Historic Preservation Feature is a series of articles on the efforts to save and reuse historic buildings, districts and sites in Pennsylvania.

Depending on the individual, historic preser­vation evokes a myriad of interpretations. To the local historical society, it’s restoring the town’s oldest structure to a house-museum showcasing collections of period antiques. To community planners, it often results in a challenge of saving the best while destroying the rest. And to many, historic preservation means little more than a last moment, “eleventh-hour” protest over the imminent demolition of what has become a legendary local landmark and one, ironically, which garners attention and newspaper headlines only during the last few days of its exis­tence.

Preservation begins with an awareness of the built environment. It’s an accounting of those marvelous old Queen Anne style townhouses whose turrets and towers pop out into the cityscape with charming irregularity. It’s recognition that those mid-nineteenth-century bank buildings and pretentious houses that resemble Greek temples are special and, conversely, becoming more scarce. Preserva­tion is a special consciousness which doesn’t exclude those buildings not built before the close of the eighteenth cen­tury nor those structures in which George Washington had not slept. Simply explained, historic preservation is a cause whose supporters press for the maintenance of the older and better examples of our architectural and cultural heri­tage, including early taverns, bridges, archeological sites, railroad stations, and private residences.

An alternative to the homogenized and expensive expanses of the widely touted post-World War II phenomenon­ – the American Suburb – historic preservation encourages the conservation of inner-city and small town neighborhoods. Rather than allow the architectural fabric to deteriorate at its alarming rate, many city dwellers have initiated com­plete neighborhood restorations merely by applying a new coat of paint or by repairing disintegrating millwork. Although they may not call themselves preservationists, this band of interested citizens sparks a collective pride which will carry the individual projects to successful completion. And by saving these buildings, these same families have often saved a unique social order that would have collapsed upon the arrival of the bulldozers and towering cranes.

Hundreds of neighborhoods throughout Pennsylvania have been or currently are being revamped by interested and proud tenants. No longer are owners – frequently des­cendants of the building’s architect or original occupant­ – willing to permit the wrecking balls to scatter the last trace of their heritage. Many older families view demoli­tion of their homesteads as a sacrilegious desecration of hallowed territory while younger residents feel threatened by the lack of permanence and shocked by the paucity of concern for the venerable structures which housed genera­tions of the same family. Total clearance of blighted urban areas – once a popular solution practiced throughout the nation by the last decade’s community planners – is no longer the answer. To promote this new spirit of urban re­vival one must stimulate a neighborhood’s pride and contentment.

One way to awaken this pride in a community is by listing its more important local resources in the National Register of Historic Places administered in the Commonwealth by the Office of Historic Preservation. The registration program isn’t as stuffily academic as one might believe, but it does convey an undeniable sense of status and pres­tige to owners of accepted properties. The National Register includes significant properties – sites, buildings, structures, objects, and districts – deemed worthy of preserva­tion. Entry in the register does not restrict what an owner can do with or to his listed property, but it does encourage him to maintain his property as much as he is able.

Pennsylvania’s entries in the National Register currently number 740, encompassing not only individual structures but entire historic districts as well. National Register historic districts have been established in thirty-seven communities throughout the state. The most recent addi­tion of a historic district to the program was the Hays Bridge Historic District in Franklin County. Previously approved nominations to this Department of the Interior program include: the Harrisburg Historic District; the Old Mauch Chunk Historic District in Jim Thorpe; Pittsburgh’s Manchester Historic District; and the Bellefonte, Centre County, Historic District.

Most of the approximately two hundred nominations for entry in the National Register processed by the Office of Historic Preservation each year detail the significance of individual properties. Many of the submissions chronicle the artistry of world famous architects and designers. Pittsburgh’s courthouse and jail are excellent examples of Henry Hobson Richardson’s massive and blocky style of construction that created a new trend in American architecture now commonly called “Richardsonian Romanesque.” Fallingwater, perhaps one of America’s most important statements of twentieth-century design, was created by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1936 and is located near Mill Run in Fayette County. Philadelphia abounds in buildings executed by nationally known and studied architects. The Academy of Music came from the sketch book of Napolean LeBrun; the First Unitarian Church and the Centennial National Bank were given dimension by Frank Furness; the Athenaeum of Philadelphia was planned by John Notman; and John Haviland drew the plans for the Philadelphia College of Art.

But registration isn’t limited to works by the masters of American building! The Office of Historic Preservation reviews nomination forms for structures and buildings not associated with prominent craftsmen but which remain representative examples of styles no longer commonly encountered in the Commonwealth. Carpenter Gothic houses, once the rage of a prosperous post-Civil War society, have joined the authentic and elegant Georgian style manor houses on Pennsylvania’s unwritten list of endangered species. Many of the exuberantly designed Victorian Era structures have been stripped of period details yielding the peculiar exoticism and notable eclecticism of that whimsical period. Towers have been removed, wide piazzas have been enclosed and gingerbread moldings and trim have been sacrificed to aluminum siding and big bay windows. Schuylkill County’s first entry in the National Register was the George Ormrod House, an 1870 structure with stained glass windows intact, a three story tower overlooking the residential main street of Tamaqua and twenty-seven exterior angles! Although the house was built for a local entrepreneur and anthracite coal operator, it merited inclusion in the register for its quaint vintage character.

National Register nominations have been accepted for buildings associated with literary figures of prominence; the Edgar Allen Poe House in Philadelphia and the boyhood home in Pottsville of John O’Hara, one of the greatest contemporary short story writers and prolific novelist of the post-World War II era, were entered for their literary associations. Structures affiliated with leading men of science – the Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland is one – and buildings noted for their political connections­ – such as Scranton’s Terence V. Powderly House – received recognition in their respective areas of significance. Many other properties included in the National Register entries from Pennsylvania embrace historic properties which at one time were important to local commerce, transportation, and religious and humanitarian concerns.

Attesting to America’s industrial technology stands the Kinzua Viaduct, four miles northeast of Mt. Jewett, McKean County. Reputedly the second highest bridge on the North American continent, and surpassed only in height by the Pecus Valley Viaduct spanning the Columbia River in Texas, the Kinzua Viaduct soars 301 feet above the wooded valley it traverses. The present 2,053 foot-long viaduct was erected in 1900 to replace its predecessor which, at its construction in 1882, was the highest railroad viaduct in the world. But what does one do with an obsolete yet marvelous specimen of American engineering genius? In 1963 the Commonwealth’s Bureau of State Parks acquired the Kinzua Viaduct as the centerpiece for a park. It’s a legitimate tourist attraction – one that draws thousands of visitors to the state park each summer.

Listing in the National Register endorses restoration projects in many cities throughout Pennsylvania. In Lan­caster, the Fulton Opera House was restored for communi­ty-wide use by local residents and businesses. Organized as the Fulton Opera House Foundation, the group saved an important local resource whose boards had been trod by impressive troupes of nineteenth-century American musi­cal greats and undisputed theatrical talents, including the internationally renowned Barrymores, Sarah Bernhardt, George M. Cohan, Mark Twain, Victor Herbert, and John Philip Sousa. Thanks to the restoration of the old opera house (originally erected as Fulton Hall in 1852 and re­modeled in 1873 as the opera house), Lancaster now retains a legitimate theatre of which the entire community is proud. It took much work, but the $130,000 that the local residents raised has gone a long way since the drive commenced in 1963-1964 – especially in light of escalating labor costs and the boggling rate of inflation. Upon com­pletion of the concerted efforts, the Fulton Opera House was honored with a much-deserved inclusion in the Regis­ter.

Prior to nomination to the National Register, a property is entered on the Pennsylvania Inventory of Historic Places, a working catalogue of all known and identified historic and cultural properties in Pennsylvania. The Inventory records nearly tour thousand structures and is used to de­fine local resources, produce data for planning purposes, identify the architectural personality of a community and educate the public to its irreplaceable examples of fine architecture. Criteria established for the National Register program serve as a guide for the selection of structures and buildings collected on the state level.

More basic and definitive than the Pennsylvania Inventory, local surveys, using state and local funds, define the built environment of cities, regions and counties. The sur­veys record, by brief architectural descriptions and photo­graphs, the existing buildings within carefully drawn boundaries. Although many surveys have been enacted by coun­ty agencies, four Pennsylvania cities – Wilkes-Barre, Easton, Reading and Philadelphia – initiated the identification pro­cess since the program’s recent inception.

Fourteen current surveys, totaling expenditures of $386,000, have been implemented by local agencies using federal matching funds disbursed by the Office of Historic Preservation. The first survey – established in Lebanon County in December 1976 – catalogued at least four thou­sand buildings of which at least ten percent are eligible for entry in the National Register.

In addition to these identification and registration programs, the Office of Historic Preservation administers a grants-in-aid program enabling individuals, local govern­ments and private organizations to purchase or restore old buildings. Last year the Office of Historic Preservation disbursed nearly $875,000 to twenty-four successful grantees for projects ranging from the acquisition of Zelienople’s first dwelling to the refurbishing of Williamsport’s former post office building for use as a city hall. The Elias Baker Mansion in Blair County, often called the most impressive Greek Revival house in central Pennsylvania, received a grant for roof repairs, interior and exterior painting and minor repairs to its stonework.

The most exciting and challenging projects relying on federal funds involve rehabilitation or adaptive restoration of important local properties. A former 1894 Bellefonte flour mill will house studios and galleries for local artists and craftsmen. In Lebanon, work continues on the former Reading Railroad passenger station that soon will debut as a branch office of the Farmers Trust Company. And in Hazleton, the Georgian-style former parsonage of the First Presbyterian Church is being adapted to house professional offices and a gift store.

Approaches to historic preservation in Pennsylvania constantly grow in number and scale. Many of the activities offer alternatives to businessmen and organizations that couldn’t possibly afford the costs of new construc­tion nor rental fees in the high rent districts of towering steel and glass superstructures. Preservation demands not only a commitment to the cause but entails a conscientious regard for the finer specimens of our built environment. As the concern for the conservation of our precious natural resources mounted during the late sixties, so now must our attention focus on those elegant old buildings whose domes and arches convey a character and charm-no matter how dated-to what otherwise would appear as a careless or insensitive grouping of dull and drab edifices.

Historic preservation on the state level is no longer a luxury item; instead, it must be considered an integral part of any major planning project and viewed as a significant component of all community development programs. Preservation in Pennsylvania is a daily activity and one which strives to make the heated “eleventh hour” attempts as obsolete as the total devastation of urban areas so popularly employed in America’s cities within the past ten years.

Historic preservation, too, is an attitude which – thankfully! – is currently spread by those self-styled disciples of the cause who, for a few brief moments, can climb down from their ladders, store their paint brushes and scrapers, and address the issues of conservation affecting every Pennsylvanian.


Michael J. O’Malley was recently appointed public information writer for the Office of Historic Preservation in the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.