West End Historic District
The Norristown West End Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
West End Historic District is located approximately 24 miles northwest of Philadelphia and 36 miles southeast of Reading . The District is predominantly residential neighborhoods of approximately 1700 structures, including individual row and duplex units. They stand on the hill in Norristown Borough that rises gradually from the west side of Stoney Creek and the north side of the Schuylkill River. Called the West End almost from the time of its initial development on the eve of the Civil War, this area developed on a grid plan that moved progressively up the hill, westward from Stoney Creek. The District includes roughly 32 square blocks within the West End.
There are four exceptions to this comprehensive pattern. The first is the few rural relics, early agricultural and mill structures, that can be found in the District, engulfed by the late 19th century housing. The second exception is the four blocks of 19th century stores on West Marshall Street, between Corson and Kohn Streets, which serve as the West End's commercial district. Its buildings range from the 1876 market house to the c. 1930 West End Theatre. Light industrial buildings along the creek and river still stand as testimony to those streams' importance as early power sources. The former Quaker City (Tyson) Shirt Works at Corson and West Marshall Streets and the old Norristown Grain Binder Works at Corson and West Oak Streets are two of the most significant survivors. Also, from the West End's beginnings, West Main Street (originally called Egypt Road) cut through the District as the primary route between Norristown and the Perkiomen Valley. Large dwellings, both single residences and semi-detached houses, rose up along this thoroughfare at a more rapid pace than that of the surrounding speculative housing, which initially was concentrated to the north of Main Street. As the West End's formerly fashionable address, West Main Street remains the district's architectural showcase.
The West End's grid forms rectangular blocks whose long sides run roughly north and south and are bisected lengthwise by alleys. Consequently, most of the houses face east and west. The three exceptions to this pattern are the stores and dwellings on West Marshall Street, the mansions along West Main Street, and the houses on West Lafayette Street, which parallels Main Street one block to the west.
While rowhouses predominate them, there is a large number of semi-detached houses in the District with an occasional free-standing house on some blocks. A few showing deep setbacks, steep gable roofs and unusual materials, such as slate and wood siding, pre-date the major developmental periods. Even on West Main Street there are many semi-detached houses, albeit large, often towered semi-detached houses. Single dwellings dominate only the two blocks between Haws Avenue and Noble Street. This overwhelming number of brick rows and twins gives the District a strong urban residential character.
Since the West End was developed in a deliberate, progressive pattern up the hill from the west side of Stoney Creek, the District serves as a unique living museum of Victorian architectural styles ranging between approximately 1885 and 1925. Also, in a museum-like fashion, the changing popularity of architectural styles unfolds both chronologically and topographically as one moves up the hill toward the Borough's limits. It is unique, not only because the dwellings are well-preserved, but also because they serve as small-town expressions of big-city high styles.
The Norristown version of the Philadelphia rowhouses, with vaguely Italianate and Greek Revival elements, stands near the creek on Corson and Astor Streets. Others, like the 600 and 700 blocks of Kohn Street, their flat brick facades rising flush with the sidewalk, present a Kafkaesque vision. On George Street, however, semi-detached, or twin houses dominate. Some, in particular those between Marshall and Airy Streets, are set back from the sidewalk to form small terraces which combine with semi-hexagonal bays and large front porches to give the block a picturesque plasticity.
In the 1870's the Second Empire mode was found mostly on lower West Main Street, but by the end of that decade, the French style was being overshadowed by the local variant of the High Victorian Gothic, whose squat proportions and corbeled detailing an the upper floors compensated for the absence of polychromy and pointed arches. One group, in the 500 block of Stanbridge, is so "tough" as to be belligerent, and stands in contrast to the remarkable range of delicately rendered Gothic twins only a block away.
At the northern edges of the District, the early 20th century preference for classicism, in general, and the Georgian Revival, in particular, is apparent in the rows with their semi-hexagonal bays and the twins with their Georgian proportions and broken pediments above their cornices. The Arts and Crafts movement also left its mark on this end of town in the treatment of the stucco walls, arched entries, and dormers.
Main Street, however, remains the stage for the West End's most expressive architecture. There the local Victorian fascination for turrets and towers is self-evident. Styles range from a distinctive, if naive, Queen Anne to anemic Romanesque and beyond to some examples so eclectic as to defy easy categorization.
The West End is an outstanding example of a late-19th, early-20th century residential community. Its architectural integrity and variety are remarkable; intrusions are virtually non-existent. In fact, even many of its complementary structures, like mills and stores, are still intact.
Established in 1784, the original "Town of Norris" did not include the farmland west of Stoney Creek. It was not until 1852 that these farms were annexed to form what remains today as the bounds of the Borough of Norristown. Among the land absorbed by this expansion were the Chain, Williams, Harnell, Harus, and Knox farms of the West End. Speculative development in the West End began as early as 1854 when a syndicate of investors purchased a parcel near Buttonwood and Airy Streets from Thomas Knox for building lots (although no development in that area remains from that period).
The development of the West End was spurred by the physical enlargement of the Borough, industrial expansion and the construction in 1854 of the stone bridge across Stoney Creek at Main Street, then known as Egypt Road. The bridge, which remains today, provided more direct access to central Norristown's Courthouse, stores and shops, institutions, and industries. By 1859 a local historian could write: "Main or Egypt Street beyond Stoney Creek contains a number of handsome residences and is neatly planted with trees." Another boon to the West End was the construction of the Stoney Creek Railroad in the early 1870's. A station was located just west of the Creek on Main and Markley Streets in the West End.
Initially, industry and housing were situated close to Stoney Creek and the Schuylkill River. Responding to the demand for housing, speculative rowhousing development began among the first four blocks north of Marshall Street and was well underway by 1877, eventually creating what remains today as some of the more spectacular rowhouse streetscapes in suburban Philadelphia. Early commercial development began along Marshall Street by 1871 and grew with the demand created by the adjacent residential growth. The early industries in the West End at that time included the Bolton Saw Mill and Lumber Yard (est. 1858) and a pottery on Pearl Street (est. c. 1870). Development intensified in the 1870's. By the end of the decade, groups of three-story brick rowhouses were in place on the north/south streets of Astor, Chain, George and Kohn. West End industrial growth, such as the Norristown Grain Binder Works and the Quaker City Shirtworks located along Stoney Creek Railroad promoted more residential infill development in the 1800's, as well as additional blocks of rowhouses north of Marshall Street and along a portion of Noble Street. The 800 and 600 blocks of West Lafayette and West Washington streets were rapidly developed during the next decade, and by 1909 most of the remaining "gaps" were closed. While Marshall Street became the "Main Street," Main Street became the fashionable address and supported most of the West End mansions. Among these are the Shannon House (1870), the Lowe House (1860/75) and the Romanesque Wentz House (1895). As the borough approached its Centennial in 1912, the area proposed as the West End Historic District essentially was in place.
From its beginnings, the West End was a distinguishable and, in many respects, an independent area of Norristown. Not only did Stoney Creek and the railroad serve to isolate it from Central Norristown, but it also developed its own industries, commercial "Main Street," and institutions. In addition to those structures already noted) by 1912 major West End industries included the Wilcomb Machine Co., the Lee Harris Mfg. Co., and the Ballard Knitting Co. on West Washington Street, the Wildman and Fowler and Wolfe manufacturing companies and W. K. Gresh and Sons Cigar Mfg. along Stoney Creek, the Rhoad/Morgan grain and feed mills, store, and grain elevators at Elm and Astor Streets, and the Modern Laundry at Noble and Washington Streets. These facilities all remain intact. Marshall, rather than Main Street grew into the West End's primary commercial district, (The large Western Market Hall was constructed in 1876, and by 1878 the Yeakle Hotel was in operation, as were a number of small shops.) Also contributing to the growth and independence of the West End was the establishment of local institutions, such as schools, churches and fire companies. The first public school was erected in 1870 at Chain and Airy Streets. It was two stories and could accommodate 50 pupils. In 1894 it was replaced by the John F. Hartranft school which could serve 360 pupils. A school was built an Noble Street in 1888 for 380 pupils. A Methodist Church mas built on Haws Avenue in 1875. It was followed by the Grace Lutheran (1885), Calvary Baptist (1887), All Saints (1889) and Christ Reformed (1896) Churches. No doubt indicative at the West End's growing importance was the Central Presbyterian Church's decision to relocate to the West End from central Norristown in 1902. Within a few years, three more churches were established: Schwenkfelder (1904), Seventh Day Adventists (1902) and St. Francis of Assissi (1904).
Another factor contributing to the West End's growth was the opening of trolley lines along Main, Chain, Marshall and Stanbridge Streets in 1887. Central Norristown had been serviced since 1884. These first lines, "horsecar" routes, were electrified in 1893. Electric rail service to Philadelphia and other suburban areas was vastly improved with the opening of the Philadelphia and Western Railroad High Speed Line to downtown Norristown in 1912. Although the terminus of the P & W High Speed Line was located in central Norristown, it put the West End (as well as the rest of the Borough) within commuting distance of Philadelphia and other suburban communities.
The West End's independence was reinforced by Norristown's borough form of government and 'ward' system of electing officials. Proudly proclaiming itself the "largest independent borough in the world," the citizens of Norristown have steadily resisted attempts to reorganize as a city, for which its population qualifies. Movements to adopt a city charter were initiated in 1881, 1888, 1913, 1957, 1960 and 1970 and defeated every time. The citizens clung to their old ward (there have been 12 since 1925) loyalties.
West End is an outstanding example of a late Victorian residential community, cohesive yet marvelously varied. It is a textbook example of late 19th, early 20th century rowhouse and duplex design. Its streetscapes are virtually unbroken by intrusions. No highway or urban renewal program has cut a swath in its overall unity. Individually and in groups, the West End's buildings exhibit integrity of setting and design. Street by street, the architecture at the west End presents a clear picture of how this area grew and developed.
The boundaries of the West End Historic District are based on three factors: natural features, historical development, and architectural integrity. Stoney Creek, which runs in a northerly direction from the Schuylkill River on the south, forms the boundary on the District's east side. It was, in fact, construction of a bridge over this Creek in 1854 that initiated the development of the West End in the second half of the 19th century. Reinforcing the selection of this boundary is the Stoney Creek Railroad which parallels the creek. Both clearly separate the West End from central Norristown. The Schuylkill River on the south also paralleled by a railroad (the Schuylkill Division of the former Pennsylvania Railroad) forms the southern boundary for the District. The boundary line, however, was drawn slightly north of the tracks where there are unified and cohesive groupings of 19th century residential and industrial buildings.
The western, northern and a small portion of the southern boundary are based on the West End's historical development. Since the West End exhibits an amazing degree of development continuity, the boundaries were drawn in these areas to capture this continuity within a historical context. Using the Sanborn Insurance Maps of 1909 and 1920 as a rough guide, the lines were drawn to include most of the contiguous development of buildings in place by that decade. By 1909 there was extensive residential development between Hamilton and Selma Streets above Main and below Marshall Streets. This, combined with the exceptional architectural integrity of the existing house, argues for extending the western boundary to several blocks along Selma Street. The northern boundary lines is somewhat stepped, rising from Marshall Street to portions of Oak and Elm and encompassing nearly all the buildings erected by 1909. Where appropriate, the line follows back alleys, permitting the inclusion of significant units of rowhouses which face the main streets.
Major Bibliographical References
Atlas of the County of Montgomery and the State of Pennsylvania, G. M. Hopkins & Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1871.
Baist, William J., Atlas of Properties Along the Schuylkill Valley from Philadelphia to Norristown, J. L. Smith, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1886.
Borough of Norristown (Insurance Maps), Sanborn Map Co., Inc., Pelham, New York, 1896, 1902, 1909, 1920, 1928.
Buyers and Travelers Report, Volume 2, Norristown Chamber of Commerce, July 1910.
Combination Atlas Map of Montgomery County, J. D. Scott, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1877.
Corson, L. E. (C. E., Borough Surveyor), Map of the Borough of Norristown, published by Robert P. Smith, 1848.
Goldstein, Sidney, 1900-1950 Analyses of Community: A Social Service Research Project, Philadelphia, 1961.
Knipe, Irvin (Borough Solicitor), Norristown Borough Digest, Norristown Herald, 1904.
McDade, George, Norristown, Past, Present, Future: An Historical and Mercantile Review of Its Growth, Progress and Enterprise, Norristown, 1899.
One Hundred Twenty-fifth Anniversary of Borough of Norristown, 1812-1937, Norristown, 1937.
Philadelphia's Most Home-Like Suburb, Norristown Chamber of Commerce, Norristown, 1905.
Property Atlas & Montgomery County, J. L. Smith Co., Philadelphia, Pa. 1893.
Schmoyer, Richard H. (Borough Planner), Norristown High Speed Line Terminal (formerly the Philadelphia & Western Terminal or P & W), 1980.
Scott, Hugh, "Norristown: It's the Largest U. S. Independent Borough," The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, July 30, 1950.