New Kensington Downtown Historic District
The New Kensington Downtown Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. 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 New Kensington Downtown Historic District is located in New Kensington, a small third class city located in western Westmoreland County along the Allegheny River. It is a grouping of commercial, residential, office and public buildings from the late 19th and early to mid 20th century. The New Kensington Downtown Historic District occupies approximately 20 acres between the Allegheny River and Conrail rail line. The buildings are primarily two and three stories in height with taller buildings located on strategic corners within the commercial area. The buildings are constructed in a variety of architectural styles including Italianate, Beaux Arts, Egyptian Revival, Colonial Revival, Gothic Revival, Craftsman, and Art Deco. Among the contributing resources are 143 buildings including 1 post office, 1 former church, and 1 former office building built especially for the Wear Ever Company, Alcoa's cookware subsidiary. There are thirty-four non-contributing buildings spread throughout the district. These buildings contribute to the character of the historic district which was initially platted in 1891 and extends through World War II to 1947. Of these 34 non-contributing resources, 24 lack architectural integrity and only 10 postdate 1947. Overall, eighty percent of the buildings within the district contribute to its significance, and the district retains a high level of architectural integrity.
Fifty buildings were constructed between 1891-1904; thirty-eight buildings were constructed between 1905 and 1911; fifty-five buildings between 1911 and 1921; twenty-six between 1922 and 1930; seventeen between 1931 and 1947 and eleven buildings were constructed after 1947. The New Kensington Downtown Historic District presents a wide variety of landscape features which include contemporary street lights, street trees, brick paving, aluminum chain link fencing, shrubs, and wooden sheds. These features are typical for residential and commercial neighborhoods, and do not detract from the district. Of the 177 buildings, 45% were vernacular in design; 16% had no style; 15% were designed in the Colonial Revival style; 4% were designed in Italianate and Art Deco styles; 2% were designed in the Second Empire, Beaux Arts and American Foursquare styles; and 1% were designed in Queen Anne, Romanesque, Sullivanesque, Classical Revival, Egyptian Revival, Craftsman and Art Moderne styles of architecture.
The New Kensington Downtown Historic District encompasses a small portion of central New Kensington that was laid out when the city was platted in 1891. The grid plan had 20 foot by 120 foot lots with each block bisected by an alley. The numbered avenues run north and south and the numbered streets run east and west. The New Kensington Downtown Historic District is a mixture of both commercial and densely developed residential neighborhoods. Commercial buildings are located on Fourth and Fifth Avenues between Eighth and Tenth Streets while the residential buildings are directly adjacent to the commercial area, including Third Avenue half-way between Ninth Street and Eleventh Street. The district includes the remnants of a historically larger residential area that developed between the commercial area and the Alcoa New Kensington Production Works. This area provided housing for a portion of Alcoa's workforce in the city. These houses were demolished by the City of New Kensington to allow for further industrial expansion. Beyond the boundaries of the district are buildings primarily constructed after 1947.
In general, the New Kensington Downtown Historic District is characterized by commercial and residential buildings, located close together with facade walls or porch walls immediately adjacent to the sidewalk. The district is given unity by common building styles, setbacks, and historic uses.
Commercial Buildings Within the New Kensington Downtown Historic District, 95% of the commercial buildings were constructed between 1881 and 1947. Style influences cover a broad range of architectural styles and include Second Empire, Late Victorian, Italianate, Queen Anne, Romanesque, Sullivanesque, Beaux Arts, Colonial Revival, Egyptian Revival, Gothic Revival, Mission, Art Deco, Art Moderne, and Craftsmen. Most buildings are vernacular.
Within the commercial district, the earliest buildings were built along 5th Avenue in the 900 and 1000 blocks. Development was sparse until 1905. Date plaques and Sanborn map search indicates that the balance of the construction occurred between 1905 and the 1920s, with specific building campaigns between 1905-1911 and 1915-1921. The earliest of the buildings include 964-972 Fifth Avenue and 400 Ninth Street, constructed between 1891-1895. Significant buildings within the district include banking institutions located on opposite prominent corners: Mellon Bank Building (1900) and PNC Bank (1914). Office buildings included the Wear Ever Building (1914-1915). Designed by James Geisey in the Tudor Revival style, the Wear Ever Building served as corporate offices for the Wear Ever Company, an Alcoa cookware subsidiary. A White Castle hamburger restaurant currently serving barbecue fare appears to have been constructed between 1921-1928. The U. S. Post Office dates from 1933. Four theaters were initially constructed; only three remain: Ritz Theater (1921-22), Columbus Theater (1927) and the Datola Theater (1942). Their uses have changed and some of the buildings are currently vacant. In design, these buildings reflect the commercial base of an early twentieth century industrial community.
Commercial buildings are laid out in a grid plan, multiple stories in height with one, two, and three stories being the most common. They were generally two to four bays wide with length depending on the lot size. The typical building had a storefront composed of bulkhead, display window, and transom topped with a storefront cornice. The upper floors had regularly spaced windows. Finally, the top of the building was capped with a decorative cornice. The interior of the buildings are divided into long narrow unobstructed bays for the conducting of commercial business.
The buildings are of either masonry or wood frame construction with flat, shed, (front) gable or mansard roofs. Building materials include brick, stone and terra cotta masonry, limestone, Cararra glass, stucco, pressed metal, and rusticated concrete block. Brick colors included red, orange, white and yellow. Commercial buildings are generally decorated with brick corbeling, especially at the cornice and have parapeted rooflines, stepped back to the rear. The buildings are located along the street, with sidewalks separating the buildings from the street.
Some of the commercial buildings have been altered by replacement of historic storefronts, although in most cases, upper story fenestration and brickwork remains intact. Roughly twenty percent of the commercial buildings are non-contributing. A number of these buildings have been constructed since 1947 and several have been drastically altered in appearance through the application of siding over fenestration, large scale primary additions to primary elevations, or other changes which clearly affect the historic setback, scale, or broad appearance of individual resources.
The residential buildings in the New Kensington Downtown Historic District are representative of styles of residential architecture constructed between 1891 and 1947. The residential buildings are typically two to two and half stories in height. The roof ridge-line is typically perpendicular to the street, with roof forms that included (front) gable, side gable, clipped gable, cross gable, hip, hip with gable, hip with dormer, and mansard. The first floor has a full length hipped porch with fenestration and an entrance underneath the porch roof. The upper floors have regularly spaced windows. The residences are slightly set back from the street, with consistent setbacks occurring on both front and side lots. Parking for automobiles is in the rear.
The New Kensington Downtown Historic District contains primarily single family houses. Predominant designs include hip roofed, American Four Square houses with hipped front dormers, Colonial Revival and vernacular or Victorian vernacular gable front blocks. Most of these houses are two bays wide and two and one half stories tall with a dormer on the front roof slope. The district also contains lesser numbers of two story wood framed houses whose eaves front the street, including several with center front cross gables. The predominant construction material of houses within the New Kensington Downtown Historic District is wood frame, although brick masonry houses are also present. These wood framed houses have generally been re-sided with aluminum, vinyl, or asphalt shingles. Most of the houses have full-width, hip roofed, single story, front porches. Most of these porches have square brick piers and solid brick balustrades. Some of the wood framed houses have solid wood balustrades and square wood columns, while others have wood classical columns and lack a balustrade. The general scale of these houses is large. In some cases, this scale may reflect historic multi-family occupancy. In other cases, it may reflect historically larger family sizes. The residential area began to be developed shortly after the platting of New Kensington in 1891. Most of the houses in the New Kensington Downtown Historic District were constructed in the period between 1895 and 1920.
In addition to these one family houses, several historic rooming houses and apartment buildings, as well as one hotel, are located in the central part of the district at or near the intersection of Third Avenue and Tenth Street. These buildings are larger in scale than the single family houses. Each is constructed of brick, although the color of brick varies. Two of the rooming apartment houses have gambrel roofs with gambrel dormers, and a third has a jerkinhead gable roof with hipped dormers. These buildings are two and one-half or three and one-half stories in height. The elaborate detailing of these multi-unit blocks suggests that each was individually designed by an architect or accomplished builder, although the names of the designers are unknown. These multi-unit buildings, none of which can be identified by a specific architectural style, were constructed in the period from 1910 to 1925.
In general, the residential portions of the New Kensington Downtown Historic District also maintain a high level of integrity with few intrusions. Only one house, a single story, eaves front, center gable house on the east side of the 1000 block of Third Avenue has been recommended as non-contributing due to recent alterations. Throughout the district, the application of aluminum siding, new windows, porch enclosures and new roofs occurred after the period of significance. These changes are typical of industrial communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania and despite them, New Kensington reflects its historic character better than most historic districts. Wood siding is still evident on a majority of the buildings. Setbacks and streetscapes remain unchanged and the overall scale, massing, feeling and association is that of an early to mid twentieth century industrial community.
The New Kensington Downtown Historic District possesses integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, and feeling. It still strongly conveys associations with its early 20th century dates of development and those of being associated with the aluminum industry.
The New Kensington Downtown Historic District is significant as representing a largely intact commercial business area, whose downtown evolved from an initial settlement of the city in the late 19th century, to a live, bustling community after World War II. The district also is significant for Industry for its association with the aluminum manufacturing in Southwestern Pennsylvania from 1891 to 1947 and as an area where aluminum workers from the New Kensington Production Works lived and shopped. The New Kensington Downtown Historic District played a significant contribution to the growth of the manufacturing of aluminum in the United States. While Alcoa's manufacturing center grew, the commercial and residential center grew accordingly. Aluminum workers depended on commercial centers for food, drygoods, health related services, and recreation after they finished working for the day. The downtown and the residential areas grew as the number of workers in the mills increased from 1891 through 1947. It is also significant for Architecture as embodying the style, forms, methods of construction and artistic values of commercial and residential buildings associated with early twentieth century architecture in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The period of significance for the New Kensington Downtown Historic District begins in 1891 when the community was laid out and continues until after World War II. The district meets the registration requirements specified for Commercial-Residential Districts in the Multiple Property Documentation Form, "The Historic Aluminum Industry Resources of Southwestern Pennsylvania, 1888-1947" for commercial-residential districts.
The development of New Kensington began in 1890 when the Burrell Improvement Company, a group of Pittsburgh businessmen, purchased level land on the east side of the Allegheny River as prime location for a city. They had the land surveyed and laid out the town of "Kensington" with a rectilinear grid pattern. The avenues paralleled the railroad and the river and ran from Second to Sixth, and the streets were numbered from Second (in Parnassus) to Nineteenth (in Arnold). The land between Second Avenue and the river was to be maintained in larger pieces for sale to industrial users.
The first public sale of lots took place on June 10, 1891. Purchasers were given a free train ride from Pittsburgh and refreshments if they came to view the site of the proposed new town. The price range of the first several hundred lots ranged from $30.00 to $300.00. By the end of 1891, New Kensington was home to 12 companies, providing jobs to 4,000 individuals. In addition to the Pittsburgh Reduction Company (PRC), the companies were the Bradley Stove Works, the Brownsville Plate Glass Company, Kensington Chilled Steel Company, Kensington Roller Process Flour Company, Kensington Tube Works, Logan and Sons Planning Mills, New York Piano and Organ Factory, Pennsylvania Tin Plate Company, the Rolled Wheel Steel Company, the R. F. Rynd Planning Mills, and the Chambers Glass Company (in what was to become Arnold).
In that same year, 500 houses along Kenneth Avenue (on the other side of the Conrail railroad tracks), and Second, and Third Streets were built by private individuals to house the growing aluminum workforce. To service the residents of the growing community, a variety of businesses were locating to New Kensington along Fourth and Fifth Avenues between Ninth and Tenth Streets, and on Ninth and Tenth Streets between Cherry Alley and Ivy Alley. These businesses included a drug store, fish monger, dry goods store, hardware store, meat market, variety store, fancy goods, tailor, clothing, offices, millinery, laundry, jeweler, and grocer.
The City of New Kensington was incorporated November 26,1892. By 1893, the Cold Rolled Steel Company, the Excelsior Flint Glass Works, the Kensington Stove Works, the Kensington Enameling Works, and the Sterling White Lead Company had all located to New Kensington. Three new banks were also located in the new community including the First National Bank of New Kensington, the Pittsburg National Bank, and Jacobs Banking Company. New Kensington took on the appearance of a thriving and diverse industrial community.
By 1895, the central business district was concentrated along Ninth and Tenth Streets, with some businesses located on Third, Fourth and Fifth Avenues between Eighth and Tenth Streets. The business district contained six grocery stores, three variety stores, five clothing stores, three drug stores, four bakeries, three meat markets, two laundries, three tailors, five milliners, two tobacconists, four hotels, a book store, jewelry store, three hardware stores, two butteries, two undertakers, a dry goods store, two barbers, a carpentry shop, two fruit stores, a restaurant, two pool rooms, and several office buildings. Most of these buildings were wood framed, although several of the more prominent commercial blocks were of masonry construction.
In 1895, in recognition of the rapid business growth in New Kensington, streets in the district were paved with brick. The first paved street was Fifth Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets. The following year, the business district met its first setback when the New Kensington Opera House, located on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Tenth Street, and ten nearby houses were destroyed in a fire causing an estimated $50,000.00 in damage. Despite the destruction of the Opera House, the community retained a cultural center. News items published in the local newspaper, New Kensington Dispatch in 1899 indicated Behm's Opera House hosted performances by the Mozart Concert Company, the New Kensington Philharmonic Glee Society, and the New Kensington Military Band. The social and commercial significance of the community was becoming well established.
New Kensington's commercial and industrial growth continued during the first decade of the twentieth century. By 1900, the density of the Downtown Historic District had increased to the point that most of the lots on Fourth and Fifth Avenues between Ninth and Tenth Streets were occupied by brick and wood framed, two and three story commercial buildings. The variety of goods increased as well, as the merchants catered to the needs of the growing community.
In 1902, a streetcar line was completed between Natrona and New Kensington. This streetcar line ran cars every 20 minutes and with the continued growth of the aluminum industry, resulted in increased business and patronage for the shops and services within the central business district of New Kensington. The following year, the City Council and the Pennsylvania Railroad reached an agreement for construction of a station at Barnes and Ninth Street. The Freight Building is still standing and is included within the historic district. The growing community gained a social service institution, when former New Kensington resident Charles Parkins announced a donation of $13,000.00 to begin a building fund to construct a YMCA on Fifth Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets. The remaining necessary funds were soon raised, and the building was completed within the year.
By 1905, most of the blocks within the core of the central business district had become completely developed, and wood framed buildings had been largely replaced by masonry buildings. The streets within the commercial district were lined with adjoining two and three story brick commercial buildings.
In 1906, the New Kensington Land Company developed East Kensington. This area extended west to Wood Street, and was bordered on the south and east by Seventh Street and to the north by what is now Powers Drive. The city's estimated 1911 population was 13,000. The west side of the 1000 block of Third Avenue had become more heavily developed with a mixture of wood framed houses and shops. By 1915, the district had sustained additional residential and commercial development.
By 1921, the population of the city had swelled to 15,000. Empty lots along Third Avenue had become the sites of additional houses. Development of the central business district continued in the 1920s. By 1921, when new immigration laws severely curtailed immigration, the central business district had begun to expand northward and eastward. Commercial development extended to the railroad tracks on the east side of downtown. The 1200 blocks of Fourth and Fifth Avenue contained a mixture of wood framed detached residences and masonry commercial buildings, and light manufacturing plants. Several social clubs and churches were also located in the northern section of downtown New Kensington. On May 2, 1921, the first of the new theaters, the Liberty Theater (demolished 1996) opened on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street and the Ritz Theater (958 Fifth Avenue) opened the next year. In 1924, the cornerstone was laid for the Salvation Army Citadel on the north end of the central business district and was dedicated the following year. The State Theater opened on Fifth Avenue in 1925, the newest of five theaters in New Kensington, reflecting the growing popularity of movies as entertainment. In 1928, the city's first public free library opened. No longer just a aluminum boom town, New Kensington matured into a community managed and dominated by aluminum interests, but also with social, religious, ethnic institutions, and recreation and entertainment facilities typical of the 20th century industrial communities. Architects and builders for these buildings are largely unknown.
The 1928 Sanborn map portrays the New Kensington Downtown Historic District much as it presently appears. The Rorabaugh Block and a now-demolished adjacent block on the south side of Tenth Street had been constructed. The commercial blocks on the north side of Ninth Street had been constructed by 1928. Both the Dyke Automotive building and the Edelson building housed businesses serving the growing number of automobiles in New Kensington. Several of the houses along Third Avenue had been faced in a brick veneer.
The surviving fabric is significant as an example of commercial and residential buildings associated with the aluminum industry, 1891 to 1947. The New Kensington Downtown Historic District as a whole reflects the architecture of a period working class aluminum community.
City of New Kensington. Celebrating a Century, A Commemorative Document. New Kensington, Pennsylvania: City of New Kensington, 1991.
"Historic Resources Survey of the Aluminum Industry in Westmoreland and Allegheny Counties, Pennsylvania, Final Report" U. S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Denver Service Center, Western Pennsylvania Partnerships Branch, Eastern Team by Douglas C. McVarish and Richard Meyer of John Milner and Associates, Inc. 309 North Matlack Street, West Chester, Pennsylvania in association with DHM, Inc. 1660 Seventeenth Street, Suite 400, Denver, Colorado.
Sanborn Map Company. Insurance Map of New Kensington, Pennsylvania. New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1895.
________Insurance Map of New Kensington, Pennsylvania. New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1905.
________Insurance Map of New Kensington, Pennsylvania. New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1911.
________Insurance Map of New Kensington, Pennsylvania. New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1915.
________Insurance Map of New Kensington, Pennsylvania. New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1921.
________Insurance Map of New Kensington, Pennsylvania. New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1928.
Sanborn Perris Map Company. Insurance Map of New Kensington, Pennsylvania. New York: Sanborn Perris Map Company, 1900.
U. S. Bureau of Census. 12th Census of the United States. Schedule 1: Population. Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Microfilm. National Archives, Mid-Atlantic Region, Philadelphia.
________13th Census of the United States. Schedule 1: Population. Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Microfilm. National Archives, Mid-Atlantic Region, Philadelphia.
________14th Census of the United States. Schedule 1: Population. Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Microfilm. National Archives, Mid-Atlantic Region, Philadelphia.
________15th Census of the United States. Schedule 1: Population. Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Microfilm. National Archives, Mid-Atlantic Region, Philadelphia.
Women's Club of New Kensington. Lore of Yore: A History of New Kensington, Arnold, and Lower Burrell. New Kensington, Pennsylvania: Women's Club of New Kensington, 1986.
† Wilkinson, Bonnie J., New Kensington Downtown Historic District, nomination document, 1998, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.