You are here

Bucks County

-A A +A

The first of William Penn's three original counties and the only one to retain its full size, Bucks County was established in the first survey of 1682. Its name derives from the English abbreviation for Buckinghamshire, the county of Penn's ancestors in England, and Bucks County became the site of Pennsbury, his home in Pennsylvania ( BU16). The county's development westward from the Delaware River is marked by the movement of the county seat. The first courthouse was in Bristol, which was succeeded by Newtown and then by Doylestown ( BU34), near the geographical center of the county. There is a distinct division between the eastern portion of the county, largely settled by English and Scots immigrants, and the north and west, with a German population. This is reflected in place names, the characteristic forms of houses and barns, and the most prevalent denominations of churches. But across both cultures runs a common tradition of stone building, which, in the case of the English settlers, at least, might be a carryover from the masonry tradition of Penn's native countryside.

In the eighteenth century, transportation was the primary industry of the eastern edge of the county. The Delaware River provided access to inland Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, with oceangoing vessels visiting ports as far inland as Fallsington and Trenton. In the mid-nineteenth century the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal improved the movement of coal and agricultural products from the inland portions of the state; later the tracks of both the Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia and Reading railroads paralleled the earlier water-based systems and these in turn have been supplanted by high-speed highways. The early transportation systems can all be experienced in the vicinity of New Hope, where the steam-powered New Hope and Ivyland Railroad ( BU19) vies for the tourist dollar with canal boats on the Delaware Canal ( BU20) and tour boats on the river.

Through the nineteenth century, agriculture was the principal business of inland Bucks County. Just before the Civil War it was exceeded only by Montgomery County in supplying butter and by Lancaster County in growing oats. Because of the clay soils, dairy farms predominated, resulting in the splendid largely stone Bucks County barns with their projecting wings for separating bulls from cattle. Celebrated by such artists as Edmund Redding and Charles Sheeler, they remain the iconic image of the county. In the early twentieth century, the villages along the Delaware were “discovered” by New York artists and theatrical types, creating an important artists’ colony that remains in transmuted form as the tourist triangle of New Hope, Lahaska, and Washington Crossing. After World War II the extension of the east end of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-76/I-276) to the Delaware River and the later planning of I-95 transformed eastern Bucks County into a bedroom community of Philadelphia beginning with Levittown in 1951. In the last half of the twentieth century, as the car transformed American urbanism, historic farms have sprouted crops of houses and shopping centers—many in the tasteful beiges and oatmeal tones that are ubiquitous across the nation. Decried by some, they mark the continuing democratization of the landscape that the founder, William Penn, would have approved.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the original English vernacular building types that formed the initial building stock gradually gave way before the onslaught of pattern books and design magazines, so that by the nineteenth century's second half, the characteristic Bucks County building types had been supplanted first by the Andrew Jackson Downing–influenced cottage and then by the national succession of building styles. Fortunately enough houses, barns, and meetinghouses remain from its first century to give Bucks County a distinctive flavor, one that is amplified by several distinguished modern houses that mark the change from agricultural region to suburb after World War II. They also mark the shift in modern design from corporate policy typical of the unified designs of nineteenth-century railroads to an aestheticized modern that bespeaks personal identity as seen in the works of Robert Bishop, Louis Kahn, and others in the middle of the twentieth century.

While Bucks County typically depended on Philadelphia architects for important commissions, several Bucks County architects attained identifiable personal styles. Thomas Cernea brought High Victorian color and variety to a number of buildings in Doylestown and its vicinity ( BU30, BU33) before the nation's centennial. Lansdale architect Milton Bean dominated the late 1880s and early 1890s in his hometown and in Doylestown where he designed flamboyant Queen Anne houses ( BU35, BU37) that owe more than a little to Richard Norman Shaw and locally to Wilson Eyre Jr. In the 1890s, Bean became the architect for Keasbey and Mattison's industrial village in Ambler, Montgomery County. In the twentieth century, the extraordinary amateur Henry Chapman Mercer's exploration of reinforced concrete ( BU40, BU41, BU43) enlivened Doylestown with something of the exotic character of Antoni Gaudi's rippling facades (see BU41); and as the twentieth century wore on, modern architects brought the severe forms of European modernism to the county. These architect-designed buildings, however, are largely confined to the urban centers, and in the second half of the twentieth century to the postwar suburbs.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.

, ,