West Park Place
West Park Place was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. 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 Park Place is a typical mid-19th century business complex constructed between 1857 and 1865. In size and design, its buildings reflect the general prosperity and growth that Erie experienced as the city moved from the status of lake port to manufacturing center. During the early decades of the century Erie's commercial district gradually shifted from the bayfront to the periphery of the central park. In 1860 a total of 16 brick business stands were under construction in that general vicinity. The scale of these new buildings, and particularly those bordering the park to the north, gave a sense of substance and permanence to Erie's booming economy.
All of the original 13 main buildings that were erected along North Park Row, and along State and Peach Streets as far as Fifth, remain with one exception. That exception is the Park Opera House which was demolished in 1939, and whose site is now occupied by the Bus Depot. An 1868 photograph of North Park Row reveals a solid line of imposing brick edifices which together with the amenities of canopies, hitching posts, street lanterns, and iron sidewalk railings; conveys a scene of elegance and taste. The use of brick in the construction of commercial buildings served a practical as well as an aesthetic purpose to avoid the fires which constantly consumed many of Erie's older wooden business structures.
The buildings which were erected in the commercial district were generally three stories above grade with full basements. They typically consisted of the following divisions: basements and first floor — shops and services; second floor — offices, and third floor — entertainment center. West Park Place provided two such entertainment centers — Farrar Hall and later the Park Opera House on North Park Row, and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Hall on State Street. In some cases upper floors were utilized as living quarters by shopkeepers.
Generally the architectural style of West Park Place can be classified as Commercial Italianate. It is a reflection of the fact that John Hill designed a majority of the buildings. Hill had just finished remodeling his residence on West Sixth Street in the Italian Villa mode. (John Hill House: National Register - December, 1979) Hill's talents had been employed in the design and construction of Erie's new Court House and Gaol a few years earlier. Testimonials to the regard in which Hill's architectural skills were held frequently appear in newspaper accounts of the day. On February 3, 1859, The Erie Gazette stated, "The new room of Carter and Brother in the brick block on the north side of the Diamond promises to eclipse any of the kind west of New York. Under the direction of John Hill whose judgement and taste in such matters are proverbial, it has been finished in truly elegant style, and supplied with the conveniences for a first rate Drug and Chemical establishment..."
The facade treatment which Hill applied to his buildings reveals a high degree of architectural sophistication. Of particular note are the cornice and window areas. Cornices incorporate wide eaves supported by large and often paired brackets. They are further embellished by dentils and decorative frieze panels. Windows are arched with masonry eyebrow heads, and sills. Masonry pilasters and spandrels divide the facades into a mix of single, double, and triple window bays. The overall effect is one of pronounced moldings and details.
Two buildings which Hill did not design command special attention. One is the Purcell Hardware Store. It was designed and built by Samuel Lytle in a somewhat more classical tradition. When completed in 1859, The Erie Gazette claimed that there was "nothing comparable to it in architectural finish or convenient arrangement." The slurry of cast stone applied to the facade inspired the name "Marble Front" by which it was known for many years. The storefront remains basically unaltered to this day. The other building — the Bus Depot, while not a part of the original business complex, is the best example of Art Moderne architecture in the city.
West Park Place is Erie's sole remaining concentrated Victorian business district. Looking down at its buildings from above, one is immediately impressed by their massive proportions in relation to the surrounding area. Yet, while there is a considerable degree of uniformity in appearance, each building is identifiably separate.
West Park Place bounded by historic Perry Square to the south, and by two leading thoroughfares — Peach Street on the west and State Street on the east, was the heart of Erie's business district during a good part of the latter half of the 19th century.
This complex of commercial and professional buildings came into existence during the late 1850's and early 1860's following a major fire in the winter of 1857 which destroyed all the wooden structures extending from the corner of Fifth and State Streets to the middle of North Park Row. In rapid succession substantial 3 story brick buildings were erected in their space, and by 1865 all vacant space along North Park Row and Peach and State Streets had been filled.
The development of West Park Place was part of a general building boom which took place in the vicinity of Central Park at that time. Erie had been incorporated as a city in 1851 with a population of 6,000. Within a decade its size would almost double. New status and growth combined to create a dramatic need for additional commercial facilities. In this sense the fire of 1857 was fortuitous since it cleared prime land of undesirable rickety structures and permitted the extension of the city's expanding commercial activity to that area. Although many building owners and tenants had suffered severe losses in the fire, there was little reluctance to start over on a grander scale.
The men who engaged in the revitalization of West Park Place were already successful entrepreneurs, and there is evidence that they worked closely together to insure that their investment would produce a complex that was not only profitable but aesthetically pleasing. Among the leading developers was William Rindernecht, a wholesale grocer, who replaced the building he had lost in the fire, at the corner of Fifth and State. At the opposite corner on the park, Isaac Rosenzweig, also a fire victim, erected a fine structure part of which he used for his dry goods business. A series of private banking firms had previously occupied the site which the result that this new facility was called the Exchange Building. Its principal tenant for many, many years was the Marine National Bank. Thomas Austin had been burned out of his jewelry shop on State Street, and he now proceeded in partnership with John Moore, a retired sailor turned businessman, to put up the Paragon Building on North Park Row. However Moore's major contribution to West Park Place was undoubtedly the handsome building he later erected on State Street which was called the "Marble Front."
Other builders of West Park Place were Newell J. Clark who established a boot and shoe business at the corner of Peach and North Park Row, Benjamin Grant whose law offices adjoined Clark, and A. H. Gray and F. F. Farrar who together with William Caughey and John Clemens erected a large commercial building as a joint venture. Farrar served as mayor in 1865, while Clemens would later be president of Erie Malleable Iron Works, one of the city's important industries. Nathaniel Murphy moved his tinning shop on the other side of State Street to a building which he had constructed with bricks from the old 1824 Court House. Next door an up-and-coming doctor, John Garter, established his apothecary. In time the Carter name would attract national acclaim with its "Little Liver Pills."
Erie beat a path to the shops and stores in West Park Place to buy clothes, groceries, hardware, imported foodstuffs, silverware, paintings, books, real estate, insurance; and to seek the services of lawyers (the 1879 City Directory listed 15 attorneys on North Park Row), doctors, engineers, and dentists. People went there to bank, to buy tickets on the Erie and Pittsburgh Railroad, and possibly to school at Erie Commercial College; but above all, they went to be entertained.
In 1860 Gray and Farrar had finished off the upper floor of their building as a small theater. It was called Farrar Hall and could seat 1500 people. Many of the theater notables of the period appeared there; including Lauara Keene, Ristori, Edwin Forrest, and Mrs. Scott Siddons. Farrar Hall was closed for extensive renovations in 1872 and when reopened the following year as the Park Opera House, was touted as the largest theater between New York and Chicago. The new facility was designed by New York architect Thomas Jackson somewhat along the plan of Booth's Theater in that city. It hosted attractions that were impressive in their number in their diversity, and in their evident stylishness. During the 1888-89 season the Park advertised upwards of 100 dramatic and quasi-dramatic offerings. Scattered throughout this legitimate fare were wrestling matches, a wild west show, minstrels, magicians, and vaudeville artists. While it was claimed that every precaution had been taken to guard against fire, the park Opera House did burn twice.
However, in the end it was not flame but the demise of the grand road company productions which put an end to the Park Opera House. It survived as a seedy burlesque theater until 1939.
In a way the decline of the Park Opera House is paralleled in the blight which afflicts West Park Place as a whole. Although the Park Opera House is no more, West Park Place continues to exist albeit with many of its buildings empty and in poor condition. In passing West Park Place by, the 20th century has allowed it to retain many of the qualities of downtown 19th century Erie.
Miller, John. A Twentieth Century History of Erie County, Pa. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1909. 2 vols.
Biographical Dictionary and Historical Reference Book of Erie County, Pa. Erie: S. B. Nelson, Publisher. 1896.
The Erie Gazette. Various issues, 1857-65.
The Erie Observer. Various issues, 1873.