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Pennsylvania Architecture


Adapted from the "America Guide Series." [1] Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.

The earliest Pennsylvania buildings were those of the Swedes who settled in Tinicum Island in 1643, and of the Dutch who soon after ward conquered the region. At first these structures consisted of little more than frontier forts and log cabins; the latter were probably introduced into the New World by the Swedes. A journal published in 1679, referring to settlers before William Penn, states that 'most of the English, and many others, have their houses made of nothing but clapboards,' but the Swedes soon used brick as a building material.

From Penn's landing to the Revolution, Georgian Colonial architecture prevailed. The Pennsylvania Germans, who came soon after the English, preserved their way of living to a remarkable extent, and this is reflected in their sturdy barns, houses, and religious buildings. The Classical Revival after the Revolution was due to the interest of such men as Jefferson in classical learning, especially the architecture of Rome. Later, columned temple facades of churches, courthouses, and dwellings show the influence of the archeological research in Greece given currency by the publications of Stuart and Revett. Paradoxically perhaps, a Gothic Revival flourished contemporaneously in the early nineteenth century.

During the Victorian period there came a real confusion of styles. In this age of industrial expansion, concentration of population in cities was attended by an increase in slums. The last years of the nineteenth century were marked by a revival of study of the various architectural styles of Europe, with an increasing attempt at archeological authenticity. In the scientific but troubled twentieth century the archeologists and traditionalists are now being challenged by the adherents of the modem functionalist movement.

There are no Dutch structures remaining in Pennsylvania today, but two Swedish log cabins still stand on Darby Creek near Philadelphia, and a few Swedish structures, mostly of brick, in south and southwest Philadelphia. These include Old Swedes' Church, the Schetzline House, Bellaire, and Cannonball Farm. As Penn's settlement grew and English culture dominated those of the earlier nationalities, almost all traces of Dutch and Swedish architecture, in so far as they expressed national characteristics, were lost. Georgian architecture became the fashion during a century of Colonial growth.

Of stone, brick, or wood, the earliest buildings in Philadelphia and its vicinity were simple and unsophisticated, with gable or sometimes gambrel roofs. Among the early structures still standing are the Caleb Pusey House (at Upland just outside Chester), a small stone and brick cottage erected in 1683 and said to be the oldest English building in Pennsylvania, and the Letitia Street House (now in Fairmount Park), erected between 1703 and 1715. The Letitia Street House is a small, square, two-and-a-half-story dwelling, faced with brick laid in Flemish bond.

The Wyck House in Germantown is a charming low stuccoed-stone structure, the kitchen wing of which was erected in 1690. Graeme Park, the house which Governor William Keith built for himself in 1772 near Horsham, in Montgomery County, is a narrow rough-dressed stone structure with steep gambrel roof and narrow windows. Trinity Church (1711), Oxford, in Philadelphia, and St. David's (1715), at Radnor, the former of red brick and the latter of rough stone, are characteristic of the early churches and Quaker meetinghouses. The diamond-shaped brick patterns of Trinity Church belong to an earlier style than the Georgian.

Earlier still is Old Swedes' in Philadelphia (1700). This church, constructed of rec brick, some of which came from an earlier church of the first settlers, reveals Swedish features in the steep pitch of its gable roof and the simplicity of its square tower.

The old courthouse at Chester and the Benjamin West House at Swarthmore, both built in 1724, are two-and-a-half-story Georgian Colonial stone structures with pent roofs, or 'Germantown hoods,' at the second floor level. The courthouse has a cupola and a two-story bay with arched windows on the first story.

Many simple stone farmhouses built by English, Welsh, and German settlers also form part of southeastern Pennsylvania's early Colonial heritage. They are sturdy structures with ornamentation largely restricted to the front doorways. In the counties near Philadelphia, from York to Northampton, the Pennsylvania Germans have left, as a record of their predominantly Rhenish origin, numerous structures that reveal elements of medieval and Renaissance architecture.

The Moravian buildings at Bethlehem, some erected as early as 1741; the more pretentious Whitefield House (1740) at Nazareth; the charming little Augustus Lutheran Church (1743) at Trappe, of plastered stone and oak framing; and what remains of the Ephrata Cloisters (1740), of logs sheathed with clapboard and split shingles, are among the more interesting Pennsylvania German buildings. Characteristic features are the heavy stone and timber construction; steep roofs, often gambrel, with small shed dormer windows; the 'kick,' or outward curve, of the eaves; the central chimneys of the smaller houses; diagonal molded doorboards, as in the Gemein Haus (1741) at Bethlehem; red tile roofs (although relatively few remain today); and wood and iron hardware carved in such patterns as the heart, tulip, and peacock. Examples of half-timber construction, such as in the Moravian school at Oley and the granary of the Harmony Society at Economy in western Pennsylvania, have all but disappeared in the State.

The barns of Pennsylvania, especially those in the German counties, are famed for their size, sturdy construction, and use of color. The 'sun wheels' and other devices, known as hexenfoos, which decorate the barns and were believed by many to keep away evil, often follow intricate geometric patterns; they are an interesting expression of Pennsylvania German decorative design. In Colonial Pennsylvania there were many picturesque mills and inns, or taverns. Of the few remaining, Mather's Mill on Bethlehem Pike, near Philadelphia, is an example of the former; the King of Prussia Inn and the Blue Bell Tavern in Montgomery County, the Red Lion Inn at Torresdale, and the Lemon Inn near Cresson are examples of the latter.

Settlers from Connecticut influenced the design of a number of structures in the Scranton and Wilkes-Barre area. Among these, the old William Clark House, a frame and clapboard structure, built at Clark's Green in 1821, has detail suggestive of New England. The Swetland House, Wyoming; the Colonel Wright House, Plymouth; and the Colonel Denison House (1790), between Forty Fort and Wyoming, are other examples of early houses of Connecticut settlers. The Yankee and New York influence in northwestern Pennsylvania is exemplified by the Amos Judson House (1820) at Waterford, and the James White House (1835) at Hartstown.

Still other areas of the State developed individual forms of Georgian Colonial design. Lancaster and Carlisle are known for their charming red brick structures with white-painted trim. In Bellefonte gray stone was used at an early date. In Harrisburg such houses as the Maclay Mansion, erected about 1791 and altered in 1909, show the influence of Philadelphia upon the Colonial architecture of the State. The solid stone farmhouses of the Oley Valley, early settled by Swedes and Huguenots as well as Germans, have a distinctive quality attributable perhaps to these varied influences.

Philadelphia has many fine Georgian Colonial buildings. The Georgian style in England had reached maturity by the time Philadelphia became a busy town. It is this advanced Georgian style that served as the inspiration for much of the city's architecture. The Carpenters' Company, organized in Philadelphia in 1724, strongly influenced architecture and craftsmanship, and its library did much to spread a knowledge of good design.

Although styles followed the fashion in England, they were modified to meet the simpler local standards of living; wood was substituted for cut stone in doorways and cornices. Brick was used for city dwellings, while in outlying regions dwellings and barns were usually constructed of local field stone.

As the eighteenth century advanced and Philadelphia became firmly established, public and ecclesiastical brick buildings were erected on a scale commensurate with the city's importance. Independence Hall, the Pennsylvania Hospital, Carpenters' Hall, Christ Church, and St.Peter's Church are eloquent testimony to Philadelphia's position as the Nation's first capital. Their charm is enhanced by the wooden spires, belfries, and cupolas, that relieve the monotony of the city's skyline.

Designed by Andrew Hamilton, Independence Hall, central unit of the State House group (1735), is distinguished for its handsome tower and Palladian window, and for the richness and grave dignity of its carved staircase and interior woodwork. The State House group forms a five-part symmetrical composition; the central unit is Independence Hall; the end units are low hip-roofed buildings, now used as museums; the connecting links are small brick arcades. To the west of this group is Congress Hall (1789); to the east, old City Hall (1791); both show restraint in ornamentation and, with their larger windows, a somewhat more monumental treatment than earlier buildings.

Christ Church, in Philadelphia, designed (1727-54) by Dr. John Kearsley, is elaborate in design for a structure of this early date. It presents a strong contrast with the later and rigorously simple Free Quaker meetinghouse near by, and the numerous small Quaker meetinghouses throughout eastern Pennsylvania. In spite of its austere lines St.Peter's Church (1761), with its bare western tower, has elegance as well as charm.

The Pennsylvania Hospital (1756), designed by Samuel Rhodes, shows a more academic scheme with its six Corinthian pilasters extending through the two upper stories. The square platform above the roof, originally intended to support a dome, is topped with a light balustrade.

The Powel House (1768), the Morris House (1786), and the Randolph Mansion (1786) are among the finest residences of old Philadelphia. All three are of red brick with white trim. The design of the Morris House is distinguished for its balanced composition and rhythmic horizontal lines. Elfreth's Alley, that part of Cherry Street between Front and Second Streets, presents a complete block of small compactly planned brick dwellings.

The stone house that America's first great botanist, John Bartram, built for himself in 1730-31 and remodeled in the same century, shows a naive and unusual interpretation of classical elements, and has a charm of its own. Tall Ionic columns and ornamental carved stone window casings are unusual features of this house overlooking the Schuylkill River. The Woodlands, built by William Hamilton shortly before the Revolution, is a magnificent house with delicate details based upon the work of the Adam brothers. Mount Pleasant and its dependent buildings, erected in 176i by John McPherson, present in their symmetrical grouping an arrangement more usual in the South than in Philadelphia.

Germantown has a number of distinctive houses; among them, Stenton, which William Penn's secretary, James Logan, built for himself in 1728; Cliveden (c.1763), built by Chief Justice Benjamin Chew; Upsala, 1798; Vernon, 1803; and the Perot-Morris House, 1773.

The Georgian Colonial style reached western Pennsylvania well after it had become established in the east, and lingered there when other styles had become the fashion in Philadelphia. Isolation, lack of wealth, protracted border warfare from 1750 to 1795, and lack of skilled artisans were contributory factors in the development of a simple and rigorous style. The oldest existing building of authenticated date in western Pennsylvania is the brick blockhouse in Pittsburgh. Attached to Fort Pitt and built by Bouquet in 1764, this is the only surviving frontier blockhouse in Pennsylvania. The now dilapidated mill near Perryopolis, Fayette County, was constructed by one of George Washington's agents between 1772 and 1776. This was Washington's only building venture on the many thousands of acres that he owned in western Pennsylvania.

The diversity of architecture in western Pennsylvania is worthy of notice. The Presley Neville House (1783) at Woodville is a clapboard structure suggestive of the South. The Isaac Meason House (1802), known as Mount Braddock, near Uniontown, a formal stone house designed by the English architect Adam Wilson, is distinctly English in character. The Isaac Manchester House (1800-1) is vaguely reminiscent of Rhode Island. It is constructed of brick with a steep roof topped with a flat deck and railing. The Alexander Johnston House (1815), near Latrobe, is a simple, dignified, balanced composition. The Harmony Society buildings (1824-32), at Ambridge, are of Georgian Colonial design, modified by German influence. Bentley Hall (1820), at Meadville, built for Allegheny College, combines Georgian Colonial and Classical Revival designs.

After the Revolution a new style of architecture tended to replace the Georgian Colonial, although the earlier tradition continued for 30 or 40 years, particularly in domestic architecture. The Classical Revival or Federal style, which was virtually contemporaneous with the Regency in England, derives its distinguishing characteristics from the temples of Rome. The First United States Bank (1797), on South Third Street in Philadelphia, was designed by Samuel Blodget, and is an excellent example of this period.

An interesting and charming post-Colonial group of buildings constitutes part of Fort Mifflin, laid out in 1771, completed in 1798, and said to be based on designs by Major L'Enfant, who later planned Washington.

The Classical Revival crystallized in the 1820's in the Greek Revival; the Greek temple became the source of architectural inspiration. In public buildings, churches, and larger houses, this style manifested itself chiefly in facades with porticoes of four, six, or eight columns, and occasionally in the form of a peripteral colonnade. Frequently the cupola of the Colonial period was retained to ornament the roof. In city residences the houses retained much of the form of the Georgian Colonial style; small porches of the Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian order were added with minor embellishments. Whereas red brick and rough stone were used for buildings of the Colonial era, dressed stone and marble were more suited to the scale and formality of the Greek Revival.

During the Classic and Greek Revivals, architecture began to be practiced as a profession. Among the important architects to center their activities in Pennsylvania were Benjamin Henry Latrobe, William Strickland, John Haviland, and Thomas U. Walter.

The Greek Revival and the approximately contemporaneous but less important Gothic Revival probably received their first expression in America in Latrobe's work. In Philadelphia the Second Bank of the United States (1819-24), now the old Custom House, is an imposing example of the Greek Revival style. Latrobe made the original designs, but the work was carried out by one of his pupils, William Strickland (1787-1854), a native of Philadelphia. His Merchants' Exchange (dedicated in 1834), with its semicircular colonnaded east facade, and his United States Naval Asylum (1827-48) are among his majorworks still standing in Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia Haviland designed, in the Greek manner, the First Presbyterian Church (1820), St.George's Greek Catholic Church (1822), where he lies buried, and old Franklin Institute (1826). He also made extensive restorations to the interior of Independence Hall.

Walter's works came somewhat later during the Greek Revival period. His major work, and probably the best known example of the style in Pennsylvania, is Founder's Hall (1835-47) of Girard College, Philadelphia. Harmoniously proportioned, it is designed as a great peripteral temple with 34 large fluted Corinthian columns.

The influence of the Greek Revival soon spread into northern Pennsylvania. The old Custom House in Erie, originally a branch of the United States Bank of Pennsylvania, erected in 1839 after the design of William Kelly, was the first building west of the Alleghenies to be faced with Vermont marble. Not only in public buildings, but in quiet, tree-shaded, white clapboarded dwellings did the style manifest itself. An example is the Timothy Ives House, built in 1842, at Coudersport, Potter County. It has a two-story central unit with a portico of four tall columns supporting a pediment; on either side is a one-story wing decorated with pilasters.

Thomas U. Walter's Chester County Courthouse, erected at West Chester in 1847; John McArthur's Presbyterian Church, with a six-columned Doric facade, built at Media in 1850; the handsome Greek Ionic courthouse at Wellsboro in Tioga County, its doorway showing the influence of Adam's style; and the courthouse (1850), at Waynesburg in Greene County, are typical of the porticoed public buildings of the period. Among the imposing mansions are the Baker House (1844), at Altoona, with two porticoes, one Ionic and the other Doric with square posts; the Croghan House in Pittsburgh (c.1835), with its rich and stately ballroom, magnificent chandelier, and an oval room; Fatlands, on the Schuylkill near the Perkiomen; and Andalusia in Bucks County, the house of Nicholas Biddle, which so successfully recaptures the Greek restraint of design in its porticoed addition.

Less admired today than the Greek are the examples of the Gothic Revival. Latrobe's Bank of Philadelphia, erected in 1807 by Robert Mills, another of his pupils, was a brick and marble interpretation of Gothic design. Latrobe also designed the Allegheny Arsenal, built in 1814-20 at Pittsburgh. Haviland is noted for his prison design; his Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia and his county prison at Norristown are typical examples of the feudal Gothic Revival style.

An interesting but short-lived phase of architecture in the mid-nineteenth century was that of polygonal buildings. In Lawrence County, near the Ohio State Line, stand two polygonal houses of red brick. The Frank Phillips ten-sided house, perhaps better preserved, was erected nine miles west of New Castle in 1855. In Allentown stands the octagonal Little Hotel. Octagonal schoolhouses are occasionally found throughout the State.

The Victorian era which followed the Greek Revival continued approximately from 1840 to the turn of the century. The taste of the Victorian period was characterized by a lively, if superficially informed, eclecticism. This trend received strong impetus from the buildings of the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. No architectural style was overlooked; Egyptian, French Norman, Gothic, Romanesque, Queen Anne, Classical-all were employed. Sometimes two or more styles were used in the same building. This freedom, or license, resulted variously in the quaint, the ludicrous, and often the alarming. The best of the houses, with beautiful ironwork and high ceilings, are stately, spacious, and sometimes charming. A few noteworthy Gothic churches were built in this period-St.Peter's Church (1844) in Brownsville, St.Peter's Church (185 ) in Pittsburgh, and St.Mark's Protestant Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, the latter two designed by John Notman.

The theories of Ruskin and of Viollet-le-Duc exerted an influence upon architecture at this time. Their principal exponents were Furness and Evans, architects of the Broad Street Station (Pennsylvania Railroad), the Baltimore & Ohio Station in Philadelphia, and the University of Pennsylvania Library, restless structures in red brick and terra cotta. While this architecture of romantic towers and bays may be ugly and confused, it is none the less of historical importance as a manifestation of the age.

Philadelphia's mammoth City Hall (1871-1901), of which John L. Mc-Arthur Jr., was the architect, its marble exterior an ornate parade of columns, pediments, sculpture, and carving, was influenced by the new section of the Louvre, a typical example of French architecture of the middle of the nineteenth century.

Henry Hobson Richardson, one of the leading architects of his period, designed the Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail (1888) in Pittsburgh. This building, like most of his work, is based upon Romanesque precedents. It displays, in its mass and detail, superb handling of masonry construction. So powerful was the influence of Richardson upon his contemporaries that buildings of gray stone, particularly churches and commercial structures, sprang up across the entire State in imitation of his work.

The close of the nineteenth century witnessed another revival in architecture. The Victorian age had gradually spent itself. The Chicago World's Fair, with its classical facades and its 'grand planning,' stimulated once more the study of Greek and Roman models. This movement was influenced to a large extent by American architects who had studied at the Rcole des Beaux Arts in Paris during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Neoclassic design of the Girard Trust Company building, erected in Philadelphia in 1908 by McKim, Mead & White, and their Philadelphia National Bank represent the best of the early work of this period.

This new movement, as eclectic as the Victorian Period but more scholarly, explored many old styles, including the Gothic. Among the State's finest Neo-Gothic churches are the First Baptist Church in Pittsburgh; Zantzinger, Borie & Medary's St.Andrew's Divinity School in Philadelphia; and the church of the New Jerusalem at Bryn Athyn, by Cram & Ferguson, with later Romanesque additions by Raymond Pitcairn. The Cathedral of the Holy Child in Philadelphia, by George I. Lovatt, is of modified Romanesque design; Brazer, Frohman & Robb's First Presbyterian Church at Chester is in the new Georgian Colonial style.

Many fine college buildings have been erected since the early 1900's. The University of Pennsylvania dormitories and the Bryn Mawr College dormitories, by Cope & Stewardson; Pittsburgh's majestic Gothic skyscraper Cathedral of Learning and the extensive structures for State College, by Charles Klauder; and the Clothier Memorial, at Swarthmore, by Karcher & Smith, are of particular merit.

Recent buildings varying in style but of excellent design include such structures as the Pennsylvania Museum of Art (1918-28), by Zantzinger & Borie and Horace Trumbauer; the twelfth-century Romanesque University Museum, begun in 1897 by Eyre, Cope and Day; and the Italian Renaissance building (1927) which houses Drexel & Co., by Klauder-all in Philadelphia. More modern in interpretation are the classical buildings of Paul Philippe Cret, of Philadelphia. His Rodin Museum (1929) and Federal Reserve Bank (1935) exemplify his unequaled ability to translate classic detail into a living architectural vocabulary.

The residences and gardens of Philadelphia's suburbs form a major contribution to the contemporary architecture of the United States. The earlier work of Eyre was followed by the Colonial farmhouse adaptations of Okie; the Georgian, Tudor, and French adaptations of Willing, Sims, and Talbutt; McGoodwin; Gilchrist; Mellor, Meigs & Howe; and others. Scholarship is combined with excellent planning, design, and suitable use of materials. Among the more noteworthy modern houses are the Kaufman house near Uniontown, by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Wasserman house near Philadelphia, by George Howe.

There is evidence in Pennsylvania of a growing interest in the housing problem. Ten communities are now building large low-rent housing projects throughout the State, the cost involved being about $70,000,000. In Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Housing Authority is planning and building 6,400 family accommodations which will cost about $36,000,000. Many of the outstanding architects are organized in groups for the planning of these projects in Philadelphia. These units are planned for families whose average income is less than $1,000.

The first of the Limited Dividend projects under the PWA was the Juniata Park Housing Development, in Philadelphia, designed for the Hosiery Workers' Union by Alfred Kastner and Oscar Stonorov with W.Pope Barney as associate architect. This was a pioneer effort to improve living conditions of moderate-income workers; it includes recreational facilities and such adjuncts to family life as a nursery school and opportunities for adult education. Other PWA financed projects are the Highland Project at Wayne and the Hill Creek Homes in Philadelphia, both now managed by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Pennsylvania, long known for its old stone arch and covered wooden bridges, possesses many modern bridges, such as the Delaware River suspension bridge at Philadelphia, and the State Street and Market Street bridges at Harrisburg. The Rockville bridge of the Pennsylvania Railroad over the Susquehanna River just north of Harrisburg is the longest stone arched bridge in America.

Pennsylvania as a whole has not made major contributions to skyscraper architecture because its large cities have had plenty of room to grow outward rather than upward. Nevertheless in Pittsburgh there is a skyscraper university, the Cathedral of Learning, by Klauder, and in Philadelphia a number of tall office buildings, the most significantly modern and impressive of which is the 36-story Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building, designed in the International Style by Howe & Lescaze.

The architectural heritage of Pennsylvania is rich and diversified. Early Swedish, English, Welsh, German, and Huguenot settlers have left buildings as diverse as Independence Hall and the Ephrata Cloisters, as Old Swedes' Church and the Greek Revival country house, Andalusia. Perhaps partly because of this background, innovation and experiment have been accepted cautiously. Most of the work has been in some measure an adaptation from the styles of the past. Recently, however, there is an increasing interest not merely in the development of a new idiom, but in such problems of community life as low-cost housing and city-planning.

  1. Writers Program of the Works Progress Administration in the State of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, A Guide to the Keystone State, 1940, American Guide Series, Oxford University Press, New York
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