The Franklin Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. 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 Franklin Historic District encompasses a diverse array of 19th & early 20th century structures and streetscapes. The district is composed of 410 buildings, of which 380 (93%) are contributing and 29 (7%) are intrusive. The district covers 26 city blocks and includes the commercial core as well as residential neighborhoods ranging from the earliest permanent dwellings in the city to Miller Park, an early twentieth century development built by Franklin's wealthiest citizens. Every major architectural style found in northwestern Pennsylvania between 1830 and 1930 is represented in the district.
Franklin's first period of permanent construction extended from 1830 to 1860. During that time English settlers from southeastern Pennsylvania brought traditional English and German forms while New Englanders bound for Ohio's Western Reserve carried the Greek Revival style to Franklin. The earliest structure in the district is a rural Federal style structure built in 1828. The structure illustrates many typical Federal style elements, including a long narrow form and a flat, and symmetrical facade. Example of eastern Pennsylvania frame I-house and 4-over-4 forms are scattered throughout the district, and at least two, one at 1117 Elk Street and the other at 1035 Elk, illustrate the late survival of these types. Greek Revival structures also exist throughout the district. A section known as Federal Hill in the northwestern part of the city offers four of the best examples of Greek Revival in Franklin. Most of the Greek Revival achieves a striking balance and simplicity by flanking the central temple form with one-story wings. There is also one example of a New England saltbox, a form very rare in Venango County, within the district.
Franklin's second period of architectural importance can be defined as beginning with the introduction of Gothic Revival structures followed by the succession of Victorian styles from 1860 through the end of the century. This influx of styles coincided with the heyday of the local oil industry. During this time the immense revenues from oil production combined with the desire to construct homes illustrative of the new wealth. The results were often impressive.
The first Victorian style to appear in Franklin was Gothic Revival. The style was not especially popular, probably because of the stylistic emphasis on "quaintness" rather than grandeur. It is represented by only two examples, one at 917 Elk Street and one at 1415 Elk Street. The Italianate style, with its large, imposing forms, was much more attractive to Franklin residents. During the 1860's and 1870's a large number of well developed Italianate homes were built within the district. There are at least two dozen examples of the Italianate form in the city. The finest example is a house at 307 South Park Street which was built for Senator Thomas Hoge in 1865. Characteristically rectangular in shape, with narrow paned windows, low hipped roofs and wide bracketed eaves, the Italianate style structures are among the most beautiful in Franklin. A few local examples of the Italian Villa style were also constructed around 1860.
The richness of ornamentation associated with the Second Empire style also appealed to Franklin's new wealth. Several good examples of Second Empire stylings can be found throughout the district. These structures feature tall paned windows, some hooded by heavy tin surrounds an elaborate wooden ornamentation, dentil moldings and brackets and surmounted by concave mansard roofs with dormers. These Second Empire dwellings give full expression to the style. The Queen Anne style was also among the most popular Victorian trends. Examples run the full gamut from elaborate multi-leveled and turreted structures to modest "worker" homes embellished with projecting bays, varied surface textures and multiple gables. There are a few Stick style structures in Franklin; however, the style was soon eclipsed by Colonial Revival during the early twentieth century. The city's final period of architectural excellence began around the turn of the century. By that time, fortunes had matured and Franklin was known as "the nursery of great men." A new generation, anxious to make its mark, left the exuberance of the Victorian styles but not the tradition of quality and workmanship as Franklin turned to the quiet dignity of the Colonial Revival style. Most of the Colonial Revival structures rely on a combination of colonial styles and contemporary elements. The use of colonial form and details such as roof dormers, corner pilasters and fan and side lights are common to structures from this period. The richest expression of the era is Miller Park in the northwestern portion of the district. A planned development with narrow streets and reserved open spaces, the park contains a dozen of Franklin's grandest homes, most in Colonial Revival style. Not all the houses from the early 20th century are Colonial Revival. Outside Miller Park are a number of Arts and Crafts homes.
Franklin's commercial area stands at the center of the historic district. The buildings comprising the downtown have been altered more severely than the residential areas, but the changes are confined to first floors and are usually sympathetic to the structures. Although the impression of the streetscape is of 19th century commercial structures with Italianate detailings, there is actually more diversity. Similar in scale and general design to the earlier commercial structures, the 20th century buildings show the beginning of the movement away from flat, repetitive facades and offer a pleasing contrast to the adjacent Italianate structures.
Along with commercial and residential structures, the district includes some churches and public buildings. Nearly all of these structures are well-designed and preserved. Several of these buildings are also significant as the only examples of certain styles within the town. For instance, the County Jail and the First United Methodist Church are Franklin's only Romanesque Revival structures. The most important public building in Franklin is the Venango County Courthouse designed by Sloan and Hutton of Philadelphia in 1867 and built in the Italianate style. (A rear addition designed by Samuel Brady was added in 1931-32). Featuring simple, balanced proportions and outline, a variety of classical ornamentation, and an impressive facade with a pedimented and pilastered central pavilion, the two towered building located at the center of the district has became the symbol of Venango County.
The Depression ended Franklin's amazing capacity to build on the same scale as in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the fortunes born in the oil fields were wiped out in the stock market crash. Nevertheless, the preceding century endowed the town with an architectural heritage that is remarkably complete; This heritage has been well preserved by the city.
The primary significance of the historic district of the City of Franklin is its architecture. Most of the architectural styles used in northwestern Pennsylvania between 1830 and 1930 are found here, and most exist not in isolation but in multiple examples, making the district valuable for comparison and study. The variety of Italianate homes, for instance, provides a large number of examples ranging from stylistically pure representations to vernacular buildings influenced by and incorporating simplified Italianate features. The same variety exists for the Queen Anne and Colonial revival styles, and even those styles with fewer examples, such as the Greek Revival, Folk forms and Second Empire, give a good understanding of how a single stylistic approach can be interpreted and re-interpreted with individuality and success.
The consistent quality of the district in terms of design and workmanship is also important. With early settlers eager to recreate the townscapes of New England and eastern Pennsylvania, forms were kept intact and accurately followed Greek Revival or simple Federal lines. When new construction methods, money and the Victorian concept of domestic ostentation combined to create styles which came in and out of fashion, Franklin's builders, evidently relying on design books, again created stylistically pure structures. The oil industry made possible the importation of stained glass, scrollwork and other details not available locally but needed to complete these buildings so no ingredient is omitted. Conservatism encouraged, over the years, an impulse to keep the town's buildings as created, assuring private and practical preservation of the community's townscape.
The district's architecture is of regional importance. While other communities may rival Franklin when individual structures are compared, none surpass Franklin in terms of comprehensiveness and compactness. Few towns in the region, for example, were founded as early as Franklin so pre-Victorian architecture is missing. In contrast, a six-block walk along Elk Street provides examples of all the region's major styles, from Federal through Arts and Crafts structures. The district's buildings are also of importance as a means of preserving a tangible link to the beginning of the oil industry. The early derricks are disassembled or rotted away, and the presence of major oil companies in Franklin has ceased. What remains are the homes and commercial buildings, and there is no question most of these were built with oil revenues. Prior to the oil days, Franklin was a small river town along the Allegheny River and French Creek, the main trade route between Pittsburgh and Erie. In 1850, its population numbered fewer than 1,000 and while it boasted two churches the town apparently had no school. By 1873, as a result of the oil boom with its population approaching 7,000 the town had "elegant" business blocks, "very handsome" residences and a new courthouse which "would contrast favorably with many of the buildings in more pretentious cities," churches "of almost every denomination," and a school "capable of accommodating one thousand children." Much of the population, of course, was temporary following each new oil discovery. What is remarkable, then, is that the town was built, to survive and did survive even beyond the end of the region's dominance of the oil industry.
Some of Franklin's residents made important contributions to the petroleum industry. The names of Joseph Sibley and Charles Miller do not rival Rockefeller, yet their oil refining process created a lubricant which assured that trains could operate in winter weather, helped to standardize transportation, made Galena Signal Oil world-famous and themselves very rich. These men left their marks on Franklin. Many of the town's churches, as well as Miller Park, are direct links to them.
Franklin's historic district is centered by the Courthouse and its flanking parks, and the streets which radiate out from that point form, insofar as the narrow valley permits, regular rectangular blocks along which the buildings are situated. The town was created on State lands by an Act of the General Assembly and plotted in 1795 by General William Irvine and Andrew Endicott. It is an 18th century street plan, and while the approach was not always continued as the town expanded, the area included in the district, retains the design created by Irvine and Endicott.
The ways in which the houses are situated along the streets is also of interest. Most of the district's blocks contain a variety of buildings from different times, but a few blocks were developed within a short span and have remained unchanged. In these blocks, it is possible to see how changing social philosophies were expressed in the town's architecture in terms of proximity of dwellings, sizes of lots, etc. The Greek Revival homes on Federal Hill, for example, were built from 1835 to 1845. They were placed close to the sidewalk and to one another, fronting the commons and having all dependencies to the rear. Fifty years later, when the 1400 block of Elk Street developed the large Queen Anne and Colonial Revival homes were built not only on a different scale but as different means of expression. Each is surrounded by large expanses of lawn, insulating the buildings from one another; dependencies matching the architecture of the main structures, are larger and visible; even the lawns are expressions of wealth. In short, the need for a community symbolized by the houses of Federal Hill had given way to a desire for display which created not only larger, more elaborate houses but also more individual and private space.
This shift in philosophy is most visible in Miller Park, another development which has survived much as it was created. On a hillside denuded by oil drilling, General Charles Miller and others created a park-like setting for their mansions. The Park is a direct outgrowth of the 19th century ideal suburb created by Frederick Law Olmsted and others. With its narrow drives, jointly owned open spaces and stables and private zoo, it was a retreat for the wealthy, a closed community. A cooperative venture in the sense of mutual responsibility for the area, each house was, nonetheless, designed to be quite separate from the next. Hillsides, trees, streets and streams were all used to screen the houses from one another, and the absence of sidewalks discouraged the casual observer from intruding. The ideas behind such a development are clearly very different from those which created the houses of Federal Hill.
Franklin's historic district is, therefore, significant for a variety of reasons: its architecture is comprehensive and high quality, preserving not just the town's but the region's architectural heritage; most of its buildings are direct results of the birth of the oil industry, the most tangible links remaining to the beginnings of an industry which changed the world; and its remarkable integrity as a district allows the observer to see the ways in which the community defined itself and the relationships of its citizens over the years. For all these reasons, it deserves recognition so its richness can be preserved for generations to come.
Because the major significance of Franklin's historic district rests on its architecture, its boundaries were carefully drawn to include the full range of styles represented in the town. The cohesion of the principal residential and commercial districts benefited this selection, and Liberty and Elk Streets, traditionally the best locations, form the core of the district. Its boundaries sometimes cross onto other streets, notably Buffalo and Otter Streets, because good examples of certain styles are found there as well. Generally speaking, however, Elk and Liberty Streets are Franklin's most important.
To a large degree, existing natural and political boundaries form the district's boundaries. The Allegheny River crosses behind several blocks fronting on Elk Street, and the City Line defines the rear of Miller Park. These boundaries, of course, were the easiest to locate.
Most of the other boundary decisions were also simple to resolve. Beyond the district's boundaries, the residential areas quickly become less well built and preserved. The 1200 block of Buffalo Street, for example, has been largely demolished to provide space for parking lots on one side and lawn areas for two high-rises for the elderly on the other. The 1500 block of Elk Street, on the other hand, was developed in the 1930's and 1940's, creating little architecture of interest, and the end of the block abutting the district was redeveloped in the 1960's as an apartment complex. Typically, though, the surrounding blocks are composed either of mixed uses or undistinguished residences: the 1000 block of Buffalo Street is compromised by a car lot, a supermarket, a lumber yard and a playground; the 1100 block of Otter Street was historically subjected to periodic flooding and the houses built there were of lesser value because the lots were undesirable.
There were a few blocks where the decision of whether or not to include a block was difficult to make. The 800 block of Elk Street, for example, contains a significant Colonial Revival home, but the rest of the block is composed of undistinguished older homes, many of which have been altered, and new homes built in the 1960's when a school building was demolished. The decision was made, therefore to exclude the block from the district because of its lack of integrity. However, the 800 block of Liberty Street was included despite two intrusions because it contained the only saltbox in Franklin as well as an interesting Second Empire home, an excellent Colonial Revival house, an I-frame structure and a Greek Revival home. The other houses, however, are only contributory. Another problem arose in the 1300 block of Otter Street where the district jogs to include one side of the street where a fine Queen Anne residence and some good vernacular structures are located. The side of the block not included contains several small, early (1840's and 1850's) homes, and it was felt that, because of their age, they should be included. The houses have so little architectural integrity, however, that their ages were determined only by researching assessment records. The decision was made, therefore, to exclude them.
The rating formula for significant, contributory and non-contributory structures involved adherence to a recognized style or building tradition as well as the degree of architectural integrity remaining. These standards were applied uniformly and, while no percentage of significant structure per block was established for inclusion, it was felt that blocks with only one or two noteworthy structures should not be included if the additional houses in the block were compromised architecturally or simply nor of architectural interest. By applying these standards, the district as created retains good overall representation and integrity, with over 40% significant structures and only 7% non-contributory structures.
10th Street • 11th Street • 12th Street • 13th Street • 14th Street • 15th Street • 16th Street • 9th Street • Adelaide Avenue • Buffalo Street • Elk Street • Liberty Street • Miller Avenue • Otter Street • Plumeravenue • Sibley Avenue • South Park • Wiley Avenue