West Alexander Historic District
The West Alexander 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.
West Alexander is a small rural borough at the western edge of Washington County, consisting mainly of one street which winds along a narrow ridge through the town. The land to either side of Main Street slopes downward where it is accessed by a few secondary streets and alleys. Most of the town's buildings face Main Street. The West Alexander Historic District contains most of these Main Street structures plus a few related side street structures. The central section of Main Street contains a row of abutting, two-story, wood frame, Italianate vernacular commercial structures on one side of the street, and facing them, a graveyard flanked by two churches. The remainder of Main Street in either direction is lined with nineteenth century houses.
The West Alexander Historic District contains many ornate commercial and residential buildings, mostly dating from 1860-1880. Most of them remain very much intact. There are also several stark, brick buildings which date from the first half century of the town's development (1790 until about 1860). These buildings are architecturally very simple and consistent. They are typical of the style of buildings which has come to be known in southwestern Pennsylvania as vernacular Greek Revival. They are characterized by a symmetrical floor plan and bay configuration (center hall flanked by two parlors), large window openings (often the 6/6 sashes have been replaced) of a horizontal/vertical proportion of about 3/5, with simple lintels and sills of stone or wood (occasionally having corner blocks), and a roof whose ridge pole runs parallel to the facade. In this part of Pennsylvania, the roof with the ridge pole perpendicular to the facade (which in other areas is essential to the Greek Revival style) is not commonly found. Occasionally, incised brackets are found in the eaves, and usually the eaves have returns at the gable ends. West Alexander Historic District has about a dozen of these structures distributed along Main Street. A couple of them have tripartite windows and lintels with corner blocks. The only early frame structure in the town is a low, one-story, frame building with lap siding and 6/6 windows. It survived the 1831 fire and is probably the oldest building in the town.
The row of commercial buildings at the center of the town is made up almost exclusively of Italianate vernacular buildings. The two-story construction with an even cornice line across the row which obscures the roofs), is a particularly unusual feature. In one case, there are no second-story windows, just a wall of wood siding filling the space between the cornice line and the storefront.
In the residential sections of Main Street, there are some Italianate houses and a variety of later vernacular houses. Several of the earliest houses are from a transitional period between vernacular Greek Revival and Italianate. This transition is usually marked by incised ornaments and decorative lintels on simple vernacular Greek Revival boxes. There are also numerous vernacular buildings dating from the turn of the century. Although some of these contain elements of architectural styles of their time (Eastlake, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, most have simple vernacular forms. The unifying theme in all of West Alexander's houses is that they all draw most of their features more from the farmhouse vernacular rather than from high style architecture of any period. They are basically farmhouse forms, whether built in tight rows, or set apart with ell plans and porches, or varied in any other way. Two exceptions are an ornate late Victorian house with Italianate, Queen Anne, and Eastlake features in the windows and porch (but still basically a farmhouse in plan), and a small shingled Bungalow that may be a Sears House.
The overall plan of West Alexander's Main Street is that of a straight line, a portion of which has been bent into an almost round arch. The center of town is at the center of this arch. On the outer side of the curve is the row of two-story Italianate commercial structures which form the focal point of Main Street from either direction. Across from these, within the great arch-like curve, is the town graveyard which has a Greek Revival vernacular church at one side and a Victorian Romanesque church at the other. Rather than being the focal point, the graveyard is like a hidden town square, obscured by the churches until one arrives at the center of the town. It graciously opens up what appears from a distance to be a very dense commercial area.
West Alexander is a meandering one-street town of farmhouse-like structures which focus on a dense row of mid-nineteenth century village commercial structures. The increasing density is helped along by the two imposing churches which in turn provide a "surprise effect" for the visitor as he reaches the center of town where a graveyard opens up the dense space much as town squares do elsewhere.
In the heart of the town, nearly all of the commercial structures are very well-preserved and intact. They have been preserved through maintenance and painting rather than being rebuilt. The vernacular Greek Revival church has lost some of its character through the addition of aluminum sided frame additions. A couple of small buildings in the commercial row have suffered very insensitive aluminum siding work. But most of the destructive alteration has occurred in the residential sections of Main Street. Several houses have lost their character through aluminum siding, window alteration, and other insensitive remodelling techniques. However, these altered houses are still the exceptions, and they do not destroy the overall character and charm of the West Alexander Historic District. The most blatant alterations fortunately were at the edges of the district, and have been excluded from the district's boundaries.
The West Alexander Historic District is one of the better preserved rural commercial centers in Washington County and along the National Pike. It is principally important for its rich and intact collection of nineteenth century vernacular architecture. The architectural qualities of this tiny town are not limited to individual buildings, but are also manifested in the unique layout of the town. The historic significance of the buildings arises principally from the fact that this one-street town was once a stopping point on the National Pike, our nation's first federally funded highway. The architectural features reflect the commercial activities of the mid-nineteenth century, and have encouraged a commercial renaissance in the town during the past decade.
West Alexander's mix of buildings reflects the town's development as a stopping point along the National Pike and later the Hempfield Railroad. The National Pike was completed through the town in 1820. In the decade that followed, historical accounts imply that the town grew steadily in response to the traffic along the Pike. However in 1831, it suffered a disastrous fire that destroyed all but a few of the town's buildings. Thomas Gordon's book A Gazetteer of Pennsylvania, published in 1832 (probably compiled before the fire), describes the town as having "40-50 dwellings, 3 taverns, 3 stores, and a Presbyterian Church."
The oldest building standing in the town is a one-story frame house which miraculously escaped the 1831 fire. It was the home of Squire Joseph Mayes who made the town famous as a "wedding capital." Local sources say that Mayes performed 2,000 marriages in this building. It is also claimed that West Alexander's fame as a wedding spot (which gave the town the nickname "Gretna Green" after the famous Scottish wedding town), continued until 1885, 5,000 marriages had been performed here. The town's popularity as a wedding spot was attributed to Pennsylvania's relaxed attitude toward marriage at the time, in contrast to nearby West Virginia. Eventually Pennsylvania's marriage laws became tougher and the situation reversed, shifting the phenomenon and nickname to Wellsburg, West Virginia.
Most of the older buildings in town (1830s, 40s & 50s) fall into the category which in Southwestern Pennsylvania is usually termed "vernacular Greek Revival." The primary features of this style include: a simple center-hall and-flanking-parlors plan, a central front door, and large rectangular windows (of Greek Revival proportions — horizontal/vertical equals approximately 3/5) with large plain lintels and sills. The roof generally runs parallel to the facade so that the gable ends (usually accentuated with chimneys) are at the sides. This simple style is found, with some slight variations, in most of the vernacular brick houses (rowhouses as well as farmhouses) built in Southwestern Pennsylvania before the Civil War. Elements found in West Alexander houses from this period which may be vernacular interpretations of styles other than Greek Revival include three-part doors, carved corner blocks in lintels, and incised brackets along roof lines (the latter which either foreshadow the Italianate style, or were added in Italianate remodellings). The fact that these buildings were built in brick may reflect a commitment to avoiding another fire. The church west of the graveyard (Presbyterian, 1845) is also from this period.
In the center of the town, however, there is a dense section of vernacular Italianate buildings from the 1860s and '70s. A row of abutting, two story, wood frame, flat roofed, ornately detailed commercial structures across from the graveyard gives the town a focal point which reflects a later period of National Pike activity boosted by the opening of the Hempfield Railroad parallel to the Pike in 1857. This period of growth seems to have reached its zenith by 1873 when the town was incorporated as a borough. The buildings of this period are characterized by a sharper distinction between building types, in addition to the shift back to wood and consequently profuse ornamentation. Homes, stores, churches, and other structures are more architecturally distinct in this period than they had been previously. The church east of the graveyard was built in 1875 in a massive Victorian Romanesque styling that contrasts sharply with that of an older church across the graveyard. After the Romanesque church was built, new building in West Alexander seems to have slowed significantly.
A considerable proportion (about a fourth) of the buildings in the West Alexander Historic District, especially at the district's edges, are simple vernacular buildings dating from the late 1800s and early 1900s. They draw their form and detailing from late Victorian farmhouses and inexpensive workers' cottages common throughout the county. These houses generally fill in the gaps in the fabric of the West Alexander Historic District, making it more cohesive without disturbing the stylistic effect of the older buildings. Only a few are individually outstanding.
The commercial row at West Alexander's center has become particularly important in recent years. In the last decade, the potential value was recognized in the charm and character retained by these buildings. The structures so strongly reflected the commercial activities of a different time that they brought about a renaissance in the town. What had become a row of vacant storefronts in a town of only a few faltering shops a decade ago has since become a sensitively restored village of active craft shops and gift shops. This has served to demonstrate the value of historic properties and appropriate maintenance/restoration.
The West Alexander Historic District reflects organic growth around a transportation corridor. The row of buildings at the town's center represent the architectural manifestations of the town's importance as a local commercial center and as a stopping point along the Pike. The unique and twisted plan conforming to the meandering contortions of the old Pike reflects piecemeal development and the essential relationship with the Pike itself. The blend of architectural forms and styles reflects the gradual growth of the town.
A Gazetteer of the State of Pennsylvania by Thomas F. Gordon.
An Architectural Walking Tour of West Alexander, 1980 by Philomena Thomas.
History of Washington County by Alfred Creigh, 1869.
McFarland's History of Washington & Washington County, 1910.
Preserving Our Past, Washington County History and Landmarks Foundation Publication.