The southeast corner of what is now Lancaster County was included in William Penn's first purchase in 1683 but most of its territory was acquired in the 1718 purchase. By 1729 there was sufficient population to warrant the formation of the first new county beyond Penn's original trio. When first established it covered a vast region reaching north to the Blue Mountain and included most of what are now Lebanon, York, Cumberland, Adams, and Franklin counties and portions of Berks and Dauphin counties. The process of paring away began with the establishment of York (1749) and Cumberland (1750) counties; the final loss occurred with the creation of Lebanon County in 1812. In the broadest outline, three geographical features bound Lancaster County: the Susquehanna River on the west, the Furnace Hills and lesser mountains on the north, and Octororo Creek that marks the demarcation with Chester County. The northeast border with Berks County and the Mason-Dixon Line separating Maryland from Pennsylvania are artificial.
Geologically, Lancaster County shares many features with Berks County. Brownstones predominate along the northern border while limestone is the prevailing building material in the valley, with the notable exception of Lancaster city where brick, reflecting the influence of Philadelphia, is the chosen building material for sophisticated buildings. To the south, a darker band of igneous rocks change the hue of the buildings. Later villages that were connected to the railroads also used red brick, providing visual proof of the power of industry. The core of the county lies in the great limestone valley, the evidence of which can be seen in its splendid limestone farmhouses and barns and in the fertile landscape that into the middle of the nineteenth century was the most productive region in the nation. German settlers were drawn into this landscape in the early eighteenth century, as much for its fertility as for religious freedom, and here they have remained. As recently as the 2000 census, four out of five families in the county claimed German ancestry. Furthermore, Lancaster County has the highest rate of agricultural use and the lowest loss of farms of any county in the state. Strongly religious-centered communities whose belief systems shape their day-to-day living are evident in the Mennonite and Amish townships. Many reject the trappings of the industrial world to the extent that they have remained a horse-powered culture in the steam, electrical, and now computer ages. The resulting juxtaposition of late medieval and contemporary lives makes Lancaster County unique in America. Lancaster County thus splits along English and German fault lines but the tourist engine encompasses both. With distinct architecture, foods, and lifeways, Lancaster County is an American treasure.
As elsewhere in eastern Pennsylvania, the cultural geography can be read in the names of townships and towns that distinguish between the English and German settlement groups. German towns are generally centered on Lutheran, United Brethren, Mennonite, and Amish churches while the English and Welsh denominations, Episcopal and Methodist, and the Scots Presbyterians are in English villages. In the mid-nineteenth century, Lancaster city was nearly evenly divided with seven German and seven English-based congregations. It is now further enlivened by African Methodist, Latino, Catholic, and evangelical churches, representing new groups arriving in the still evolving urban center. In slight ways there are often memories of German and English architectural modes—eighteenth-century German buildings often have the steep roof slopes and tiny dormers or the gambrel roof forms of their European antecedents. German church architects and builders often looked to Philadelphia, first to the Anglican Christ Church and later to Robert Smith's demolished Zion Lutheran Church as models, though often with centered doors on the long elevation like other dissenting groups. Most of these churches have since been reconfigured to a conventional longitudinal axis. Throughout Lancaster County and the rest of the Piedmont, later German churches often show the influence of German Gothic Revival with its strong asymmetries and layers of brick framing windows and doors. Similarly, by the mid-nineteenth century, architects chosen by the English congregations often looked to A. W. N. Pugin's Gothic, much debased, and adapted to brick.
Lancaster County has long been connected to its larger region by a series of roads, the most important of which is the Lancaster Pike (now U.S. 30), connecting the county's rich agricultural zone with the markets of Philadelphia. The earliest route west was charted in 1687. By 1721, there was sufficient demand to call for a well-maintained road from Philadelphia; it opened in 1741. It was converted to a macadamized turnpike in 1792, prompting British diarist Francis Bailey to term it a “masterpiece of its kind.” The road was the prime route for the Conestoga wagons, so called because they could ford the Conestoga River, the principal barrier between Lancaster and Philadelphia until it was finally crossed by a bridge in 1799. Time after time, U.S. 30 has been reconstructed but the historic route can be traced today from Compass in Chester County along what is now PA 340 (still called the Philadelphia Pike) through Intercourse and Bird-in-Hand and eventually reaching the Susquehanna River at Columbia. Other important roads include PA 272, which heads south to the head of the Chesapeake Bay, accounting for Baltimore cultural influences, as well as Baltimore-based architects. The Harrisburg Pike (PA 283) links Lancaster to the state capital and PA 72 goes north to Manheim and Lebanon, while U.S. 222 joins Lancaster to the midsized county seats and industrial centers (Reading, Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton) and forms a ring road to the north and west of Philadelphia. Lancaster's significance is evident from its position at the heart of a network of roads.
Because settlements clustered along the Lancaster Pike, the Pennsylvania Railroad placed its tracks along the same route, reinforcing the east–west connections between Philadelphia and its hinterland. It linked the industrial centers of western Chester County with Lancaster County and formed an arc of raw materials. The railroad's two principal connections to the west were to Columbia where it intersected river traffic on the Susquehanna River and to York where it joined the Main Line to Pittsburgh. Though other railroads later connected to Lancaster, it was the Pennsylvania Railroad that largely determined the town's future and along whose tracks most of the region's heavy industry located. The railroad fueled the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century surge in the regional economy, reflected in the flood of factories, mansions, stores, and office buildings built in the principal towns. Expansion of these industries (especially food processing) supported the farm economy. This in turn resulted in the construction of modern silos of enameled steel and concrete behind the great nineteenth-century barns that denote the interconnectedness of the surrounding region.
Twentieth-century interstates largely bypassed Lancaster County, even though the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-76) passes through the county's hilly agricultural northern tier. Recently, U.S. 222 was improved between Lancaster and the turnpike, bettering Ephrata's connections to the region, and U.S. 30, now a ring road, connects to PA 222, bypassing Lancaster as it heads toward York and I-83. Community hostility to the contemporary world is expressed in the county tourist board motto, “One Really Big Rest Area.” The designation in 1999 of Lancaster County as one of the National Trust's eleven most endangered sites poses the question of whether it is possible for a region to thrive by going against contemporary forces. With its core German population and the value of its farmland, Lancaster may become a national test to the theory that only growth is positive.
The county's early architecture is the most diverse in the state, and its wealth of early German structures rivals that of Bethlehem. By the time of the American Revolution it was an important center of Georgian design, exceeded only by Philadelphia. Many buildings here are of high architectural quality, though sometimes with the exaggeration of a provincial center. Lancaster developed its own cadre of architects who for a fleeting moment after the Civil War gave the region a distinctive identity—one that merged the German tendency to richly embellish with the more typical Victorian hues and details. Several architects established local careers of consequence, the most notable was C. Emlen Urban. Trained in the office of Philadelphia's Willis G. Hale, Urban was a stylistic chameleon, appropriating elements of Frank Furness's vigorous Victorian, H. H. Richardson's Romanesque, then Beaux-Arts, and, finally, the first hints of Moderne. Representative examples of Victorian styles, Queen Anne, and later the Beaux-Arts and other historical revivals can be found in banks, commercial buildings, houses, and institutions. In the second half of the twentieth century, the same forces that affected other Pennsylvania industrial centers slowed the evolution of Lancaster, Ephrata, Lititz, and Marietta, with the consequence that there is little contemporary architecture of note in the county. Like most of the counties outside the immediate Philadelphia ring, modern architecture is largely restricted to hospitals and public schools, the institutions that are shaped by modern technology or serve regional clients. A few notable modern buildings can be found in colleges and in the core of Lancaster when it was reshaped by the forces of urban renewal in the 1960s. Unfortunately, Lancaster Square, the city's Victor Gruen–designed town center from that period, has been largely demolished as Lancaster has thrown its lot in with history.
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