an irregular pattern are the district's major thoroughfares including North and South St. Marys Street — which roughly divide the district into east and west-and (counter-clockwise from St. Marys Street) Mill, Brussels. Depot, Erie, Washington, Lafayette, Michael, and Center Streets. West of St. Marys Street, Maurus and Benedict Streets parallel Center Street and extend westward from North Michael Street. Church and Louis Streets extend northward from Center Street, and Railroad Street extends one block eastward from South St. Marys Street to Lafayette Street. East of St. Marys Street are found portions of Lafayette, Washington, Madison, Diamond, Fourth, Market, Pine, and Chestnut Streets. The names of Michael, Benedict, John, and Louis Streets (as well as Walburg and Charles, outside the district) were originally preceded by "Saint." This designation was abandoned, leaving only St. Marys Street so named. The topography of the St. Marys Historic District rises approximately 100 feet from Mill Street at the south boundary to Benedict Street at the north boundary. Two branches of Elk Creek converge near East Mill Street; most of the creek has been enclosed, leaving only small sections open. Some portions of the creek are open, with cut stone embankments; these are not counted in the resource count but are nonetheless important landscape features within the district as a whole. The South Michael Street bridge spanning Elk Creek is an arched bridge of stone which is a contributing structure of the St. Marys Historic District. The railroad divides the district into north and south, crossing the central business district and adding to the general vehicular confusion that characterizes downtown St. Marys.
As noted above, the Diamond is generally at the center of the district and is surrounded by the commercial core of the community. To the west, south, and north are residential neighborhoods and to the immediate east, outside the district, is an industrial section containing the manufacturing plant of the Stackpole Carbon Company. St. Joseph's Convent is approximately 2,500' west of the Diamond. Two state highways extend through the district. Pennsylvania State Route 120 enters the district from the west (from Ridgway) and leads out of the district northeast toward Emporium. State Route 255 (South St. Marys Street) enters the district from the south (from DuBois) and leads out of the district (as North St. Marys Street) in a northwesterly direction toward Johnsonburg.
The St. Marys Historic District contains diverse residential, commercial, and institutional architecture. Commercial architecture is found along North and South St. Marys Street, as well as on Erie Avenue and Railroad, Depot, Washington, Mill, Brussels, Market, and Chestnut Streets. Commercial buildings are built flush with one another, with no side lots, and are built flush with the sidewalk in front. Rear lot setbacks in the central business district vary from property to property; some buildings occupy their entire lots from front to rear while others do not extend to the rear lot lines, allowing for minor dependencies and for small areas of surface parking. The downtown was ravaged by several fires, with the result that most commercial buildings are of masonry construction (primarily common bond red, yellow, or cream-colored brick along with some ashlar stone). Commercial architecture is generally two to three stories in height, with roofs that are flat or slope gently from front to rear, and are three to five bays in width with fenestration dominated by one-over-one sash.
Much of the central business district post dates the era of Italianate design. Several buildings retain portions of original pressed metal facades. The finest of these is the German House (22 Railroad Street) with an intact, original facade bearing an identification plaque from its manufacturer, Mesker Brothers, a prominent producer of mail-order pressed metal fronts in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Storefronts are of a traditional design, incorporating large expanses of plate glass display windows, recessed entrances, signbands, bulkheads, and the occasional use of art glass. Upper facades of commercial buildings are defined by tall, narrow window proportions, a variety of window types, and cornices of wood, brick, stone, and metal. A number of commercial rehabilitation projects have occurred within St. Marys Historic District since the beginning of the community's Main Street Project in the 1980s. These have included sensitive facade rehabilitations, storefront design, new signage, awnings, and painting projects. The most ambitious single commercial project was the million-dollar 1995 rehabilitation of the 1928 Rogan-Kantar Block (4 Erie Avenue). Its deteriorated exterior required the complete replacement of its finish (with a resultant loss of integrity), but the project nonetheless generated major investment within the downtown and assured the stabilization of a major corner property. Insensitive alterations within the commercial area include the replacement of historic windows, incompatible sign design, and the application of synthetic materials (ranging from reasonably sensitive applications of siding to the introduction of foreign materials such as simulated lava rock). Such alterations are dispersed widely in the downtown and do not adversely affect the historic character of the business district as a whole.
Residential architecture within the St. Marys Historic District is found on North St. Marys Street, as well as on Center, Maurus, North Michael, Church, Lafayette, Madison, Washington, Brussels and Pine Streets. Homes and their associated dependencies are built both of masonry and wood, with no construction material predominating. Residences date from the 1845 construction of the George E. Weis House (44 S. St. Marys Street) into the late 1940s and range from modest 1-1/2 story cottages to the spacious 2- and 3-story homes of the community's leading industrialists. Dependencies consist of detached automobile garages and a few surviving carriage houses, generally located at the rear of the respective property. Window forms in the residential areas are diverse, including unadorned one-over-one flat-topped sash, multi-light windows, and casement windows on Tudor Revival-style homes. Roof types include hipped and gabled roof (with both gable-end and lateral orientation to the street), as well as gambrel roof forms, all of which can be pierced by dormers. Nearly all of the popular design modes of the century-long period of significance are found in the St. Marys Historic District, such as old-world derivatives including Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, and Colonial, Dutch Colonial, Neo-Classical, and Tudor Revival, along with purely American products such as Bungalows and American Foursquares. Mail-order homes are typified by the 1920s Sears "Osborn" at 406 Church Street.
The most pervasive insensitive alterations to residential architecture are seen in the application of artificial siding and window replacement. However, within the context of the totality of the district's resources, these alterations do not irretrievably compromise the physical integrity of the area. Other insensitive modifications include the removal of porches and decorative trim, but again, given the breadth of the district, without serious compromise to the whole. A limited amount of new construction has occurred in the residential areas of the district. The largest new building is the high-rise housing facility at 185 Center Street. On the positive side, the majority of the homes in the St. Marys Historic District have been well-maintained over the years and sensitive residential rehabilitations have added to the visual quality of the district The most ambitious of these are the careful maintenance of the exterior and interior of the 1903 Dr. Eben J. Russ House (138 Center Street), the certified rehabilitation of the 1913 Kaul-Miller House and its dependency (152 Center Street), both of which are bed-and-breakfast inns, and the conversion of the John E. Weidenboemer House (124 N. Michael Street) for use by the local Girl Scouts.
Secular and religious institutional design within the St. Marys Historic District includes the 1940 St. Marys Post Office (at the corner of Chestnut Street and South Michael Street), four churches, two parochial schools, St. Joseph's Priory and its Gymnasium Building, and St. Joseph's Convent. The earliest church is the 1852-1854 St. Marys Church (associated with the Convent and on its grounds). In 1896-1897, the First Methodist Episcopal Church was built at 140 North St. Marys Street, followed in 1905 by St. Agnes Protestant Episcopal Church, which was built across the street at 219 North St. Marys Street. The last church built in the district was Sacred Heart Church, built 1906-1907 at 340 Center Street. St. Marys Church is Romanesque Revival in design, with round-arched fenestration, while the other three churches are of Gothic Revival design, with lancet-arched openings. All but St. Agnes Church are of masonry, although the wood exterior of St. Agnes was veneered with fieldstone in the 1920s, giving it, too, the outward appearance of substantial masonry construction. All of the churches have gabled roofs with a variety of towers, spires, and turrets, and all are further ornamented with a rich collection of art glass.
The two schools in the St. Marys Historic District — both Roman Catholic in affiliation — are the 1922 Sacred Heart School, located opposite Sacred Heart Church on Center Street and St. Marys School on Church Street, which dates from 1951, outside the district's period of significance. The schools are both of brick construction, rectangular in form, with flat roofs and fenestration of a large scale, which in both cases has been modified for purposes of energy conservation. Both are surrounded by parking lots and playgrounds. St. Marys School is located beside St. Joseph's Convent.
The 1889-1890 St. Joseph's Priory and its 1902 Gymnasium are located adjacent to each other on Church Street. The Priory is an Italianate-style building of three stories with a hipped roof, and served as a residential facility associated with both Sacred Heart and St. Marys Parishes. The Gymnasium, immediately south of the Priory, is also of brick and was built as a physical education facility for the facility.
St. Joseph's Convent — the foundation of the community more than any other institution — occupies a 16-acre campus between Center, Church, Benedict, and Louis Streets on the western edge of the district. The property consists of a series of interconnected two-, three-, and four-story masonry buildings including St. Benedict's Academy of 1868 (with an 1888 veranda) and 1907, the St. Joseph Convent buildings of 1860, 1880, 1900, and 1933-34, and two chapels, one built in 1886 which now serves as a library and another associated with a major expansion of 1933-34. Lake Benito (more of a large pond) is also on the property as is a cemetery and objects including statuary and the 1928 St. Walburg's Shrine.
In the heart of the downtown is the "Diamond," a significant open space associated with the St. Marys Historic District throughout the district's period of significance. The Diamond is a grassy community park shielded by several mature shade trees and dotted with several small-scale military commemorative objects dating from the years following World War Two to the present. Its existence apparently grew from an unusually generous intersection of several streets, rather than from any particular community planning effort. In fact, the area was not completely in public ownership until 1890, when the Borough secured a small tract from private hands. Over the years, the Diamond has served as the town's gathering place, and has contained a bandstand, a commemorative military honor roll, and similar community-based objects. Along with the railroad and the irregular intersecting of no fewer than five streets, the Diamond adds considerably to the traffic challenge within the district, but is nonetheless a significant feature in the community and is St. Marys Historic District's only park.
But for the obvious exceptions of new construction and technological intrusions such as auto- and utility-related amenities, the St. Marys Historic District is little-changed since its century-long period of significance. Some streets have been widened to accommodate parking and turning lanes, but the overall plan of the town has not been modified significantly. Zoning has generally controlled the incompatible intrusion of commercial development into the residential areas, and the largest single contemporary feature (and the largest single feature in the district) is the 1981 Elk Towers high-rise apartment building on Center Street. Viewed in its entirety, the St. Marys Historic District represents a cohesive nineteenth- and twentieth-century community radiating outward from a central public space to a commercial district generally surrounded by stable residential neighborhoods and containing several religious and secular institutional buildings and one major distinctive religious resource, the Convent.
The St. Marys Historic District is significant in the area of commerce, the district is the reflection of the commercial life of this community throughout the period of significance, particularly as the commercial reflection of industrial success in the "boom" years following the turn-of-the-century genesis of the powdered metal industry which occurred here. This commercial heritage is seen throughout the central business district which forms the core of the historic district. Also, in the area of religion, St. Marys Historic District is significant for its association with Roman Catholicism in America, especially as the home of St. Joseph's, the first Benedictine convent in the United States, which is included in the district. The district is significant as representing the local pattern of development in the history of American Catholicism, has derived secular recognition as being a primary historic force in the community, and contains the first and mother house of the Benedictine movement in America. The St. Marys Historic District is significant for its collection of historic architecture which represents most of the popular styles of architecture in vogue during the period of significance, including Greek, Gothic, and Romanesque Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, and Shingle, Colonial, Dutch Colonial, Neo-Classical, and Tudor Revival, American Foursquare, and Bungalow. The district derives additional significance from the presence of work by locally- and regionally-prominent master builders and architects. The period of significance of the district begins in 1843, the date of original settlement of the district and ends in 1948, the fifty-year guideline for most National Register eligibility.
The European settlement of St Marys dates from the early 1840s. During those years, a group of Philadelphia and Baltimore Roman Catholics planned the establishment of a colony for German Catholics which, on one hand, would be far-removed from the ethnic and religious prejudice which was felt in the east-coast urban centers and which also provided a haven to Germans who were oppressed in their homeland. Maryland in general and Baltimore in particular had long associations with and reputations for tolerance of Catholicism and both the city and the state acted as conduit for Catholic immigrants for decades. Beyond providing a refuge from persecution, the movement of colonization offered opportunities for German Catholics to acquire potentially productive undeveloped lands and to form and maintain an ethnic and religious community based on German Catholicism. Three men, John Albert, Nicholaus Beimel, and Michael Derieth departed Philadelphia in March of 1842 and eventually arrived at the farm of John Green near Centerville (now Kersey), about ten miles from the present heart of the historic district The group met with a representative of the Fox Land Company and purchased — sight unseen — approximately 30,000 acres of wilderness within which the new colony would be established.
In October, 1842, the German Catholic Brotherhood was formed to oversee the development of the colony and two groups — one each from Philadelphia and Baltimore — left the east coast for north-central Pennsylvania. Using the aforementioned Green farm as a base, the men traveled to the site of the new town and began to carve out a clearing from the dense forests. On December 8, 1842, the group moved to their new home. Ever-devout, the settlers recognized that their relocation date coincided with the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, so the new community was christened Sand Marian Stadt — literally, St. Mary's Town.
Originally the group intended to develop an agrarian economy similar to that of their native Germany, adding to it a utopian, communal approach to the division of labor and the distribution of profits. However, St. Marys was never known as one of the bastions of the utopianism of Robert Owen or George Rapp. Instead, these nascent Utopian leanings appear to have grown more from pragmatism than from ideals, and it soon became clear that the philosophy was destined to fail and perhaps to take with it the new town. In the spring of 1843, Father Alexander Cvitkowitz (1806-1883), Superior of the Baltimore Redemptorist Mission, was invited to come to provide guidance to the faltering settlers. He brought with him a new physical plan for the town which called for a wheel-and-spoke arrangement with each resident owning outright both a town lot and a farm lot. A small portion of the original plan has survived in parts of Center, North Michael and South St. Marys Street and is included within the boundary of the historic district. Unfortunately, the topography proved too rugged for such a rigid plan, which was made worse by the marketing of land to emigrants in Baltimore, who arrived at St. Marys only to find the lots they purchased occupied by others. Father Zwitowitz returned to Baltimore and prevailed upon Col. Matthias Benzinger to assume oversight of the colony. Benzinger arrived late in 1843, purchased additional land from the Fox Land Company, and offered each settler a 25-acre farm lot and a town lot free-of-charge as an inducement to stay. He also scrapped the communal property arrangement and development immediately moved more smoothly.
In the years prior to the Civil War, growth was slow. Father Zwitowitz came back from Baltimore and erected a sawmill on Elk Creek, whose first products were used to build a church. While the Redemptorist priest grew his religious community, Col. Benzinger and his partner, John Eschbach employed agents to travel to Germany to recruit new colonists. By 1847, the population of the village reached 964 and commercial enterprise included a grist mill, a general store, brick and lime kilns, and a cobbler. The only building surviving from this period is the 1845 home of settler George Weis at 44 South St. Marys Street. The Borough was incorporated in 1848.
In 1863, the Sunbury and Erie Railroad connected the community to the metropolitan markets at Philadelphia and Erie and the commercial and industrial growth of St. Marys began in earnest. Among the earliest industrialists — whose influence is still felt in the community — were Andrew Kaul and James Knox Polk Hall. Their endeavors — and those of their contemporaries — were centered on the natural resources of the region, including wood and later coal, oil, and natural gas. Early wood-related industries included millwork, barrel and kindling wood factories, a wagon wheel plant, and Hall and Kaul's St. Marys Tannery, along with the massive 1896 Kaul and Hall double-band sawmill. Their industries were all located outside the historic district, as were the homes of Messrs. Hall and Kaul (both subsequently destroyed). However, the c.1905 home of Kaul and Hall Secretary George E. Simons is extant at 168 Center Street. The Kaul and Hall sawmill cut its last log on September 8, 1922.
The arrival of the railroad brought significant changes to the fortunes of the town and dictated much of the business district's future development pattern. The railroad bisected Erie Avenue and shops and commercial buildings grew up on either side of the tracks, a pattern which continues to the present. Ethnically, the railroad changed the community as well, bringing Irish workmen and their families into the previously staunchly German town. The religious impact of the Irish during these years is most evident in the 1873 founding of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Parish, organized for the "English" Catholics; the "German" Catholics remained at St. Marys Parish. The railroad right-of-way remains along Erie Avenue, but the passenger and freight stations, both formerly on Erie Avenue, as well as all other historic resources associated with the railroad, have been destroyed.
On July 25, 1880, a major fire destroyed most of the downtown, wiping out thirty-four buildings. The downtown's original architecture had been of wood, and since wood was the most plentiful building material, much reconstruction employed the same material, with similar results. In December, 1910, another fire destroyed much of Erie Avenue north of the railroad tracks. This time, however, the new buildings were of masonry.
Much of St. Marys Historic District's commercial development in the late 1800s was the result of the German Catholic citizens' search for economic and social order and prosperity. With the industrial growth at the edge of the downtown, downtown St. Marys grew into a regional commercial center for this section of Elk County. Lumber developed as the major focus of the community during much of the late nineteenth century and for the first quarter of the twentieth. American Lumberman magazine reported in 1906 that twenty-four Pennsylvania communities had sawmills cutting more than ten million board feet annually. Fourteen of those communities have since become ghost towns and that only three — St Marys included — are as large or larger than during their lumbering days. Lumber historian Thomas Tabor wrote that "St. Marys was Kaul and Hall and Kaul and Hall was St. Marys." Their influence extended well beyond the sawmill, encompassing endeavors as diverse as the present-day Andrew Kaul Memorial Hospital and the Stackpole-Hall Foundation.
As wood-based industries declined in the early twentieth century, a variety of diverse manufacturing entities developed in St. Marys at the periphery of the municipality and in Benzinger Township. The population of the Borough topped 2,000, many of whom were employed in new clay-related endeavors such as the St. Marys Sewer Pipe Company and the Elk Fire Brick Company, both located east of the district. No fewer than six breweries remained successful during these years, including the Straub Brewery, which began in 1873, re-opened after Prohibition, and continues to the present at 303 Sorg Street, outside the district. The oil and gas industry played an important role in the development of the fortunes of St. Marys, reflected both in the naming of Oilwell Street, immediately north of the historic district and in the establishment of the carbon industry here. While direct activity in petroleum-related businesses did not occur in the district, the influence of oil and gas and the fortunes which they produced cannot be discounted in St Marys. Under the heading "NEW OIL FIELD" the local newspaper reported in the fall of 1889 that "this town is booming at present over the exceptionally fine indications of oil. Thousands of acres of land have been leased and drilling is going on night and day." Natural gas — often found during the oil exploration process — was also an important facet of the commercial/industrial heritage of the community. Gas became so abundant in St. Marys that it was less expensive to leave the street lamps burning all day that it was to employ a lamplighter.
In addition to their lumbering operations, industrialists Hall and Kaul occupied a central position in the diversification of industrial life in St. Marys in the later nineteenth century which, in turn, accounted for the population to rise from about 3,000 in 1892 to 6,346 in 1910. In 1899, with Andrew Kaul, Louis Streuber, and Burr Cartwright, John S. Speer established Speer Carbon Company, pioneering the carbon industry in St. Marys and manufacturing carbon and metal graphic brushes for motors and generators as well as battery carbons. Speer Carbon was the first of the myriad carbon and powdered metal operations which characterized St. Marys throughout the balance of the period of significance of the district and which continue to be a mainstay of the community to the present. At Speer's untimely death in 1925, he was succeeded by William Kaul as president and Dudley Miller as secretary-treasurer. By the 1930s, Speer employed more than 1,000 at their Theresia Street plant, east of the district.
He was soon joined by J.K.P. Hall and his son-in-law, Harry Stackpole who in 1906 founded the Stackpole Battery Company on Stackpole Street, manufacturing dry cell batteries using carbon purchased from Speer. In 1912 the firm became the Stackpole Carbon Company, producing their own carbon for batteries and other carbon-based products. Stackpole reached its peak production late in the district's period of significance, employing 4,000 and producing 90 million flashlight carbons annually during World War II. Along with Speer Carbon, Stackpole became the backbone of industry in St. Marys in the age of electricity, leading the world in the manufacture of carbon arc rods, resistors, brushes, contacts, and batteries. The factories of the carbon industry are not located in the St. Marys Historic District, but their fortunes contributed greatly to the mercantile growth of the downtown and their executives and employees built and lived in homes throughout the district.
The first quarter of the twentieth century saw significant growth in St. Marys (from 6,967 in 1920 to 7,326 in 1930) as additional carbon- and powdered metal-related industries were established or were moved to St. Marys as the community established itself as the center of the industry. Included among these is the Elk Graphite Milling Company, noted as early as 1905 on a Sanborn Fire Insurance Map as specializing in "the calzineing of coke and the pulverizing of coke and coal." Benedict R. Reuscher worked for Speer Carbon and at the age of twenty-nine, in 1929, founded Keystone Carbon, the first of the exclusively powdered metal operations. Originally located in nearby Emporium, Keystone relocated to St. Marys in 1931 and was joined by Pure Carbon, which moved to St. Marys from Wellsville, New York in 1932; St. Marys Carbon was founded in 1939, and the National Molded Products Company in 1940.
The Sylvania Division of GTE began here in 1909 as the Novelty Incandescent Lamp Company (later NILCO) and eventually erected a factory at 319 Erie Avenue to produce light bulbs. The NILCO building is the only directly-industrial resource in St. Marys Historic District; it was given to the Borough for use as a municipal office building and continues to house the Borough Police Department and the St. Marys-Benzinger Township Historical Society's museum and research center.
Throughout the balance of the period of significance and to the present, St. Marys has stood as an industrial base unique in the region. The post-World War Two years saw additional industrialization in the Borough as well as in Benzinger Township, which surrounded the Borough on all sides. In the last quarter of the twentieth century a consolidation movement was born, culminating in the 1994 consolidation of the Township of Benzinger and the Borough of St. Marys, to create the City of St. Marys. For more than a century before consolidation, the traditional mercantile core of St. Marys, today at the heart of the historic district, was the commercial center for this part of Elk County and supported the industrial and residential areas which developed at its periphery.
The St. Marys Historic District is significant for its association with the Roman Catholic religion in America. As noted above, the community itself was founded as a refuge for Catholics being persecuted both on the east coast of the United States and in the repressive anti-Catholic atmosphere of 1840s Bavaria. More significantly, however, is the historic district's position as the home of the St. Joseph's Convent, the first Benedictine convent in the United States. In 1848 a few Sisters of Notre Dame came to St. Marys to teach, but left the following year. They were followed by Benedictine Mother M. Walburg Dietrich (1802-1876) who had arrived in America in 1852, went first to St Vincent's, at Latrobe, Pennsylvania (the first home of the Benedictine fathers in America) and on July 22 of that year — the feast day of St. Mary Magdalen — established the first Benedictine convent in this country at St. Marys, in a small frame building on the site of the present Convent. The first twelve postulants entered the order in October, 1853; in the remaining twenty-four years of Mother Walburg's life an additional thirty-two Benedictine convents were established in the United States. In its role as the mother house of the order in America, St. Joseph's occupies a unique position in the history of Catholicism and of Roman Catholic education in the United States. The Convent occupies a c.16-acre campus at the northwest corner of the district. A 1952 centennial publication describes the atmosphere which characterized the entire campus during its heyday:
"St. Marys was, indeed, a spot on God's earth where He was served with zeal and love. It was truly inspiring on a summer evening to hear on one side the full choir of the Benedictine Monks in their little Chapel; on the other side, the Brothers reciting the Rosary; and across the way a group of Sisters, reciting the same Divine Office as the priests, while another group was praying the Rosary in German; and the girls, who were boarders at the school, were saying their night prayers in English."
Included in the complex of interconnected buildings are St. Marys Church (1852-1854), the 1860 Convent which replaced the original wood building and is a three-story masonry building attached to the rear of the Church (with a fourth story added in 1880 and a fifth story in 1900), the 1868 St. Benedict's Academy with a 1907 addition, the 1886 Chapel, the Bakery/Laundry Building of 1907, and the new Convent/Chapel of 1933-1934. The Convent campus also contains the 1926 St. Walburg's Shrine and a series of dependencies, religious objects and structures. As early as 1856, when the Convent community contained only forty members, the St. Marys Benedictines began to expand. First established was St. Benedict's Convent at Erie, which was followed over the next ninety years by no fewer than nineteen additional convents and priories, including one in Mexico and one in Cuba. St. Joseph's Convent at St. Marys remains active, although St. Benedict's Academy closed in 1935.
Summarizing, within the St. Marys Historic District, the downtown is the reflection of the development and growth of commerce in this community throughout much of the period of significance, including mercantile buildings erected by the town's business leaders to serve the population which derived its livelihood from the industrial base mentioned above. Among these are the Luhr, Hauber, Family Theatre, and Lombardo Buildings, the Exchange Hotel, and the Kronenwitter, H.S. Silman, Hauber & Herr, and the Daily Press Buildings.
The residential areas of St. Marys Historic District contain both modest workers' American Foursquares and Bungalows and the substantial homes of community leaders, bankers, and industrialists from Stackpole, Speer, Keystone, and Pure Carbon, and are generally reflective of residential development patterns in St Marys over a century span. Representative examples include the Stackpole-Oberkirch House and the Kaul-Miller House, and the homes of leading citizens such as J.E. Weidenboemer, George Edward Weis, Harry Williamee, Harry Stackpole, W.G. Bauer, George E. Simons, Ben Reuscher, Arthur Bemis, and Francis A. Hauber.
The St. Marys Historic District is significant for its association with religion in America, most specifically as the location of St. Joseph's Convent, the first Benedictine convent in the United States. In addition to the Convent, a variety of other Roman Catholic- and Protestant-associated religious resources are within the district. These include St. Mary's Monastery and its adjacent gymnasium building, Sacred Heart Church and School, St. Agnes Protestant Episcopal Church, and First Methodist Church.
The St. Marys Historic District is significant for architecture, for its collection of commercial, residential, and institutional buildings dating from 1845 through the 1940s. These buildings are characteristic of a diversity of popular styles, and a number of them have been documented to have been the work of locally- and regionally-prominent master builders and architects.
Among the architects represented in the district is St. Marys native Charles Joseph Schaut, born in 1881 to one of the pioneer families of the community. His father, Ignatius Schaut, operated a planing mill in St. Marys where young Schaut learned the rudiments of the building trades. At the age of nineteen, he entered the offices of interior designer Nicklas Mangold of Pittsburgh and New York, who specialized in church design. In 1904 he returned to St. Marys and opened his own office, beginning a sporadic career designing residences and commercial buildings over the ensuing years. As a young man, he and his brothers manufactured incandescent lights as the Novelty Incandescent Lamp Company, an operation that eventually became Sylvania and continues as part of GTE. From 1909 to 1931 Schaut also served as purchasing agent for the Elk Fire Brick Company and from 1935 to 1957 was responsible for the design of furnaces and new buildings at the Speer Carbon Company. He was also an author and a recognized local historian. In the St. Marys Historic District his work includes the 1927 E.W. Kronenwitter Building (21 St. Marys Street), several buildings on Erie Avenue built in 1911 after a major 1910 fire (the Hauber Building, 69-71 Erie Avenue; the Family Theatre Building; 59 Erie Avenue; the Luhr Building, 63-65 Erie Avenue, and the 1928 Daily Press Building 245 Brussels Street).
Noted Akron, Ohio church architect William P. Ginther is represented in the district in two buildings, the 1906-1907 Scared Heart Church (340 Center Street) and the 5-story addition of 1907 to the St. Joseph's Convent (on the Convent property). An Akron native, Ginther was born in 1858. Ginther's early talents at drawing steered him to a career as an architect and following a European tour he established a practice in his home town. While he also designed residences and commercial buildings, it was for ecclesiastical design that he and his firm became known. His work is found through Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania and includes new churches, religious residences, convents, parochial schools, and church remodelings.
The work of Buffalo, New York architect W.W. Johnson is seen in the 1905 George E. Simons House (168 Center Street). In addition to an active career in New York, Johnson's work is also seen in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, and Canada. Following an early career in a planing mill and as a carpenter and pattern maker, he entered the architectural profession in 1884, first in Saginaw, Michigan and thereafter in Buffalo. George Simons engaged him to design his home on Center Street, which is built in the Shingle Style, trimmed in Hummelstown brownstone. In St Marys, Johnson also designed the palatial Neo-Classical Revival-style J.K.P. Hall House (destroyed).
Master builders, too, are represented in the St. Marys Historic District. The most prominent of these are the Hyde-Murphy Company, Thomas J. Valentine, Andrew Brahm, and Vincent Sherry. Hyde-Murphy was located nine miles away in Ridgway, and was a major producer of architectural millwork, mantles, and stained glass during much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In addition to their production facilities, they were also builders and within the district were responsible for the Elks Lodge at 33 Lafayette Street, the St. Marys Movie Theater at 19 North Michael Street, the Rogan-Kantar Building at 4 Erie Avenue, and the Moose Lodge at 26-34 Erie Avenue.
Thomas Valentine (1874-1968) was a second-generation contractor who became well-known for his abilities both in smaller-scaled residential construction and in the building of larger commercial projects. Within the St. Marys Historic District he built his own house at 188 Church Street, as well as the W.W. Johnson designed George Simons House (168 Center Street), the Hauber Building, the Family Theater, and the Luhr Building on Erie Avenue, the Fleming Bros. Building, (207-213 Brussels Street), the Daily Press Building (391 Brussels Street), and the four-story addition to St. Benedict's Academy on the Convent property. He also built the new vestibule at St. Marys Church in 1910. Long a community leader, in the 1950s Valentine served as the last Chief Burgess and then the first Mayor of St. Marys when the office of Burgess was abolished.
Designer-builder Andrew C. Brehm (1872-1952) was an important local contractor in the St. Marys area for many years. His work included
"many homes in St. Marys and Benzinger Township, homes in Ridgway and Portland Mills, [and] hundreds of employee homes for the Shawmut Mining Company... In all sections of the county can be seen buildings that are the hallmark of Mr. Brehm and each shows that the best of material and workmanship ever went into the making of his finished job."
Examples of Brehm's work in the region include the McCann Block in Renovo, the Novelty Incandescent Light Company and the B.J. Erskine House in Emporium, Weedville High School, and the Joseph Williams House on South Michael Road, St. Marys. Within the historic district, he is represented in the distinctive 1928 rolled-roof brick Bungalow of Edward and Fidelis Hasselman (420 West Benedict Street), which he both designed and built.
During the later years of the St. Marys Historic District's period of significance, builder Vincent J. Sherry played an important role in the development of the residential character of much of the district. Sherry (1908-1989) was a St. Marys native who studied drafting via correspondence schools and from 1925 until 1933 served as an apprentice under master builder A.C. Brehm, mentioned above. In 1933 Sherry entered business for himself, operating a building supply company and constructing more than one hundred sixty homes during his long career. Sherry-built homes in the district include his own 1933 residence at 452 Church Street, and homes for Harry Williamie (c.1940, 525 Center Street), side-by-side homes for Henry Arnold and Fred Fehrenbach (1940s, 153 and 75 Maurus Street), Arnold Ehrensberger (1940s, 338 Maurus Street), Benjamin Reuscher (1938, 333 Maurus Street), Mayme McAninch (1930s, 137 Center Street), and Harry Stackpole (1935, 580 Center Street).
In addition to the presence of master builders and architects, the district's significance is also derived from the innovative — although ill-fated — work of mason Joseph Schlimm. The Schlimms were a family of stone masons (for example, Frank Schlimm was responsible for the stonework for W.G. Bauer's Arts-and-Crafts-style home at 348 Center Street). In 1904 Joseph Schlimm began the manufacture of what were described as "cement concrete blocks" and built two homes on Maurus Street (156 and 148 Maurus, respectively). Schlimm's artificial stone blocks were hailed as an advanced construction technique that would eliminate the need for firring out walls prior to plastering. Unfortunately, these claims were disproved when wallpaper failed to adhere to newly-plastered "artificial stone" interior walls. Nonetheless, the two homes on Maurus Street are testimony to Schlimm's innovative designs and numerous buildings in the district rest successfully upon rock-faced concrete blocks manufactured during the heyday of Schlimm's St. Marys Artificial Stone Company.
Viewing the St. Marys Historic District in the context of other similar districts in the region, both similarities and differences exist. Commercial areas similar to that found within the St. Marys are seen thirty miles south in DuBois Historic District (National Register listed in 1997) and nine miles north and seven miles west Johnsonburg and Ridgway Historic District, respectively (both determined eligible in 1998). Commercially, St. Marys was both a regional mercantile center for northern Elk County and served as the local commercial center for the commerce derived from the carbon industry. Johnsonburg, a one-industry paper mill town, owes its existence to the mill and to little else; its commercial history extends little outside the limits of the community. Ridgway, on the other hand, is the county seat and its commercial life depends on its position as the seat of county government and the population created thereby. DuBois was a similar commercial hub in Clearfield County and, though not the county seat, developed as a thriving mercantile center due to the mammoth lumbering operations of John E. DuBois and the later growth promoted by the widespread extraction of coal. The commercial architecture of the St. Marys Historic District is similar to that of Johnsonburg and DuBois in scale, design, construction methods, and massing. Ridgway, on the other hand has a much higher number of individually-significant commercial buildings. DuBois and Johnsonburg are exclusively commercial districts, while the Ridgway Historic District is mixed-use. The residential character of St. Marys is comparable to that of the other communities in scale, massing, materials, etc. However, while containing some significant individual properties and many contributing, but not individually noteworthy, homes, St. Marys' residential stock is eclipsed by that of Ridgway, whose historic district contains block after block of significant homes. Punxsutawney's West Mahoning Street (about fifty miles to the south) retains a collection of detached turn-of-the-century homes, but its overall character is that of a busy through street; the character of streets within the St. Marys Historic District such as Center, Maurus, Church, and Michael is much more that of a settled residential neighborhood.
Unlike any of the aforementioned communities and districts, religion formed the basis for the settlement of the community and has been a leading force in the community since the very first days of colonization. The position of St. Joseph's Convent, as the first and mother house of the Benedictine order in America cannot be over-emphasized. Since the 1840s St. Marys has maintained an inextricable tie with Catholicism and St. Joseph's is clearly of prime importance to the pattern of development of Catholicism in America. No other community in the region can claim such an important link to the pattern of development of religious history in America.
To summarize, the St. Marys Historic District stands as an important historic resource in the still-rural north-central Pennsylvania. The St. Marys Historic District reflects the commercial life of this community throughout the period of significance and also contains residential neighborhoods where the community's industrialists and workers lived. St. Joseph's Convent, a physical and spiritual anchor both in the district and the community, is a unique feature which is of paramount importance to the religious heritage of the United States. Architecturally, the St. Marys Historic District reflects architectural fashion over a one-hundred year span, including individual buildings designed and built by important local and regional practitioners.
Brehm, Albert G., ed. Biographical Sketches of Elk County People (St. Marys, Pennsylvania: Brehm and Mohr, 1932).
________. History of St. Marys Church (St. Marys, Pennsylvania: Lenze Associated Enterprises, 1960).
Conrad, Harry. S. Fifty-Seven Years of Progress: History of the Stackpole Carbon Company, 1906-1963 (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Telegraph Press, 1964).
Domish, A. A. and Schaut, Charles. St. Marys Pennsylvania 1842-1967 (St. Marys Pennsylvania: 1967).
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Wessman, Alice D., ed. A History of Elk County, Pennsylvania (Ridgway, Pennsylvania: Elk County Historical Society, 1981).
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† Nomination document prepared by: Tayor, David, Taylor & Taylor Associates, St. Mary's Historic District, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C., 1998