Greenville Commercial Historic District
The Greenville Commercial Historic District (Downtown Greenville) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The Greenville Commercial Historic District (Downtown Greenville) lies east of the Shenango River at the center of Greenville, in northern Mercer County, Pennsylvania, seven miles from the Ohio State line. The Greenville Commercial Historic District consists of approximately nine acres. It is centered on Main Street, one block of Canal Street, and a portion of Clinton Street; The Post Office building, the 1905 Bessemer Depot and the Lake Erie Railroad Depot are located along the Clinton Street portion of the Greenville Commercial Historic District. There are 48 contributing buildings in the Greenville Commercial Historic District and 19 noncontributing buildings. The majority of contributing buildings was built after major fires in 1871 and 1873 resulting in an architecturally distinctive appearance characterized by brick materials and Italianate and other late 19th century stylistic influences. Non-contributing buildings, scattered through the Greenville Commercial Historic District were built after 1950 or have undergone facade improvements and other modernizations representing mid-20th century design influences. The Greenville Commercial Historic District retains integrity.
The Greenville Commercial Historic District consists of commercial streetscapes built flush to sidewalks, mostly two stories in height, of brick masonry construction and having recessed entrances. The majority of buildings have two-bay storefronts. Larger multi-bay buildings also exist: the Packard Commercial Building (179-181 Main Street), the Livingston Morrison Building (190-192 Main Street) and the Masonic Block (218-222 Main Street) are the sum total of these large scale commercial resources. Lot sizes are the same as originally laid out, sixty by one hundred twenty feet. Larger buildings lie on merged lots. Of the contributing buildings, twenty-two (almost 50%) are in the Italianate style, seven (one-seventh of the total) are of Late Victorian stylistic influence, eleven (28%) are identified as having no style and the remaining pre-1930 buildings are in other late 19th and early to mid-20th century styles. The Italianate style influence is evident throughout the Greenville Commercial Historic District in elongated fenestration with window hoods and corbelling and bracketing associated with prominent cornices. The Packard Commercial Block is the strongest example of the style in the Greenville Commercial Historic District. The block rises above the rest of the streetscape and its full-length arched window fenestration is framed by ornamented pilasters and corbelled window hoods. Decorative pressed brick in a frieze below the cornice rises in an arch in the center of the block. Other, more typical examples of the Italianate style include the G.C. Murphy Building (205-207-209 Main Street), the 1873 Mathers Building at the corner of Main and Mercer Streets, the 1873 building at 170 Main Street, and the 1881 building at 204 Main Street.
The most prominent example of Late Victorian style design in the Greenville Commercial Historic District is the Masonic Block at the northwest corner of Main and Mercer Streets. This building exhibits Queen Anne style influences in the varied gabelling and use of wall surfaces as primary decorative elements. On the third story, five rows of patterned corbelling are stepped out to emphasize both the fenestration below and the cornice and roof lines above. The institutional massing of the building, the steep gables, and the use of contrasting splayed imposts, however, also convey elements of Gothic Revival style influence. Other examples of Late Victorian era influences are less obvious. The three story, eight-bay Livingston-Morrison building at 190-192 Main Street has masonry brackets leading to corbelling at the cornice, and two-over-two windows with stone lintels and sills. The building's facade is otherwise devoid of obvious stylistic influence, though its massing, shape, fenestration pattern, materials and date stone (1902) all clearly indicate the influences of the era as applied to vernacular commercial architecture. Smaller examples of typically Late Victorian style buildings, also having with flat window tops, stone lintels and sills, and slightly embellished horizontal masonry at the roof lines exist throughout the Greenville Commercial Historic District.
Seven of the commercial buildings in the Greenville Commercial Historic District, all from the late 19th or early 20th centuries, retain integrity but are simply devoid of stylistic influence. They contribute to the Greenville Commercial Historic District as a whole and are categorized as having no style. The Orr Building at 16-18 Canal Street is two stories, masonry, and has a slightly recessed two bay double storefront at street level. The paired upper windows are two over two and slightly elongated and have stone lintels. However, the sills are wood and the masonry has no ornamentation whatsoever. It is, simply, a vernacular building dating from the late 19th century. Next door, at 20-22 Canal Street, a similarly vernacular building of the same period exists. The wood-and-plate glass store front is not recessed and the second story has matching exposed bay windows. Again the building is distinctive to a period and retains integrity, but lacks interpretable stylistic influence such that it can be said to have no style at all.
Singular strong individual examples of later styles also exist within the Greenville Commercial Historic District. The Mission style Bessemer Railroad Station Building at the south end of the Greenville Commercial Historic District off Canal Street is a strong example of the style and building type. It has the deep roof overhangs and shallow-pitched hipped roof-weather shelter for waiting passengers and goods — that are defining characteristics common to Mission style and Prairie/Craftsman style influences that were widespread at the turn of the century. The arched entry at the center of the building's length, its rectangular form and its tiled roof ridges are other elements of the Mission style. The roof shape and the low-profile masonry chimneys piercing it are typical of Prairie style design. The chimneys' massing and placement and rectangular shapes in proportion to the building's foot print reinforce the Prairie style influence. Their orientation, perpendicular to the length of the building, and their heavy massing give the appearance of anchoring the building to the land upon which it sits.
The United States Post Office faces Clinton Street on the southeast corner of Clinton and Canal Street. Built in 1938 as a Public Works Administration project, Neo-classical Revival Style, it has many features reminiscent of that building period. The front and ends of the building are porticoed with rose marble two story columns backed by multi-stage windows set in heavy nickel. Front entrance doors are in black-marble surrounds. Centered between the two doors nickel ornamentation with federal shield and eagle. The end bays on the front of the building each have a window in Neo-classical style set in buff brick with eagle medallions set over the windows. Treatment of the east and west ends of the building is the same, with columns and bays set off with vertical marble plasters. The cornice of the building is paneled with decorative molding. Along the frieze is molded ornamentation at each corner, of terra cotta painted swags and griffins designed by Italian sculptor, Frank Vittor and molded in Greenville. The building measures ninety by one hundred feet, a monumental footprint in Greenville, but because it is off the Main Street, its prominence to the Greenville Commercial Historic District as a whole is muted.
The Art Deco style N.N. Moss Building at 150-152 Main Street is the latest notable resource within the Greenville Commercial Historic District. The original builder, William Laird, built this three bay brick building in the 1870s as the Laird Opera House Block. Moss in 1920 took over the entire building for use as a department store. About 1950 members of the Moss family completely altered and rehabilitated the store with designs drawn by Greenville architect, Walter Mallorie. Windows were covered and the front covered with granite facing influenced by the Art Deco style. A two-story segmented window centers the front. Large storefront windows are shaded by a metal framed canopy. On the Race Street side of the building the 1876 six-bay architecture was retained.
As noted above, non-contributing buildings are scattered throughout the Greenville Commercial Historic District. Alterations to the contributing buildings within the Greenville Commercial Historic District have generally been to storefront areas, including replacement of historic shop fronts with often incompatible materials. Some buildings have been altered with the application of synthetic siding. There have been some facade rehabilitations, a result of community planning in the 1980's. As a whole, however, the Greenville Commercial Historic District retains the location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association necessary to convey its importance as a historic commercial center and notable architectural resource.
The Greenville Commercial Historic District is significant for its association with the commercial life of this important Mercer County community and as a local example of the variety of architectural styles popular in the mid to late 19th century with later examples of important 20th century commercial design trends. More than half of buildings date from the period 1871-1890. Many of these buildings were erected within a relatively brief period following major fires in the 1870s. There is therefore a strong consistency of masonry building materials and stylistic influence. The period of significance begins with the date of the earliest constructed commercial building, 1857, and ends with ca.1950, the National Register guideline for the evaluation of significance as well as the date of the last built contributing architectural changes to the district, alterations to the N.N. Moss building.
Early settlers to what would become Greenville came from Westmoreland County in 1797. John Williamson arrived in 1798 and built a sawmill and gristmill. Jacob Loutzenheiser built a dam across the Shenango River in 1815 and built a log gristmill. These settlements all occurred west of the Shenango River. These were the town's earliest industries beyond agriculture. In 1826, several acres lying east of the Shenango River were added to the community. This area became the downtown of Greenville. Four parallel, East-West streets (Eagle, Shenango, Mill [now Main] and Clinton) in this addition were laid out. Perpendicular North-South alleys completed the grid. They included what would become Race and Canal, Streets. The village grew and in 1837 local residents petitioned the Commonwealth to have its status changed from a village to a borough.
The Erie Extension Canal, paralleling the Shenango River to the east was completed in 1844 and further stimulated commerce, industry, and building construction. The canal ran down what is now Canal Street. In the immediate region iron furnaces and lime kilns appeared, a furniture manufacturer flourished and agriculture moved from subsistence to market farms. In Greenville livery operators, boat builders, metal workers, barrel makers, dealers in building materials and managers of financial institutions settled in the community and established businesses. Local antebellum commercial activity included the sale of fruit, patent medicines, hardware, piece goods and clothing. The population at the time of incorporation was 495. By 1860 the population had grown to 1,101 and Main Street was solid with frame buildings housing merchandise stores and service providers serving the needs of the community and its outlying areas. By 1869 railroads traversed Mercer County. The Shenango and Allegheny Railroad used the abandoned (ca.1855) canal bed as its right of way as it moved through Greenville to Butler. In 1870 the Greenville Iron Company was started just south of downtown Greenville. By the beginning of and through the period of significance, Greenville's downtown was a well established, thriving, and locally important center of commerce.
As with many 19th century villages, which used wood as the major building material, Greenville had its share of destructive fires. The first large one started on January 21, 1871 in the Laird Opera Block at Main and Race Streets and spread along Main Street consuming property worth $44,000. A second major fire, called the Chicago Conflagration or the Big Fire, was in January 1873. The total loss in the fire was estimated at $33,000. At least thirty buildings burned, including twenty-two stores and shops, six dwellings, one hotel, one office and three barns. There were other, smaller but still important fires in the 1875-1876 time, but the rebuilding of the "burn district" had been well underway since the summer of 1873. Proprietors and owners of the Main Street businesses often relocated to the west side of the Shenango River in order to keep their businesses alive, returning to the east side of the river as space became available in the new buildings. The Greenville Borough mandated that new buildings be made fire proof or fire resistant through the use of masonry rather than wooden materials. This helps account for some similarity in the design and materials of the new buildings, most of which were built within a twenty-year period after the fires.
There was no master architect or planner for the rebuilding of the burnt section of town. Several names appear in local newspaper accounts of rebuilding, however, including builders, William G. Taylor and John Walters; bricklayers, John and Seth Hull; painter, J. A. Taylor; plumber, Thomas Stone; plasterer, B.F. Hawks; a tinner named Bennet; and a slate craftsman, named Day.
No specific architect is mentioned in news accounts following the first fire. However, Samuel W. Foulk had an office at 170 Main Street from 1873 for at least twenty years, and C.W. Owsley is reported to have designed several unspecified buildings in the Greenville Commercial Historic District for lawyers, bankers, and merchants. Both Foulk and Owsley were known in western Pennsylvania as regional architects involved in 19th century commercial design work. Both were trend followers, executing period designs in popular period styles but muted to the lower scale and expectations of working communities like Greenville. (Foulk's designs are known to exist in Oil City and Warren.) This is the origin of so much Italianate style influence within the Greenville Commercial Historic District. Popular regionally and nationally from the mid-19th century to the late 19th century, the style is common in the expanding industrial communities of Western Pennsylvania. Its highly visible detailing, relatively inexpensive, such as machined brackets and millwork, was easily applied to the two and three stories commercial and residential buildings being constructed during the era of Greenville's growth. The style, as a fashion trend, reflected the immediate commercial success of the Greenville Commercial Historic District and the industrial and agricultural growth of the immediate surrounding area.
Building codes requiring masonry construction also brought a consistency and appearance to the Greenville Commercial Historic District that reflects specific stylistic influences, such as corbelling and belt courses and arched and hooded windows, that clearly delineate the 1870s as the primary era of construction. These style and material influences were never as common in other eras and were at the peak of popularity in the era following the fires.
The heavy percentage of Italianate style buildings in the Greenville Commercial Historic District reflects the primary era of reconstruction. Strong examples of later styles reflect the continued build-out and vitality of Greenville.
Institutional buildings like the Masonic Hall (Queen Ann/Gothic Revival style) and the Post Office (Neoclassical Revival style ) are large, highly designed, and materially substantive. Such characteristics, and resource types, reflect the economic well being of Greenville through the turn of the century and into the Depression. The other large commercial buildings in the Greenville Commercial Historic District, the Packard Building (Italianate style, 1870s) and the N.N. Moss building, (rehabilitated into the Art Deco style ca.1950) serve as architectural bookends to Greenville's history of economic prosperity. The Packard Building was by far the largest, most highly designed, and most visibly successful building in Greenville during the late 19th and early 20th century. The Moss Building, a total exterior overhaul that installed the essence of Art Deco style design in immediate post-War Greenville, also reflects the local interpretation of architectural trends.
Between the dates of the Packard and Moss Buildings the evident range of architectural styles found in the Greenville Commercial Historic District well represent the architectural patterns and practices western Pennsylvanians preferred. The stylistic influences are less obvious, out of cost and need, in smaller, more vernacular buildings on Main and Canal streets. Interspersed between the larger scale Italianate style buildings are contemporary and later infill construction with no or little evident style including flat arched windows, flat wall surfaces, the same basic red clay brick, little fenestration beyond large commercial plate glass store fronts and double upper floor sash, and flat roofs sloping, out of sight, away from main facades. Thematically and temporally the buildings well reflect the range of architecture, from high style to vernacular, popular during the mid to late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. The commercial district is as fine a holistic example, in such towns, as exists in this part of Pennsylvania. The Greenville Commercial Historic District well compares to other historic commercial districts such as Oil City Downtown Historic District (National Register 1997) and Dubois Historic District (National Register 1997), that burned and were rebuilt in the mid to late 19th century. All have masonry construction and well reflect similar design trends.
Through the period of significance, the Greenville Commercial Historic District served as the regional and local provider of goods and services. Banking, retail clothing and hardware shops, legal and architectural professionals, furniture, drug and other retail enterprises all operated within the Greenville Commercial Historic District.
The people the Greenville Commercial Historic District served largely worked in the transportation and industrial enterprises associated with the region's mid to late 19th century development. The railroads going through Greenville after the mid 1850s boosted local commerce and other economic activity. But it was the Shenango and Allegheny Railroad shops erected in 1869 just south of the nominated commercial area that first substantially altered the long term and created substantial sustained growth. By 1877, when the population was about thirty-five hundred people, Greenville was acknowledged to be a well established and locally important center of commerce. A gas manufacturing company was built on Clinton Street in 1877, beyond the district, making gas products from the combustion of coal. Employment here provided support for the commercial center of Greenville as well as gas used by its residents. With the advent of telephone services in the area in 1877, telephone exchange offices were established in the Masonic Block over Alexander's Drug. Other second story offices and shops included bootmakers, dressmakers and milliners as well as doctors, dentists and lawyers. In 1884 the Shenango and Allegheny went into receivership and in 1887 taken over by a holding company which started the Pittsburgh, Shenango and Lake Erie Railroad. Andrew Carnegie bought the railroad as part of establishing the Lake Erie to Pittsburgh line for transporting iron ore. The Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad came into existence as of December 31, 1900. Throughout the period of significance these shops continued in operation as a central repair facility, through mergers and name changes, providing employment and commercial fuel for generations of Greenville citizens.
Similarly, The Bessemer Railroad was headquartered here, overseeing the movement of iron ore from a port in Ashtabula on Lake Erie to US Steel operations in the Pittsburgh region and bituminous coal from the Connellsville belt and beyond back to the Great lakes. Greenville Steel Car employed hundreds over the period of significance in the construction of box cars. Both firms were locally significant employers of skilled craftsmen and contributed to the economic support of the commercial district. The Chicago Bridge and Iron Company began work in 1911 and built elevated tanks and other railroad equipment in further extension of Greenville's economic base. (A diesel shop for the repair of locomotives was opened in 1951, after the period of significance, reflecting the transition of rail power from steam and electric power after World War II as well as the continued vitality of the industry in Greenville.) Through the first half of the 20th century, working either at "the Bessemer" or "Steel Car" indicated a financial and social stability for a substantial percent of Greenville's population. Commerce, directly related to this stability, flourished on Main Street.
Other commercial services were located in the Greenville Commercial Historic District before and during the railroad period. A sample year, 1923, represents the historic range and extent of commerce in Greenville. Newspapers of that year reveal there were two locally owned department stores within the Greenville Commercial Historic District, L.L. Keck on the southeast corner of Main and Race Streets, and N.N. Moss, at the northwest corner of Main and Race Streets. There were five restaurants, two music stores, three variety stores, two bakeries, and one store each for ladies and gentlemen's furnishings. These all operated on Main Street within the Greenville Commercial Historic District. By the 1940s, these locally owned specialized shops were joined by national chains, including Murphy's, Grant's, and Woolworth's which operated successful stores on Main Street. Through the mid-20th century the Greenville Commercial Historic District's second stories held offices for a variety of artistic, retail and professional enterprises. The transition to national chains appears not to have hurt locally owned businesses so much as it well reflects the larger national pattern of commercial activity towards the middle of the 20th century.
In many western Pennsylvania communities there is similarity of commercial success through the first half of the 20th century. Like Greenville, most settlements began along rivers around 1800 but only flourished with the age of industry. After the Civil War there were building programs for new enterprises related to oil in Venango and Crawford Counties, tin and related mill works in Lawrence County, steel and bridge making in Beaver County, and machine building in Erie County. Greenville's reliance on a diversified manufacturing base related to railroading is typical and the related commercial enterprises and architecture strong examples of the wealth and influence of industry. By the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Greenville like most other western Pennsylvania industrial communities was falling on hard times. Deindustrialization undermined the commercial vitality of the community and froze architectural and stylistic evolution in the Greenville Commercial Historic District. Like examples in Mercer, Grove City, and Jamestown, Greenville's stores typically provided groceries, dry goods, hardware, building supplies, financial and legal services as well as other, more specialized services. With specialized services — educational, artistic, medical, dental and other services in second floor offices. Like the first floor commercial stores, however, these too dried up after the mid-twentieth century. Nevertheless, the Greenville Commercial Historic District well reflects the enduring qualities of architectural development and commercial use common from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.
Two nearby communities which may be compared with Greenville are Meadville and Mercer. Mercer, the county seat, is fifteen miles south of Greenville, and is about one half the size. It has, since 1802, been the "government town" in the county. It is centered with the Courthouse Square and imposing Mercer County Courthouse. Surrounding the square is a commercial district still catering to county government workers. Several historic buildings in Mercer's historic center have been demolished to make way for new construction. Meadville is the county seat of Crawford County, thirty miles from Greenville. Settled from 1790, its commercial center grew along the French Creek under land agent Harm Jan Huidekoper. The construction of the French Creek feeder canal provided early commerce; later it was a railroad and industrial center with the presence of Talon and American Viscose companies, each of which employed many people. There is a beautiful square in front of the imposing courthouse, early churches, professional and government offices surround the square. More than twice the size of Greenville, Meadville's commercial historic district (National Register 1984) is notable for the early market house square as well as the area leading to the courthouse square.
Beaver, Roy C. The Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad 169-1969, San Marino, CA., Golden West Books 1969.
Fire Insurance Maps for Greenville (New York, Sanborn Co., 1926).
Greenville, Pennsylvania, Directory, 1892-93 (Greenville, Morrison and Muhlenburg, 1893).
History of Mercer County, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, L. H. Everts and Company, 1877. Reprint Mercer County Historical Society, 1975).
History of Mercer County, Pennsylvania (Chicago, Brown, Runk and Company, 1888. Reprint Mercer County Historical Society 1985).
Miller, Earl C. "History of Greenville" 1987.
Miller, Earl C. "History of Camp Reynolds" in 50th Anniversary Shenango Replacement Depot/Camp Reynolds, Pennsylvania, 1942-1945, 1992.
"Record Argus Centennial Edition 1938."
A Twentieth Century History of Mercer County, Pennsylvania (Chicago, The Lewis Publishing Company, 1909.
"West Greenville Times," 1858, newspaper.
"Advance Argus," 1873, newspaper.
Polk Directory (Greenville), 1941.
Architects Builders and Contractors Directory Pittsburgh and Allegheny and Western PA (1896).