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Old Pottstown Historic District


The Old Pottstown Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Portions of the text below were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1] Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.

Description

The Old Pottstown Historic District is an example of a small, late 19th century industrial community. Although the town was created in the mid 1700s, the great industrial boom of the late 1800s left a strong Victorian imprint which still predominates.

The Old Pottstown Historic District's boundaries are roughly coterminous with the town laid out by John Potts in 1761 and incorporated as a borough in 1815. Potts, an iron master, built an elegant Georgian home for himself in 1752 on a hill immediately northwest of the confluence of the Schuylkill River and the Manatawny Creek. The Potts mansion, called Pottsgrove Manor, was listed on the National Register in 1974. Potts located a forge, and later his town, on the flatlands just east of the creek. Potts' town originally called Pottsgrove, was thus bounded on the west by the Manatawny Creek and on the south by the Schuylkill River. A small hill two miles east of the Manatawny Creek, together with a surveyor's line going south from the hill to the Schuylkill River, the present day Adams Street, formed the eastern boundary of the town. The northern boundary was arbitrarily formed by Beech Street, which ran in a straight line from the Manatawny Creek to the hill. Beech Street, a mile north of the Schuylkill River and roughly parallel to it, remained the de facto northern edge of town until the late 1800s.

Potts laid out his town based on the Philadelphia grid pattern of right angled streets. Pottstown's industrial, commercial, and residential areas form three distinct east-west horizontal bands. High Street, the main thoroughfare, and King Street, one block north of High Street and parallel to it, form the middle band and have traditionally been the focus of the town's commercial life. The bottom band, the area south of High Street to the Schuylkill River, has traditionally been used for industrial development and has changed beyond recognition since 1900. The Old Pottstown Historic District boundary, therefore, projects south of High Street in just two small areas. At the far western end of the district, the boundary dips south to the Schuylkill River to include the 1725 Roller Mills, a stone grist mill which continuously operated until 1972 and has since been restored as luxury apartments. Also included in this area is the 1928 neo-classical Reading Railroad station, faced in granite and topped with a green tile roof. At the far eastern end of the Old Pottstown Historic District, the boundary dips south of High Street again, this time to include the now vacant Doehler-Jarvis castings plant, a fine example of turn-of-the-century brick industrial architecture. Immediately north of King Streets three parallel streets, Chestnut, Walnut, and Beech, form the third band of development. This area is predominately residential and is largely intact from the late 19th century.

A few Victorian industrial structures remain scattered throughout the Old Pottstown Historic District. The most notable is the Light Foundry building at York and Walnut streets, an 1880 two and a half story brick mill/warehouse style building which was used continuously to manufacture small metal parts until the early 1970s. The building, which happily stands in its original state right down to the fixtures, will be restored as apartments in July 1985. The Ecker building, 124 King Street, is currently the gutted brick shell of a circa 1910 livery, scheduled for restoration as luxury apartments in July 1985. The former Leibowitz shirt factory, a 1903 five story brick factory, has 12/12 wooden sash windows with rounded brick lintels and a corbeled brick cornice. It is located at Beech and Evans streets.

Much of High Street reflects the commercial development of Pottstown during its boom years from 1800 to 1900. The only exception is the first block of High Street, which contains some of the earliest surviving examples of Federal dwellings, constructed from 1830 to 1850, traditionally used as residences or professional offices. The 100-400 blocks of High Street are primarily commercial and decidedly late Victorian. The most notable structure is the Romanesque Security Trust Building, an 1888 five-story monolith of repressed brick and brownstone, with arched windows and elaborately corbeled brick cornice. The 200 and 300 blocks of High Street present a unified two-to-four story streetscape of late Victorian facades, usually of repressed brick with Italianate windows and heavy wood cornices. Typical of these storefronts are the Weitzenkorn building, 145 High Street, a three-story Queen Anne facade with corbeled brick columns, cornice, and finials, and the Mosheim building, 207 High Street, a four-story Second Empire repressed brick facade with fanciful arched lintels and heavily bracketed wood cornice.

Aside from churches, some small office and business use on the 500 block of High Street and the length of King Street, the rest of the Old Pottstown Historic District is residential.

The most common architectural style of the Old Pottstown Historic District is the traditional Federal style, updated by decorative motifs of the post Civil War era. Of the 1,180 buildings in the Old Pottstown Historic District, 448 are of the late Federal style, either built or modified between 1860 and 1890. Another 70 buildings are antebellum Federal style, but none probably predates the 1830s.

The antebellum Federal style in Pottstown is typically a two and a half story, two bay detached or semi-detached building of brick or clapboard, with flat window and door trim, and rectangular transom windows. The window sash has generally been modernized but the original 6/6 sash can sometimes be found on the side under the gables or in dormer windows. The most notable example is 426 High Street, c.1830, with Flemish bond brick masonry and 6/9 sash windows. Another fine example is 36 King Street, a semi-detached three story, two bay row house built in 1850. The gabled roof, decreasing window size on each floor elevation, and brick construction was typical of architecture in southeastern Pennsylvania at this time.

The late Federal style is also typically two and a half stories, with gabled slate roof (a slate quarry nearby Pottstown made this a popular roofing material), but its windows have been updated, often with an Italianate influence. Many late Federal style homes in Old Pottstown have new repressed brick facades, bay window additions, and altered or removed dormer windows. Typical of this style in Pottstown is 222 Chestnut Street, c.1860, and later altered. Repressed brick has replaced the original brick facade, and a two-story bay window has been added to the side. The front window sash has been altered to 1/1.

Interspersed through the Old Pottstown Historic District are a panoply of Victorian styles which reflect the 1880s real estate boom and the growing prosperity of the townspeople. The most elaborate of these homes are on King Street, Hanover Street, and the 200 and 300 blocks of Chestnut Street.

The most common style, numbering 107, is Gothic Revival often the alteration of a Federal building with the addition of a third gable in the front of the building.

The Old Pottstown Historic District boasts 92 Second Empire structures. Finest of these is the 1890 Jacob Sotter home, 178 N. Hanover Street, a three-story home with repressed brick on two sides, serpentine stone lintels and quoins, a two story bay window, oriel window, and glass turret jutting out from the mansard roof. Another fine example is the recently restored Weitzenkorn home, 53 King Street with a convex mansard roof, second floor oriel window, and serpentine stone quoins and lintels contrasting with the repressed brick facade.

There are 90 Italianate structures in the Old Pottstown Historic District, of which the finest example is the Philadelphia Steam Fire Engine Company firehouse, Penn and Chestnut streets. The two and a half story multi-bay brick and masonry building was constructed in 1880. Even though there have been some changes over time, it still retains most of the elements that helped define its style: the low hipped roof, bracketed cornice along the entire perimeter, and stone arched hoodmolds are all intact. Even the hose drying tower, though reduced from its original height, is still imposing, and reminiscent of cupolas on Italianate residential buildings. A fine Italianate home at 132 King Street has a repressed brick facade with a sandstone veneer water table and iron grates. The high, narrow windows are capped with massive wooden hoodmolds, and the low-pitched hipped roof ends in a massive overhanging bracketed cornice.

The 85 Queen Anne structures in the Old Pottstown Historic District include the very finest craftsmanship in Pottstown. In 1888, Joseph Healy, a wealthy Pottstown lumber merchant and founder of the borough's first electric company, built an imposing Queen Anne brownstone home at 61 N. Franklin Street with a Tudor flavor. The three story home, which is largely intact, boasts a massive turret, ornate stained glass windows, numerous chimneys, and a matching carriage house which later had a turntable in the floor, the better to accommodate early cars which came without reverse gear. Each room of the home, the first to be electrified in Pottstown, is paneled in a different hardwood.

The Elks Home, 61 High Street with its massive corbeled chimneys, conical tower, and multiple gabled dormers, is another fine example of the Queen Anne style. Originally constructed in 1896 for a wealthy businessman and civic leader, Jacob Fegely, the building was sold to the Elks in 1900. The three and one half story, multi-bayed and irregularly massed building is predominately brick in construction. But as typified by this style, a liberal use of other materials can be found on the building: wooden shingles on the tower, wooden framing on the gables, and a completely slate roof.

The Old Pottstown Historic District also includes small numbers of other styles, including Art Deco, Georgian Revival, Dutch Colonial, Bungalow, and Tudor Revival. Several public buildings are constructed in the Neo-classical style which became popular in the 1920s. Among them are the Pottstown Library, formerly the post office, High and Washington streets, 1920; Pottstown Borough Hall, King and Penn streets, 1924; the Pottstown Mercury building, Hanover and King streets, 1926; and the Masonic Temple, King and Franklin streets, 1926. These buildings share several elements: beige brick construction with cast concrete pilasters and frieze, and multi-paned wooden sash.

Pottstown residents saved their greatest building efforts, however, for the many churches located within the Old Pottstown Historic District. They reflect the growth of the town and its prosperity. The Old Pottstown Historic District's only Georgian building, the Old Brick Church, was built in 1796 by two congregations, the Lutherans and the Reformed. Zion's Reformed Church, as it is now known, located at 100 N. Hanover St. has all the elements of the classical Georgian church: Flemish bond construction, pedimented doorway, palladian window, and cupola. Eleven protestant churches can trace their origins to this church; each made its appearance concomitant to industrial and population growth and was designed in the architectural style most favored for that period. The English Evangelical Church of the Transfiguration was built catercorner from Zion's in 1861 in the Romanesque Revival style. Windstorms destroyed its original steeples in 1878 and 1934, and the latter was replaced with a shorter clock tower. Another fine example of Romanesque Revival is the 1868 Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 150 N. Hanover Street. Its spire was also toppled in the 1878 windstorm and was not replaced. Trinity Reformed Church, 58 N. Hanover Street, was built in the Gothic Revival style in 1865 of red sandstone. In 1926, lightning struck Trinity's spire, causing a fire which gutted the structure. It was altered during reconstruction the following year and the steeple was not replaced. Christ Episcopal Church, 316 High Street, was constructed in Gothic Revival style of red sandstone in 1872. Its five-story multi-colored slate steeple is scheduled to be restored next year. First Methodist Church, 414 High Street, was constructed in Gothic Revival style in 1869 of red sandstone. St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church, 200 N. Hanover Street, was built of gray stone in 1891 in the Gothic Revival style. The church is a powerful presence, its two stone towers thrusting authoritatively over the surrounding rooftops, and its massive gabled slate roof a superb example of slate craftsmanship. The gray stone Searles Memorial Methodist Church, 201 N. Hanover Street, was built in 1911, designed in the Gothic Revival style by Joseph M. Huston, architect of the Pennsylvania State Capitol.

Although the Old Pottstown Historic District contains 43 intrusions, including several parking lots and some of the ugliest modernizations man has devised, the Old Pottstown Historic District as a whole powerfully evokes the flavor and ambience of a late Victorian industrial town.

Significance

The post Civil War era marked in America an explosion of economic and industrial development unrivaled in history. The exploitation of the West, the great masses of immigrant labor, and the torrent of mechanical inventions raised the production of wealth to breathtaking heights. As a 19th century producer of iron and steel, Pottstown played a significant role of the creation of this new America. The industrial buildings which fostered Pottstown's slice of prosperity have vanished, but the solid Victorian homes, storefronts and churches which industry made possible in Pottstown have survived. The Old Pottstown Historic District captures this rich architectural legacy, reflecting the achievements of our predecessors in the age of steam and steel.

The history of Pottstown is intertwined with the history of iron and steel production. Iron was a necessity for the early colonists, and William Penn encouraged its production. Iron ore, water and charcoal, three resources found in abundance in the Pottstown area, were required to make iron. In 1717, Thomas Rutter built Pennsylvania's first iron forge at Colebrookdale along the Manatawny Creek, three miles upstream from present day Pottstown. In 1726, Thomas Potts moved from Germantown to join Rutter's business, and through good business practices and astute matchmaking for his children, ended up in control of the forge. By 1742, Thomas' son John Potts had taken over and expanded the industry, building two new forges along the Manatawny Creek. In 1752, Potts purchased 995 acres from a Philadelphia merchant at the confluence of the Manatawny Creek and the Schuylkill River for a new iron plantation. To the west of the creek he built his home, Pottsgrove Manor, and to the east of the creek he built a new forge adjacent to the 1725 grist mill known as the Roller Mills. In 1761, Potts laid out a town around the forge, bounded at the west by the Manatawny Creek and the south by the Schuylkill River. The town's main thoroughfare, High Street, was part of the great road between Reading and Philadelphia. Many of the lots were immediately leased to relatives and plantation workers, and by 1764 there were already 19 houses in the town, a tavern, brewery, mills, and soon a school. But despite a steady demand for iron through the rest of the 18th century, the town was still no more than a village in 1800.

New methods of producing iron with coal had made charcoal blast furnaces less competitive, and Pottstown's iron industry atrophied during the early decades of the 1800s. The town, which had only grown to 721 people by 1840, reflected the reduced industrial activity. However, the lull was only temporary.

Pottstown's industrial potential and growth during the last half of the 19th century significantly enhanced by the railroad industry. The first steam locomotive linked Pottstown to Reading and Philadelphia in 1839, and to Pottsville's rich coal mines by 1842. Now it was possible to import coal economically and to ship out finished iron products to vast new markets. The railroads also meant increased business for bridges to carry the tracks across streams and roads. In the early 1840s the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad constructed extensive machine shops for the repair of locomotives, cars, and bridges in Pottstown. A P&R blacksmith shop on Beech Street fabricated the country's first iron truss bridge in 1844 for use in Philadelphia. One of those trusses is now at the Smithsonian Institution. Together with railroad offices, the yards employed more than 400 people by 1880.

In 1846, two sixth generation Potts brothers created the Pottsgrove Iron Works, which consisted of a blast furnace and later a rolling mill along the Schuylkill River. Pottstown's population more than doubled from 721 in 1840 to 1,664 in 1850. Only a few homes survive from that period, mostly located on the first block of High Street. The small, simple two and a half story rowhouses with little ornamentation indicate the modest means of Pottstown residents at that time.

A major leap in town growth took place in the 1860s. In 1862 a railroad car manufacturing company was organized in Pottstown and the next year, a plate mill was erected which eventually became the Pottstown Iron Co. The latter grew to employ 670 people by 1880. A nail factory was built in 1866, and in the mid 1870s two more iron companies, the Warwick and Glasgow companies, were founded. In the 30 years from 1850 to 1880, the population had again more than doubled from 1,664 to 5,305. Two elaborate Romanesque churches, three Gothic Revival Churches, and a half-dozen humbler ones had been constructed, along with two train stations, an opera house, and at least six hotels. Of these 1860s-1880s buildings, only the Romanesque churches, Emmanuel and Transfiguration, and the Gothic Revival churches, Trinity, First Methodist, and Christ churches, still stand. The late Federal style homes were larger, usually detached, and dressed up with decorative Italianate touches such as projecting cornices, brackets, window hoods and floral cast iron basement grills.

By 1880, Pottstown had become Boom Town, U.S.A. The iron factories were attracting hundreds of workers from Philadelphia and beyond. John Ellis had built a factory to produce his Ellis Champion Grain Thresher, which was being shipped to practically every grain growing country in the world.

The Montgomery Ledger, Pottstown's home newspaper, reported that housing was in great demand. A real estate salesman reported that he could "sell 25 houses in 24 hours if I had them to sell." A builder who had just completed eight homes on North Hanover Street said he had 40 applications for them. The Ledger reported that on Saturdays, payday at the mills, crowds of men and boys gathered on the street corners and made if difficult for shoppers to pass. The paper editorialized that a police force was needed to deal with the problems of growth.

"With a rapidly growing population, persons coming here from all parts of the country to seek employment in our industrial establishments, and laying as we do on a great highway between Reading and Philadelphia...it can hardly be possible that Pottstown will be free of the disorder, tumults, and attempts at depredations that follows the lot of other towns our size."

From a population of 5,305 in 1880, the town more than doubled in 10 years to 13,285 in 1890. The borough had also gained a gas company, a water company, a nascent electric company, a five-man police department, and three fire companies.

The 1880s and 1890s were the two great decades of residential, commercial and institutional building in the Old Pottstown Historic District. The 100-500 blocks of High Street were almost completely rebuilt, with Italianate, Second Empire, and Queen Anne styles predominating. Affluent merchants and industrialists built elegant homes on High Street, King Street, and Hanover Street.

Jacob Sotter built a handsome Second Empire home at Hanover and Beech streets overlooking his boiler works farther west on Beech Street. Abraham Weitzenkorn, a Russian Jewish immigrant who had prospered after 30 years in the clothing business, built a Second Empire home at 53 King St. Solomon Stout, P&R Railroad official, constructed a handsome Gothic Revival home at 71 High Street. M.S. Longaker, wine merchant and town burgess, constructed a Second Empire home at 220 Chestnut Street. Hanover Street, which had been an open field from King Street to Beech Street in 1876 except for the churches, was developed into Pottstown's prestige address. Some 30 Italianate, Queen Anne, and Second Empire homes were constructed for Pottstown's most affluent citizens. Transfiguration Lutheran Church constructed a four-story Queen Anne home with repressed brick on two sides, with wooden shingled gables, dormers and turret for its parsonage in 1894 across Hanover Street from the church. Emmanuel Lutheran Church built a spacious Queen Anne Georgian Revival home for its pastor at Penn and Chestnut streets in the same decade. The Gudebrod Brothers, who moved their silk mill to Pottstown in 1892, built a twin home in Queen Anne style in 1896. Dilapidated today but completely intact, it is High Street's most fanciful home, a pastiche of corbeled brick chimneys, wooden shingled conical towers, elaborate window sash, and gingerbread porches.

Three fire companies were organized, each constructing Italianate fire houses. The Phillies, at Penn and Chestnut streets, had a six-story hose tower; Goodwill's, on South Hanover Street, boasted serpentine stone quoins and hoodmolds. The Empire's, which is the best preserved firehouse, was similar to the Phillies but lacked the hose tower. The 500 block of High Street was also developed intensively, with Queen Anne and Second Empire homes predominating. Pottstown's industrial and commercial growth continued into the 20th century.

As the town grew, its industrial base diversified a bit. Among other entrepreneurs the Gudebrod brothers established a silk mill in town and became the nation's first manufacturer of dental floss. Other silk mills followed. By World War I a dozen textile mills making underwear and shirts operated in the town. The Light Cycle Co., a manufacturer of bicycles in the 1890s, was bought out by Doehler-Jarvis in 1905, which manufactured die castings and auto parts from the old Cycle company plant on South Washington Street. Several of Pottstown's iron fabricating businesses evolved into a part of the McClintic-Marshall Steel Co., which in turn was purchased by Bethlehem Steel Co. in the 1930s. The George Washington and Golden Gate bridges were fabricated here, along with many early 20th century skyscrapers and landmarks such as the second Madison Square Garden. The Chadwick Car Co., a maker of luxury cars from 1905 to 1916, has become part of the present day Dana Corp., a manufacturer of car and truck parts.

One notable flurry of building within the Old Pottstown Historic District in the early 20th century was the construction of several Neo-classical buildings, including The Mercury office at Hanover and King streets in 1924; the Pottstown Library, High and Washington streets, 1920; the Masonic Temple, King and Franklin streets, 1926; and the Reading Railroad station, High Street concourse, 1928. In the 1930s, a few Art Deco storefronts were constructed on High Street, notably the Rose Shop at 209 High Street and the J.J. Newberry building at 243 High Street.

An important iron town for over a century, Pottstown was an industrial giant in Pennsylvania during the second industrial revolution of the late 19th century. Pottstown produced cannon for Washington and Grant, bridges from coast to coast, railroad tracks and cars that helped to industrialize America, and some of the country's first skyscrapers. Today, the Old Pottstown Historic District is a constant reminder of that epoch.

References

Chancellor, Paul, A History of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, Pottstown Historical Society, 1953.

Bining, Arthur Cecil, Pennsylvania Iron Manufacturing in the Eighteenth Century, Penna. Historical & Museum Commission, Harrisburg, 1979.

Binder, Frederick Moore, Coal Age Empire, Penna. Historical & Museum Commission, Harrisburg, 1974.

Pottstown, Sesquicentennial 1965.

Land and People, Pottstown Planning Commission, November, 1967, Borough of Pottstown, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.

David, L.H., The Centennial Celebration at Pottstown, PA, and Historical Sketch, Centennial Committee, Pottstown, PA 1876.

Atlas of the County of Montgomery and the State of Pennsylvania, compiled and published by G.M. Hopkins & Co., Philadelphia, 1871.

  1. Hylton, Tom, Old Pottstown Preservation Society, Old Pottstown Historic District, nomination document, 1985, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

See Map

Street Names: Beech Street, Buttonwood Alley, Charlotte Street, Chestnut Street, Evan Street, Franklin Street, Hanover Street, King Street, Lesher Alley, Rowan Alley, Union Street, Walnut Street, Warren Street, Washington Street

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