Uniontown Historic District
The Uniontown Downtown Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original National Register Nomination document that was submitted to the National Park Service. Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The Uniontown Historic District illustrates major themes of the community's history including: Uniontown's long-standing position as agricultural service center and county seat, the location of the National Road through Uniontown in the first half of the nineteenth century and the considerable prosperity of the local coal and coke industry from 1880 well into the twentieth century. The district's architecture ranges from the vernacular and Federal style buildings of the National Road era to Victorian high style commercial and public buildings of the coal and coke era.
The first great period of growth, from 1811 through the 1850's, came with construction of the National Road from Cumberland, Maryland to Wheeling, West Virginia and eventually into Illinois. Uniontown became an important stop on the road with stagecoach factories, stage and wagon yards, stables and blacksmith shops, and at least a dozen taverns, or hotels, to serve travelers. Two buildings from this era remain in the Uniontown Downtown Historic District: the Fulton House Hotel and the "Company Store."
After the railroad reached Wheeling in 1852, the National Road gradually diminished in importance as a national highway and became a regional market road During the 20-year lull in the town's expansion from 1860 to 1880, only eight buildings extant in the historic district were built. When the motor age arrived, the old road became part of U.S. Route 40.
The greatest explosion of growth came with the coal and coke boom starting about 1880 and continuing until just after the end of World War II. The first 52 years of this era. 1880-1932 was the time when the dominant architecture of downtown Uniontown was created, reflecting its bustling prosperity. From that period, 83 buildings (or 63 percent of the buildings in the historic district) are extant; 63 of these buildings were built from 1880 to 1920, when the coal and coke industry was at its height.
The existence of bituminous (soft) coal in the area had been known since colonial times, but the boom did not start until about 1880, in response to the demand for coke by the post-Civil War steel industry in Pittsburgh. Fayette County was found to possess immense deposits of the best metallurgical coal in the world — coal which could be reduced in beehive ovens to the coke needed to make steel.
Uniontown had three major mines and cokeyards on its outskirts, but its principal contribution was as the operational and financial center of the coal and coke industry. The population of Fayette county zoomed as thousands of immigrants were brought in to work the mines, but since most of them were housed in small company towns, or "patches", scattered across the county, Uniontown also grew as a mercantile center to serve them.
Coal barons who made fortunes in coal lands and in managing the mines, and the merchants exulting in a new-found prosperity, built mansions on residential streets and also high style buildings on downtown streets. In 1912, the downtown had nine banks, thirteen theaters and fourteen hotels.
Of the 110 contributing buildings in the downtown historic district, 75 were built as stores, offices and/or apartment buildings or as private residences later converted to commercial uses. Eight were originally built as banks, five as hotels, three as theaters and nine as governmental facilities, of which six are in the Fayette County Courthouse complex. Most of the coal and coke era buildings are ornate, with two dominant styles, Renaissance Revival and Neo-Classical Revival, carrying out the principal theme of this period of Uniontown's architectural history. Anchoring the historic district are the two largest buildings downtown, four blocks apart on Main Street, and each in its own way has close ties to the coal and coke era. The 11-story old Fayette Bank Building at the corner of Main and Pittsburgh Streets was built in 1902 by J. V. Thompson, the wealthiest local coal tycoon of them all, as a monument to his success. He was a coal land speculator, not a mine operator, and his empire collapsed in 1915, when his First National Bank failed. He was still worth millions in land, but high living, an expensive divorce settlement and a downturn in the coal industry dried up his cash flow. He died bankrupt in 1933.
The Fayette County Courthouse and neighboring county jail were built in 1892 in the Romanesque style, similar to the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh — an expression of coal-borne pride and prosperity.
Two eight-story buildings, a block apart, the Gallatin Apartments (formerly a furniture store) and the Gallatin National Bank, both built in the 1920's, also testify to the commercial importance of downtown in that period. Uniontown's cultural life is expressed in the 1922 State Music Hall on Main Street. The only operating hotel downtown, the Highland House on Main Street, is being restored to its original 1890 decor.
The downtown area also links the coal and coke era with earlier times, with the architecture flowing backward in time from the ornate to the simpler lines of Federal-style buildings. The northwest corner of the historic district holds the old Methodist Cemetery, the first cemetery in Uniontown. Dating from 1791, it contains the graves of many early settlers. Existing side by side with later buildings are 22 buildings of the National Road era, built between 1811 and 1860. Two of the buildings directly served National Road traffic — the old Fulton House Hotel on East Main Street at the Moran Alley corner and a small building used as a "company store" for stageyards, on Morgantown Street.
The oldest building downtown is a restored log school house, built sometime between 1801 and 1820. The oldest building on Main Street is the Ewing House at the Moran Alley intersection, built in 1824. The Dawson Law Building at Main and Court Streets has been used for attorneys' offices continuously since it was built in 1832.