Penns Park Historic District
National Register Historic District
The Penns Park Historic District [†] was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.
The village of Penns Park is significant in the areas of architecture, commerce, community planning, and, to a lesser extent, religion. Penns Park is Wrightstown Township's oldest village and represents the township's only grouping of early-to-mid-nineteenth century buildings laid out in the true village form of concentrated development on small narrow lots oriented to the road. The township's other villages of Wrightstown, Pineville, and Rushland are more informal collections of buildings situated at strategic crossroads. Architecturally, Penns Park is an outstanding collection of small-town, nineteenth century vernacular buildings of similar outstanding collection of small-town, nineteenth century vernacular buildings of similar construction and scale. It stands as Wrightstown Township's single largest collection of buildings constructed before 1891. Penns Park was the township's main commercial center throughout all but the last decade of the nineteenth century when the opening of the railroad shifted this activity to Wycombe. The village is also significant in the area of community planning as the product of a unique eighteenth century plan. Penns Park developed within a central townstead envisioned and planned by William Penn to be left open as a park owned in common by all Wrightstown residents: hence its name "Penns Park." The history of Penn's open park concept and the history of the village of Penns Park are inexorably entwined. The village's strong Methodist population in the heart of Quaker central Bucks County represents a major force in the development of the village and is significant as one of the county's first congregations and mirrors the rapid growth of Methodism in the country during the early nineteenth century.
Penns Park presents a variety of nineteenth century vernacular interpretations of Georgian, Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, and Queen Anne styles. The building types represent Penns Park's utilitarian role as a small service-oriented rural village and include residences, shops, stores, a tavern, a small-scale manufactory, a church, and a schoolhouse. Located in the small township of Wrightstown, Penns Park's buildings do not reflect the affluence or sophistication of nearby towns such as Newtown and Yardley which developed around this same period. While the buildings may individually lack the stylistic sophistication of large towns in the region, their uniformity of building technique and scale taken together make Penns Park an outstanding assemblage of traditional rural or small town architecture. The village is significant as a large collection of structures built with local techniques and local materials by local builders to be occupied by farmers, craftsmen, and wage earners.
The significance of the vernacular village is enhanced by the high degree of integrity which has been maintained in Penns Park. This integrity was, in large part, due to shifting commercial patterns which bypassed Penns Park. In 1890 the North Pennsylvania Railroad opened a line through the township. The railroad created the village of Wycombe along the Wrightstown-Buckingham Township line approximately two miles northwest of Penns Park. Wycombe quickly supplanted Penns Park as the township's major service area. Eight years later Penns Park received another blow when the Newtown to Doylestown trolley line also bypassed the village. Without the railroad or trolley to attract new economic development, or support existing businesses, the village ceased to grow and gradually became an almost exclusively residential center. Even residential growth was quite minimal. Only two houses were constructed within the village between 1900 and 1920 (one of these being a converted carpenter's shop) and only two intrusions have occurred since that time. The cessation of development has left the village as an excellent example of a nineteenth century community, which added to Penns Park's isolation and surrounding open space, create a distinct feeling of entering or leaving a true nineteenth century village.
Penns Park's commercial importance was due to its location. Like many rural villages Penns Park developed at a crossroads. It developed in the center of Wrightstown Township where the main road from Philadelphia to New Hope, and on to New York, crossed the road from the Wrightstown Meeting House to the township's first grist mill along the Neshaminy Creek. The latter road was also used as a route from Newtown and Doylestown, the region's two largest towns. Typically, the first commercial activity on the site was a tavern. Tavern license applications in 1742 show the intersection important enough to be the focus of two separate petitions. By the end of the eighteenth century a store had been opened on the site. Its strategic location resulted in Penns Park becoming the only crossroads within the township to achieve anything more than hamlet status during the first half of the nineteenth century. The 1832 Gazetteer of Pennsylvania described the village, then known as Pennsville, as a post town and village with 10 or 12 dwelling houses, a store and a tavern. There was also a wheelwright shop, blacksmith shop, carpenter's shop, and a slaughter house in operation in the first decades of the nineteenth century.
In a township as small as Wrightstown a single village the size of Penns Park could accommodate most of the needs of the community. The only other villages within the township during the first half of the nineteenth century were Pineville (actually partially located in Buckingham Township), the hamlet of Wrightstown (located at the Friends Meeting House), and Rushland (which developed at the northeast corner of the township around a grist mill and store). It was not until the arrival of the railroad in 1890 that Rushland grew into much more than a hamlet; and that Wycombe, quickly become the commercial center of the township, was established. Until that time Penns Park, located at the geographic center of the township, was Wrightstown Township's undisputed leader in commercial activity.
Geographical location was not the only reason that the site became the township's first village. The original planning of the township served to set the site apart from the surrounding farms. The very name of the town recalls the original plan for the township. Wrightstown Township was laid out with a large open park or townstead at its center which William Penn patterned after English parks. The park was designed to be left open and remain in common ownership by all the township's residents. From this central park each land grant radiated out to the township lines. This arrangement was unique in Bucks County. Newtown Township which also had a pattern of radiating grants from a central common had an important difference. In that township each of the radiating grants extended well into the center of the square, leaving only a forty acre strip of land known as the "Newtown Common." In Wrightstown, the common area consisted of over seven hundred acres which was to remain exempt from cultivation or settlement. By 1719, however, the landowners in the township became dissatisfied with the continuance of the park and received permission from the Proprietary government to divide the park in proportion to the amount of land each landowner held in the township. The unowned land is said to have been occupied by squatters who built simple log structures that give the site its first name of Logtown a name which can be found as early as 1716 in the minutes of the Wrightstown Friends Meeting. The unpatented land was made even more attractive for settlement in the early 1720's when the road from the Wrightstown Meeting House to Richard Mitchell's mill along the Neshaminy (near Rushland) was opened. The road crossed the Philadelphia to New Hope Road at the site. Perhaps due to the presence of the large number of squatters, the majority of the land at the intersection was left vacant at the time of the dissolution of the park in 1719; not being patented until 1733. The area continued to be referred to as Logtown until the first decade of the nineteenth century. In 1813 Jesse Anderson's petition for a tavern license for his newly constructed building was endorsed by "the inhabitants of Penns Ville." Six years later when George Kiple applied for a license to operate the tavern he rented from Anderson it was described as being located in "Pennsville or Logtown." The tavern license petitions are the first references to the village being called Pennsville, the name it held until 1862 when a post office name Penns Park, in honor of the seventeenth century name for the area, was established.
Penns Park's importance in the area of religion centers around its Methodist congregation which was among the earliest in the county. The leader of this movement in the strongly Quaker central Bucks County area was William Wetherill. Wetherill was also a key figure in the development of the village. In 1803 he purchased the entire northwest portion of the crossroads, including the store and tavern, from Jesse Anderson (who built another tavern on the northeast corner of the intersection a decade later). A year after his purchase of the land at the crossroads he conveyed a small lot of land along the New Hope Road to the Methodists in trust for the establishment of a graveyard and the eventual construction of a church. This action was only a year after the important General Conference of the Methodist Church and less than a year after the first Methodist Church in Bucks County was erected in Bristol. True to the Methodist tradition, services were held in William Wetherill's home until a church was erected in 1833. The church was built by Wetherill, a mason by trade, and by his son-in-law Charles Johnson. Under the guidance of William Wetherill, Methodism flourished in this small isolated community in the heart of the predominantly Quaker region. The graveyard at the church not only contains the remains of the large Wetherill family which remained one of the village's most important, but also those of Andersons, Doans, Prices, and Tomlinsons who were important contributors to the development of Penns Park.
The introduction of Methodism at the turn of the nineteenth century is a significant example of the growth of Methodism during the period throughout the eastern United State. "The Compendious History of American Methodism" (Abel Stevens; Carlton & Porter, publishers, New York, 1867) states that the eight year period between 1796 and 1804, when the movement reached Penns Park, was one of the most important periods in the history of the Methodist Church. During that time membership doubled and the number of preachers increased by approximately a third. More people converted to Methodism in those eight years than in the first twenty-four years since the church had been established. The Philadelphia Conference, of which Penns Park would have been affiliated, showed the largest growth.
Penns Park is significant within the context of the development of Wrightstown Township. It was the township's first village and served as the traditional commercial and economic center from the eighteenth century until the late nineteenth century. By the middle of the nineteenth century it had clearly become the largest village in the township, and the only village large enough to be considered a town. The village remains an architecturally cohesive collection of nineteenth century architecture. It is the only village in the township to have representative examples of vernacular architectural styles from the entire nineteenth century. Most importantly, Penns Park has maintained its sense of time and place and, with very little alteration of intrusion, still reflects its historic associations.
† Marshall, Jeffrey L., Penns Park Historic District, nomination document, 1985, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
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