Wish You Were Here reflects the value of postcards as tools for learning about the past, with images drawn from Manuscript Group 213, Postcard Collection, Pennsylvania State Archives.

As this circa 1922 postcard of North Queen Street suggests, by the turn of the 20th century, downtown Lancaster had become a busy commercial hub and mecca for shoppers. While Penn Square at the intersection of King and Queen streets marks the historic heart of the city, North Queen Street was lined with amenities for shoppers and visitors alike. Hotels, theaters, department stores, banks, offices and specialty shops defined the street’s character. Lancaster, also known as the Red Rose City, has been a thriving community ever since it became the largest inland city in the American colonies in the decades before the American Revolution.

When Lancaster County was created in 1729, it represented the most culturally diverse place in the New World. It was home to English and Welsh Quakers and Anglicans, French Huguenots, Scots Irish Presbyterians, and large numbers of German-speaking immigrants of various denominations, mostly from the Rhineland in Europe, who would become known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. This cosmopolitan mix of cultures and a diverse economy made the city of Lancaster a sophisticated place by colonial standards and led to its selection as the temporary capital of both the Continental Congress and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1777, when the British invaded Philadelphia.

The growth of the Red Rose City was aided by the construction of the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike in 1794, considered among the finest roads of its time. The stone-and-gravel route carried agricultural goods, livestock and travelers and connected Philadelphia to the growing frontier settlements. The turnpike was later incorporated into the transcontinental Lincoln Highway. As canals and railroads grew in prominence, Lancaster was served by the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, established in 1834, and the Pennsylvania Railroad some years later. The city of Lancaster continued to grow in population, reaching its peak of almost 64,000 in 1950.

As the post–World War II forces of suburbanization brought change to cities and downtowns across the county, Lancaster leaders sought to reinvent the city’s commercial core and to launch new development employing urban renewal strategies. Lancaster and other cities were struggling to accommodate increased traffic and parking needs and spur reinvestment into aging, sometimes vacant buildings. Empowered by federal funding to fight urban blight available under the U.S. Housing Act of 1949, cities could undertake comprehensive revitalization programs affecting both commercial and residential neighborhoods. City planners of the era embraced modernist design philosophy, placing little value on old buildings and past architectural styles.

Influenced by urban renewal efforts in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the Lancaster Redevelopment Authority pursued a vigorous demolition program in the 1960s in the 100 block of North Queen Street, removing many landmark buildings, including the YMCA, several movie theaters and grand hotels, to encourage new construction. Plans were unveiled for Lancaster Square, a Brutalist-inspired paved plaza surrounded by spare and modern concrete buildings, including a multistory parking garage, two department stores, a hotel and an office building.

Intended to make downtown Lancaster a shopping destination again, Lancaster Square never achieved its goal. In the decades since, the city has continued to make efforts to reinvent and revitalize North Queen Street. The red-brick Lancaster County Government Center, once the offices of Armstrong World Industries, now occupies the west side of the block. Binns Park, a small landscaped public plaza with a stepped brick stage and fountain, provides recreational event space. On the east side of the former Lancaster Square, a new public library and parking garage are under construction, including a new public park, named to honor one of the city’s most beloved sons and finest athletes, Barney Ewell (1918–96). Located opposite Binns Park, Ewell Plaza will help balance the streetscape and provide much-needed green space for public amenities and outdoor events.

Although mid-20th-century urban renewal resulted in the loss of so many historic buildings, it also highlighted the need to preserve important places that convey the authentic character, history and culture of communities. The City of Lancaster has taken that lesson to heart and has made efforts to protect its heritage and encourage adaptive reuse of historic buildings. It established its first local historic district incorporating its most valued early buildings in 1967, amid the urban renewal campaign, and later established a much-larger conservation district to protect historic properties from inappropriate alteration and redevelopment. Lancaster also sought listing of the entire city in the National Register of Historic Places, an innovative and bold strategy to offer enhanced opportunities for rehabilitation of historic properties utilizing federal and state tax credits. When construction of a new convention center on Penn Square began in 2006, the beautiful Beaux Arts façade of the Watt & Shand Department Store was preserved and the Thaddeus Stevens & Lydia Hamilton Smith Historic Site was incorporated into the project design.


Pamela W. Reilly is a historic preservation specialist in the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office.