The Newtown Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]
Newtown Historic District
Until recently Newtown's development has been inextricably linked to farming and supporting activities. Surveyed in 1683 and 1684 by Thomas Holme under instruction of William Penn, the layout was a prime example of Penn's theories of town planning — each purchaser having a lot in the townstead as well as a plantation in the outlying art with a common center for the use of all.
Settlement followed almost immediately and the fertile land surrounding the village was cleared and placed under cultivation early. By the 1700s Newtown's approximately 6,000 acres had been subdivided into 30 active farms. The agricultural orientation became most important during the 19th century when many retired farmers moved to Newtown and built the spacious Victorian houses so common along State Street and Washington Avenue.
Newtown was the site of the county-wide agricultural fair that was initiated in the early 1800s and held annually for the greater part of the century. An agricultural implements foundry also operated in Newtown during the later half of the 19th century.
Newtown is a living museum of architectural history. It possesses examples of major architectural styles dating from the late 17th to 20th century. The 18th century buildings are generally grouped on what was the court house tract; even today they give the impression of the original small colonial village. Buildings of later architectural style extend from the original village in general chronological order to the periphery of the district. Although the district is large (230 buildings), it offers a pleasing visual impact because of the groupings of similar style buildings and the relatively few intrusions (39).
Edward Hicks, one of America's foremost primitive artists, established residence in Newtown in 1811. He lived on Court Street until 1821 when he purchased land on Penn Street, where he built a stone home and shop. This remained his home until his death in 1849. It was during this residence in Newtown that most of his major canvases were painted. He also painted signs for various local business enterprises and the one made for the Newtown Library Company still hangs in the library building. Both of the houses in which he resided are standing today and are part of the historic district. He is buried in the Friends Burial Ground on Court Street, located only a few hundred yards from his former home.
The commercial center of early 18th century Newtown was on land just south of the court house tract. James Yates, first settler of this land, sold small lots to persons wanting them for improvement. A grist mill, first store, blacksmith shop and two tanyards were early commercial enterprises. With the flourishing of the courthouse years, Newtown grew into an important village and by 1784 had a population of 497 white and 28 black inhabitants. A summary of the Taxable Inhabitants made by Benjamin Taylor, assessor, on November 20, 1807, lists the following occupations:
4 Blacksmiths, 5 Attorneys, 1 Miller, 3 Shopkeepers, 1 Printer, 2 Carpenters, 5 Innkeepers, 5 Masons, 1 Butcher, 3 Tanners, 7 Shoemakers, 1 Physician, 1 Wheelwright, 1 Silversmith, 3 Tailors, 1 Schoolmaster, 1 Cook, 1 Harness Maker, 65 Farmers, 4 Weavers, 1 Hatter.
Because of its accessibility as a transportation center, Newtown was selected as an important supply depot for the Continental army during the various campaigns in New Jersey. The town was also the headquarters of General Washington and several of his top officers before and after the Battle of Trenton and it was from Newtown that Washington wrote and informed Congress of this important victory.
Newtown served as a prison for some 1,000 Hessian soldiers taken at the battle. The officers were quartered at inns and private houses; the soldiers in the Meeting House and the jail.
Lord Stirling remained behind in Newtown since he was suffering from rheumatism. General Washington placed him in command of the post in order to secure the ferries and upper part of the County against any surprise attack. The building which he used as headquarters is located within the district. The only actual local combat during the war occurred on February 9, 1778, on South State Street near the Court House when a small company of invading British soldiers seeking supplies after a raid on the Jenks Fulling Mill encountered a group of revolutionary soldiers. One was killed and a number injured. A bronze plaque mounted on a stone maker on the property of the "Bird In Hand," in the historic district marks this site.
In April 1778, a 10 day conference was held at Newtown to arrange a cartel for the exchange of prisoners of war. Elias Boudinot, Esquire, Commissioner of Prisoners for the Americans, was accompanied by several high-ranking officers including Colonel Alexander Hamilton. Sir William Howe appointed several officers to represent the British at this meeting in Newtown.
Moving the county seat from Bristol to Newtown in 1725 greatly enhanced the growth and prosperity of the village. Not only were all court matters conducted here, but elections for the entire county were held in Newtown until 1786. Officials and citizens involved in the activities of county government came to Newtown and provided a steady flux of visitors. In order to meet their needs, new businesses were established which included several important early taverns still standing today in the district. The taverns became the focal point of social and political interactions. For example, Anthony Siddon's tavern contained a Grand Jury Room and a Sheriff's Room, and the County Commissioners are known to have met at the tavern of Margaret Thornton. During the 80 year period that Newtown remained the county seat, it played a pivotal role in the formative years of Bucks County.
Organized in 1734, the Newtown Presbyterian congregation was among the first 100 of its sect in this country. Although many of Newtown's early settlers were Quakers, it was not until 1817 that construction started on the first Meeting House. Edward Hicks and others actually organized the Newtown Friends Meeting and were influential in the construction of their place of worship. Although it is reported that an active Episcopalian congregation existed as early as 1766, the first actual construction of a brick church, standing today in the district, was in 1832. The Methodist Church was built in 1846, St. Andrew's Catholic Church in 1874, and the John Wesley AME Zion Church in 1897.
Newtown Borough municipal offices are located at 23 North State Street, Newtown PA 18940; phone: 215-968-2109.
Newtown was the hub or central point of an extensive road network existing during the 18th century. The first road from Bristol to Newtown was opened in 1693. In 1703 it was extended from Newtown to Buckingham and by 1745 it had reached Durham Furnace. This road was a major transportation artery from south to north through the county from its inception, and today, 286 years later, is still a major artery from Bristol to and points north. A more extensive system developed when Newtown became the county seat so that by the 1770s it had become an important transportation center. At the time of the Revolution the following roads were in existence: Bristol Road, Durham Road to the furnace, roads to Bakers, Coryell's, and Yardley's ferries, Swamp Road to Mitchell's Mill, Jenk's Fulling Mill Road, and Frost Lane. Most of them still follow the same pattern as in the 18th century.
‡ Newtown Historic District, Bucks County, PA, nomination document, NRHP #79002174, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
Barclay Court • Barclay Street • Centre Avenue East • Centre Avenue West • Chancellor Street North • Chancellor Street South • Congress Street North • Congress Street South • Corrito Alley • Court Street • Greene Street • Jefferson Street • Liberty Street • Lincoln Avenue North • Lincoln Avenue South • Mercer Street • Norwood Avenue North • Norwood Avenue South • Penn Street • State Street North • State Street South • Sterling Street • Washington Avenue