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Columbia Historic District

The Columbia Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [] Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.


Situated on the eastern bank of the Susquehanna River amid rich farm county, Columbia occupies a gently sloping landscape where the river widens to almost a mile's breadth presenting a peaceful lake-like appearance dotted by small islands. The harmony is broken by the busy traffic of the two bridges spanning the river.

The Columbia Historic District takes in approximately 950 structures spread over an area that incorporates about one third of the borough. "Old Columbia" with its extensions, additions and continuations is included. The building types are divided between residential, commercial, industrial, civic & ecclesiastical, in styles that range from Eighteenth Century Traditional, to Queen Anne & Twentieth Century Art Deco. Only the esoteric styles such as Egyptian Revival and Art Nouveau were eschewed by the community's leaders. Remarkably, a high percentage of these structures remain intact or altered only superficially. Row upon row of houses facaded in either the Greek Revival, Italianate, Mansardic or Colonial Revival manner stand without interruption or intrusion. Generally speaking, if they are sided by factories, warehouses or commercial establishments, it is because they have always been so.

The business district survives in a correspondingly good nature. Most of the anchoring structures remain. Occasionally, upper stories have been removed leaving a two story edifice behind rather than a taller, more flamboyant, three or four story. However, most of the bases of these structures remain untouched. Therefore, the streetscape is unimpaired. As with any active commercial center, storefronts have been modernized. Surprisingly however, Columbia retains many that have been left untouched since the Victorian era or have been sensitively remodelled so that their new display areas conform basically to the original configuration. There are a couple of gaping voids and intrusively developed intersections, but they are negligible.

By development, usage and architectural style, the District can-be divided into seven subdivisions:

  1. North Columbia. An industrial/residential area developed between 1873 and 1900 by heirs of the Heise estate. The houses are working class double cottages or rows that line the streets in blocks. Occasionally, they are set back to create the illusion of being a single dwelling with deep front and side yards.
  2. Chestnut Street. The preferred residential area of Columbia's upper crust from 1871 onward. Professionals and managers lived in elaborate homes, homes often designed by prominent architects. Style-wise they run the full gamut of Late Victorian eclectic design, being interspersed with smaller guidebook inspired residences generally built in double house form.
  3. Locust Street. The commercial core. The building & range from early nineteenth century dwelling houses converted for business purposes to Beaux Arts classically detailed bank buildings. The tallest structures are four stories with cornices which add variety and rhythm to the streetscapes.
  4. Front Street. The original business/industrial district. Only one early nineteenth century house survives amid a tangle of railroad tracks.
  5. Walnut Street. Originally the main thoroughfare of the town. Now, a quiet residential street framed by single, double and row houses, set close to the street, that progress in architectural style as they advance up the hill. Their dominance is broken only by the two fine, larger Blunston heir residences.
  6. Lower Cherry at Second. A "T" shaped residential section, the development of which is related to Samuel Wright's capitalistic plans. It encompasses the Wright homesteads and palatial mansions of 1860's and 1870's iron masters.
  7. Upper Cherry and Union. An early residential area dominated by small scale vernacular housing following the Federal, Greek Revival and Early Italianate traditions.

The basic component of the District is the three, occasionally two, bay, two story dwelling house usually built of brick although frame or weatherboard versions exist. It has a two-thirds Georgian floorplan with narrower two story brick or frame back building or kitchen ell attached at the rear. Occasionally, there is a one story brick or frame shed extended at the far rear. If the house has two and a half stories then a pedimented dormer projects at center from a gabled roof with an end chimney. This house is repeated endlessly throughout the District in single, double and row form. It is designed in every style from Federal to Colonial Revival. To it Italianate bracketing is added, Queen Anne paned windows inserted, slant angle bays applied, entry porches and full porches attached, and segmental arches used instead of square-headed ones within it. After the Second Empire period begins, the mansard roof with fanciful revival dormers replaces the gable roof but the basic cropped "L" shaped house remains below.

The basic building material of Columbia is brick; brick that was manufactured locally beginning in the early part of the nineteenth century. Except for a special vitrified paving brick that was turned out at the end of the century, it is a soft, porous brick full of quartzite pebbles and pale in color. It does not withstand the rigors of sandblasting well having been meant to be painted from its initial usage. Beginning in 1795 with the William Wright House on Second Street and continuing up through the Italianate constructions on Chestnut, Gothicized working class cottages along North Third and Colonial Revival rows along North Fourth and Upper Chestnut, it was the favored material. In the 1870's a regulation banning frame construction was promoted. Even Front Street's mercantile establishments, taverns, hotels and tenements were built of it, during an age when Columbia was renowned as the lumber mart of the Susquehanna Valley. Frame was utilized for back buildings and sheds.

Stone was never very popular except in the very early phase and then sporadically during the Romanesque Revival. The Wright's Ferry Mansion remains as the sole survivor of the settlement period. Samuel Blunston's Mount Bethel, the oldest of which was stone, was demolished in 1929 to make way for a reinforced concrete bridge. The only other early stone house, extant in 1886, along Front Street has similarly been razed. Tax information from 1815 would suggest that only three stone buildings existed at that time, equalling only 1.8% of the total construction, a percentage that remains rather constant throughout Columbia's history. In 1871, the Wilson Bros. selected native blue limestone for their Italianate Pennsylvania Railroad passenger station. It was not utilized again until J. A. Dempwolfe used it in his Queen Anne house for F. A. Bennett and Romanesque remodeling for Dr. J. B. McBride, both on mid-Chestnut during the late 1880's. James H. Warner, in 1893, facaded his Masonic Hall on Locust in stone after which rusticated stone bases became popular as in the Keystone and Ladder Company's Firehouse on North Fourth and Jere Koch's office building on Locust, built at the turn of the century. With the exception of a marble bank built around 1909, stone became unfashionable until it cropped up in suburban residences during the 1950's outside the boundaries of the Historic District.

Considering the late date of Columbia's layout and her cosmopolitan character, it is not surprising that log construction did not play an important part in her development. Two out of 168 houses existing in 1815 were log. One was John Wright's home, demolished in 1874 and the other was the Bruner homestead located at the corner of Commerce and Walnut which has also been demolished. Wood played a larger role. At the time, while log construction comprised 1.2% of the erections, wood comprised 53%. Considering the town's location and fame as a lumber mart that is not surprising. Wood was quickly surpassed by weatherboard or frame after 1818 when the first saw mill was erected along the river shore with planing mills following shortly.


Columbia Historic District is important because it illustrates two centuries of the town's growth and development as a key transportation and industrial center in south central Pennsylvania. Starting with the establishment of Wrights' Ferry in 1730, Columbia served as a key to river, canal, rail and road travel, and as a result the community developed transshipment and industrial facilities to capitalize on the relatively easy access to major urban areas and markets. In addition, from its earliest settlements, Columbia and its leaders aided and influenced settlement and emigrations to adjacent York County and beyond. The district is also important for its well preserved 18th, 19th, and 20th century architecture, the high quality of which reflects Columbia's prosperity and prominence.

See also: Columbia Borough — Beginnings

Because of its wealth and importance Columbia developed particularly high quality architecture. Its richness and breadth can be attributed to the remarkable variety of builders and architects who worked within the community, some of local origin and others imported from Lancaster and Philadelphia.

During the early years, Stephen Hill, architect of Pennsylvania's first capitol, erected a row of Federal houses at the corner of Locust and Front. James Barber, a mason and descendant of Robert Barber, built Samuel Bethel's house at Second and Walnut. Charles Evan, noted Lancaster builder, moved to Columbia and constructed a tavern on Walnut at the corner of Commerce. Another reputed Lancastrian, M. Oscar A. McCain worked on the English Evangelical Church of 1851. In the 1860's the partnership of Bachman and DeHuff was formed, an occurrence that was to have a crucial impact on the development of Columbia. John Bachman owned a planning mill that manufactured all the wooden components of a house while George DeHuff possessed drafting skills. Joining forces, they interpreted the plans of such noted architects as Issac Hobbs and Sons and Samuel Sloan from Godey's Ladies' Book, in addition to formulating their own designs. Bachman was to change partners in the 1880's merging with John C. Forry. Another string of notable houses and commercial edifices ensued. After Bachman's retirement, Forry launched out on his own developing blocks of upper Chestnut and North Fourth in the Colonial Revival style. W. H. Hougendobler, another local contractor, was responsible for much of North Third and Second as well as developments later in East Columbia. Samuel Sloan provided plans for an aborted town hall in the late 1960's that E. F. Durang, another Philadelphia, eventually was to construct. Meanwhile, Sloan provided the interior plans for the market house with Issac Hobbs and Sons designing the exterior which was modified by Columbia's W. W. Upp. Upp usually specialized in railroad construction, having aided the Wilson Bros. firm with their passenger station. The Philadelphia connection was strong as Frank Furness did the Reading and Columbia Railroad Passenger Station, and George Hewitt and Frank Watson submitted plans for churches. Hewitt's went up on Locust. Watson's was erected, in an altered form, on Chestnut by the Methodists. A. J. Dempwolfe, architect of York County's courthouse was active in the borough. He was responsible for residences on Chestnut as well as the Poplar Street School of 1884. Jere Koch who had worked with E. K. Smith to produce Locust Street's most fanciful East lake commercial front, rounded out the group of enterprising architects who transformed Columbia between 1870 and 1900, almost taking it to city level.

Columbia remained small town America during the years leading up to World War I. Vigorous attempts were made to entice diversified industries but none of sizable proportions developed. Following in the World War I capital investments were made in Columbia's industries and residential areas comprised of modest Foursquares sprang up on Locust, Walnut and Chestnut. Around 1903, as the old canal boats were being chopped up for firewood, the antiquated flood damaged canal having been filled in and used for railroad right-of-way, the Pennsylvania Railroad dealt a devastating blow to Columbia. Railroad offices were moved to Harrisburg; shops were opened at Luckow, and in 1909 crews were transferred out of Columbia completely as the railroad pulled out of town. Coupled with that came the depressed steel industry. Pig iron had been replaced by technologically improved steel. Furnaces closed, stove moulders moved to Richmond and Susquehanna Iron went into receivership.

Because of Columbia's rapid industrial decline, the community retained a large percentage of its 18th early-20th century buildings including residential and commercial buildings. Only a small number of the transportation related and industrial structures remain, but those that do in combination with the important commercial and residential areas reflect Columbia's development and importance during two centuries of its history.


Atlas of Lancaster County for 1864, 1875, 1899

Birds-eye View Map of Columbia, Pennsylvania for 1873, 1894

Binder, Frederick Moore. Coal Age Empire: Pennsylvania Coal and Its Utilization to 1860. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1974.

Blockson, Charles L. The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania. Jacksonville, North Carolina: Flame International, Inc., 1981.

Columbia Daily News

Columbia Directory for 1869-70, 1874-75, 1874, 1878, 1882, 1884, 1887, 1896, 1903, 1909, 1916, 1918, 1943, 1960.

Columbia Spy

Columbia Independent

Columbia Herald

Egle, William. Illustrated History of Pennsylvania, 1876. (pp. 808-831).

Ellis, Franklin and Evans, Samuel. History of Lancaster County. Philadelphia: Everts and Peck, 1883. (pp. 538-597).

Hobbs, Isaac and Son. Hobbs' Architecture. Philadelphia: Lippincott & Co., 1873 & 1876. (pp. 72-73).

Lainhoff, Thorns. Unpublished Master's Thesis, American Studies Department, Pennsylvania State University- Capitol Campus, Middletown, PA., 1891.

Lancaster County Deed Records

Lancaster County Mechanics Liens

Lancaster County Tax Records

Livingood, James Weston. The Philadelphia-Baltimore Trade Rivalry 1780-1860. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1947.

McCormick, Richard P. "William Whipper: Moral Reformer," Harrisburg: Pennsylvania History, January, 1976 (Vol. XLIII).

Sanborn Map Company, Columbia, Pennsylvania: 1886, 1899, 1909, 1920, 1928, New York, N. Y.

Morse, Rollin D., Columbia Historic District, nomination document, 1982, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Other neighborhoods named

Columbia Historic District Map

Street Names
2nd Street North • 2nd Street South • 4th Street North • 4th Street South • 5th Street North • 6th Street North • 6th Street South • 8th Street North • 8th Street South • Avenue C • Avenue D • Avenue E • Avenue F • Avenue G • Avenue H • Avenue I • Avenue J • Bethel Street • Blunston Street • Bridge Street • Cedar Street • Cherry Street • Chestnut Street • Commerce Street • Concord Avenue • Front Street North • Front Street South • Houston Street • Lancaster Avenue • Linden Street • Locust Street • Maple Street • Poplar Street • Ridge Avenue • Route 441 • Route 462 • Slump Avenue • Stamans Lane • Union Street • Walnut Street • Wright Street

**Information is curated from a variety of sources and, while deemed reliable, is not guaranteed.
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