Brownsville Northside Historic District
The Brownsville Northside Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. 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 Brownsville Northside Historic District is an intact neighborhood of predominantly early 19th- to early 20th-century houses, together with an important collection of commercial buildings as well as nine churches and other church-related structures. Located on the east side of the Monongahela River in Fayette County, the roughly six-blocks square area appears to cling to the hillside which steeply slopes to the river. The Northside Historic District lies to the east of and abuts Brownsville's Commercial Historic-District at the former's western corner. The principal architectural styles represented in the district are vernacular Federal and Greek Revival and Colonial Revival. The Italianate, Late Gothic Revival and Craftsman/ Bungalow are secondary styles. Constructed primarily in brick, the structures are generally closely spaced, with some abutting each other; setbacks are minimal.
Topography has contributed significantly to the district's demarcation, both physically and in terms of character. The steep slope of the hillside on the southwest perimeter has historically restricted expansion in that direction. Most of the structures located beyond the northeastern boundary (Baltimore Street) are not within the district's view shed, again due to the slope of the hill. Shaffner Road and Broadway effectively separate the district from the houses to the southeast, where the topography again becomes very steep. The district, in effect, occupies the prime area on the hillside, that with the most gradual slope.
There are 230 buildings in the district, 188 contributing and 42 noncontributing. Over two-thirds of the noncontributing buildings are 20th-century garages constructed after the period of significance; the remainder are houses or commercial and public buildings erected after 1945. There are two contributing sites in the district, both of which are cemeteries surrounding church structures. Two properties, Nemacolin Castle and St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church are individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Almost all of the district's 58 antebellum buildings are constructed of brick; seven are of stone and only two of wood construction. Their fronts are constructed flush with the sidewalk, leaving room for little more than a stoop or small entry porch. To compensate, several of the houses have two-tier porches on the back ell. Many of the structures are attached either in pairs or in rows. They are vernacular in character with Federal and/or Greek Revival stylistic elements; paired chimneys, a small dentil cornice, flat stone lintels and simple classical door surrounds are common. The house at 217 Front Street is the best example of the Federal style, despite the addition of a bracketed cornice in circa 1850. The Greek Revival style is apparent on the house at 600 Front Street. The dwellings at 418-422 Brashear Street and at 401 and 405 Church Street are more representative of the early 19th-century vernacular forms found in the district.
The district contains an important collection of early 19th-century mixed-use commercial/residential structures. Located on the north side of Market Street, the five buildings date from between 1815 and 1840, the heyday of stage and wagon travel along the National Road. Urban in scale and character, this vernacular ensemble echoes the buildings being constructed by the mercantile class in the major seaport cities during the last decade of the 18th and the first decades of the 19th century. They are three stories in height and from six to eight bays in width. The first-floor area of these structures were occupied by commercial establishments such as grocery, dry goods, hardware and craftsmen's shops, while the upper floors served as residences. At least three of the buildings were constructed as duplexes, the owners using one half for his store and residence while renting out the other half. Although major remodeling has occurred on at least one of the structures, enough of the original fabric remains to give historic significance to this intact row of early 19th-century buildings, rare west of the mountains.
The oldest building in the district, Brashear's Tavern, is also located on north side of Market Street. The western half was constructed in circa 1797, and the eastern half added a few years later. The first floor of this two-story, vernacular stone structure was altered sometime during the 1960s when it was converted into a beer distributorship. In the process, the building's integrity, particularly on its western half, was compromised. Nonetheless, its late-18th-to-early-19th-century character is sufficiently apparent for the structure to be considered contributing.
During the second half of the 19th century, the character of the district began to gradually change, as evidenced by a number of large, single-family, detached houses with setbacks that allowed for substantial front porches. The Italianate and Gothic Revival were the most popular styles during the period. An excellent example of the former style is the 1872 Monongahela Bank building on Market Street with its corner quoins, belts courses, window moldings and sills and entrance surroundings, all of cut stone. The structure was converted to a residence in 1903 when the bank moved its offices to the lower Market Street commercial district.
Because Brownsville did not prosper during the latter half of the 19th century, no houses were built in late Victorian styles. However, late Victorian stylistic elements are found on several earlier houses, remodeled during the era and on transitional houses constructed between 1890 and 1910.
The trend to detached houses with small setbacks continued into the early 20th century. Most of the structures date from between 1900 and 1930, the era when the coal and coke industry was the driving force behind the area economy. The majority are constructed of brick, but a substantial number are of wood, now covered in some form of siding. The Colonial Revival and Craftsmen/ Bungalow were the styles of choice, with the former clearly dominant.
The Colonial Revival houses in the district range from the vernacular to the "high" style. At the top of the scale is the house at 515 Front Street with brick quoins, a classical cornice, stone/brick lintels with keystones and a full-width porch with pedimented arch, columns and pilasters. The majority of Colonial Revival dwellings in the district have less elaborate detailing, but are, nonetheless, substantial structures, usually constructed of brick with hipped roofs and full-width porches; some have gable or gambrel fronts. A nice collection can be found along Front Street. The vernacular Colonial Revivals are usually of wood construction and covered with asbestos or wood shingles or aluminum or vinyl siding.
The best example of the Craftsmen/Bungalow is found at 309 Front Street. Constructed in circa 1914, it has a prominent roof with half-timbering under the side eaves and the front dormer and nicely cut Craftsman posts and railing along its full-width porch. A group of four bungalows are found along upper Front Street and around the corner on Broadway; another good example is at 520 Church Street. Also present in the district are examples of the Tudor Revival and the Foursquare styles; the latter has a Prairie style roof.
Dominant on the landscape are the nine churches located in the district, primarily along Church and Spring streets. They reflect some of the ethnic groups which settled in Brownsville in the early 19th and early 20th centuries. Christ Episcopal, the First United Methodist, the First Baptist and St. Peter's Roman Catholic churches reflect the English, Scotch-Irish and Irish origins of Brownsville's earliest settlers. The east European origins of its 20th century immigrants can be seen in St. Nicholas Greek Catholic, St. Ellien Syrian Orthodox, St. Mary's Roman Catholic Slovak, the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Magyar and the Hungarian Presbyterian (now the Calvin United Presbyterian) churches. Seven of the nine churches are constructed of brick and two of stone. The exteriors of all are intact and contribute substantially to the district's overall character and integrity. Four of the churches have related structures, including residences for the clergy and social centers. St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church and Christ Episcopal Church also have cemeteries adjacent to their structures.
Brownsville's Northside Historic District is significant in the areas of commerce, particularly associated with the National Road and the western migrations of the early 19th century, and architecture. Brownsville's strategic location at the eastern most point on the Monongahela River as it flows to the Ohio River made the town an important river transfer point on the National Road for settlers moving west and contributed to its early commercial prominence. The district's large concentration of early 19th century buildings is a reflection of this early prominence which lasted until 1852, when the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's line from Cumberland, Maryland to Wheeling, West Virginia bypassed the town and caused a drastic decline in traffic on the National Road. During the second half of the 19th century, the district took on a more residential character as commercial activity contracted to serve the local market. When Brownsville regained prominence and prosperity in the early 20th century as the commercial and transportation center for the Klondike coal and coke fields of southwestern Pennsylvania, the Northside Historic District became the premier residential district in the rapidly growing town. Early 20th century architectural styles combined with early 19th century vernacular ones to give the district the largest concentration of well-preserved early 19th and early 20th century architecture in the local area.
Prior to the construction of the National Road through the town in 1817, Brownsville was already an important transfer point for western migration. Its strategic location at an important land and river junction was apparent as early as 1747, when an Indian named Nemacolin showed Thomas Cresap the shortest route to the West, across the mountains to the Monongahela River site of Redstone, now Brownsville. Once the French and Indian War ended, Colonel James Burd and 200 men were ordered to complete the road begun by General Braddock, from Cumberland, Maryland to Mt. Braddock, Pennsylvania (near present-day Uniontown), by extending it to the Monongahela River at Redstone. Its purpose was to facilitate travel and communication to Port Pitt (Pittsburgh) and the West from Virginia and Maryland. Western migration along "Braddock's and Burd's roads" increased rapidly with the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.
By the beginning of the 19th century, however, it was apparent that a better road was needed to facilitate travel across the mountains and to link seacoast cities and frontier settlements. The decision by the federal government to build the first national road from Cumberland, Maryland to Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia) greatly enhanced the fortunes of Brownsville. The town's significance along the route west is apparent in President Thomas Jefferson's statement to congress, requesting appropriations for the road's construction. Brownsville was described as the "point on the Monongahela best calculated to equalize the advantages of the shortest practicable portage between the Potomac and Ohio. . . As a port it is at least equal to any on the Monongahela and holds superior advantages in furnishing supplies to emigrants, traders and other travelers by land and water." Construction of the National Road commenced in Cumberland in 1811; it reached Brownsville by 1817 and was completed to Wheeling in 1820. The increased movement of people and commerce along the road far exceeded expectations and helped to made Brownsville an important transportation, industrial and commercial center for over thirty years.
Unfortunately, most of the resources associated with Brownsville's early transportation and industrial prowess — boatyards and iron and glass works — have disappeared. The only extant resource is the cast-iron bridge, the first in the country, erected across Dunlap Creek in 1839. The single-arch, eighty-feet long bridge, located to the southwest of the Northside district in Brownsville's Commercial Historic District, was cast locally at John Snowdon's foundry.
The Northside Historic District, however, does provide considerable evidence of Brownsville's early 19th century commercial prominence. Some of the earliest businesses were located on Front Street, initially the town's main artery. Here Jacob Bowman set up his residence and mercantile store in 1789 in a log house, which was eventually consumed by a brick one and added to over the course of the 19th century; the house became known as Nemacolin Castle. Bowman also constructed the brick building at 221 Front Street to house the Monongahela Bank which opened its doors for business in 1814 under his presidency. Clock-maker Jacob Goodlander and saddler Henry Wise constructed their residences/shops on Front Street circa 1810 and 1817, respectively. Front Street gradually lost most of its commercial activities after 1817, when the National Road was routed along Market Street, which then became the town's main commercial thoroughfare.
The oldest building in the Northside district was constructed on Market Street by Basil Brashear in circa 1797. From the start, the two-story stone structure served as a tavern/inn, which became one of the most prominent of the early public houses along the National Road, hosting many distinguished visitors, including General Lafayette, Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay.
However, it is the row of large buildings on the north side of Market Street, constructed between circa 1815 and 1840, which best reflect Brownsville's early importance as a commercial center on the National Road. Urban in scale, these structures are vernacular copies of those being built by the mercantile class in America's coastal cities at the time. The earliest, at the corner of Market and Fifth Avenue, was constructed, circa 1815, for George Hogg, whose mercantile partnership with his uncle William expanded as the frontier moved further west. By the 1840s, George and William Hogg owned mercantile houses in Brownsville, Pittsburgh and fifteen Ohio towns, including a fleet of boats which traversed Lake Erie and the Ohio Canal. The other early 19th century structures on Market Street's north side also were constructed by prominent local merchants, including Jacob Bowman, Robert Rogers, Christian P. Gummert and Peter Humrickhouse.
Because most travelers preferred to transfer to river modes of transportation at Brownsville rather than continue the hard overland trek to the Ohio River at Wheeling, the town became the most important commercial center on the National Road outfitting migrants for the journey west. By the mid-19th century, Brownsville's mercantile sector alone consisted of some 50 stores, several of which were wholesale and forwarding houses, dealing in a full range of supplies — dry goods, clothing, boots and shoes, hats, groceries, produce, hardware, iron, drugs, books and the like — and doing an estimated $800,000 to $1 million in business. Uniontown and Washington, PA, were the two other significant urban centers along the National Road, between Cumberland, Maryland and Wheeling, Virginia and as such were major stop-over points, offering weary travelers a selection of hotels and taverns. Uniontown was also important as a service center for transportation vehicles with its large stage and wagon yards, stables and blacksmith shops.
Economic prosperity reached its height with the inauguration in 1844 of slack-water, year-round, navigation on the Monongahela River, made possible by the construction of a series of locks and dams between Pittsburgh and Brownsville. At the same time that slack-water navigation was introduced, traffic on the National Road increased its high point with the arrival of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at Cumberland, Maryland. Travelers going west could purchase through tickets in Baltimore which allowed them to transfer from train to stage at Cumberland and from stage to steamboat at Brownsville. Between 1844 and 1852, the Monongahela Navigation Company transported nearly 300,000 through passengers at Brownsville going to Pittsburgh and beyond. Many of the district's antebellum structures date from this period, prominent among these are four structures on the south side of Market Street.
In 1852, Brownsville lost any advantages it had based on turnpike and river modes of transportation. In that year, the Pennsylvania Railroad was completed from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was extended from Cumberland to Wheeling through Maryland and Virginia, effectively eliminating Brownsville as a major point of transit. The prominence of the National Road and of Brownsville came to an end as travel by stage, wagon and steamboat gave way to the railroad.
During the second half of the 19th century, Brownsville remained on the fringe of the developing national market and the industrial transformation occurring in the region. Commercial activity contracted to serve the local market. Several of the large Market Street buildings were subdivided and sold by their owners or converted to strictly residential use. The Northside section of Market Street began to take on a more residential character as the center of commercial activity began to shift to the riverfront location. Buildings constructed in the district, particularly between 1861 and 1890, are few in number but several are substantial in size. Most notable are the elaborate Italianate structure at 320 Market Street, erected by the Monongahela Bank in 1872; the circa 1880, Italianate, brick residence at 422 Church Street; and the large, brick, vernacular dwelling at 601 Spring Street constructed in circa 1867 by local tanner, Samuel Steele.
The radical technological and organizational changes occurring in western Pennsylvania, with the expansion and integration of the steel and the coal and coke industries into one gigantic conglomerate with its center in Pittsburgh, had a profound impact on Brownsville. By the 1880s and 1890s, the town had lost all of its major manufacturing enterprises and boatyards as well as a quarter of its population. Despite rich coal deposits in the area, it was Connellsville, located 25 miles to the east, that first became the center of the coal and coke region which was so crucial to Pittsburgh's rise to prominence as the iron and steel capital of the world, Brownsville did not regain its prominence until the Connellsville coal and coke fields began to be depleted at the turn of the twentieth century and production moved westward across Fayette County towards the Monongahela River.
It was apparent, by the 1890s, that "progress" would soon come to Brownsville. J. V. Thompson, a local coal baron, was busy buying up coal rights on land in western Fayette County and across the Monongahela River in Washington and Greene counties. By 1895, the extension of the Monongahela line of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad, along the east side of the river, was within nine miles of Brownsville. New homes, largely transitional in character, began to appear in increasing numbers in the district; several older houses were enlarged and updated in "style."
With the arrival of the railroad in 1903 and its extension into the new coal mining communities along the Redstone and Dunlap creeks and into Washington and Greene counties and northern West Virginia, Brownsville became the railroad and commercial hub of the Klondike coal and coke fields. During the first three decades of the 20th century, the town's population tripled, increasing from some 3,650 persons in 1900 to 10,250 by 1930. Most of the newcomers were immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who came to mine the coal, fire the coke ovens and build and operate the railroads. Blue-collar housing was largely confined to peripheral areas of town, close to the coal mines and coke ovens located west and southwest of the Northside district. However, a significant number of new residents were white-collar merchants, managers and professionals. The Northside, with its convenient location vis-a-vis the riverfront commercial district (the two districts adjoin each other near the junction of Front and Market streets), its settled and mature streetscapes, became a popular residential area for many of those in white-collar occupations. The newly constructed Colonial Revival houses and Craftsmen/ Bungalows added a 20th-century dimension to the district's 19th-century character.
A number of houses built along Front and Brashear streets, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, were purchased by Jewish merchants and professionals. They were part of a relatively small but influential Jewish community, which operated between one-third and one-half of the businesses in Brownsville during the first half of this century. Prominent department store owner, R. S. Goldstein erected the two-story, brick dwelling at 638 Brashear Street in 1918. Residing in the 600 block of Front Street were Maurice Grossman, department store proprietor; Maurice Levine, hardware merchant; Max Laponsky, a lawyer; and David Frank. Also on Front Street was auto dealer, Max Goldman. Among the newer arrivals in the district were several Italian businessmen such as bus line operator, Frank Cappuzzi, and grocer, Pietro Apone. Also on the Northside were descendants of 19th-century English, Scotch-Irish and Germans settlers, some of whom were now prominent businessmen in their own right. These included pharmacist, Fred Robinson; furniture dealer and undertaker, J. T. Ross; and bank president, Samuel Taylor.
In addition to being the town's premier residential district, the Northside was also its ecclesiastical center. As the town's population increases during the first three decades of the 20th century, so did the number of churches in the district. Catholic (3), Orthodox and Presbyterian houses of worship were added to those constructed in the 19th century by Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, and Irish Catholics. The district's nine churches are a reflection of the town's historic ethnic and religious diversity.
While Brownsville's riverfront commercial district was being transformed into the central business district for the town and the upper Monongahela River valley, commercial activity along Market Street was geared to the needs of the immediate Northside community. Small grocery stores, meat markets and bakeries predominated, but a barbershop, a hardware, a dry goods and a shoe store as well as two small hotels and a furniture and undertaker establishment also were located there. By the 1920s, one major change in the composition of the area's commercial activity was occurring as a result of America's growing fascination with the automobile. Car dealerships and related businesses such as gas stations and auto tire and battery outlets were locating on the Northside, where those most likely to own a car resided and where space was not as limited as in the riverfront commercial district. In 1920, several 19th century structures on Market and Fifth streets were razed and replaced by Garlett's auto showroom and garage. The trend to automobile-related businesses gained momentum after World War II and remains apparent today, despite the disappearance of most commercial activity over the past four decades as a result of the decline in regional coal production. The impact of the automobile also is evident on the district's northwest edge, where the four-lane, high-level bridge, constructed in 1962, spans the Monongahela River at Market Street, which lost numerous historic structures when it was widened to accommodate traffic approaches to the bridge.
Despite the loss of some historic structures, the Northside Historic District contains the largest concentration of early 19th century architecture found along the Pennsylvania segment of the National Road. The five large buildings on the north side of Market Street are particularly rare. In terms of quantity and quality, the district's collection of early 20th century architecture is unequalled within a fifteen mile radius, where small mining communities, constructed by coal companies in what might be termed the "coal patch" style, dot the countryside. In Fayette County, only Uniontown, some 15 miles to the southeast, has a greater quantity of early 20th century houses, scattered over various neighborhoods; the intrusion of late 20th century styles is also greater. The Northside Historic District is unique for its blending of early 19th and early 20th century architectural forms in a highly concentrated area.
Ellis, Franklin. History of Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: L. H. Everts Company, 1882; reprint, Evansville, Indiana: Unigraphic Inc., 1987.
Sanborn Insurance Maps of Brownsville. New York: Sanborn Map Company, September 1886; October 1891; July 1896; June 1901; June 1907; April 1913; October 1921; and August 1924.
Grantz, Denise. "Individual histories of thirty-five pre-Civil War structures on Brownsville's Northside." The Brownsville Historical Society, Brownsville, Pennsylvania, 1974.
Grantz, Denise. "Fayette County Historic Resources Survey." Center for pre-Historic and Historic Site Archeology, California University of Pennsylvania, California, Pennsylvania, 1979.
Halvonik, Norene A. "The Architectural and Commercial Development of Brownsville, Pennsylvania." Unpublished, M. A. Thesis, George Washington University, 1991.
† Halvonik, Norene A., Browsville Northside Historic District, nomination document, 1993, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.