B. West Chester Architecture
The historic character of West Chester is reflected in its historic buildings. West Chester’s political status and social character largely accounts for its buildings. As a county seat, and seat of a prosperous and increasingly populous region, modest wealth has been available for building. And proximity to Philadelphia, which until some decades into the nineteenth century was the largest and most cultivated city in America, meant that both architectural styles and architectural talent were available.
The town’s architectural heritage is noteworthy, and many high-style as well as vernacular examples of American architectural styles from various periods can be found in buildings that are still in use within the Historic District. A structure considered high-style will exhibit the distinctive and significant features of an architectural style and is typically a public or religious building. A vernacular example may exhibit only a few of a style’s characteristics and is more typically a domestic structure. As examples of vernacular architecture, it is also important to note that the stylistic features found on a building in West Chester might reflect several stylistic periods rather than one specific period. Many of West Chester’s buildings reflect the evolution vernacular buildings often experience over time. As space requirements and usage needs changed, buildings were adapted. Furthermore, older buildings were updated stylistically in order to stay in vogue and to project an image of prosperity. A small Federal building may gain an addition of two more bays as more space was needed; then later, the same building might have been updated by the addition of Victorian Revival architectural elements such as a porch or a steeply pitched centered gable.
The Federal Style (nationally 1780-1820, vernacular examples
One of the half-dozen eighteenth-century Federal style buildings in West Chester is 15 North High Street, located between the temple-form banks across from the Courthouse (Figure 12). The 5-bay building was constructed in two phases, 1789 and 1792. Downtown West Chester exhibits numerous Federal buildings. An example is the “Lincoln Biography Building” of 1833, 28 West Market Street, so called because in 1860 the first biography of Lincoln, campaign propaganda, was printed there. The Lincoln building has three and a half stories with dormers, and the usual Federal cornice and dentiled bed molding. Another example is 101 South High Street, the Judge Thomas Bell residence, built in 1829 (Figure 13).
Romantic Revivals and the Victorian Era
Greek Revival (nationally 1818 to 1860)
West Chester’s examples of high-style, Greek Revival structures are both numerous and notable, as many were designed by nationally recognized architects. Although now demolished, the Mansion House Hotel, located at the corner of Church and Market Streets, was designed by William Strickland, the architect of the famous Second Bank. Strickland was the first of a series of celebrated architects to work in West Chester. Thomas U. Walter, Strickland’s protege, was destined to become the most noted architect of his generation, designing the dome and wings of the Capitol in Washington. Here in West Chester, Walter created half-a-dozen buildings, four of which are today among the borough’s finest structures. The 1832 Greek Revival design for First Presbyterian Church (southwest corner of Darlington and Miner) was his first major commission here. The First Presbyterian Church is the earliest surviving specimen in the United States of an “in antis” facade (the deeply recessed entranceway supported by columns); two great unfluted Ionic columns rise between the “wings” of the portico. The whole design is remarkable for its elegant simplicity and lack of ornamentation, enhanced by the white stucco (cheaper than Grecian marble!) that contrasted with the red brick neighborhood around it. The doorway is conspicuously battered—i.e., with sides sloping in toward the top. That monumental feature is an Egyptian design element. There is no full-scale Egyptian Revival building in West Chester, but this battered doorway anticipates the fully Egyptian style of Walter’s 1835 Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia.
In 1836, Walter designed the First Bank of Chester County, across from the courthouse on High Street (See Figure 4). Here he used the Doric order, and the building, despite an alteration to the steps so that they cut into the podium, is a supremely successful instance of Greek Revival architecture. (The handsome bronze doors are set into another battered doorway.) Ten years later Walter designed the county courthouse, this time using the more ornate Corinthian order for the six cast- iron columns of the portico. The courthouse features a church-like tower rising behind that Grecian portico, a fusion of classical and medieval architecture invented early in the eighteenth century by James Gibbs for St. Martin in the Fields, London. Walter beautifully employed all three of the Greek orders—Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian—in porticos or facades in West Chester buildings.
It is, of course, in public edifices like churches and government buildings that the Greek Revival style is most impressive. The continuing appeal of this classicism is evidenced by the Neoclassical Revival structure at the First National Bank, also across from the courthouse, constructed in 1912 and employing the Roman form of the Ionic order.
Numerous domestic buildings in West Chester also feature Greek and Roman characteristics. In Greek Revival vernacular structures, the following might be present: a gable-front structure, a two-story pedimented portico, a one-story flat-roof porch supported by prominent columns, a doorway with a rectangular transom window, a heavy cornice with wide bands of trim, and applied pilasters.
Gothic and Romanesque Revival
The Gothic Revival appeared with especial vigor in religious structures. Consider these four Gothic churches in West Chester: the Episcopal (High and Union); the church at Church and Barnard; the Methodist (High and Union); and the Catholic (Gay and New). All exhibit the hallmark of the Gothic style—pointed arches—but they also have characteristics that can distinguish them within several of the subgroups of the Gothic style. The 1868 sanctuary of Holy Trinity, Episcopal, was constructed with serpentine to a design of its pastor. It is a fine example of Early English Gothic, with the typical narrow lancet windows, triple on the front, paired on the sides. In 1882, the parish house, designed by West Chester’s own architect, T. Roney Williamson, was erected to the north. While the sanctuary is a perfect example of the early phase of the Gothic Revival, the parish house is unabashedly High Gothic, with contrasting materials (red brick, green stone), an ogee arch over the door, and stepped gable, all quite picturesque and in contrast with the calm uniformity of the sanctuary.
The West Chester Community Fellowship Church (originally Westminster Presbyterian Church), on the southwest corner of Church and Barnard, dates from 1899 and is remarkable for its very picturesque adaptation of Early English Gothic with its rusticated stone, a tower with finials and angel waterspouts, and elaborate asymmetry. Twenty years later, the Methodist church was constructed on High Street, a simpler design with shallow transepts and a square tower at center front; the window tracery is of the Decorated style (the style of the English Gothic dating from 1280-1380).
Latest of these Gothic churches is St. Agnes Catholic Church. Completed in 1926, the building is again English Gothic. The nave and chancel are short, the shallow transepts long (and used, inside, as part of the nave). Their length allows very large windows that, like the “west” window (actually south-facing), have stained glass set in coarse tracery probably intended to be Perpendicular or Late English Gothic style (c.1377-1547) but more resembling the Decorated style. The massive wooden roof within is supported on impressive hammerbeam trusses.
Gothic Revival was also used in domestic buildings, though there are few examples, even of Gothic detail, in West Chester. But there is a good 1873 example of domestic Gothic architecture at 311 South Church Street, a serpentine house with the steep gables, pointed-arch windows, and decorative bargeboards typical of the style (Figure 15).
The Italianate Style (nationally 1837-1875)
While there are no examples of high-style Italianate structures in West Chester’s Historic District, there are numerous examples of Italianate buildings. Although the basic form—a gabled roof, rectilinear, brick structure with aligned rectangular windows—may share similarities with earlier Federal buildings, these vernacular structures have Italianate details such as broad eaves supported by brackets, decorative window lintels, or bracketed window crowns. Many have front porches, and, if situated on corners or with side-yards, have verandas as well. The Italianate style was frequently used for commercial buildings, often blended with Federal style elements (Figure 16).
The Queen Anne Style
Examples in the Historic District include a residence at 120 South Church (Figure 17) and the First West Chester Fire Company at 14 North Church Street (Figure 18). Splendid examples are to be found on North Church Street, beyond the Historic District.
Second Empire Style
There are a few Renaissance Revival houses, perhaps better called “French Academic,” since their antecedents are French rather than Italian. One such house can be seen at 106 South High Street. This 1874 house has windows with segmental tops and corniced hoods, an ample roof cornice (the brackets are missing), a marble basement story, and a very fine door. The double house next door (110-112) is similar and retains its shutters.
Two years later, the Farmers and Mechanics Building rose at the southwest corner of High and Market Streets. Its six stories on a steel skeleton make it in principle a true skyscraper. This, too, is a Beaux-Arts design, with a clear differentiation of the podium or base story, the upward sweep of the four central stories with their oriel bays, and the triforium top story with emphatic cornice.
Later Pre-Modern Buildings
Another less clearly definable style is described as Twentieth Century Commercial, and is represented by the Woolworth’s Store at Gay and High Streets, now Iron Hill Brewery (Figure 22). The style features large metal-and-glass storefront windows and wide office windows above.
While the uniformity of building forms and materials contributes to the visual cohesiveness of the Historic District, the variety and richness of architectural styles creates a sense of the passage of time. The passage of time is reflected in the changing architectural styles from building to building, as well as modifications and additions to individual buildings over the generations.
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