Northumberland Historic District
The Northumberland Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. 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 Northumberland Historic District lies between the North and West branches of the Susquehanna River. The town is laid out in a regular grid whose axes are perpendicular to the West and North branches; a public square at King Street between Front Street and Second Street has historically been the center of Northumberland. The district is primarily flat, although the ground rises gently along King Street northwest of Second Street. Architecturally, the District contains a broad array of styles including Folk and Federal houses dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Early Classical Revival, Gothic Revival and Greek Revival from the 1830's, Italianate and Second Empire from the mid-19th century, Queen Anne from the 1880's and 90's and Colonial Revival from the early 20th century. Almost all of the District's buildings are smallish residential types with a few mansion-scale houses mixed in, along with a few commercial buildings. Brick and frame buildings predominate, although a few early structures are stone or log.
In the oldest section of the District, primarily on Priestley, Water, Front and King Streets, houses are situated on the sidewalk, although later infill buildings are likely to have front yards. On the King Street hill (above Second Street), the Victorian practice of allowing a front yard is more evident. Most buildings have side yards, although houses on Water and Front Streets and in the upper reaches of King Street are sited more densely.
A smattering of commercial buildings are present in the District, located primarily in the area below Front Street. Similarly, only one industrial building, a former grain mill, is within the boundary. Another non-residential building is the former Lackawanna Railroad Freight Station on Priestley Avenue. Several churches are also within the district boundaries.
The building types of the pre-Civil War period are primarily 2 1/2 story center hall or side hall types. Many of the earliest are brick, usually unpainted, while a large number of later examples are frame with wooden siding. One house from this time period can only be described as a mansion: the Joseph Priestley House (National Historic Landmark, 1965) on Priestley Avenue, which is a frame Federal style edifice.
Houses dating from the Victorian era use more open house plans with the customary profusion of bays, but most are 2 1/2 to three stories in height, matching the heights of their earlier neighbors. The majority of these houses are single family dwellings, and most are of frame construction. The huge four-story Elliot Mansion, a brick Second Empire residence at the Water and King intersection, is the only surviving mansion-scale house from this time period; the A. E. Kapp Mansion on Water Street by Wheatley Avenue was destroyed by fire a few years ago.
Colonial Revival houses in the district are also similar to the earlier housing stock in scale and height, but brick is the prevailing method of construction for these buildings; a number of them are duplex types.
The earliest houses in the Historic District represent the town's first growth years, which took place after the Revolutionary War. Most important is the Joseph Priestley House, a five bay, 2 1/2 story Federal house with symmetrical wings which dates from 1797 and is arguably the finest Federal building in north central Pennsylvania. Restored by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the house features two finely detailed entrances with fanlights, a frieze board with triglyphs, a balustraded roof-top observatory platform, and an expansive lawn, which formerly extended to the North Branch.
The four-bay stone house at the corner of Wheatley Alley and Priestley Avenue (c. 1795) is another valuable early structure. The house is unembellished but displays fine stonework; it currently has a single entrance but may have originally been a double entrance German-type Folk house. Another surviving Folk house is the Bernard Hubley house on the park. Of log construction, this small house dates from approximately 1797 and retains several 6/6 sashes.
The Judge Thomas Cooper House, built in 1797, is a very early Federal side hall house, featuring Flemish bond brickwork and original 9/6 sashes.
Valuable Federal houses dating from the early 19th century include the Dr. Rodrigue house (circa 1825) with its Flemish bond brickwork, fanlight and original paneled door and the attached brick side hall houses of the Clyde brothers (circa 1811) which mark the southerly corner of the park and feature Flemish bond brickwork and original 6/6 windows. Although both main entrances have added Italianate surrounds, one has twin side entrances with fanlights. The William Forsyth House (circa 1830) has elaborate brickwork including a rubbed brick water table and voussoirs above the windows and an entrance flanked by fluted pilasters; finally, the five-bay clapboarded Federal House built by James Dieffenbacher in the early 1830's with its pilastered entrance and windows with corniced tops represents the frame house of this era.
The Dr. Joseph Priestley House/Cross Keys Inn (National Register, 1981) originally an inn on the old Danville highway, was built by Joseph Wallis before 1820. The building consists of several sections; it assumed its present shape well before the 1858 Cummings map. The main structure is a Federal side hall house of 3 1/2 stories on King Street with an earlier two-story block to the rear along Front Street. Surviving Federal features include a number of 6/6 sashes, an attic Palladian window and shutters. The building was renovated after Dr. Joseph Priestley bought it in 1864; various Italianate features, including hood moldings, bracketed eaves and a graceful entrance, date from that period.
The advent of the Pennsylvania Canal helped bring new architectural styles to Northumberland. One such novelty was the Early Classical Revival John Taggart House (circa 1831) which is graced with a lovely double-tiered Tuscan order porch along with graceful pilastered entrances on both stories. Related stylistically is the Greek Revival (with later Italianate details) John Leisenring house (circa 1834). This five bay house is Flemish bond brick and was originally a side hall type; two left hand bays were added along with an Italianate cornice and an attic cross gable sometime after the Civil War. This house has an elaborate Greek Revival entrance with four Tuscan pilasters and full sidelight and transom treatment.
The Priestley Memorial Chapel is a very early example of Gothic Revival architecture. Its main features are the lancet windows and doorway with their graceful decorative muntins. Another Gothic Revival Church is St. Mark's Episcopal Church (enlarged 1873). Though plain, this building is a graceful example of its style.
While not numerous, Second Empire and Italianate buildings represent some of the grander houses in the district. One example of the Italianate style is located on the park a few doors up from the Library (circa 1865). This L-shaped 2 1/2 story frame house has a heavy bracketed cornice and semi-circular hood moldings along with an elaborate porch.
The most notable Second Empire structure is the 40-room William Elliot House (completed 1876). The main block of this structure is four stories high with a massive tower and is embellished with a slate Mansard roof, heavy cornice, hood moldings, round topped windows and stylized corner quoins. The main entrance on Market Street consists of massive paneled double doors in a round topped opening at the base of the tower; a small roof supported by huge brackets protects the entrance.
A number of Queen Anne houses are scattered through the district, especially above the Park. Two of the finest are neighboring houses located on the northern corner of the park (Presbyterian Manse, c.1885 and Florence Hill House, c.1893). The Hill House has extremely varied massing and textured wooden siding along with a variety of spindle work; the Presbyterian Manse features a corner octagonal tower and a broad veranda. An outstanding small example of the style is on King Street just beyond Ropewalk Alley (circa 1900). This one and a half story frame house is packed with massing bricks and detailing, including varied wall siding textures, massive ornamented cornice with mutules and a dentiled frieze.
A large number of buildings dating from the 1900-1925 period are Colonial Revival houses of various types. One of the best examples is the Clarence Taggart House on Market Street (circa 1915); this five bay, 2 1/2 story brick house has a heavy cornice with mutules and dentiled frieze along with attic dormers with pedimented tops. A Palladian window in the gable and working shutters complete the effect. The neighboring William Snyder House (c. 1915) is another outstanding Colonial Revival type, featuring a Palladian attic window, mutuled cornice and an elaborate entrance.
Finally, the district contains some fine examples of post-World War I architecture. An excellent Bungalow/Craftsman house at the upper end of the park (c. 1920) features the characteristic wide eaves and low pitched roof, along with a porch supported by massive square columns. An outstanding frame Bungalow (c. 1920) in excellent state of preservation displays triangular knee braces, exposed beams and characteristically varied window treatment.
The overall integrity of the Northumberland Historic District is good. Of the 236 buildings within the district, 73 (31%) are noncontributing. The majority of the non-contributing resources are historic buildings of various vintages that have lost integrity through insensitive alterations, especially aluminum and vinyl siding. A small number of post-World War II buildings such as Ranch houses are present, but they are widely scattered. Among the contributing resources, most alterations consist of replaced porches or altered entrances, especially on the various Federal houses. Fortunately, many of these changes involved Colonial Revival elements which, though not original, do not detract notably from the appearance of the Federal houses. Among the oldest Federal buildings, dilapidation is a threat. This is especially true along Priestley Avenue between King and Hanover Streets.
Breaking down the district chronologically, thirty houses were built in the 1790-1839 period, with another 22 built between 1840 and 1869. The largest number of district buildings, 70, date from the period 1870-1899, while 53 were built between 1900 and 1919. Finally, 27 district buildings date from the years between 1919 and 1938.
Two significant restoration projects have taken place within the district. The Priestley House and Laboratory is now a museum, while the Dr. Joseph Priestley House/Cross Keys Inn has been restored and adapted for its current status as the town library. Many of the most significant of the town's buildings have been maintained well through the years; others retain their integrity despite spotty maintenance.
Significance The Northumberland Historic District is architecturally significant for its fine collection of residential buildings and for its connection with the Reverend Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), the exiled English scientist who discovered oxygen and other gases. The District's housing stock includes good examples of most styles common in Northumberland County between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. Within the county, only Sunbury has a collection of houses which covers such a range of time. Particularly valuable are the numerous houses in the Federal style built between 1790 and 1830, including Rev. Priestley's house, a National Historic Landmark which is probably the finest example of the Federal style in the region. Though the great scientist's tenure in Northumberland spanned his last ten years, he still actively pursued his experimental studies, and his presence influenced the town's cultural life immensely.
Northumberland's position astride the two branches of the Susquehanna made it a population center during the early settlement of central Pennsylvania. The first known white settler was James LeTort who lived at the forks in 1701; other French traders were on the site in 1728. The first permanent settler was Robert Martin, who moved from the Wyoming Valley sometime before the 1768 purchase that opened the West Branch for settlement. His log house served as tavern and hotel for surveyors and land speculators.
Laid out by John Lowden and William Patterson in 1772, Northumberland became the property of Reuben Haines, the Philadelphia brewer who owned vast tracts of land in this new frontier area. With neighboring Sunbury, laid out in the same year, Northumberland was the chief town in central Pennsylvania before the Revolutionary War. Northumberland was abandoned and its residents scattered during the Great Runaway, but with the end of the war and the gradual return of normality on the frontier, the town was reoccupied in 1784-85.
Rival Sunbury won the battle to be the county seat, allegedly due to a disputed land title, but Northumberland thrived as a cultural and commercial center. By 1796, it had some 100 buildings and 500 inhabitants, including its most famous resident, Rev. Joseph Priestley. The scientist had been driven from England by controversy: Edmund Burke denounced him in Parliament for his liberal views on the French Revolution, and a mob egged on by Church of England interests burned his church and house in Birmingham in 1791. Priestley lost his library, scientific apparatus, and a large number of manuscripts; he escaped to London and finally across the Atlantic. A plan to found a settlement in the Wyoming Valley brought Priestley to Northumberland in 1794, but the Wyoming scheme fell through and Priestley, his wife and several sons settled at the forks of the Susquehanna.
The Priestley House was built, under the direction of Mrs. Priestley, of lumber dried in trenches on the site; this material was held by Priestley to be the equal of stone or brick in durability. With the house completed in 1797, Priestley was ready to continue his interrupted experiments. Though he discovered carbon monoxide gas here, his days as a ground-breaking scientist were over. Still, his earlier accomplishments made him an important figure in American science, and he was offered a place as chemistry professor at the University of Pennsylvania, which he refused. Priestley knew John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to whom he dedicated his General History of the Christian Church to the Fall of the Western Empire, published in Northumberland in 1802-03. A peaceful end to a tumultuous life came on February 6, 1804.
Priestley and his fellow English exiles, including Dr. Thomas Cooper, chemist and first Northumberland County judge, newspaper publisher John Binns, and businessman John DeGruchy, had a tremendous effect on the cultural life of the town. They fostered local interest in education, trying for a time to establish an academy in Northumberland. The county's first newspaper, The Sunbury and Northumberland Gazette, was printed in Northumberland starting in 1792 and was followed by several others, including Binns Republican Argus, making Northumberland a center of journalism and printing for the region.
Rev. Philip Fithian remarked that "Here are a number of boatmen... going up and down the river to Middletown and back," in journal entries which recorded his stop at Northumberland in 1775. With the settling of the upper Susquehanna Valley, this activity increased in importance; similarly, the town was a major highway center with roads leading to the Wyoming Valley, the West Branch Valley and Centre County to the west. A bridge to Sunbury was built in 1814, and the West Branch bridge was finished in 1831. A number of hotels and inns served itinerants.
Other business activities included tanning, chair making and, especially, distilling and brewing. Also, the first Post Office in central Pennsylvania was located at Northumberland.
The West Branch Division and the North Branch Division of the Pennsylvania Canal met the Susquehanna Division at Northumberland; though Sunbury also derived some benefit from the traffic, Northumberland was the main junction for the trade of both branches of the river. At the height of the canal trade, several hundred thousand dollars in tolls were collected every year at Northumberland. Local interests were also heavily involved in the building of the canal system, both as laborers and as executives.
Organized as a Borough in 1829, Northumberland had 1,095 residents in 1830. Despite the canal prosperity, the population shrank to 928 in 1840 and 1,041 in 1850. Perhaps the ease of transportation offered by the canal drew people to the upper West Branch, where Lock Haven and Williamsport were thriving in the midst of a lumber boom. By 1860, when the population reached 1,108, the town had acquired the advantages of rail transportation, and the population grew steadily, though not as quickly as neighboring Sunbury. The railroad brought some heavy industry in its wake, and the town gained some 500 residents each decade between 1860 and 1890. The post-Civil War era's effect on the district is confined to houses scattered around the historic district, many in the popular Queen Anne style, although the district's chief Second Empire structure, the William Elliot House, dates from this period.
The opening of the huge PRR classifying yards in 1910, along with continuing industrial efforts, provided the economic muscle for the district's last years of significance. A number of Colonial Revival houses are the primary architectural expression of this period, although two fine Bungalow/Craftsman style houses also date from these years.
The Northumberland Historic District's period of significance begins with Rev. Joseph Priestley's arrival in 1794. Coincidentally, the oldest extant houses in the District date from the mid 1790's, making this date doubly appropriate. Building activity within the District has been virtually continuous since the town's beginning; thus, the ending date for the period of significance has been set at 1938, which is the cut-off date for National Register eligibility at this time.
Northumberland's collection of residential architecture is the broadest in the county. The District contains examples of houses from every era of the town's history. The other major population centers in Northumberland County lack such a consistent record of regional building practice. Neighboring Sunbury is lacking in examples from the years 1820 to 1850, while Milton lost much of its pre-1880 housing stock to a disastrous fire; the coal country towns of Shamokin and Mount Carmel almost entirely lack buildings that date before the coal boom of the mid-19th century.
Perhaps the central component of Northumberland's architectural significance is its collection of Federal style houses. The gem of these buildings is the Joseph Priestley House which is the equal of any Federal house in central Pennsylvania. The Federal style was current in Northumberland from the 1790's through the advent of the Pennsylvania Canal in the 1830's. These houses are distinguished by fine brickwork, and the better examples — the Forsyth House, the Clyde Brothers Houses and Shop — boast elaborate detailing. Within the county, Northumberland's collection of Federal houses is both the most numerous and the highest in quality.
The most important building of the canal period is the John Taggert House (c. 1831) with its monumental Early Classical Revival portico. Examples of this style are almost unknown in the Susquehanna Valley; the Taggert family's business ties with Baltimore were probably responsible for the house's anomalous style. Another unique building of this period is the Gothic Revival Priestley Memorial Chapel of 1834, a very early local example of the style which is well preserved and has a substantially original interior.
The collection of Victorian houses in the Italianate, Second Empire and Queen Anne styles, though less extensive than those in Milton or Sunbury, are nonetheless valuable. In particular, the Elliot Mansion is certainly the largest and possibly the grandest of the Second Empire houses in the region, where the style is not terribly common. The relatively small number of Queen Anne houses boasts several outstanding examples, especially the richly detailed 1 1/2 story example on King Street.
Finally, the district contains a number of Colonial Revival houses which display excellent detailing. Though less extensive than Sunbury's or Milton's collection, these houses are valuable within the context of the region.
Joseph Priestley's years of residence in Northumberland along with the presence of the scientist's only American home and laboratory, confer tremendous importance on the town in the area of science. Though most of Priestley's important discoveries were made in his native England, the indefatigable experimenter resumed his interrupted scientific work during his Northumberland decade, discovering carbon monoxide gas there. Renowned worldwide as a scientist, Joseph Priestley, though not an American citizen, was surely among the most important men in early Pennsylvania history.
Apple ,Betty. Interview with local historian, January 1988.
Bell, Herbert. History of Northumberland County. (Chicago, Illinois, 1891). pp. 515-545, 1093-1106.
Bicentennial Historical Book Committee, Northumberland and Point Township Bicentennial. (Sunbury, PA, The Daily Item Publishing Company, 1972).
Genealogical and Biographical Annals of Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. (Chicago, Illinois: J. L. Floyd and Company, 1911), pp. 9, 10, 22, 30, 603.
Gutelius, C. Warren. Northumberland, the Story of an Old Town. (Northumberland, PA: The Susquehanna Press, 1929).
Meginnes, John F. Otzinachson: A History of the West Branch Valley of the Susquehanna. (Williamsport, PA: Gazette and Bullet in Printing House, 1883), pp. 425, 426, 689, 690.
Northumberland County Historical Society, Proceedings and Addresses. (Sunbury, PA: The Northumberland County Historical Society), Volume VII, Volume XXVII, Volume XXIX.