Mercersburg Historic District
The Mercersburg Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. 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 Mercersburg Historic District consists of the central area of the town, extending in each direction from the center square. The main street through Mercersburg, Pennsylvania Route 16, passes the most prominent section of the Mercersburg Historic District. The center of the town is on high ground where Main and Seminary Streets intersect, forming a square or diamond. The town is set among rolling limestone hills of the Cumberland Valley. Located toward the western edge of the valley, it is situated about three miles east of the Cove and Tuscarora Mountain rim.
The Mercersburg Historic District within the town follows North and South Main Street, PA Route 16, from 52 North Main to 131 South Main and East and West Seminary Streets. From North Main Street the district extends in an easterly direction along Oregon Street to the middle of the first block. Its other outer boundaries are Church Street, Constitution Street, Mercer Avenue, Park Street and various alleys one half block from the main thoroughfares. [Note: See Boundary Increase below.] The area of Main Street included within the Mercersburg Historic District consists of 18th and 19th century dwellings for the most part as well as the Post Office, Town Hall and two banks all dating from the 20th century. East and West Seminary Streets display 19th century structures, mostly, and commercial buildings. East to west, the Mercersburg Historic District runs from the United Church of Christ at East Seminary and Church Streets to the Presbyterian Church at West Seminary and Park Streets. The Church of Christ, dating from about 1845, is the site of the establishment of a German Reformed Seminary which opened in Mercersburg in 1835. The Presbyterian Church was built in 1794 and substantially rebuilt in 1885.
Believed to have been settled during the second and third quarters of the 18th century, Mercersburg was laid out as a town in 1786. It was named for General Hugh Mercer a Revolutionary War officer and doctor who lived near the town. The village began as a trading center, mill and tannery site owned by James Black and located on a major road to the west. It was established by William Smith who acquired the site in 1759. His house, it is believed, still stands, a stone and frame structure in the north end of town, outside the district. Smith's tannery was located nearby on Campbell's Run which passes through the north part of town. Eventually the wagon road, now Pennsylvania Route 16, was superseded by other turnpikes to the north and south leading from Philadelphia and Baltimore respectively, westward, taking the town out of the main stream of commerce and travel. In the 19th century, Mercersburg became an educational center with the establishment in 1835 of a Seminary of the German Reformed Church. The Theological Seminary remained in Mercersburg until 1871. Marshall College was also located here, later merging with Franklin College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1853. In 1893 Mercersburg Academy, a preparatory school for boys was founded.
Sheathed log, stone and brick are all prominent building materials in the Mercersburg Historic District. Buildings along Main and Seminary Streets are generally set quite close together, often with no space between them. Most structures are two or two-and-a-half stories high.
Although 18th century work is evident in the appearance of some structures, it should be noted that Mercersburg was by and large a prosperous town with residents who were financially capable of updating or modernizing their dwellings and places of business from time to time. Consequently, an individual searching for stylistic influences will find elements of 18th and 19th century workmanship intermingled with Federal, Greek Revival and Victorian details.
The Mercersburg Historic District includes major structures as well as service and outbuildings, small barns and shops. Generally, buildings are set several feet back from the street's edge. Many have front porches with wood trim showing varying degrees of elaboration. Also giving character to the Mercersburg Historic District are brick sidewalks with stone curbs. Large deciduous trees separate the street from the sidewalk and residential areas. Roomy back yard lots reveal gardens, outbuildings and rear views of the houses as well as offering archeological potential with old cisterns, wells, privies and foundations of former structures.
Natural, earth tone colors are predominant in the Mercersburg Historic District, grey limestone and red brick forming the surfaces of the houses as well as curbing and sidewalks. Most wood-sided houses are painted white or in subdued hues. Several brick buildings were painted, probably at an early date if not originally with what appears to be a red iron oxide color. Buildings within the Mercersburg Historic District are related to each other by color, size and construction material forming a natural rhythm and well-integrated arrangement. Since the elevation of the Mercersburg Historic District changes, the buildings were built to accommodate the rise or fall of the land giving a variety of roof levels and building heights throughout the town. Roofing materials are for the most part slate or sheet metal. At the center square, each of the corners is recessed, the buildings being set back several feet from the facade lines established by Main and Seminary Streets.
According to the 1798 U. S. Direct Tax for Mercersburg, 48 dwellings were assessed in the town. Of those listed, 29 were of log construction, nine of stone and ten of brick. No frame buildings were designated. Most of the buildings were recorded with separate kitchens and stables. Some had various shops listed among the outbuildings. Of the 29 log houses standing in 1798, 13 were one story in height, the remainder having two stories. Three were listed as unfinished while two were designated as weather-boarded. It is quite possible that some of these houses still stand, sheathed by various forms of siding or bricks. Eight of the log dwellings could be considered cabins having dimensions of less than 20 feet and only one story.
The nine stone houses are significantly larger, all but one having two stories. The largest of these was 50 by 33 feet, owned and occupied by Robert Parker. Built in 1781 the house still stands, now used as the Fendrick Library on North Main Street near the square. This is a five-bay structure with a central entrance opening into a stair hall. Flat arches of stone are present above its windows while segmental stone arches once over openings to the cellar appear just above the sidewalk. Two of the stone buildings were unfinished in 1798. One of these was owned by John Wolf, being a two-story structure 34 by 31 feet and now housing the State Store on the southeast corner of the square. One large stone house is located at 47 N. Main Street. Most notable about its architecture are its large double exterior chimneys joining in an arch near the gable of its north end wall. This house was substantially remodeled in 1910 as described in an article in Suburban Live, July, 1911.
The 1798 window tax revealed that Mercersburg had a relatively high proportion of brick houses for the lower Cumberland Valley where most brick structures appear to date from after 1820. The size of Mercersburg's brick dwellings standing in 1798 ranged from a one story 14 by 21 foot brick cabin to a large 50 by 33 foot dwelling. The latter house was owned and occupied by James Buchanan and was the boyhood home of his son, James, who became the 15th President of the United States. Now the Buchanan Hotel, it stands opposite the Parker House on North Main Street. The building has been greatly altered, appearing now as a three-story shed roofed structure, painted white with a massive Italianate cornice.
Another of the brick houses listed in the 1798 U. S. Direct Tax is located on North Main Street south of Oregon Street. Now known as the "Creigh House" it was built by Jacob Baun who is said to have operated a tavern there. Its dimensions are recorded as 40 by 35 feet. This house displays Flemish bonding at its front elevation and an early form of common bonding with three courses of stretchers between header rows at its less visible elevations. Like other late 18th and early 19th century brick structures in Mercersburg, it has a quarter round molded brick water table. Possibly dating from a slightly later period are wooden keystones above the openings. These appear on several early brick houses within the district. Baun was also listed as owning a brick kitchen 16 by 12 feet, a log stable 30 by 28 feet and a frame shed and accessory building 57 by 12 feet.
The 1798 window tax illustrates that Mercersburg had a significant number of substantial buildings and was, therefore, a thriving town by the turn of the 19th century. Apparently, during the late 18th century there was a significant amount of construction particularly among the more expensive building materials, stone and brick.
A second thrust of construction in Mercersburg apparently occurred during the second quarter or middle of the 19th century. Many of these buildings were brick and show evidence of late Federal and Greek Revival stylistic detail. Among the first of these was the Lane House, built by Elliott Lane during the 1820's or 1830's and showing Federal influence in its elliptically arched fan lighted entrance. This was the home of Harriet Lane, niece of James Buchanan. She served as mistress of the White House during his term of office.
Characteristic of these 19th century brick houses are massive double inside and chimney stacks linked with parapets. Other brick houses from this period are concentrated on South Main Street and East Seminary Street. These structures generally have Flemish bond facades with relatively large windows and six-over-six sashes. Wide wooden lintels some with decorated corner blocks are often present. Most entrances are centered in the facades and are relatively elaborate having broad transoms above doors and flanking sidelights. The above described elements are usually associated with the Greek Revival style.
A third era of construction in Mercersburg occurred during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It would appear that the major portion of work done at this time was in the way of renovation to existing structures. Among them is the Mansion House Hotel on the southwest corner of the square, an early 19th century stone structure which received a brick third story with massive brackets and cornice work as well as a frame addition. Apparently it was at this time that the Buchanan Hotel already described on North Main Street received its major alterations. An unusual turn of the century building in Mercersburg is a former bank located at South Main Street, a brick structure with a neoclassical brownstone facade. It is the only such building in Mercersburg and one of only a very few brownstone facades in the lower Cumberland Valley. The "McAfee House" located at 52 North Main Street was rebuilt during this period. The First National Bank, a granite building just south of the square dates from the early 20th century. Many of the elaborate front porches found in Mercersburg were added during the late 19th or early 20th century.
Intrusions in the Mercersburg Historic District are few. One is a new bank structure on the northwest corner of the square. Built of brick, it does follow the form and proportion set by other buildings of the district and thus does not alter appreciably the character of the district. Other intrusions are several 20th century commercial fronts restricted to the first stories of buildings. Two structures in the first block of South Main Street have been sheathed with aluminum siding. Power lines in the square area have been placed underground recently eliminating one modern intrusion.
Generally the buildings are in excellent condition giving the Mercersburg Historic District the pleasant appearance of a prosperous 19th century village. A local historic commission has been established to administer an approved historic district ordinance controlling the future development of the area.
The Mercersburg Historic District is significant for its architecture, reflecting vernacular and stylistic building trends from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Mercersburg has contributed to local, state and national history through outstanding people who have lived in the town, among them American President, James Buchanan. The town is also significant to the history of transportation and commerce as an 18th and 19th century settlement serving as a trading center for wagoner's carrying goods to the west. In the 19th century with the establishment of a Seminary, college and later the Mercersburg Academy, the town contributed to the development of education in America.
Located along the southwestern portion of Franklin County, the borough of Mercersburg has had a history dating from frontier times as one of the early settlements west of the Susquehanna River. The borough was originally founded in 1751 by James Black who purchased some 200 acres of land from James Hamilton. Black had supposedly erected a mill on these same lands earlier as a squatter. The first settlement was consequently known as Black's Town with it later becoming Smith's Town when William Smith purchased the tract in 1759. Squire Smith operated a trading post, grist mill, and a tannery on the site until his death on March 25, 1775. As one of the principal heirs, William Smith, Jr., drew up the first plan for Smith's Town and renamed the village Mercersburg after General Hugh Mercer. The original plan is presently kept in the Presbyterian Church of Mercersburg.
Before much building was initiated, William, Jr., died leaving his plan for the town to his daughter Sally Smith (later Mrs. Sarah Brownson). Smith's will specifically stated that work on the new town should continue and as a result, 148 lots were laid out forming the central part of today's Borough from Oregon Street on each side of Main Street. The original lots were established with a fifty foot (50') width and two hundred foot (200') depth.
Situated on the major route between Baltimore and Pittsburgh at the eastern edge of the Allegheny Mountains, Mercersburg had become a prosperous trading center. Here the traveler could buy supplies for his journey across the mountains or purchase products native to the area such as animal hides.
When new trade routes opened up between Pittsburgh and the cities along the east coast of the United States, the economy leveled off in Mercersburg and may have actually declined somewhat. Fortunately, the growth that had begun because of the trading activity was still limited enough in scope to be sustained on a substance level by the agricultural industry of the area.
This circumstance is particularly crucial to present day conditions in Mercersburg because there was enough wealth remaining in the area to keep the town alive, but there was little pressure to expand the city limits or to replace old buildings which might have outlived their economic usefulness in a more developed community. Architecturally the town is particularly significant because of its surviving examples of 18th and 19th century buildings which received relatively few alterations. Also, the Mercersburg Historic District exhibits few 20th century intrusions. Three major periods of building are evident: the late 18th century, mid 19th century and late 19th century, with architectural details reflecting current styles. There is a consistency of workmanship among the buildings of each period suggesting that craftsmen within the town worked on a number of buildings. There is also consistency in the choice of building materials, log, stone and brick. Particularly worthy of note is the relatively frequent use of brick during the 18th century in an area where brick construction before the 19th century was rare. Also significant are the later 19th and early 20th century accretions to some buildings, particularly observable in the addition of porches.
Historically, Mercersburg is linked with several people prominent in national history. Among them are General Hugh Mercer who came to the Mercersburg area as a physician in the mid 18th century and served also as a captain during the French and Indian War. Later he moved to Virginia and distinguished himself in the American Revolution. He was mortally wounded at the Battle of Princeton in 1777. Mercersburg was the boyhood home of James Buchanan who became the 15th President of the United States, and of his niece, Harriet Lane who was mistress of the White House during Buchanan's term of office. William Findley, member of another prominent Mercersburg family became Governor of Pennsylvania in 1817 and later U.S. Senator. His brother, James, served as U.S. Senator from Ohio.
At early date, Mercersburg established itself as an educational center beginning with an 18th century Latin School conducted by the Reverend John King. In 1835 a high school and Theological Seminary of the Reformed Church which had been in operation in York, Pennsylvania, moved to Mercersburg. Apparently the establishment of the Seminary in Mercersburg was supported by the general community as funds were raised locally to support the school. In 1836 it was chartered as Marshall College and in the same year the Seminary building erected. This is now Main Hall of the Mercersburg Academy. In 1853 Marshall College moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and merger with Franklin College. The Reformed Theological Seminary remained in Mercersburg until 1871 when it, too, moved to Lancaster. Mercersburg College came into existence in 1865. From this developed the Mercersburg Academy, a preparatory school which was established in 1893 under the leadership of Doctor William Mann Irvine.
Mercersburg Historic District (Boundary Increase)
The original Mercersburg Historic District contains about 100 properties and covers approximately 30 acres. The boundary increase extends the Mercersburg Historic District by a length of approximately two blocks along South Main Street between Linden Avenue and Constitution Street. The added area contains 12 properties facing onto South Main Street as it turns eastward at its intersection with Linden Avenue. On the southwest side of the street are two Colonial Revival Mansions, Rosemont and Prospect dating from 1910. The northeast side of the street is occupied by a row of more modest log, brick and frame houses, set close to the street and dating from the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.
The added area is primarily residential. The properties are well maintained with few recent exterior alterations, allowing them to convey the character of small town prosperity expressed over a two-century period, qualities also projected by the existing historic district. In addition to the buildings, other significant elements of the area include original brick-paved sidewalks with limestone curbs and vestiges of the formal gardens once associated with "Prospect."
Boundary Increase Significance
The Mercersburg Historic District Boundary Increase is consistent with the existing Mercersburg Historic District's significance, in the area of architecture and association with prominent citizens of the town. The buildings represent all three periods of Mercersburg's architectural history, the late 18th century, the 19th century and early 20th century, and extend the existing Mercersburg Historic District along its north-south axis to the limits of its original 18th century boundaries.
The most prominent house in the area forming the boundary increase is "Prospect," a large Colonial Revival mansion, built in 1910 by Harry W. Byron. The Byrons established and operated a tannery in Mercersburg from 1892. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the tannery was Mercersburg's principal industry. The Byron Tannery had a reputation as a top producer of "Fancy Leather," used principally for bags and cases. Harry W. Byron, son of the tannery's founder assumed leadership of the business in 1901. The house that he built is the largest and most prominent in the town, and one of the first encountered as the town is entered from the southeast. It is distinctive in an area where elaborate large scale examples of Colonial Revival architecture are not common. The tannery was sold out of the Byron family in 1945 after weathering difficult years following the Depression. The Prospect mansion was sold at auction in 1954 and has changed hands numerous times since. It has operated as an inn intermittently since the 1950s. It was rehabilitated in 1987.
A house of similar character, but less pretentious is "Rosemont," also a Colonial Revival brick structure on the triangle created by South Main Street, Linden Avenue and a connecting alley. Together Rosemont and Prospect represent the most prosperous of the town's citizens in an era when great wealth could be accumulated quickly through industrial enterprise.
Across the street stands the row of older and more modest houses which represent the late 18th and early 19th century aspects of Mercersburg's character. When these houses were built, they stood opposite a brick yard and near a foundry at the very edge of town. Some of these residences were originally associated with these industries. It is significant that the character of this portion of town changed dramatically from an industrial to a residential section with the conversion of the brick yard to the landscaped mansion of a wealthy industrialist.
Franklin County Land Records.
Hoke, Rene, Notes Compiled on Mercersburg History Based Upon Interviews with Townspeople.
Pomeroy & Beers, Atlas of Franklin County. Knightstown, Ohio: The Bookmark. Reprint 1974.
Smith, James W., Notes Compiled on Mercersburg History.
U. S. Direct Tax of 1798, Mercersburg, Franklin County, Pennsylvania.
Womens Club of Mercersburg. Old Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. Williamsport, Pa: Grit Publishing Co., 1949.
Woman's Club of Mercersburg, Old Mercersburg Revised 1865-1976. Mercersburg: Mercersburg Printing, 1987.