Downtown Commercial Historic District
The Oil City Downtown Commercial Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. 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 Oil City Downtown Commercial Historic District is a 25-acre primarily commercial district, located immediately north of the Allegheny River in Oil City, Venango County, in northwestern Pennsylvania. The district includes the core of the central business district of Oil City's north side on both the east and west side of Oil Creek, just north of the confluence of Oil Creek and the Allegheny River. The district contains commercial and industrial buildings, one church, and two bridges (one for autos and one rail-related). The topography of the district is flat, extending from the base of the "Hogback" across Oil Creek on the district's west side in an easterly direction to the foot of "Cottage Hill," which rises sharply to overlook the district. The Oil City Downtown Commercial Historic District contains sixty-five individual resources; three of these (the National Transit Building and Annex and the former U. S. Post Office) were previously listed in the National Register and are not counted in the resource totals. Of the remaining sixty-two, fifty-three (86%) are contributing to the character of the district and nine (14%) are non-contributing. Sixty of the resources are buildings and two — both contributing resources — are structures: the 1939-1940 Center Street Bridge and the 1892 Erie Railroad Bridge, both spanning Oil Creek in the southwestern part of the district. Contributing resources are defined as those constructed during the period of significance of the district and which, within the context of the district, retain integrity of feeling, association, workmanship, materials, and setting. Changes have occurred to virtually all buildings within the district, but these changes have not diminished the ability of the district to convey its own sense of history. Non-contributing resources are those built outside the period of significance of the district, and include a fast-food restaurant and several commercial establishments, widely dispersed throughout the district. Modifications to buildings within the Oil City Downtown Commercial Historic District include storefront alterations, window replacement, artificial siding, etc. In no instance is the extent of modification so severe as to render a resource non-contributing.
The period of significance of the district begins ca. 1870 and continues to ca. 1945; the earlier date corresponds to the date of the earliest extant resource, a small brick commercial building at 279 Duncomb Street. The latter date refers to the latest period of construction of the historic buildings within the district, such as the 1942 Art Deco-style General Telephone Company Building at 260 Seneca Street. The closing date for the period of significance also corresponds to the end of the "Settled Phase" of the oil industry, as set forth in the Multiple Property Documentation Form, "Oil Resources of Western Pennsylvania, 1859-1945."
The district is laid out in a grid pattern of streets. Major north-south thoroughfares are Main, Seneca, and Elm Streets; major east-west streets are Sycamore, Center, and Duncomb Streets. There are no platted alleys within the district.
Buildings within the district are generally of masonry construction, including stone, brick, and terra cotta, and range in height from one to five stories. The majority are constructed on foundations of ashlar stone and most roofs are flat or slope gently from front to rear. Some historic chimneys break the rooflines, but in most cases these have been removed as heating systems were updated over the years. Typical of a central business district, the development is dense. The majority of the buildings are constructed flush with one another, with no setback from the sidewalk; very few buildings have any rear lot setback. A number of buildings have additions to their rear elevations. Several buildings along Seneca and Main Streets extend to the banks of Oil Creek and others extend the entire depth of the lot on which they are built, giving them addresses on two streets.
The majority of the buildings contain retail or offices on the first floor, with office use above; other uses include restaurants, a fraternal lodge, a museum, and several financial institutions. A moderate degree of vacant upper-story space exists throughout the district. One church (Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, 2 Center Street) and one industrial complex of interconnected buildings (Oil City Boiler Works, 351-359 Seneca Street) are found within the district.
The appearance of the district during the first twenty years of its period of significance was drastically altered by a combined flood and fire in 1892 which obliterated many of the buildings within the district. As a result, the bulk of the architecture of the district dates from the 1890s through the 1960s. The architecture of the district represents most of the popular styles prevalent during the period of significance. Among these are the Italianate, Chateauesque, Neo-Classical Revival, Colonial Revival, Late Gothic Revival, and Art Deco styles. Several buildings of vernacular design exist as well. No individual architectural style dominates in any one section of the district.
Some demolition has occurred in the district, with older buildings replaced by surface parking lots and/or new construction. Both the surface parking lots and the newer construction are dispersed throughout the district and, while not positive attributes, do not detract significantly from the character of the district as a whole. An ambitious 1927 project to enclose and pave over Oil Creek from Sycamore to Federal Street, creating what was dubbed "Oil Creek Boulevard" never materialized. The district boundaries reflect the extent of an urban renewal project between the south edge of the district and the Allegheny River; this 1960s undertaking resulted in the clearance of a number of historic buildings and their replacement with contemporary office and retail buildings and a multi-level motel. Between Seneca and Elm Streets, adjacent to but not within the district, is a concrete parking garage, built to serve the 1960s former Quaker State headquarters building located on Elm Street just outside the district. The boundaries of the district exclude both the urban renewal area and the parking garage.
Rehabilitation activity has occurred in the district, generally the result of the City's Main Street Program which began in the 1980s and of subsequent Community Development Block Grant-funded facade programs. This activity includes a mixed-use conversion of a former variety store and a number of sensitive facade rehabilitation projects. For the most part, the Oil City Downtown Commercial Historic District retains a high integrity.
The site of the Oil City Downtown Commercial Historic District was one of three tracts given by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the Seneca Indian chief, Cornplanter, in the 1790s for services rendered in connection with the Revolutionary War. Known as the "Gift" tract, over the next generation the land changed hands several times. The initial white settlement of the Oil Creek Valley occurred in 1796, when Nathaniel Carey settled about three miles north of the city along Oil Creek. The first recorded settlers of the site of present-day Oil City were Francis and Sarah Halyday, who established their home here in 1803. Logging on the upper Allegheny River began in 1801, and the earliest industrial activity revolved around lumbering and rafting logs down the river to Pittsburgh. About 1820 the "Gift" tract passed to two white men and soon an iron furnace was established on the land. No physical remnants of either of these early industries remain today. Development was slow during the next forty years, until Edwin L. Drake's August, 1859 drilling for oil at nearby Titusville.
In 1859, the modest settlement at the mouth of Oil Creek was known as Cornplanter and numbered only about twenty-five inhabitants. One hotel, the Moran House, stood along the Allegheny River, along with several taverns, a livery stable, and a store. With Drake's sinking of the first successful commercial oil well, the sleepy village became the gateway to the oil fields. It became known first as "Oilville," but soon impact of oil and its relationship with the community became apparent and in 1861 the post office name was changed to Oil City; the following year the borough government was organized under the same name. The population rose steadily during the first years of the new town's existence. By 1865, 6,000 made their home here. The U. S. Census records the subsequent growth as follows: 1890, 10,932; 1900, 13,264; 1910, 15,657; and 1918, 22,127 (after the adjacent areas of Siverly and West End were annexed into the City).
The initial evolution of the Oil City Downtown Commercial Historic District occurred during the first thirty years of the development of the oil industry. Residential growth occurred on Cottage Hill (west of the district), in a neighborhood to the north along Oil Creek, and across the Allegheny River in the communities of Laytonia, Imperial, and Leetown, three separate settlements which were combined into Venango City, the name by which the present-day south side was known. Stores were built along Seneca, Center, Main, Sycamore, and Elm Streets and the nominated area soon became the acknowledged commercial center of the city.
Oil City's position as the heart of the oil industry was firmly established in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Rail service, including the Oil Creek Railroad and the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad, opened the area to the outside as early as the 1860s, providing the ability to transport goods into the town, passengers in and out, and, most importantly, to move the crude oil to refineries near and far. Both the passenger and freight depots, located just east of the historic district, were demolished as part of a 1960s urban renewal program. In June, 1892, the face of the north side commercial area was altered forever. A heavy rain had swollen Oil Creek and had carried away the Spartansburg Dam upstream, above Titusville. Barrels and tanks filled with oil, distillate, and naphtha were swept into the waters and carried along on a wave created by the failure of the dam. When the deluge reached the Clapp Farm, above Oil City, an additional thirty thousand barrels of naphtha were swept into the torrent. Upon reaching the bend in Oil Creek at the head of Seneca Street the flood rushed ashore, inundating houses and commercial establishments to the second story. Most of the flood-prone area had been evacuated, and more than five thousand people gathered along the waterways to observe the coming devastation. A vaporous gas from the combined naphtha and oil created a yellow fog over the city. A flash was followed by a detonation and additional explosions, igniting the gas in the air, and beginning the incineration of the entire downtown area. Fifty-seven persons lost their lives and seventy-five homes were destroyed, as were more than twenty buildings in the downtown.
Despite the half-million-dollar loss, reconstruction of the area began immediately. The cultural landscape of the Oil City Downtown Commercial Historic District is the result of that rebuilding and the growth which followed over the next quarter-century. One particularly ambitious construction project was the 1894 design and completion of six adjacent business buildings, fronting both on Center and Sycamore Streets between Elm Street and the railroad right-of-way. These were the Downs, Wise & Borland, Shields, Connor, Keating, and Griffiths Blocks; all but the Connor Block survive, although all have been altered. The Downs Block was designed by local architect Joseph P. Brenot, who was in practice here for a generation and maintained offices in that building. Over the years, a wide variety of buildings rose from the ashes of the 1892 fire/flood.
The decade immediately following the disaster and the first quarter of the twentieth century witnessed the growth of refineries throughout the Oil City area. A variety of small-scale refining operations flourished and were eventually merged with other firms to create the three major refineries for which Oil City became known: Pennzoil, Quaker State, and Wolf's Head. Pennzoil's and Quaker State's operations were centered just north of Oil City, near Rouseville, while Wolf's Head operated at Reno, to the south. Associated industries, such as John D. Rockefeller's National Transit Company and John Baton's Oil Well Supply Company, contributed significantly to the economy of the city, although their manufacturing facilities were not located within the historic district. The fortunes of the oil industry were reflected directly in the rise of what is now the Oil City Downtown Commercial Historic District. Some buildings within the district were built for the specific use of the oil industry, but the majority were commercial buildings erected to serve the citizens who derived their livelihood from oil and its ancillary industries. The National Transit Company was established in 1881 in Oil City upon the consolidation of the United Pipe Lines and the Empire Transportation Company, and in the early 1890s erected one of the historic district's finest office buildings at the corner of Seneca and Center Streets, from designs by Fredonia, New York architect Enoch Curtis. From this building, National Transit once operated ninety percent of the American petroleum pipeline capacity. The main office building, along with its Annex are listed individually in the National Register. Furniture dealer George Veach established his business in 1896 and in 1913 created a new business block by wrapping three dissimilar buildings into a new facade at 230 Seneca Street; for years the largest furniture store in the city, the Veach Block derives additional importance from the fact that prominent Oil City architect W. Holmes Crosby maintained offices therein during the early years of his practice.
The industrial life of the region is represented within the district by three architecturally and historically significant office buildings and by one manufacturing complex. In 1928, the corporate headquarters of the Pennzoil Company were moved into the new Drake Theater Building at Seneca and Duncomb Streets, and remained there for more than forty years (the Drake Building is discussed in more detail below). Two major regional utility companies had their offices within the Oil City Downtown Commercial Historic District. Telephone service came to Oil City in 1878 with the establishment of the Old Central District and Printing Company. In 1901 the Petroleum Telephone Company was founded, also providing service to Titusville, Franklin, and Pleasantville. The two firms eventually merged and following a series of other acquisitions and mergers, the General Telephone Company of Pennsylvania became the sole supplier of telephone service within the city. In 1942 General Telephone erected a handsome Art Deco-style office building at 260 Seneca Street.
The discovery of large deposits of natural gas came as a by-product of oil exploration in the region. Several local gas companies were organized including the Oil City Gas Company (1876), the Oil City Fuel and Supply Company (1883), and the United Natural Gas Company (1886). After acquiring or merging with its competition, by 1917 United Natural Gas had 1,800 producing gas wells and by 1919 owned or leased the gas rights to 300,000 acres. In the 1920s UNG built their headquarters office building within the district, at 308 Seneca Street.
Within the Oil City Downtown Commercial Historic District is one major industrial complex, that of the Oil City Boiler Works. The company was established in 1877 by oilmen Michael Geary, B. W. Vandergrift, and Daniel O'Day. In 1881 the present plant was built along Seneca Street north of Duncomb Street. By 1896 the Boiler Works was the city's largest employer, with nearly 2,000 employees producing steam boilers and tubing. The complex sustained only minor damage in the flood/fire of 1892. In Sketches in Crude Oil (1896), John J. McLaurin reported that "the firm led the world as tankbuilders, actually constructing one-third of the total iron tankage in the U. S." After Michael Geary's death in 1895, the business was sold to the National Tube Mills Company; it later became the Electric Weld Tube Division of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation. The factory consists of a series of interconnected brick industrial buildings which dominates this section of town; it remains in industrial use at the time of writing.
The most important non-manufacturing representative of the oil industry within the district is the Art Deco-style Drake Building, at the corner of Seneca and Duncomb Streets, the corporate headquarters of the Pennzoil Company for a half-century. The Drake was built for Vemark Realty, a partnership among George and John Veach and Michael Marks. Erected at a reported cost of $800,000, it was announced in January, 1928 that the Pennzoil Company would move their corporate offices into the new building. The cornerstone of the building was laid by Samuel Smith of Titusville, the only surviving member of the original crew from the pioneer Drake well of August, 1859. Pennzoil remained in this building until the 1970s.
This financial life of the city was centered within the historic district, and two major buildings reflect the history of banking within the community. The First National Bank was organized in 1863. Over the years the bank conducted business in several locations, the earliest of which are no longer extant, but its most prominent office was at 203 Center Street. The Oil City National Bank began in 1865 as the Oil City Savings Bank; in 1899 the name was changed to the Oil City National Bank and in 1900 the Lamberton Bank was absorbed into this institution. The 1926 granite Neo-Classical Revival style Oil City National Bank Building is located at the corner of Center and Seneca Streets.
The middle years of the twentieth century saw Oil City and the Oil City Downtown Commercial Historic District prosper. In 1927 alone, for example, thirty-five new homes were built in the city. Refineries were producing in large quantities, and thousands of jobs were tied to the petroleum industry, ranging from refinery workers to corporate leaders. Pennzoil, Wolf's Head, and Quaker State maintained their corporate headquarters in Oil City. Wolf's Head was eventually acquired by Pennzoil and Pennzoil, followed later by Quaker state, relocated their headquarters to Texas in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively. The loss of the executive offices of these industries, coupled with the 1970s development of a regional mall seven miles distant, had a major impact on the vitality of this once-vibrant Oil Region central business district.
The Oil City Downtown Commercial Historic District is significant for its collection of historic architecture which dates generally from the 1890s through the 1940s. These buildings reflect many of the popular styles of architecture prevalent through the years, as well as industrial vernacular design and vernacular adaptations of the more formal styles. Italianate-style buildings include 257 Seneca Street, the Jacobs Block (233 Seneca Street), 217 Seneca Street, 102-108 Seneca Street, 220-222 Center Street, and 17 Main Street. Romanesque Revival-style architecture within the district includes the building at 114 Sycamore Street, the Borland Block (208- 212 Sycamore Street), and the Salvation Army Building (229 Elm Street). Two Chateauesque-style buildings, the 1894 Downs Block (204 Sycamore Street) and the ca. 1894 Cowell Block (210-212 Center Street), are found within the district. Colonial Revival-style buildings include the IOOF Building (222 Seneca Street), 228 Seneca Street, 310 Seneca Street, and 203 Seneca Street. Neo-Classical Revival-style architecture within the district includes the 1926 Oil City National Bank Building (100 Seneca Street) and the Trax & Parker Building (211-215 Seneca Street). The Late Gothic Revival style is seen in the 1924 Trinity Methodist Church (2 Center Street). The modern movement is represented in the Art Deco-style Drake Building of 1927-28 (327-347 Seneca Street) and the 1942 General Telephone Company Building (260 Seneca Street). Vernacular adaptations of various styles are scattered throughout the district as well, including the Italianate-derived ca. 1910 Smart and Silberberg Block (202 Center Street) and the 1913 Veach Block (230 Seneca Street). Industrial vernacular design is seen in the Oil City Boiler Works complex (351-359 Seneca Street and 210 Duncomb Street) as well as in the 1914 Carnahan Transfer and Storage Company Building (211 Duncomb Street). The district's finest example of roadside architecture is the 1928 Pennzoil Service Station at 217 Elm Street, built at a cost of $15,000 of yellow brick with a terra cotta exterior finish and described in the local newspaper when new as a "model station." Although the vast majority of the buildings within the district are commercial in nature, one Late Gothic Revival-style church, the 1924 Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church (2 Center Street) is found within the district.
The work of several prominent architects is represented in the Oil City Downtown Commercial Historic District. The earliest of these is Joseph E. Brenot, who was born in neighboring Crawford County in 1865. He embarked on a career as a builder and eventually entered the New York offices of Palliser & Co., architects known for the pattern books which they produced. After three years of service with Palliser, he entered the office of Chicago architect W. A. Otis, where he completed his architectural training. He came to Oil City from New York City after the 1892 fire/flood and became Oil City's first architect. His career was marked by a variety of design specialties, including residential, commercial, religious, and institutional projects. A 1913 article in The Ohio Architect, Engineer, and Builder noted that in the ten years previous to the article, Brenot had designed all of the parochial schools and convents for the Roman Catholic Erie Diocese. Among his works in the district are the Chateauesque-style 1894 Downs Block (204 Sycamore Street), wherein he maintained his own offices, the nearly identical Cowell Building (210-212 Center Street), likely constructed at about the same time following the great flood/fire of 1892, the ca. 1910 Elks Lodge at 109-115 Sycamore Street, and the terra cotta-over-brick 1928 Pennzoil Service Station at 217 Elm Street, mentioned above as the district's finest example of roadside architecture. Brenot remained in practice in Oil City well into the 1920s. Architect Emmett E. Bailey (1872-1942) entered practice about 1904 with Frank L. Charles, practicing as Charles & Bailey. By 1910 he was operating as the Emmett E. Bailey Company, and built a practice throughout this region of Pennsylvania, designing residences, commercial buildings and institutional facilities. W. Holmes Crosby (1888-1985) graduated from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh in 1914 and became one of the first three students to receive a Master's degree from that institution. He located in Oil City in 1915, became associated with Emmett Bailey, and eventually maintained offices in the Veach Building (230 Seneca Street).
The work of noted Philadelphia theater architect William H. Lee (1889-1971) is seen in the 1927-28 Drake Theater Building, the district's finest example of the Art Deco style of architecture. According to an Oil City Derrick article which announced the development of the Drake, the Chicago firm of Rapp & Rapp had been first named architect of the building. Apparently this firm was replaced by Lee, since he is noted as the architect in a full-page advertisement which appeared in the Derrick in June, 1928; his association with the architectural history of Oil City is of particular importance, since he was a prominent designer of theaters across Pennsylvania who was responsible for no fewer than twelve other Pennsylvania theaters in the 1920s alone. In addition to the Drake, notable examples of his work include the Astor Theater in Reading, the State Theater in Easton, and the Tourison Theater in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia architect Charles W. Bolton & Son designed the 1924 Late Gothic Revival-style Trinity Methodist Church (located at 2 Center Street. Bolton & Son were also responsible for the Oil City Public Library, on the south side across the Allegheny River from the district.
Viewing this district within the context of the Oil Region of northwestern Pennsylvania, Oil City stands out as the center of oil-related industrial, commercial, and architectural activity during the latter years of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. Titusville, located a few miles to the northwest, and Franklin, eight miles to the south, contain downtown historic districts with a significant stock of buildings dating from earlier in the nineteenth century. The Oil City Downtown Commercial Historic District, conversely, is typified by buildings from a generation later, principally due to the fire/flood of 1892. Butler, further south, features a downtown of a similar scale to that of Oil City's, but is fewer than thirty miles from Pittsburgh, creating a completely different set of development pressures. Economically, Oil City has been hit the hardest of any of these communities by the downsizing of industry and by the loss of significant jobs in the wake of the moving of the corporate offices of Quaker State and Pennzoil to Texas and the relocation of the Oil Well Supply Company's operations to Texas and Oklahoma.
To summarize, the Oil City Downtown Commercial Historic District is significant under National Register Criteria A and C. Under Criterion A, the district is representative of the commercial and industrial life of this northwestern Pennsylvania community during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Under Criterion C, the district contains a cohesive and compact collection of architecture which exemplifies most of the styles of design which were popular in the United States from the 1870s through the 1940s, and also contains work of locally- and regionally-important architects.
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