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The Piedmont

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The End of the Beginning

Beginning in the 1740s, a second tier of counties was established beyond William Penn's original settlement. They share a common cultural heritage reflected in their names that are derived from English counties—Northampton, Berks, Lancaster, Cumberland, and York, while three of the last to be formed, Franklin, Adams, and Dauphin, reflect the American Revolution in names of patriots and allies. Throughout the region, townships and town names are mixed English and German indicating the nationalities of the early settlers. Most of the counties share a common geographical boundary against the south and east face of the Blue Mountain, the first of the consequential ridges of the Appalachians that form the beginning of the Ridge and Valley zone where the frontier began. These counties were linked as satellites to Philadelphia's economy by diagonal roads that were largely created when Philadelphia was the capital of the state. The Lancaster Pike reached Lancaster first, then later continued on to the western counties; the Germantown Pike merged with the Ridge Pike and continued to Reading; and the Bethlehem Pike departed from Germantown Avenue and headed northeast toward Northampton and Lehigh counties.

These counties continue the established lines of evolution of the eastern region expressed in town and house plans, church types and denominations, as well as broad settlement patterns. Most obvious is the spread of “town square–centered” or “Philadelphia Plan” towns westward along the Lancaster Pike in such county seats as Lancaster, Carlisle, York, Gettysburg, and Chambersburg, as well as in smaller villages such as New Oxford and Mercersburg. Towns founded after Lancaster often emulate its royalist turn with streets named for King, Duke, and Queen, proving that its single central square was more the model than Philadelphia's multiple squares. This region's towns also typically share the built components of the so-called Pennsylvania town. Whether formed around a central square, an elongated market in the middle of the main street, or at a simple crossroad, houses tend to be clustered near each other, often sharing a party wall to provide a continuous or nearly continuous line of buildings against the street. They share a second characteristic, the subdivision of blocks by smaller rear alleys that provide access to rear yards and in some towns create a hierarchy of large and small streets near the town center, democratizing access to resources such as markets and government.

The countryside, however, reflects the divisions between the early settlement groups of English and German stock. Early German houses can be identified by the massive centered chimney and the three- or four-room plan and, later, by the double entrance doors on the main facade that accommodate English fashion but German spatial hierarchy. Although German and English house types varied in their regional building materials, they otherwise became increasingly similar. This relative unity was replaced by pattern book architecture in the middle of the nineteenth century. Houses and street names, church denominations, and land-use practices such as contour farming are often a better proof of ethnicity than the German bank barn because that building type was adopted by others for its utility, though usually without the initialed datestone in the gable that marks the German sense of history. Throughout the Piedmont, the so-called Pennsylvania barns are intermingled with English and Scots farmhouses, small wood barns, and Presbyterian and Episcopal churches, demonstrating a tendency to prefer separate cultural identity where feasible. Just as Chartres Cathedral is best remembered in its sea of wheat fields, across the Piedmont, Pennsylvania barns rise from fields of corn in a contour-farmed landscape.

Superimposed on the region's agricultural landscape is a second landscape, that of industry, which the railroads made possible. Typically the industrial towns consist of a main street lined with the principal institutions, stores, and offices, and a parallel set of railroad tracks. Factories bordering the tracks provided the principal work sites while housing spreads out from the center. Houses in the industrial towns are invariably larger in scale than those in the rural villages, a size made possible by a higher pay scale and the potential for more members of the family to work in the mills.

The large canal and railroad building operations of the mid-nineteenth century brought professional architects—almost always from Philadelphia—to the agricultural hinterlands. By the 1830s, Thomas Ustick Walter and John Haviland were active across the state, and they and their successors were summoned to design the prestige buildings in the region, particularly churches, jails, and courthouses. Their commissions cover the entire arc of the Piedmont's towns from Easton and Bethlehem on the east to Chambersburg on the west. But by the end of the nineteenth century, many of the area's towns, now metropolitan centers in their own right, had their own professional architects. These included such prolific designers as C. Emlen Urban (Lancaster), Muhlenberg Brothers (Reading), John A. Dempwolf (York), and Miller I. Kast (Harrisburg). Throughout the region, Germans continued to hire German architects while the Anglo-Saxons looked to Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Philadelphians were not alone in exploiting the rails. Just as now when sports fans represent intra-regional allegiances, a reverse tide of Baltimore architects flowed north along the Susquehanna River, and later along the routes of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to Lancaster and Carlisle, now an area of Baltimore Orioles and Washington Redskins fans, while New York architects followed canals and railroads across New Jersey into northeastern Pennsylvania, areas where there are now New York Yankees and Giants fans.

An important but often overlooked factor in architectural development is intercity competition. A phenomenon much like sibling rivalry characterizes the relationship of such paired towns as York and Lancaster, and Easton and Allentown. The first round of competition began with churches and the relative height of their spires. The building of a new courthouse or Civil War monument in one town was invariably followed by the building of a generally larger one in the other. Likewise, after the Civil War competition appeared again in ever larger downtown markets that symbolized the commercial enterprise of each town. Harrisburg's markets had their beginning just before the Civil War and were doubled in brick just before the nation's centennial; York citizens constructed a pair of rather severe markets, the first in 1876. These were dramatically trumped by Carlisle's spectacular multitowered market of 1878 (1952 demolished), inspired by the Centennial Exhibition buildings and perhaps built with some of their pieces, that, in turn, was surpassed by the Central Market of Lancaster (1889; LA9) and the enlarged Central Market of York (1888; YO20).

Evidence of the mini-metropolitan status of these cities can also be seen in the creation of regional department stores. Hager's first store opened in Lancaster in 1821, followed by the stores of M. T. Garvin and Watt and Shand ( LA11), and then by F. W. Woolworth, who opened his first 5-cent store in Lancaster in 1879. Pomeroy's and Boscov's (1876 and 1921, respectively) were centered in Reading; Leh and Co. (1850) and Hess's (1897) were based in Allentown; while Bon-Ton ( YO4), founded in York in 1898, as well as Bowman's (Harrisburg) and Laneco (Easton) were all evidence of the vigor of these small cities. Downtown hotels marked the urban competition just before the Great Depression. Just as clearly the leadership of each of these cities kept a close eye on what the others were doing.

Unlike the river-situated county towns of the first settlements that skewed government to the eastern edges, the later counties of this region were conceived as spatial entities. Their courthouses were usually placed more or less centrally within the county from the beginning, with the result that the county seats have remained more or less fixed. Each has generated roads that fan out in all directions, with the notable exception of Lebanon, which was formed after the major road networks had been established.

Highways, canals, railroads, and the interstates have knitted all of these counties into the larger regional economy. In our age of decentralization, new retail typically occurs on the outskirts of towns where inexpensive land makes for big-box retail set in a parking lot that welcomes the car-driving public. With the footprint of modern business changing, old Main Streets have been forced to reinvent themselves or disappear. In German Pennsylvania, the tendency to try to hold on to the past has preserved historic fabric often at the expense of delaying innovative transformation. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the most successful Main Streets no longer provide the requirements of day-to-day living but instead are being transformed into leisure experiences, as in Lititz and Strasburg in Lancaster County. In conservative Pennsylvania such changes are the exception rather than the rule.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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