Coudersport Historic District
The Coudersport Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
Coudersport is a small borough wedged into a valley of Pennsylvania's Allegheny Plateau. Forested mountains rise abruptly on all sides, with only narrow corridors affording access to the north, east, and southwest. The two major roads through Coudersport echo the paths of the Allegheny River and Mill Creek, which meet near the center of town. Located in the north-central region of Pennsylvania, in Potter County, Coudersport is less than 15 miles from the New York state line.
The area of Coudersport Historic District includes a representation of each major element of the town: the roadways; the water-ways; governmental, social, and public institutions; commercial buildings; residences; and ecclesiastical structures. Besides the three major business blocks on Main and Second Streets (U.S. Route 6 and State Route 44 — the two main roads which pass through Coudersport), density in the district is relatively low; the actual "downtown" section has expanded very little since the mid-1800's. The town also has a rather low profile, since most of the buildings average two stories in height, with substantial attic space. The Courthouse Square provides a small amount of green space in town, as do the church lawns. Especially since power lines in the downtown are now underground, Coudersport's historic district appears clean and uncluttered. At night the area is lit by attractive Victorian style street lamps.
The architects and contractors responsible for building Coudersport's downtown business district practiced the "architecture of courtesy." It is apparent that an effort was made to maintain harmonious streetscapes. This holds true for the wooden Greek Revival buildings which comprised the downtown prior to 1880. It is true of the brick Victorian buildings which replaced them. And with the exception of a few intrusions, it is true of what can be seen today. The buildings are not uniform, however; just the right combination of individuality and conformity resulted in an appealing, successful business district.
In these blocks of connected structures, the cornice lines have received the most attention. Decorative brackets, corbeling, arches, gables, pinnacles, and moldings were used to crown each building. Second floor windows with rounded or segmental arches are graced with hood molds as well. In most cases, these applied features have been dressed with contrasting paint, which helps make the entire area bright and pleasant. The styles represented here include Italianate, Victorian Gothic, Romanesque, and vernacular commercial styles.
Making up the rest of the Coudersport Historic District are detached and semi-detached structures built and used for a wide range of purposes. Many of the homes have been converted into offices, shops or meeting places. Those built as residences were primarily constructed of wood in the Greek Revival, Italianate and Queen Anne styles, with some vernacular Interpretations.
There are three churches in the district, all located north of the Courthouse. All on corner properties, they maintain conspicuous and prestigious places in the community. The Park United Methodist (1893) on Third Street was built in the Romanesque style, while Victorian Gothic was utilized for the elaborate Presbyterian Church (1902) on the next block. The vernacular Episcopal Church (1883) in the northwest part of the district is the oldest and smallest of the three churches.
The core building of the town is the Potter County Courthouse (National Register, 1975), whose cupola clock keeps time for the town. The government offices of the County are still housed in this building, which was constructed of brick in 1852 in the Greek Revival style, and Victorianized with Italianate features in an 1888 remodeling.
Two other landmark buildings of the town stand as guardians of the southern and eastern edges of the historic district. At the beginning of North Main Street, on an irregularly shaped property cut off by the Allegheny River, is the Old Hickory Tavern — formerly the home of prominent businessman F. W. Knox. The Italian Villa style house was — and still is — renowned as one of the most magnificent in the County. At the eastern edge of the historic district, on East Second Street, is the mammoth Coudersport Consistory. The western most section of this institution was originally the home of another prominent individual — Isaac Benson. His Victorian chateau was constructed with brick and laden with sawn wood gingerbread, lattice work, and bracketing, as well as towers, bays, and steep roof lines. (An elaborate veranda and other decorative features have since been altered or removed from the house, which was built c.1888). Associated with the house is a large, picturesque carriage house, set back on the east bank of the Allegheny. The middle section of the Consistory was added in 1913. Also built of brick, this portion displays the influence of early 20th-century ecclesiastical architecture, making use of the Tudor mode in particular. The last, or easternmost, section was completed in 1930 in stone, and is the most massive of the three. It resembles a Norman castle, modified by the influence of Art Deco design.
The northern corridor of the Coudersport Historic District is composed of the most refined and elaborate of Coudersport's old homes. The quality, integrity, and contiguity of the Victorian-era (primarily Queen Anne) homes in this section are noticeable superior to all other surrounding areas. Some of the oldest Greek Revival buildings in Coudersport are represented here as well. In general, the buildings are set a bit back from the street on large lots, lightly screened by deciduous trees.
The Coudersport Historic District is in excellent physical condition. Of the 85 major structures included here, only 11 are referred to as intrusive. Not all of these are architecturally intrusive, however; some merely are of insufficient age.
The Coudersport Historic District has survived as a superb illustration of the 19th century American small town. As the seat of government for Potter County, the district boasts a relatively high concentration of substantial well built public buildings, commercial blocks, and private residences. In this respect, Coudersport is unique in the county; no other town even approaches it in terms of architectural significance. Historically, Coudersport is the result of the boom-town syndrome which was common across the country and in Potter County, in particular. When the economic mainstay of an area failed to sustain continued growth, the town's appearance became frozen in a particular time frame. As a result of this type of "freeze," the Victorian streetscapes of Coudersport have remained essentially intact, and have not been destroyed by 20th century modernizations.
Although present-day Coudersport displays the fabric of the Victorian era, the town actually began to be settled in the early 1800s. From New York and New England, pioneers slowly moved southwest through the rugged Allegheny Plateau of the Appalachian Mountains. Development of overland transportation routes and industry was somewhat hindered by the rough terrain, but the Allegheny waterways were soon utilized for small-scale farming, lumbering and related industries.
Two of Potter County's earliest and most important roadways (Jersey Shore Pike — now PA Route 44 — and the East and West Road — now U.S. Route 6) were built through Coudersport in 1810 and 1812, respectively. The town's first permanent settler built his log home there in 1813. From that point on, the village grew slowly by steadily. Coudersport's first tavern (a sure sign of commerce, growth and social interaction) was built on the site of the present jail in 1825. Another followed only two years later. Grist and sawmills supplied the settlers with food and shelter, while a local store brought in dry goods and sundries from New York City.
In 1835, Potter County was considered a well organized governmental body and in that year a small stone courthouse was built on the same square on which the present-day courthouse is located. Within five years, the County's first newspaper and high school were both established in Coudersport. By the 1840's a diversified population had begun to settle in Coudersport, including merchants, a tailor, a physician, members of the bar and local government, educators, religious leaders, and men involved in the local industries.
The town was not a completely harmonious village at this time, however. On July 4th, 1843, a meeting was held at the courthouse, at which "an anti-slavery or abolition political party was organized and candidates nominated for county offices. Thereafter nearly all the disunity among citizens of Coudersport stemmed from the moral and political issues involved in the slavery question. These differences were not reconciled until April, 1861, when the opposing factions united in the common cause of the preservation of the United States of America" ("Early History of Coudersport," 1949). Although the entire town assuredly was not pro-abolition, the community as a whole tolerated the activities of those who helped slaves reach New York and Canada. Beebe (History of Potter County, Pennsylvania, p. 119) contends that "anti-slavery sentiment was exceedingly strong." Lawyer John S. Mann, a Quaker, was one of the most prominent individuals in the village, and he used his home as well as an office building to make Coudersport an important northern shop in the underground railroad. In Historical Sketches of Potter County pp. 244-245), W. W. Thompson gives the following account:
"The Manns had a building at the southwest corner of Third and West Streets where Mrs. Mann kept a book store on the ground floor and the second floor was the home of the only printing plant in the county. A small portion of the back room of the printing plant had been partitioned off, lathed and plastered so as not to be discernible.
Years later, M. W. McAlarney, publisher, discovered the 'secret' room complete with a straw tick and a blanket or two. Entrance was made by a loose board from the upper part of the single story attached shed. Once inside, the single board door was securely fastened by dropping a bar into some catches made for this purpose. This board was apparently as well nailed as any other board, but the nails used had been broken off with only the heads showing."
Just outside of Coudersport was another underground "station" at the farm of Francis King — the gentleman who made the original survey of the town.
Participation in America's abolitionist movement gives Coudersport a place of distinction in the nation's history. The same people who were ambitious enough to settle in the free wilderness of northern Pennsylvania were also courageous enough to assist the men who had been enslaved by their countrymen.
Meanwhile, Coudersport continued to grow in size and sophistication. It was incorporated as a borough in 1848, with a population of approximately 200 people. There were 40 dwellings, "three taverns, five stores, a small tannery, a saw mill, a grist mill, a new foundry, a furniture and wagon shop, physicians, two ministers of the gospel, five lawyers, and a fashionable tailor" ("Early History of Coudersport"). On the surface, all the comforts of a well established town appeared to be available, but in actuality Coudersport was still far removed from the urban areas. Money was scarce, mails were slow, and travel was difficult.
After 1850, however, Coudersport began to develop more quickly. A large new courthouse was constructed of brick, with its rear facade adjacent to the south side of the old courthouse. The new structure made use of the Greek Revival style which was also prevalent (on a smaller scale) in many of the town's frame commercial and residential buildings. This architectural style, which was used extensively in the northern cultural region of the United States, embodies the ideals of western democracy, and was used extensively before the Civil War.
By 1860 the population at the County seat had doubled. Then the Civil War was endured, with a large percentage of the male population participating. After the war the County found it necessary to expand its facilities for incarceration, which had, until then, been housed in the old stone courthouse. In 1869-70 a new jail was built just across East Second Street from the Courthouse Square. The contractor disassembled the old courthouse and used its stone blocks in the construction of the jail, which was solidly built in the Romanesque Revival style. This building still stands, and although small, it is quite formidable.
According to Beebe (p. 150), "the year 1875 marks a building boom all over Potter County." As an example, he describes a structure which even today stands out in Coudersport:
"The palatial residence of F. W. Knox, now the Old Hickory Tavern, was begun this year. Mr. Knox spared no pains or expense to make his house the finest private home in the County, and so far as possible, used only material that had been produced in Potter County. The building was one of the wonders of its day."
This house and others of the same era were built with the lumber that was being harvested in Potter County at an ever-increasing rate. Landowners were encouraged to remove large stands of timber in order to avoid excessive tax burdens, and no effort was given to conservation. The County's waterways continued to be used to transport lumber to mills and markets. The most valuable resource was the white pine, followed by hemlock and other hardwoods.
In Coudersport, wood was by far the most popular building material. In 1880, however, a devastating fire destroyed a major portion of the downtown. Three business blocks to the south and west of the Courthouse were lost. The total estimated damage was $200,000, and only about one third of this was insured (Beebe, p. 157). The merchants wasted no time in rebuilding, however; the lumber and related industries were bringing a good deal of revenue into the village. But wood was not chosen as the preferred construction material. What had been neat rows of white clapboard Greek Revival buildings now reappeared as brick Victorian business blocks. The style and quality of the downtown was — and still is — unequaled anywhere in the County.
Most of what can be seen in Coudersport today was built in the 30 years following the 1880 fire. There are still a number of homes which remain from the mid-1800's but, the prosperity of the turn of the century is evident in the architecture of a later era. The 1800s mark the peak of the lumber industry; associated with this was the burgeoning activities of the tanneries and the arrival of Coudersport's first railroad in 1882. The railroad was also instrumental in bringing small industries to the area, and commerce increased. Stores changed hands fairly often in an attempt to keep up with the changing needs of the townspeople. Even the Courthouse got a face lift in 1888: the attic story was doubled in height, the clock tower was made taller, and the building was dressed with decorative brackets and mouldings.
Also during this time, the Hon. Isaac Benson built his house on East Second Street. Ironically, Benson tore down Coudersport's first brick store to make way for his residence. Even though the home — which is now part of the Coudersport Consistory — has had its elaborate Eastlake porch altered and other decorative features removed, the structure still stands as a remarkable piece of architecture. In 1913 it was purchased by the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite Masonry, which made two cathedral-like additions. The massive Consistory is the first major piece of architecture that one sees upon entering Coudersport on Route 6 (Second Street) from the east, and it is quite an impressive calling card for the town.
While Isaac Benson was building his brick chateau, the last of the County's white pines were being cut; thereafter the lumbermen had to depend on the great hemlock forests for their profit. Coudersport continued to thrive; its population doubled in the ten years between 1880 and 1890, and did so again by 1900. Gas, telephone, and electric light companies initiated service in town during that time. The Coudersport Mangle Roller Company — the first of its kind in the United States (Historical Sketches, p. 82) — was founded in 1893. Manufacturers of such diverse items as bowling pins, bedroom furniture, silk hosiery, baskets, window glass, condensed milk, toys and more all brought the town into the 20th century. Coudersport also expanded physically with the construction of many Queen Anne residences — one of the most exuberant styles America ever adopted. Many of the finest buildings constructed were along North Main Street by Coudersport's most prominent businessmen.
The boom did not last long, however. By 1910 the lumber industry was fading in importance, and Coudersport's population began a slow decline. Perhaps because of its status as the seat of Potter County government, the town did not suffer the same degree of abandonment as some of its neighbors. Its varied industries have also helped to sustain it through the twentieth century.
It is apparent that the citizens of Coudersport still take great pride in their town. The Historical Society has an impressive collection, and has done a good deal of publishing. In 1979, the downtown was refurbished with small cities grants from HUB. Power and telephone lines were buried, buildings were restored and storefronts were redesigned. An exciting effort has been made here to preserve the physical expressions of the town's achievements, which should be recognized officially. A quote from the Potter County Journal of July 21, 1881 is indicative of the community pride that some individuals felt one hundred years ago; a similar spirit and respect for the town continues today:
"The name of our beautiful village is not an euphonious one and as pronounced is not descriptive, and we believe the name is not an agreeable one to the larger number of people.
The place was named after a gentleman whose cognomen was Coudere, pronounced Koo-dare, and the Journal respectfully suggests to the residents of this boro the propriety of changing the name of the village and post office to Coudere, giving it its proper pronunciation and thereby acquiring a distinctively appropriate and euphonious name for the place."
Tradition proved stronger than euphony and distinction, and Coudersport kept its name. But the residents continue to be concerned with their "beautiful village." It is truly a gem of Pennsylvania's mountains and wilderness.
Beebe, Victor L. History of Potter County, PA. Coudersport, PA: Potter County Journal Press, 1934.
Currin, Robert, and Deans Associates, "Potter County Historic Sites Survey Preliminary Research Report." Coudersport, PA: Potter County Planning Commission, 1980.
Early History of Coudersport/Pioneer Families of Coudersport. (Coudersport, PA.: Potter County Historical Society, July 1949.
Historical Sketches of Potter County. Coudersport, PA.: Potter County Journal Press, 1976.
Potter County Historical Society Bulletins. Coudersport, PA.