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West Sixth Street Historic District


West Sixth Street Historic  District, Erie, PA, National Register

Photo: West Sixth Street Historic District, Erie, PA, National Register

The West Sixth Street Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1] Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.

Description

The West Sixth Street Historic District runs parallel to the Lake Erie shoreline and is six Erie city blocks from Presque Isle Bay. It is situated on the physiographic province known as the Central Lowland or Lake Plain. The terrain of this Lake Plain gradually elevates from the shoreline as it runs southward. The district is bounded on the east by Peach Street, on the west by Poplar Street and on the north and south by property lines with the exception that two entire city blocks are included. The first entire block included is bounded by Sassafras Street on the east, Myrtle Street on the west and West Sixth and Seventh Streets to the north and south. The second entire block included is known as the Garden Court Subdivision and is bounded on the east by Cherry Street, on the west by Poplar Street and on the north and south by West Sixth and Seventh Streets.

The City of Erie was laid out in the Grid Plan in 1795 by Andrew Ellicott who was also responsible for planning and laying out Washington, D.C. The east and west running streets are parallel to each other and the shoreline and are numbered beginning with Front Street and commencing with Second, Third, etc. The intersecting streets are named after trees and ethnic groups for the most part and run exactly perpendicular to the shoreline and numbered streets. The two earliest settled sections of Ellicott's Borough of Erie were a square mile each and the West Sixth Street Historic District is located dead center within their combined area. Beginning at its east end, Peach Street boundary, the West Sixth Street Historic District is intersected by the following streets going westward: Sassafras Street, Myrtle Street, Chestnut Street (the center street in Ellicott's plan), Walnut Street and Cherry Street with Poplar Street forming its western boundary.

The Erie Extension Canal intersected the district within the Myrtle to Chestnut Streets block between 1844, when it was opened, to its closing in 1871. The Reeds played a large part in completing it after the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania abandoned the project in 1842. The north side of the Cherry to Poplar Streets block contained a row of commercial buildings roughly between 1860 and 1900, none of which exist today.

The majority of the 117 buildings in the district are private residences. Approximately 54 are single family residences and 34 are duplexes or apartments. Many of the apartments were originally single family residences. Eleven have an educational purpose, due primarily to the presence of Gannon University. Nine are used for religious purposes due to the presence of two churches. The remaining nine buildings include a county courthouse, museum, doctors and lawyers offices and two clubs.

Two buildings in the district were built between 1821 and 1840, nine between 1841 and 1860 and 14 between 1861 and 1880. Twenty-five buildings were built between 1881 and 1900, 21 between 1901 and 1920, and 27 comprising the Garden Court Subdivision were built between 1908 and 1930. The large number of buildings built between 1881 and 1930 illustrates the primarily Victorian and Post-Victorian flavor of the district.

Three buildings are listed individually on the National Register: the first is the Charles Manning Reed Mansion, the second is the Watson-Curtze Mansion and the third is the John Hill House.

The buildings in the West Sixth Street Historic District, in most categories, defy neat and easy classification. The easiest generalization to make is that brick is by far the most prevalent building material with wood frame, stone, stucco and wooden shingle being represented in smaller quantities. In terms of architectural styles the district represents a flowering of everything from Greek Revival and Federal to Prairie and California Bungalow. There are eight Second Empire style buildings representing the largest number of any one style. The next three in quantitative rank include: Tudor Revival (seven), Victorian Eclectic (six) and Italianate (five).

In a discussion of size and stature everything from the vernacular to the spectacular is represented. This can be seen first in the 13 carriage houses in the district. The Julius Siegel Mansion carriage house is a rather large-scale carriage house of Beaux-Arts Classicism. In contrast, the Clark Olds House carriage house is a simpler brick, two-story building with "barn" doors. The spectacular high Gothic Revival Style Church of the Covenant stands beside its vernacular, two and one-half story, wood shingle parsonage. Though several very similar Baldwin Duplexes exist, even the intrusions defy easy classification. The seven-story, Harborview Apartments with 12 front bays stands in contrast to a Baldwin Duplex of two stories and five front bays. The significant buildings too, run the gamut. The four-story Romanesque Revival, Scott-Strong Mansion with its 10 front bays stands as a pretentious monument to its original owner's wealth and prestige. In contrast, the George Wingerter, California Bungalow seeks to blend in naturally with its surroundings. Significant buildings total 33, contributing buildings 70, and intrusions 14.

Lot sizes are highly irregular except in the Garden Court Subdivision. The four corner lots in the Garden Court Subdivision measure 75' x 120'. The Civic Art Realty Company was formed to develop this World War I vintage housing development on city square number 40. The Civic Art Realty Company imposed the restrictions that houses built there be "designed for one family only, and shall cost not less than thirty-five hundred dollars ($3,500.00), judged by the ruling prices of 1907 for labor and material." Further restrictions dictated no barns, sheds or other out-buildings (though garages do exist), no fences but rather well-kept hedges and there were to be no buildings used for commercial purposes. The owner of a new home in the subdivision became a member of the corporation and paid dues to maintain the oval-shaped inner courtyard and four auto entrances into the subdivision (two from West Sixth Street and two from West Seventh Street). Houses in the Garden Court Subdivision are two to three stories with two and three bays, primarily brick.

There was a definite tendency among West Sixth Street residents to "keep up with the Joneses." The 1840-built Shannon House masquerades as an 1880's Queen Anne. The 1875-built Hall-Streuber House is a Second Empire building turned Romanesque-Queen Anne. The 1891-built Galbraith-Emmett House was a Queen Anne but extensively altered into its present Georgian Revival style by H. L. R. Emmett in 1930. And finally, the 1873-built Whittier House, previously a frame building, now boasts a brick front and half-timbered gables.

The Tomlinson and Culbertson Houses have false fronts, but beyond that none of the buildings have been detrimentally altered or added to. The buildings in the West Sixth Street Historic District range from being in fair to excellent condition; however, the vast majority are in good or excellent condition.

Significance

The West Sixth Street Historic District, which functioned as Erie's "Millionaires Row" during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is a well-preserved mansion district with relatively few intrusions. Containing a variety of elaborate residential buildings, some designed by leading architects of the region, it documents the tastes and lifestyles of America's nineteenth-century elite as well as the changing face of American architecture during the period.

The district remained largely undeveloped during the first half of the nineteenth century. It was originally bisected by a deep ravine formed by Ichabod's Run, which was widened and converted into the Erie Extension Canal between 1841-44. From that year until the canal was closed in 1871, portions of the district were occupied by industries including a coal-gas plant on the eastern bank of the canal.

Several early buildings established the district's elite residential tone before the Civil War; notably, the Charles M. Reed Mansion (1849). However, it was not until the canal basin was filled in 1871 that the district achieved its status as the city's most fashionable residential area, a status it maintained until the 1930's.

The second half of the nineteenth century was a period of explosive growth in Erie's manufacturing economy. Heavy industries producing metal castings, steam engines, industrial tools and machinery, paper products and building materials flourished during the 1870's and 1880's, and the city rapidly grew from a small, self-sufficient lake port into a major regional manufacturing center oriented toward the Midwestern market.

The founding families of these businesses left a significant mark on the development of West Sixth Street as a fashionable residential area. West Sixth Street homes were built by the founders of Erie City Iron Works, First National Bank, H. F. Watson (paper) Company, Black & Germer Radiant Stove Company, Continental Rubber Works, Jarecki Manufacturing Company and numerous others. These wealthy industrialists, many of English and Scotch-Irish descent, formed Erie's social elite during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of the families were related by blood or marriage, and several families built "family complexes" of houses clustered together and similar in style. For example, nearly all the Tudor Revival houses in the district were built by members of the Jarecki Manufacturing family, and are clustered in the western end of the district.

Many West Sixth Street mansions were built by the post-Civil War generation of business tycoons for their children. The Spencer House, the Collins House, the Davenport Galbraith House and the Strong Mansion were all bestowed by wealthy industrialists as gifts for their sons and daughters.

The marriage of Anna Wainwright Scott and Charles Hamot Strong, which united the two largest family fortunes in the history of Erie, was celebrated in 1896 by the construction of the Strong Mansion, a massive Romanesque building which cost an estimated $500,000.00 to construct. Construction was personally supervised by Anna's father, William L. Scott, who amassed one of the largest personal fortunes in nineteenth century Pennsylvania through his investments in coal mining, steelmaking, railroading and land development.

Anna Strong was perhaps the most significant individual in the history of the district, and her home was the social hub of Erie well into the twentieth century. The city's social and cultural arbiter, she introduced Newport-style lavishness to Erie's wealthy elite, and her tastes were widely imitated even after her death in the 1930's. A November 1934 article in Fortune magazine described her as Erie's social dictator."

Built simultaneously with the Strong Mansion was the H. F. Watson Mansion, the home of a wealthy paper manufacturer, and newspaper articles of the period frequently contrast the two buildings. The interior of the Watson Mansion is attributed to the studio of Louis Tiffany. Now housing the Erie Public Museum, it is the district's other major showpiece.

The district derives its greatest significance from its architecture, providing an impressive document of changing styles in American architecture before and after the end of the nineteenth century. The following styles are represented: Federal, Greek Revival, Italian Villa, Italianate, Second Empire, Stick style, Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival, Beaux-Arts, Shingle style, Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Bungalow style, Craftsman and Prairie style. It also contains work of at least three regionally-prominent architects, as well as many derivative designs by local architect-builders.

The first of the significant architects represented, although somewhat indirectly, was Thomas Ustick Walter (1804-1887), designer of the wings and dome of the U. S. Capitol in Washington and the Chester County Courthouse in West Chester, PA, of which the Erie County Courthouse is nearly an exact duplicate.

The annual financial report of the Erie County Commissioners for 1853 lists a payment to Walter for "architectural plans"; although there is no evidence that the Erie County Courthouse is an original design by Walter, it is a very close copy of the West Chester Courthouse.

Five West Sixth Street buildings constructed between 1890 and 1918 were designed by E. B. Green (1855-1950) of Buffalo, a partner in the firm of Green and Wicks. An eclectic who designed over 100 Buffalo landmarks including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Green and his associates are responsible for the Taylor Mansion (1890), Watson and Galbraith Mansions (1892) and Strong Mansion (1896), all designed in the Romanesque Revival style, and the Otto Seeker Mansion (1918), a Georgian Revival design by Green and partner Franklin J. Kidd.

Two West Sixth Street homes, and possibly others, were destined by Cleveland architect Frank B. Meade (1867-1947), a former college roommate of Erie industrialist Alexander Jarecki who is responsible for extensive residential and commercial work in Shaker Heights, a Cleveland suburb. Jarecki's own home, designed in Craftsman style in 1913, and the Tudor Revival house built for his daughter, Mrs. Frances Collins (1925) are by Meade, and other Tudor Revival "period houses" built by Jarecki relatives in the western portion of the district show his influence.

Jarecki's brother, Robert, a graduate of Lehigh University and a member of Psi Upsilon fraternity, commissioned one of the more interesting buildings in the district for his own home at 558 West Sixth, an exact copy of his Lehigh fraternity house by Philadelphia architect Theodore Schuyler Visschler.

During the 1930's, the combination of economic depression and new suburban development ended the reign of West Sixth Street as Erie's wealthiest enclave. A number of Sixth Street mansions including the Victorian Eclectic Otto Germer Mansion at Sixth and Chestnut Streets were demolished to make room for new rental units which are out of scale and out of character with the district. The Germer House's neighbor, the Charles M. Reed, Jr. residence at 420 West Sixth, was demolished in the 1960's and replaced with a one-story office building. Other intrusions are the Gannon University Library and the Harborview Apartments, modern 1970's developments which overwhelm the smaller residential scale of the district.

Though the district still maintains considerable integrity, further demolition remains a potential threat. The Ross Pier Wright House at 235 West Sixth has temporarily been spared from demolition, although its future is by no means clear, and several buildings are currently threatened by Gannon University expansion. It is believed that National Register status could be a major step toward salvaging the integrity of this valuable historic resource.

References

Art Work of Erie (1906).

A. W. "The Legacy of E. B. Green." U. B. Today, Fall 1980, (Publication of the State University of Buffalo).

Barber, Charles R. Erie: a Guide to the City and County. (Philadelphia: The William Penn Association), 1938, p. 53.

Completed National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Forms.

Completed Pennsylvania Historic Resource Survey Forms.

Completed Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission's Inventory of Historic Places Forms.

Erie City Directories 1853-Present.

Erie County Historical Society Files.

Erie County Recorder of Deeds Office.

Erie Daily Times, Various issues.

Erie Dispatch. Various issues, 1875. Erie Gazette. Various issues, 1855-1888.

Erie Landmarks File, Erie Public Library.

Erie, PA Illustrated (1888).

Forgac, Patricia J. Heritage Director, The City of Shaker Heights, 3400 Lee Road.

Labine, Clem and Poore, Patricia. "The Comfortable House: Post-Victorian Domestic Architecture." The Old House Journal, vol . X, No. 1, January 1982, pp. 108.

Mueller Insurance Maps, 1900 and 1917.

Nelson's Biographical Dictionary and Historical Reference Book of Erie County. (1896).

Nineteenth Century Assessment Records, Erie County Historical Society.

Spencer, Herbert Reynolds. Erie...A History. (Erie: Herbert Reynolds Spencer), 1962, pp. 190-191.

Stotz, Charles Morse. The Architectural Heritage of Early Western Pennsylvania. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press), 1966, p. 154.

Times-News, Sunday. (April 4, 1982), (Oct. 7, 1983), (Nov. 13, 1983).

Weber, Tom. ed. Erie Style, Vol. I. (Erie: The Old Erie Press), 1982, pp. 34, 38, 42, 48, 50, 52 & 54.

  • Shirley R. French and Thomas J. Weber, Preservation Project of Erie, West Sixth Street Historic District, nomination document, 1982, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
  • West Sixth Street Historic District Map

    Street Names
    6th Street West

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