Summer is here and the time is right for an architectural tour. It’s affordable, educational, and many have gardens for added interest.
I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania in a house on a dirt road named for the dairy farm at the other end, surrounded by fields and forest in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian mountains. So, it wasn’t the bucolic landscape of Lancaster County that most impressed me when I moved here in 1988. It was the colonial architecture. After all, Pittsburgh was a British fort on the edge of unsettled wilderness when Lancaster was already a bustling borough.
When my husband joins me on visits back to the ’burgh, he jokes that we are back in Ugly-ville. Much of the architecture in my hometown is company-built housing for coal miners, 1950s split levels and houses with no rhyme or reason to the placement of windows, doors and additions.
While living on the east end of Lancaster, I would walk slowly on the brick sidewalk at the corner of East Orange and North Shippen streets past a red brick home with a brick wall and small brick outbuilding and imagine myself in another time. I thought it was whimsical that there were white shutters on the first floor and dark shutters on the second floor, but later learned that two-color shutters and the fan light over the front door are features of the Federal style. This building also retains the belt course of bricks between the two floors and a water table at the ground level, which are Georgian features.
I loved to duck into the arched passageway to the gardens behind the Demuth Museum. The stone wall to the basement door spoke to me of a secret past.
Elm trees still lined Orange Street at St. James’s Episcopal Church and I would slip into the cemetery through the gap in the wall, sit under the gazebo and marvel at the red brick details on the semi-circular apsidal chancel.
Of course, at the time, I didn’t know what this amazing structure jutting from the back of the church was called. I learned this and so much more in an architecture class this spring via Zoom through Quest for Learning Lancaster. “Lancaster in Style: 312 years of Architecture” was led by Gregory J. Scott, architect emeritus for RLPS Architects and a columnist for LNP | LancasterOnline. Thanks to Scott’s clear instruction, when I look up at the skyline I have knowledge to pair with my wonder.
Scott said there are over 48 architectural styles in Lancaster County, and we covered 18 of them in the class.
We are lucky to have so many architectural sites to tour, including: Christian Herr House in Willow Street, Ephrata Cloister, Wright’s Ferry Mansion in Columbia, Johannes Mueller House in Lititz, Historic Rock Ford in Lancaster Central Park, and in Lancaster city, Wheatland, Fulton Theatre, Lancaster’s Central Market and Southern Market houses, plus churches in styles ranging from the Traditional English style of Donegal Presbyterian Church to the many Gothic Revival churches.
Two examples of early American architecture stand in severe contrast. The Germanic style of the Ephrata Cloister with its timber construction, unfinished interior and medieval appearance was built in the same time period as the Wright’s Ferry Mansion with its refined interior of stained wood paneling and Queen Anne furnishings. The latter is the best example of Traditional English architecture in all of Pennsylvania. Scott said, “I know which one I’d rather live in.”
I recommend touring all of the sites that are open to the public, but don’t overlook a self-guided walking tour.
In Lancaster city, walk in the 600 block of West Chestnut Street and be prepared to have your socks knocked off by the Victorian and Edwardian homes. The former Breneman residence at 135 N. Duke St., with its ornate carved stone details is as pretty as a wedding cake. The Lancaster County Convention Center was built around the William Montgomery House and the Thaddeus Stevens House, and you can look at them streetside or from inside the convention center. Charlie Wagner’s Cafe, tucked behind the courthouse, is a small building designed by C. Emlen Urban in the Romanesque Revival style with a tower and triple Roman windows. Lancaster City Hall, built in the Venetian Revival style out of Indiana limestone, feels as if it would be more at home in Italy. A copper clad belvedere sits atop an ornate tower with floral work in cast stone. Copper urns embellish the parapet on the Duke Street side.
The plenitude of historic buildings in Lancaster is illustrated by the fact that the red brick Georgian style home with the two-color shutters that would slow me down on my walk is on the same corner as the Andrew Jackson Steinman Mansion with its all-brick masonry, multipaned colored glass windows, and diamond-shaped clay tile on its Mansard roof. In other words, you could throw a rock in any direction and hit a historic home in parts of the city.
Once you’ve exhausted what Lancaster city has to offer, check out the other county municipalities.
I spent a day in Columbia wandering around after touring Wright’s Ferry Mansion and was bowled over by the mansions on Chestnut Street, and found many gems tucked away in that Victorian river town.
You can also breathe in the historic surroundings while you dine at the area’s storied eateries, such as The Lancaster Dispensing Company and The Belvedere in Lancaster, Railroad House Inn in Marietta, and Bube’s Brewery in Mount Joy.
Do spend a day in one of Lancaster County’s lovely towns and look around. I will never take the beauty for granted.
Diana Abreu is a page designer at LNP | LancasterOnline. “Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.