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Altoona Downtown Historic District

Altoona City, Blair County, PA

The Downtown Altoona Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. []

The Downtown Altoona Historic District is comprised of residential, commercial, civic, social, and religious buildings dating from the 1860s to the present. It encompasses the best preserved and most concentrated assemblage of resources documenting that part of the original Pennsylvania Railroad Company purchase known as West Altoona (numbered avenues) and the nineteenth-century residential subdivision called Greensburg (Lexington and Howard Avenues). The historic boundaries of these areas were more expansive than those outlined for the historic district; this reflects the extensive amount of urban renewal in the 1960s and 70s, and specifically, the demolition which claimed much of downtown Altoona. However, what survives as the district represents the core of the city's civic, commercial, and social activity, as well as residential streetscapes that continue to reflect the middle class working community that has lived there for more than a century. Of the 270 resources in the Downtown Altoona Historic District, four are listed individually in the National Register (Charles B. Dudley House, Central Trust Company Building, Mishler Theater, and Penn Alto Hotel), 233 are contributing and 33 or 12% are non-contributing. The surprisingly low number of non-contributing resources in part reflects historical events of the second half of the twentieth century, namely, the PRR removing its operations from Altoona and the nationwide recessions. As a result of a depressed economy, minimal large-scale renovations were undertaken and buildings that deteriorated significantly were demolished, as evidenced by the presence of vacant lots within the district.

The Downtown Altoona Historic District is located on the northwesterly side of the Pennsylvania Railroad yards, which historically divided the nineteenth-century city into two halves, one east of 9th Avenue, the other west of 10th Avenue. The Downtown Altoona Historic District boundaries roughly extend between 11th and 15th Avenues, and 11th and 14th Streets, with the ell formed by Lexington Avenue ending at 7th Street, the historic terminus of the residential neighborhood. The streets are laid out in a grid system on axis with the railroad (numbered and named avenues run parallel to the railroad tracks, numbered streets run perpendicular), although the two sections of the Downtown Altoona Historic District do not line up precisely, a vestige of their origins as distinct farm parcels that were subdivided individually. The Downtown Altoona Historic District slopes gently upward from the railroad yards, accelerating to a steep incline at 14th and 15th Avenues where residents have impressive vantage points overlooking downtown Altoona and its train yards.

The character of the Downtown Altoona Historic District is clearly urban, mid-rise buildings sharing party walls in the commercial area and free-standing, two to three-story frame houses virtually spanning their entire street frontage in the residential area. One notable exception is the 1884 Collins House at 1111 15th Avenue which has always had expansive grounds. Amidst the cadence of gable-roofed houses, three stone churches add variety to the skyline with their distinct silhouettes. They are: the turn-of-the-century Gothic Revival-style First Methodist Episcopal Church at 12th Street and 12th Avenue and Romanesque Revival-style First Presbyterian Church at 14th Avenue and 12th Street; and the 1920s Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament at 13th Street and 13th Avenue. Modeled after Italian Renaissance cathedrals by Philadelphia architect George I. Lovett, the Cathedral, along with its parish school and pastoral center, stands as a dominating visual landmark for the city.

Single-family dwellings are the most prevalent building type in the Downtown Altoona Historic District, accounting for approximately 51% of the total resources. Doubles are also present in the district, as are a few duplexes and apartment buildings. High concentrations of residences are found along 14th and 15th Avenues, and along Lexington Avenue and Howard Avenue. While there are some representatives from the 1860s, the majority of dwellings were constructed in the three decades between 1870 and 1900, some being replacements for earlier structures. Residential construction is of frame on stone foundations. The majority of houses are (or were) clad with wood — some with drop wood siding that casts attractive shadows on the facade — and brick veneer is not uncommon in the district. The prototypical house in the Downtown Altoona Historic District is 2-1/2 stories in height, 3 bays wide, fronted by a porch, and topped by a gabled roof. Despite the relatively concentrated period of construction, the houses are not "cookie cutter" products of speculative developers or builders. Rather, with the exception of the group at 1411-19 12th Street, they reflect the individual creativity of their builders and tastes of their middle class owners. Architect-designed houses are rare in the Downtown Altoona Historic District, those identified being the work of Altoona architects Louis Beezer and Michael J. Beezer who appeared to have dominated the late-nineteenth-century local residential design market with their interpretations of the Queen Anne style until they moved to Pittsburgh in 1899. Examples of their work include the Frederick and Lisette Ball House at 707 Lexington Avenue and the George Rudisill House at 1111 12th Avenue.

The 1860s dwellings --such as the double house at 1108-10 14th Avenue, the Weston House at 1016-18 Howard Avenue, and the Joseph Stouffer House at 803 Lexington Avenue — are vernacular frame structures with minimal stylistic detail (either original or surviving) compared to houses of subsequent years. By the 1870s, the dwellings in the Downtown Altoona Historic District can still best be described as vernacular, although an increased attention to style is evident in the presence of several mansard roofs, derivatives of the Second Empire style, and Gothic Revival forms with the characteristic central cross gable as seen on 811 Lexington Avenue and 1109 and 1218 14th Avenue. The Italianate style, too, is present in the 1872 Charles B. Dudley House at 802 Lexington Avenue.

The 1880s saw an interest in Eastlake-inspired, incised and carved millwork in the form of brackets, surrounds, lintels, and bargeboards on dwellings such as the William and Amanda Kanter House at 808 Lexington Avenue and the John P. Lafferty House at 1011-13 Lexington Avenue. But, the predominant architectural taste of the 1880s, '90s, and early 1900s was clearly the Queen Anne and its diverse vernacular interpretations. In form, many of these houses have two-story polygonal bays that rise to shingled gables embellished with corner brackets. Towers or turrets are present on the John S. Seeds House I at 801 Lexington Avenue, the Albert P. MacDonald House at 1307-09 9th Street, and 1200 15th Avenue, among others. While these are standard features of the Queen Anne, the Downtown Altoona Historic District also exhibits a local signature. One popular detail, a machine-cut, scalloped edge, was applied to friezes on porches and/or below cornices (e.g., 812 and 1006 Lexington Avenue, 1124 15th Avenue and 1316-18 11th Street) and is referred to in the building inventory as a "scalloped frieze." There was also a penchant for rusticated brick quoining on the end walls or polygonal bays of brick veneered facades (e.g., 917 Howard Avenue, 1402 11th Street, and 1208-10 15th Avenue). To the extent that there was additional residential construction in the Downtown Altoona Historic District beyond the first decade of the twentieth century, the Colonial Revival, bungaloid, American Foursquare, and Colonial Revival/Craftsman styles all make limited appearances.

Duplexes and apartments represent an alternative early-twentieth-century housing type in the Downtown Altoona Historic District, some as conversions of single-family houses, others as new construction. A cluster of these is located at 12th Street and 15th Avenue in addition to a few such as the Sylvan Building at 1311-13 13th Street and the Kaufman at 1101-05 14th Avenue. One particularly handsome apartment building is the c.1910 Neoclassical-style DeLena Apartments at 1004-06 Chestnut Avenue, which features loggias at its upper floors.

The commercial core of the downtown Altoona (and the historic district) spans between 11th and 13th Avenues, and along 11th, 12th, and 13th Streets. Of the avenues, 11th is the most consistently commercial in character, in keeping with the historic use of that street, while 12th and 13th Avenues reflect twentieth-century expansion of commercial and social activities into areas that were largely residential. On the 1100 block of 13th Avenue, for example, a cluster of 1890s single-family residences still stands next to the 9-story, National Register-listed Penn Alto Hotel which was built in 1920-21. In general, the overall scale of the commercial area is defined by mid-rise buildings. Unlike the residential structures which are typically clad with wood siding or a synthetic replacement, the commercial, civic, and social buildings — as well as the churches described above — are faced with stone or brick as befits their more prestigious position in the downtown. These public and private landmarks were typically architect-designed, firms being represented from Altoona, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago.

The 1200 block of 11th Avenue contains the most impressive commercial streetscape in the Downtown Altoona Historic District. On the north side of the street, a 5-story business block was formed in the mid-1920s when the Silverman Building, First National Bank, and Brett Building were erected next to the National Register-listed, Romanesque Revival/Beaux Arts-style Central Trust Company Building of 1905-06. These three new buildings — an office tower, a bank, and a department store — added impressive, Neoclassical and Commercial-style facades to one of the first views of Altoona that a traveller saw when embarking from the PRR passengers' station at 10th Avenue and 13th Street (since demolished). At the same time, plans were underway for a Neoclassical/Art Deco-style U.S. Post Office on the south side of the block, former site of the PRR's Logan House hotel. This monumental building, designed by Altoona architects Royer and Anglemyer, was actually built between 1931 and 1933.

The Neoclassical or Beaux Arts style was applied to several other noteworthy landmarks in the downtown during early-twentieth-century period of construction. These include the Fraternal Order of Eagles Building at 1104-06 12th Avenue, the Lincoln Deposit and Trust Company at 1108-10 12th Avenue, the Altoona Trust Company at 1128-30 12th Avenue, the National Register-listed Mishler Theater at 1208 12th Avenue, the Elks' fraternal lodge B.P.O.E. 102 at 1211-13 12th Street, and Altoona City Hall at 1200 13th Avenue.

In addition to these stylish edifices, the Downtown Altoona Historic District contains three to four-story vernacular commercial buildings, typically of brick, fronted by first floor shop fronts. Among these are the 1890s Casanave Building at 1211-12 11th Street, the turn-of-the-century Hutchison Block at 1112-18 12th Street, and the former Pennsylvania Railroad Offices at 1201-09 12th Avenue, constructed in phases beginning in 1863. The Downtown Altoona Historic District also extends into the 1300 block of 11th Avenue, formerly a retail boulevard, to include the downtown's only example of the Art Moderne style in the 1937 McCrory's department store at number 1306-10.

As to integrity, there have been inevitable changes to the resources in the Downtown Altoona Historic District in the approximately one hundred years since so many of them were built. For residential structures, these alterations are typically re-siding with aluminum or vinyl, porch replacements, new roofing material, and some window alterations or replacements. However, scale, massing, fenestration, and overall appearance of styles and streetscape rhythms are largely intact; where this is not the case, dwellings are identified as non-contributing. Some of the houses are accompanied by freestanding carriage houses or garages; those that appear to be of at least fifty years of age and a reasonable degree of integrity (i.e., form, materials, doors) are considered to be contributing resources. Characteristic of commercial buildings, there are many alterations to shop fronts as they were updated over time to keep abreast with image and fashion. Also present in the Downtown Altoona Historic District are residential structures given commercial facades as their uses changed. These alterations or renovations per se do not render a resource non-contributing. However, where entire facades have been masked by modern commercial fronts, such as 1304 and 1312-16 11th Avenue, they are counted as non-contributing. These designations could be reversed at a future date should the underlying facades be exposed and shown to be reasonably intact.

Given the above-stated criteria for integrity, the Downtown Altoona Historic District contains 33 non-contributing resources which are fairly evenly distributed between residential and commercial areas. Of the 15 non-contributing resources on residential streetscapes, six are significantly altered, pre-1941 houses and six are modern garages; the remainder consist of two, altered pre-1941 garages and one modern house. Of the 18 non-contributing resources in the commercial zone, 50% were constructed after 1941 and 50% are pre-1941 commercial or residential structures with modern commercial facades. Because boundaries are delineated to exclude substantial concentrations of non-contributing resources and because roughly 25% of those included are secondary structures, the Downtown Altoona Historic District's integrity is minimally impacted by their presence.


"That Altoona owes its origin and growth principally to the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) is a fact that cannot be denied."[1] It is a fact that is clearly evident in the physical layout of the city; in the once thriving commercial downtown that catered to travelers and locals; in the social, cultural, and civic infrastructure supported for the citizens and in the many neighborhoods of single-family homes built for railroad workers. And yet, the PRR placed Altoona on the map without making it a "company town" dependent upon a company store or company housing. Rather, it provided steady employment, showed benevolence, and created a climate for private enterprise to flourish. The Downtown Altoona Historic District contains a concentrated collection of commercial and residential buildings that convey the origins and growth of a community that sprouted from the railroad and matured into a full-fledged city. Downtown Altoona not only served as the city's center of commercial activity, but also, that of the entire Juniata Valley. As such, the Downtown Altoona Historic District is significant in the area of commerce. In addition, this urban core is comprised of landmarks of individual architectural merit and intact streetscapes depicting a time and place in Altoona's history. Therefore, the district also is significant for its architecture within a local context.

Before the PRR stretched between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, a system of railroads, canals and inclined planes across the Alleghenies, known as the Main Line of Public Works, linked the eastern and western sections of the state. The system was time consuming and inefficient, if not futile during the winter freeze and spring floods. Moreover, Pennsylvania stood to lose a competitive edge to New York's superior Erie Canal as the pathway to the West. The State Canal Commission saw the need for a cross-state train route for which their engineer, Charles L. Schlatter, identified three possible routes. Understandably, when the founders of the PRR approached the State legislature in 1846 to build the railroad, the latter passed an act incorporating the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and granted its charter. John Edgar Thomson, Chief Engineer of the new company, then selected Schlatter's central or Juniata-Conemaugh River route. Because Thomson's scheme maximized use of the low grades over the majority of the route west with a short, but steep climb over the mountains, he needed additional engine power to be available at a convenient location. The point at which the water grade ended and the mountain passage began was Robinson's Ridge, the present site of Altoona, located 117 miles east of Pittsburgh and 235 miles west of Philadelphia. Here, beginning in 1849, the PRR built a facility for housing and repairing the additional motive power — it also spurred the development of a city.

When the Pennsylvania Railroad chose Altoona to be the hub of its Philadelphia-Pittsburgh train route, it introduced a 15-acre, triangular-shaped rail yard bounded by Branch Street (9th Avenue), Main Street (10th Avenue), and Clara Street (15th Street) into the tranquil Tuckahoe Valley. Formerly farmland, the area below 9th Avenue became a primarily residential section called East Altoona, while the area above 10th Avenue, known as West Altoona, evolved into the downtown civic, commercial, social, and fashionable residential core of the new city. Archibald Wright, an agent for the PRR, commenced this development in 1849 with the purchase of David Robeson's 224 acres of farm and woodland. This farm corresponds to the current boundary lines of 11th Street from 4th to 16th Avenues on the northeast and 16th Street between same avenues on the southwest, 4th Avenue from 11th to 16th Streets on the southeast and 14th Avenue between the same streets on the northwest. Wright acquired the property and laid out building lots on either side of the PRR's wedge shaped grounds. Within one year, the PRR completed a single track to Altoona from the east; two divergent westward lines were soon in place as well. In 1851, the first building lots were sold to the First Presbyterian Church which purchased two parcels at the corner of 12th Avenue and 13th Street. During this early period, there were very few houses; railroad workers roomed in a boarding house that doubled as an office for the railroad contractor.

It did not take much speculation before Andrew Green, who owned the farm now defined by 7th and 11th Streets on both sides of the railroad tracks, saw the opportunity for residential development. In 1851 he subdivided his 100 acres into a grid system, although the streets did not (and still don't) line up with the Robeson tract. Included in his layout was a diamond at 9th Street and Chestnut Avenue, intended as a public marketplace. Green sold 75 acres of his land, known as Greensburg, to Robert H. McCormick in 1854, retaining the parcel closest to the railroad tracks. Included in McCormick's purchase were 30 acres that comprise Lexington and Howard Avenues within the district. Altoona was incorporated as a borough in February 1854 and in the Summer of 1855, Greensburg was added as an extension.[2]

At the time of incorporation, the population reached approximately 2,000. By then, a period of construction had ensued, adding houses, churches, schools, stores, and hotels to the streetscapes, which as of 1859, were serviced by a Gas and Water Company that erected a storage reservoir on the hill at 12th Street and 15th Avenue. Altoona's population burgeoned in the 1860s when the Civil War placed tremendous demands for railroad cars to transport soldiers and munitions. In that decade, the population grew from 3,510 in 1860 to 10,618 in 1870. Fittingly, Altoona was chartered as a city in 1868, the boundaries being extended once again.

Prosperity continued in the early 1870s as measured by the establishment of new businesses and industries — offering some diversification from employment on the railroad — as well as the construction of churches, organization of many building and loan associations, and the establishment of two new banks. The Altoona economy slowed down during the panic of 1873 and the railroad strike and riots of 1877, but by 1880, the population had nearly doubled to 19,710. And by the time the population (both city and suburban) had reached 42,235 in 1895, 9,084 or roughly 21.5% were employees of the PRR.[3] The number of PRR employees continued to climb well into the twentieth century; in 1925, 14,000 out of 16,840 workers engaged in industry worked for the railroad, building steam and electric locomotives and producing freight and passenger cars as well as various railroad equipment.[4] Those who did not work for the railroad may have been employed in other manufacturing industries including silk, brick, meat-packing products, motor trucks, clothing, or food products.

Unlike most industrial cities of the late nineteenth century that attracted enclaves of immigrant groups, including nearby Johnstown, the cultural profile of Altoona was relatively homogenous. In fact, the Board of Trade promoted this situation as an advantage of the city. "...the undesirable foreign element, so predominant in some cities, is almost entirely absent here. The citizens of foreign birth are mostly German and English, of the educated class, and are among the most respected."[5] One explanation for the narrow breadth of immigration relates to the need for skilled workmen, i.e., machinists, upholsterers, blacksmiths, and pattern-makers, rather than unskilled laborers that were more common among the eastern and southern European immigrants. However, this is not to say that Altoona was completely void of foreign-born workers from Italy, Russia, and elsewhere as the twentieth century advanced. But, of the approximately 82,168 residents reported in 1929, roughly 75,500, or more than 90% of those employed were native whites.[6]

The native Pennsylvanians and German and English immigrants established their institutions early on in the history of Altoona. Several of the earliest congregations built their first churches in the Downtown Altoona Historic District and remain there to the present day although in subsequent structures: the Presbyterian Church at 14th Avenue and 12th Street (originally 11th Avenue, between 12th and 13th streets); the First Methodist Episcopal Church at 12th Avenue and 13th Street; and St. John's Roman Catholic Church at 13th Avenue and 13th Street. Along with churches came parochial schools and societies such as the Frohsinn Singing Society which built its own hall in 1877 and subsequently moved into the Lincoln Deposit and Trust Company at 1108-10 12th Avenue, and the PRR Young Men's Christian Association in the Jaggard Building at 1300-02 11th Avenue. Masonry and secret and benevolent societies located in the downtown as well: the Masonic Temple (1111-19 11th Street), Fraternal Order of Eagles (1104-06 12th Avenue), and B.P.O.E. 102 (1211-13 12th Street). As suggested by these denominations and institutions, Altoona was home to the working middle class.

"Altoona being a railway town, is a city where extreme moneyed aristocracy have found no resting-place. The only prestige is that of skillful labor... The whole country daily feels the influence and receives a benefit from these skilled artisans, who here enjoy their happy homes, possessing all of those elements necessary for the making and saving money and enjoying life."[7]

The "happy homes" for this skilled, middle class population were typically single-family dwellings, many owner-occupied. Home ownership was made possible by the numerous building and loan associations, which increased from 8 in 1880 to 45 in 1925, the same year in which the Chamber of Commerce reported that almost 60% of the families owned their homes and that of 15,458 families, 14,024 lived in private dwellings.[8]

PRR benevolence contributed to workers "enjoying life" and security in Altoona, particularly since the Company had a vested interest in retaining a happy, loyal workforce within a safe and stable environment. As early as 1853, the PRR promoted musical entertainment through an Altoona City Band, while intellectual stimulation could be attained through the Mechanic's Library and Reading Room, which was largely supported by the railroad for more than seventy years. Railroad workers and financing established and supported the early volunteer fire companies that protected the shops and the community. The PRR also donated land and money for construction of the Altoona Hospital, located just beyond the district at 7th Street and Howard Avenue. For recreation situated on the outskirts of the downtown, the PRR created the Cricket Field on ground east and north of Seventh Street and Chestnut Avenue, and when the popularity of the sport waned in favor of golf, the field was adapted for tennis and baseball, and a nine-hole golf course was laid out east of 1st Street.

In the 1850s, Altoona's initial enclave of commercial buildings grew around the PRR passenger station and hotel on 10th Avenue, which became the address of numerous hotels before becoming a saloon and tavern district in the early twentieth century. The commercial district shifted towards 11th Avenue and 11th Street in the 1860s, and, "as early as the 1870s, 11th Avenue had emerged as the major business thoroughfare." By then, City Council had enacted an ordinance prohibiting frame construction in certain blocks of the business district. As the preeminent commercial boulevard, 11th Avenue was among the first streets to be macadamized (1873), traversed by trolley tracks (1882), and paved with asphalt blocks (1889). The 1890s introduced a new building type to the growing shopping district in the downtown. This was the red brick commercial block, such as the Casanave Building (1211-15 11th Street), the Masonic Temple (1111-19 11th Street), and the Hutchison Block (1112-18 12th Street).[9]

Up until the early twentieth century, the commercial district — offering dry goods, banks, meats, shoes, drugs, hardware, and tobacco merchants, just to name a few — was typically residential in scale. This changed in the twentieth century as increasing demands for retail and office space, advances in steel construction, and economic prosperity added taller buildings to Altoona's skyline. A handsome five-story block comprised of the Silverman Building, First National Bank, Brett's Department Store, and the National Register-listed Central Trust Company Building lines the 1200 block of 11th Avenue. Examples of other mid-rise buildings in the Downtown Altoona Historic District include the 5-story Altoona Trust Company building at 12th Avenue and 12th Street, built in 1901-02, and the 9-story, National Register-listed Penn Alto Hotel at 13th Avenue and 12th Street, built in 1920-21. (While the area of twentieth-century commercial activity extended along the 1100 block of 11th Avenue and the 1300 block beyond the historic district boundaries, they are excluded from the district because of significant demolitions and alterations over time.)

Sitting as the hub of the railroad, Altoona also served as a shipping point for commerce and industry, particularly in light of the nearby sources of coal and timber. Wholesale activities located here, too, primarily near the railroad tracks. And, because of Altoona's position on the main line of the PRR. "it was a convenient first day's stop for road shows coming out of New York and Philadelphia on tour."[10] This brought stars such as W.C. Fields, Sarah Bernhardt, and Ethel Barrymore to the National Register-listed Mishler Theater (1208 12th Avenue) and others in the early twentieth century.

Between the permanent Altoona residents and the itinerant travelers and businessmen, the city became a regional commercial center that thrived until the Depression. At that time, the PRR began to close its shops and typical of the era, banks and many other businesses in the city failed. After the Depression, the PRR further downscaled its operations in Altoona as technology moved from steam to electric and diesel engines and the demands for maintenance changed. Despite efforts to diversify the city's post-World War II industrial base, economic decline continued to take its toll on the downtown. This situation culminated in an extensive downtown urban renewal program in the 1960s and 70s.

Within the context of Altoona, the Downtown Altoona Historic District contains the surviving core of buildings that served as the city's commercial, civic, and cultural center, even though other clusters of neighborhood stores and churches are dispersed throughout the city limits. These other clusters typically catered to the daily needs of their nearby residents. At one time, the East Side neighborhood in the Fourth Ward — located on the opposite side of the railroad tracks — rivaled the downtown with its complement of commercial and institutional buildings. But, while concerns such as groceries, barbers, and other small business may have thrived over the years, the department stores, major civic buildings, and large social halls always made Downtown or West Altoona the focal point of the city.

The dominance of the downtown is evident from an architectural standpoint, too. This is where the larger, more fashionable buildings were erected well into the twentieth century. These include the banks, stores, and Neoclassical/Art Deco-style U.S. Post Office on the 1200 block of 11th Avenue, the Penn Alto Hotel (evidence of the Chamber of Commerce's commitment to the downtown), and the Beaux Arts-style City Hall locating government in the center of Altoona. Other architectural landmarks in the downtown are typically the works of architects designing in stride with the period's high style taste. Of note is the concentration of these individually distinctive edifices within a few blocks, clearly indicating the pith of the city.

The same resources and particularly the department stores that made Downtown Altoona the commercial hub of the city, made it the largest urban center in the entire Juniata Valley, surpassing Tyrone, Huntingdon, Lewistown and even Hollidaysburg. By the 1930s, these other towns — all but Tyrone being county seats — had anywhere from 7% to 16% of Altoona's total population.[11] Though each had its "main street," none had an industrial base, commercial infrastructure, and urban skyline comparable to Altoona. And, whereas Downtown Altoona evidences a twentieth-century city, Hollidaysburg and Tyrone, for example, reflect the nineteenth-century city, with its more modestly scaled two to three-story buildings.

The architectural significance of the Downtown Altoona Historic District extends to its relatively intact assemblage of primarily late-nineteenth century dwellings. While these vernacular derivations of fashionable domestic architecture may seem ordinary when viewed individually, as a group they document lifestyles of the PRR's working middle class. As mentioned above, home ownership and private dwellings were valued by this population. Private dwellings are evidenced in the district by 14th, 15th, Lexington, and Howard Avenues, where single-family homes clearly predominate amidst a sampling of double houses and an occasional apartment building. These houses in the district are typically modest in scale, but distinctly individualized in the choice of ornament and details, with deference to the popular styles of the period. With few exceptions, each was built separately, rather than as a developer's speculative effort as was the case in the neighborhood northwest of the district, near Fairview Cemetery. Whereas 14th, 15th, Lexington, and Howard Avenues have retained their residential character to the present day, 12th and 13th Avenues evolved from a place of residence to one of commercial, civic, and social activity, most notably in the early twentieth century. As late as 1896, Charles Clark, in his Illustrated Altoona included 12th Avenue between 11th and 16th Streets among "the most desirable residential locations."[12]

While the Downtown Altoona Historic District boundaries are drawn with respect to historic patterns of development and current levels of integrity, they by no means preclude the presence of other potentially significant cultural resources within the city, particularly other residential areas such as the Fourth Ward, LLyswen, Broad Avenue, and Fairview Cemetery area. But as a marker of commercial and community development engendered by the PRR, yet shaped by the citizens of Altoona, and as an assemblage of architecturally distinctive edifices and collectively associative streetscapes, the Downtown Altoona Historic District is included in the National Register.


  1. Tarring S. Davis, ed., A History of Blair County, Pennsylvania (Harrisburg: National Historical Association, 1931). Vol. I, 129.
  2. Kim Wallace, et al. Railroad City: Four Historic Neighborhoods in Altoona. Pennsylvania (Washington, DC: HABS/HAER Division, National Park Service, Department of the Interior, 1990), 53.
  3. Charles B. Clark, Illustrated Altoona (Altoona: Privately printed, 1896), 15, 23.
  4. R.L. Polk & Co., R. L. Polk & Co.'s Altoona Directory (Pittsburgh: 1925), 9.
  5. Clark, 6-7.
  6. Davis, 135.
  7. J. Simpson Africa, History of Huntingdon and Blair Counties, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1883), 1466.
  8. Polk, 9.
  9. Wallace, 44-45.
  10. Milton V. Burgess, "Mishler Theatre Recalls Stage and Screen Greats," The Mansion: Bulletin of The Blair County Historical Society, Vol. VI, No. 2, June 1979, 2.
  11. Raymond E. Murphy and Marion Murphy, Pennsylvania: A Regional History (Harrisburg, PA: The Pennsylvania Book Service, 1937), pp. 302-05.
  12. Clark, 5-6.


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Wiley, Samuel T., and W. Scott Garner. Biographical and Portrait Cyclopedia of Blair County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Gresham Pub. Co., 1892.

Wolf, George A, ed. Blair County's First Hundred Years: 1846-1946. Altoona: The Mirror Press, 1945.

Benenson, Carol A., M.S., Carol A. Benenson Associates, Downtown Altoona Historic District, nomination document, 1992, National Parks Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
10th Street • 11th Street • 12th Avenue • 12th Street • 13th Street • 14th Avenue • 5th Avenue • 9th Street • Green Avenue • Howard Avenue • Lexington Avenue