The Sunbury 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.
The City of Sunbury is located at the juncture of the north and west branches of the Susquehanna River and is surrounded by mountain ridges. The proposed historic district extends from Front Street eastward and includes the traditional town square and several adjacent residential blocks as well as the city's commercial corridor, Market Street. The historic district includes Chestnut Street west of Fifth Street, Arch Street west of Fourth Street and Market Street west of Fifth Street, and the streets running north/south that connect Chestnut and Arch in a grid pattern. Lot sizes are variable but tend to be either 30 or 60 feet wide and 120 or 230 feet deep. Most buildings on Market Street have commercial usage while Chestnut and Arch Streets, to the south and north respectively, are predominantly residential. A number of shops are scattered along Chestnut Street as well.
The district encompasses much of the land within the town's pre-Civil War limits. However the historic district boundaries have been drawn to include later development eastward along Market Street. This section of the historic district contains architecturally intact buildings from the late 19th century that are associated with turn of the century commercial development.
There are 264 properties within the district with 103 described as individually significant, 135 as contributing, and 26 as intrusive. Cameron Park with its trees and statuary serves as an island of greenery dividing Market Street between Second and Third Streets.
The historic district is made up of commercial, residential, and institutional buildings. The Italianate Courthouse designed by Samuel Sloan and the Gothic and Classical Revival style churches are the most notable landmarks. The ages of the buildings vary within the district, reflecting the evolution of the city from a frontier outpost to a transportation and industrial center. Historical maps document the growth of the town from within the confines of the original townplot to its present boundaries. According to these maps, corroboration in the field and deed research, the city's oldest buildings are on or near Front Street and lower Market Street.
Within the district is a sampling of 18th and 19th century architectural styles. The most significant residential buildings are generally two or two-and-one-half stories in height, three to five bays in width and constructed of wood or brick. These buildings are usually of Federal, Italianate, Queen Anne or Colonial Revival styles. As the historical maps indicate Georgian and Federal style buildings usually constructed of brick or limestone, are most prevalent west of Second Street. Frame Italianate buildings are common between Second and Fifth Streets.
Architectural diversity is most pronounced on Market Street. Second Empire, Romanesque, Neo-Classical Revival, and Art Deco styles are also represented here. This stylistic diversity is characteristic of many Susquehanna Valley "Main Streets" where commercial, residential and institutional buildings form the town's core. Although modernizations have adversely affected the architectural integrity of first floor storefronts, for the most part, upper stories are remarkably intact, revealing the sophisticated design elements used by the nineteenth century builders. The complex interaction of diverse, yet compatible architectural styles and the abundance of historically significant buildings create for Sunbury a definite sense of its past history and growth. The buildings and structural relationships of the past remain essentially intact. Unlike many old cities, Sunbury has aged gracefully. The proposed historic district will enable the community to better protect and preserve their unique environment.
Located at the confluence of the north and west branches of the Susquehanna River, Sunbury was an important political, commercial, industrial and transportation center during the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. With the founding of Edison Electronic Illuminating Company in 1883 by inventor Thomas Alva Edison. Sunbury was one of the first towns in the county to have electric lights. Because of its well-preserved and architecturally significant structures, Sunbury continues to reflect late nineteenth and early twentieth century character.
The town of Sunbury was laid out in 1772 as the last of seven proprietary towns surveyed by General John Lukens for the heirs of William Penn. The Penns had bought this region including Sunbury and most of Northumberland County from the Indians in the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix. This land at the juncture of the west and north branches of the Susquehanna River had been a strategically important Indian holding because from it, more than half the area of Pennsylvania could be reached by waterways. Indian paths radiated in all directions from this area. Sunbury served originally as a frontier outpost housing military supplies for soldiers sent to suppress Indian attacks and defend nearby Fort Augusta. The 1779-80 expedition conducted by General Sullivan ended the menace of Indian attacks and opened the area to settlement.
As the county seat of Northumberland, Sunbury was the most important town in north central Pennsylvania during the Colonial Period. At one time its governmental function included responsibility for an 18,000 square mile area that now encompasses six counties. The architecturally imposing County Courthouse (1865) and County Jail (1876) reflect Sunbury's past preeminence in government.
The proposed historic district includes the oldest and most vital area of Sunbury. There are several residences dating from the city's earliest days in the late 18th century, most notably the James Tilghman house of 1773 and the Maclay-Wolverton House of 1773-74. A number of buildings date from the early 19th century and are associated with prominent Sunbury citizens. These include several residential buildings as well as Keithan's Store (originally the Red Lion Tavern).
Transportation played a key role in the growth of Sunbury from a frontier outpost to a thriving port on the Pennsylvania Canal to a railroad center. The increased economic activity from the canal and the railroads spurred the town's development. Hotels, taverns, stores, and depots were built to serve the river and railroad traffic. The transportation system also encouraged industrial growth. Brick making was one of the city's earliest industries; consequently many early buildings are of brick construction. Distilleries, foundries, and leather working industries also were established in Sunbury during the mid and later 19th century. The founding of the Sunbury Textile Mills in 1896 contributed dramatically to the city's population growth. Many of the buildings associated with the transportation industry and its outgrowths remain prominent in the proposed Sunbury historic district. Early (Federal or Georgian style) hotels and taverns from the canal days remain, as well as the grander hotels and depots of Italianate, Romanesque, and Second Empire styles from the railroad era. Most notable are the Pennsylvania Railroad Passenger Depot, the Aldine Hotel, the Fairmont Hotel, the Central Hotel (originally the Sunbury Passenger & Ticket Office), and the Edison Hotel (formerly called the City Hotel).
Six railroad lines operated in Sunbury before 20th century consolidations reduced their number and scope of operation. They were the Danville & Pottsville (1835), Philadelphia & Erie (1856), Northcentral (1858), Sunbury, Hazelton, & Wilkes-Barre (1869), Sunbury & Lewistown (1871), and the Philadelphia & Reading (1883). The railroads were used to ship anthracite coal from the coal regions near Shamokin to Sunbury where it was loaded on canal packets for delivery to various parts of the state. A steam ferry & tug boat company also operated out of Sunbury taking advantage of the Susquehanna's navigability.
Sunbury's importance in the development and use of incandescent lighting must also be mentioned. Sunbury became the headquarters for Thomas A. Edison's Edison Electric Illumination Company in 1883. Edison installed electricity in the City Hotel, the Central Hotel, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad Station, the Presbyterian Church, and the Dewart House. Four of these buildings remain within the historic district boundaries.
The social and cultural traditions of the community are reflected in the architectural character of downtown Sunbury. The Masonic Temple, an impressive Romanesque structure, was built in 1907 and is prominently located on Market Square. The Chestnut Street Opera House of 1901 has lost much of its exterior architectural elements, yet remains intact on the interior. The former YMCA building also adds to the district's character. The Sunbury Market of 1901 reflects the town's continuing role as a regional market place for the past 175 years.
The proposed historic district has relatively few intrusive elements to disturb the community's architectural continuity. Most buildings compliment one another in terms of size, scale, construction materials, and style. At the boundaries of the district a noticeable change in the visual environment is present. Buildings outside the district are of later construction, more modern style, and of different building materials. Within the district Sunbury's commercial core retains much of its turn of the century character. The design of the town square and layout of the streets mirror those of other Susquehanna Valley towns founded in the late 18th century. The town square of Harrisburg, laid out by Sunbury native William Maclay, was once the exact duplicate of Sunbury's except for its north/south orientation. Unlike Harrisburg and many other towns, Sunbury's town square remains a visible link to the past. With few intrusions and only superficial alterations Sunbury's historic district clearly attests to the town's development and history.