Montgomery County was established in 1784 by partitioning the northwest arm of Philadelphia County just beyond where Germantown Avenue crossed Wissahickon Creek. It was formed as a convenience for residents of Philadelphia County's northern corner, who were more than a day's travel from the city's courthouse at 2nd and Market streets. The county was named, according to some accounts, after the county of Montgomeryshire in Wales to reflect the region's Welsh heritage, while others state that it was named for General Richard Montgomery who died in the 1775 assault on Quebec. Unlike Bucks County whose courthouse moved west every half century until it finally reached a relatively central location, Montgomery County's courthouse was initially located in the center of the county at Norristown (formerly Norriton), where it had the added advantage of access to the Schuylkill River. The river and the roads that parallel the ridges, Lancaster Pike to the south and Ridge Road to the north, formed the initial transportation network of the county.
The county falls into several distinct zones that are determined by their proximity to Philadelphia and the Schuylkill River and that are overlaid by the larger variable of cultural forces which shaped the region from settlement to suburbanization. In the nineteenth century, railroads created multiple commuter stops along their routes; more recently, the expanding superhighway network has overridden the political boundaries of city and county, creating many retail and residential nodes in an ever-expanding metropolitan district. Montgomery County's central position in the fan of counties around Philadelphia and the fact that it was once a part of Philadelphia County account for its greater economic development. As a consequence, that badge of rural survival, the covered bridge, has almost entirely disappeared in the county.
The early architecture of each zone gains visual distinction by the underlying geology. Bands of blue-gray marble on the south, sparkly mica schist in the center, and red sandstone to the north were the principal building materials until railroads made delivery of distantly gathered stones readily available. In the eighteenth century the various immigrant groups brought their historic vernaculars to shape their settlements—Welsh in a band across the lower end of the county, Germans to the north, and a mixture of English and Scots in the center. Each group's presence is evident in such cultural markers as churches, barn and house types, and village and township names. During the nineteenth century, these ethnic divisions were largely obliterated by the rising tide of national cultures, first the nation builders, then the industrialists, and, finally, the automobile-centered sprawl, each of which are represented in their building types.
The county's richest area for pre–World War II architecture can be found in the townships of Lower and Upper Merion on the south side of the Schuylkill. Here Lancaster Pike (U.S. 30) and later the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad were the forces that overlaid the first houses along the westward highways with a line of wealthy suburbs amidst the townships of the Welsh tract. These townships contain primitive early houses, flamboyant and idiosyncratic mansions of the plutocrats whose fortunes were made in the industrial city, and the historical revivals of the twentieth century. The social split between old and new money is an east–west divide marked by the Schuylkill River. The west contains the railroad's Main Line and the homes of the old mercantile and industrial elites. East of the Schuylkill are the houses of those whose fortunes were made after World War II. This pattern persists, and anyone in pursuit of important contemporary houses would look to the north of Philadelphia, beyond the line of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-276) in the zones of the county made accessible by the car.
With the exception of the townships in the northern cleft of Philadelphia, which draw directly on the metropolis, the northeast side of the Schuylkill below the Pennsylvania Turnpike is strikingly less developed than the wealthier southwest side. Along the river are several small industrial centers, Conshohocken, Norristown, and, at the northern limit of the county, Pottstown. Two smaller nineteenth-century industrial centers are in the eastern half of the county: Lansdale, on the North Pennsylvania Railroad, and Ambler, which became an important center for the manufacture of asbestos products and that in turn fostered the construction of a patriarchal industrial village chronicled by Gay Talese in Unto the Sons (1992). North of PA 363 and east of the Schuylkill, a line of small villages along the early German migration routes to Reading and Bethlehem contain ancient and important churches and houses that would have been at home in Europe. Many towns and townships beside the Berks and Lehigh county borders are named for Germans and the houses show the distinctive German pair of doors on the main facade, often with a datestone inscribed with the initials of the builder and his wife.
In large measure the county's development was linked to the evolution of regional transportation systems. The dirt road and wagon fostered small-scale settlements centered on extractive and agricultural pursuits. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the railroad seeded suburbs, and in the twentieth century, the automobile has dramatically reshaped the county. When artist and author of Pennsylvania Beautiful (eastern) (1924) Wallace Nutting drove through eastern Pennsylvania in 1922 and 1923, villages were distinct and farms came to the edges of the city. The construction of the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) in the early 1950s shifted the western suburbs from dependence on rail lines to Philadelphia to a more open system that has created as many jobs in the suburban ring as in the city. The energy of car-centered transportation is also reflected in the development of the great consumption node of King of Prussia Mall (the nation's largest purely retail mall with 1.4 million square feet; MO15) that has more retail space than all of downtown Philadelphia. In the late twentieth century, the connection between the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Mid-County Expressway (I-476) transformed the declining industrial regions of Conshohocken and Plymouth Meeting into another retail center highlighted by the bright blue corrugated metal–skinned box of IKEA (2004, IKEA staff architect), the Swedish furniture retailer, in the midst of an immense sea of big box and “category killer” stores that have replaced landmarks of the industrial age.
For the moment, the concentration of retail and office parks is countered by the vast agricultural reserve of the Widener-Dixon estate on both sides of Stenton Avenue beyond Northwestern Avenue with its spectacular French-style barns by Horace Trumbauer. The Dixon property together with numerous golf clubs and small state parks, which mainly pay homage to the ancestor-worship mode of preservation, form an unplanned green belt near the turnpike that separates the high-density inner zone from the still rural portions of the county.
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