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  • Writer's pictureMalcolm Johnstone

Visitors Guide of West Chester's Downtown Historic District

Updated: Apr 11

In 1784, West Chester was established with the development of a grid map, made up of 32 parcels, in what is now the heart of downtown West Chester. It was laid out in four square blocks divided by Gay and High Streets and bounded by Chestnut, Walnut, Market, and Church Streets. It would be anchored by the first courthouse and a smattering of businesses that included a tavern called Turks Head, shops, livery stables, offices and a school. By 1788, the Pennsylvania Assembly designated West Chester as a “county town” that established its current name and boundaries. This village area now provides a large number of the most historic structures in the Borough. Some, but by no means all, are highlighted below.

1) Horticultural Hall (1848), 225 North High Street at Chestnut Street

This was the last West Chester commission of renowned architect Thomas U. Walter before he became the Architect of the Capitol where he oversaw the construction of the current dome atop the U.S. Capitol Building. The facade, an example of Romanesque architectural style, features buttresses (those columns that support the corners of the structure) and a recessed Norman arch above the door. It is made of serpentine stone, a limestone with a greenish hue from the Taylor Quarry north of West Chester and used in many other West Chester structures. At the time it was constructed, only one other building in the country existed for horticultural exhibitions. At its completion in 1848, the first horticultural exhibit featured a miniature steam railroad and many other exhibits. A historical marker at curbside recognizes Pennsylvania's first women's rights convention that took place there in 1852. The building became the home of what would become the Chester County History Center in 1938.

2) West Chester Armory Building (1916), 226 North High Street at Washington Street

Tracing their unit roots all the way back to Benjamin Franklin, the Pennsylvania National Guard Bravo Company, 1-111 Infantry Battalion, 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, also known as the "Associators", called The West Chester Armory home for nearly 100-years while serving the country addressing natural disasters and most armed conflicts. The 10,900-square-foot building accommodated up to 170 troops, complete with a basement rifle range, until their move to the new Coatesville Readiness Center in Sadsbury in 2013. The structure has been re-purposed into the Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center.

3) Site of the First Mass-Produced Penicillin (1943), South Side of Chestnut Street, just west of Walnut

"Before the introduction of penicillin in World War II, wounded soldiers were more likely to die of bacterial infections than from their wounds," begins the story Behind the Marker about how West Chester chemist G. Raymond Rettew, along with Wyeth Laboratories, converted an auto repair shop at this location to produce more penicillin than any other lab in the world. This action was said to have saved countless lives on the battlefield during World War II (1941-1945). The site has served mostly automotive enterprises for nearly a century with the Chestnut Street Parking Garage as the current operation.

4) Warner Block (1930), 100 block of North High Street, between Gay & Chestnut Streets

There are two outstanding examples of Art Deco architecture to be found on North High Street, each built in the 1930s when Art Deco was popular. One is the Hotel Warner, named after the Warner Theater built in 1930. The Warner Block (the title "block" is often applied to one building that houses several businesses) retains the facade of the original Warner Bros. Theater with its massive buttresses and ornately carved bas-reliefs. The old theater lobby is now the new hotel lobby. The original staircase has been preserved and a large photograph mural of the theater is displayed. New hotel rooms were constructed behind the structure to match the Deco motif. The other structure is across the street at the Greentree Building, recently refurbished by the Eli Kahn Company.

5) American Revolution War Site (1777), Northwest Corner of Gay & High Streets

When the Battle of Brandywine raged on September 11, 1777, just south of West Chester, the village of settlers reeled at how close the war had come to their homes and farms. Two historical markers now stand where a small school house, located on what is now the northwest corner of Gay and High Streets (where Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant operates), was used as a hospital for both wounded British and American Revolutionary soldiers. It would be among the bloodiest battles of the Revolution. General Sir William Howe won a decisive victory that sent General George Washington's army into retreat to Valley Forge (leaving Philadelphia defenseless) while 20-year-old Marquis de Lafayette, serving as a major-general under Washington, managed to organize a successful retreat, despite being wounded, making him an instant hero. The remains of soldiers are said to be buried there.

6) The Insurance Building (1905), 15 East Gay Street

For many decades, this structure was known as the Chester County Trust Company. Today, it sports the title The Insurance Building placed above the entrance. It is a smaller scale example of Beaux-Arts architecture, named for Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The use of arches and rusticated joints typify the style. Next door, to the east, stands a building in the Brutalist style, which borrows architectural characteristics of its neighbor. The Gay Street Train Station once stood at that location. Stifel, a company older than the building, is currently the occupant.

7) Historic Post Office (1907/1935), 101 East Gay Street at Walnut Street

In 1905, the United State Post Office decided to construct a new regional post office that would also serve as a federal building. This was during a time when James Knox Taylor served as the supervising Architect of the Treasury (1897-1912). He believed that government buildings should be monumental and beautiful, designed by individual architects in classical styles and built of the highest quality materials. The Post Office was built in two phases, thirty years apart. The first phase called for the Post Office to be designed as a two-and-a-half story structure with a raised main floor above a daylight basement, giving it a piano nobile quality. According to the Determination of Eligibility for inclusion in the National Register (E.O. 11593; May 7, 1979) it is stated that the "U.S. Post Office is an example of neo-classical styling expressed in a vernacular idiom. Classical elements including the blind arcade, window treatment and medallions express the neo-classical style popular for Federal architecture in the early 20th century. This building is particularly noteworthy for its stone material." Indeed, it is faced with Cockeysville Marble that was quarried at Baker's Station near Avondale, about 18-miles away. It's a white stone that has crystalline qualities that glitter in the sunlight. Cockeysville Marble is most famous for its use in the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, where the first 152 feet of the monument is faced with it. In 1935, the structure was more than doubled in size. The addition has identical stone features to the original although one can clearly see the column where the front is divided from the rear. One curious feature is the appearance of certain stones near the top that have a blue-ish hue. This stone is called Brandywine Blue and appears to have been used simply to add interest. See The many faces of the Post Office.

8) First Bank of Chester County (1837), 17 North High Street

Easily the grandest single-story facade in West Chester, the First Bank of Chester County (now occupied by Wells Fargo Bank) was designed in 1836 by Thomas U. Walter. It is the oldest commercial structure in West Chester still doing business for which it was built. The architecture, highlighted by the Doric portico, was inspired by Stuart & Revett’s Antiquities of Athens, published in 1762, London. It is a grand example of Greek Revival, an example of which helped West Chester earn the nickname Athens of Pennsylvania, and it has the tallest one-story facade in the Borough. Stepping onto the portico one can look up and find the words Thomas U. Walter, Architect engraved into the stone ceiling. The inside lobby has been restored to much of its original splendor with a magnificent Tiffany-style chandelier as the centerpiece.

9) William Darlington Building (1789), 13 North High Street

James Smith constructed the north side of this building in 1789 which was then enlarged by William Sharpless in 1792. It's considered the oldest surviving First Period structure related to the County administrative center formed within the original grid. The structure is dedicated to William Darlington, considered one of the father's of West Chester. He was an educator, botanist, banker, politician, and overall good-guy for West Chester in the early days. He had his office, and even his home, at this location during most of his career. One may find it interesting to take a view of the structure from the vantage point at the fountain across the street where the structure becomes framed by two other notable buildings, the Historic Courthouse and 10 North High, each of which have defined West Chester in their own way.

10) Stone Relief Sculpture (1966), 10 North High Street

In order to accommodate growth in the county, the North Wing opened at what was then 16 North High Street, replacing the Meconkey Mansion that had been used as a community and municipal building. Commissioned by the Chester County Commissioners in 1966, an International-style architecture was used that included a vertical stone relief sculpture with four panels by Bucks County artist Harry Rosin (1897-1973). Each panel is ten-feet high, five-feet wide and one-foot thick and together they weigh 18-tons. It depicts several Chester County historical figures plus George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette. It represents the most outstanding public art work in downtown.

11) Historic Courthouse (1848), 2 North High Street at Market Street

On July 4, 1846, the cornerstone for a new courthouse, designed by Thomas U. Walter, was laid as construction began that would replace the first courthouse of 1786. It now stands as the historic Courthouse of Chester County becoming one of Walter's greatest architectural achievements and West Chester's iconic structure. On February 22, 1848, the new courthouse opened. But due to a lack of funds, the facade was brick rather than the stone facing you see today. In fact, it took more than ten years to entirely face the structure with Pictou stone, which finally completed it. District Court 15-1-04 continues to be held there.

The oldest part of the Courthouse is actually the Clock Tower, also designed by Thomas U. Walter, and first placed on the original courthouse in 1838. In 1848, it crowned the new Courthouse and since that time the bell has rung every hour, on the hour, to make the community aware of any appointments that need to be kept. It is the oldest sound in West Chester.

A public drinking fountain, which ran water continuously from an underground spring, was placed in front of the Courthouse in 1869 to provide "water for people, horses, and dogs" from separate drinking bowls.

In 1891, the Courthouse Annex, with its entrance on West Market Street at Courthouse Alley, was constructed. It was designed by T. Roney Williamson, who interpreted an Italian Renaissance style although it's connected to the Greek Revival Courthouse. It was faced with Indiana limestone while the interior was embellished with Italian marble wainscoting, stained art glass, and decorative wood garlands, diamonds, and pilasters.

Old Glory, created by Easton PA artist Harry Lewis Raul (1883-1960) is a cast bronze sculpture standing proudly at the corner of High and Market Streets. It was unveiled on June 11, 1915.

12) Buckwalter Building/Old Municipal Building (1893/1912), 11-15 South High Street

This short row of buildings is unique to West Chester in their design. The Buckwalter Building was built for Henry Brinton Buckwalter, a private banker and real estate investor. The design uses English redstone and iron-spotted Pompeian brick. There is a well-integrated asymmetrical composition that incorporates a two-story frame oriel which accommodated residences in the upper floors. Next door on the south side is the 1912 Old Municipal Building that served as the administrative offices and police department of the Borough until the 1986. It compliments the architecture of its neighbor and is now joined together as Barnaby's Restaurant.

13) Farmers & Mechanics Building (1908), 2 West Market Street at High Street

One of the best known landmarks in the seat of Chester County, the F&M Building was designed in 1907 by William C. Prichett and completed in 1908. The six-story structure is known as West Chester’s first, and only, authentic skyscraper. With a height of 90 feet, the Beaux Arts-style building remains the tallest commercial structure in the borough of West Chester. The site's Neoclassical architecture is one of a kind as its exterior is faced with Indiana limestone and yellow hard face brick with decorative terra cotta details. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, the building has a deep history in the region. In 1918, when the Boy Scouts were chartered in Chester County, the F&M Building served as the company headquarters. Throughout World War II, the building was used by Pennsylvania’s Citizen’s Defense Corps to watch for enemy German planes.

14) Lincoln Building (1833), 28 West Market Street at Wilmont Mews

William Everhart, who would become West Chester's largest developer and wealthiest citizen, constructed West Chester's first true office building that was known as the Everhart Building. Designed by William Strickland, this Federalist structure marks the beginning of the second period of development for West Chester after Everhart purchased the Wollerton Farm consisting of 102 acres southwest of Market & High Streets. It became known as the Lincoln Building in 1947 when it was rededicated by the Chester County Historical Society in recognition of the fact that Abraham Lincoln's first biography, which launched his first presidential campaign, was written and published there on February 11, 1860. It is considered one of the most historically intact sites in West Chester. The property owner, Chester County Community Foundation, welcomes visitors to browse inside during weekday business hours.

15) Peter & Mary Rush's Grocery Store (1825), 1 North Church Street at Market Street

Perhaps more than any other structure in West Chester, this building is reflective of the typical 19th-century family-owned market. Built in 1825 on the edge of what was then the commercial district, it first housed Peter & Mary Rush's Grocery. The family undoubtedly lived upstairs and worked what was usually a twelve-hour day. A canopy, once a common sight in town, still wraps the structure to provide shade for fresh farm produce. By the mid-1830s, the Mansion House Hotel opened across the street (replaced by a bank in 1970). This established the corner as the social hub of West Chester. From 1871 to 1904, Frank and Richard Darlington operated the store and made it the premier stop for visitors. A trolley line would eventually make its way past the corner connecting West Chester to Downingtown and Coatesville.

16) First West Chester Fire Company (1888), 30 North Church Street

When West Chester's first Fire Company was established in 1799, it had 23 volunteers. The company was considered well-equipped with the exception that it did not have an "apparatus for extinguishing fires." Instead, each volunteer was provided with two water buckets. By 1887, the fire company found itself on North Church Street in a small engine house that needed to be modernized to the needs of the growing community. Architect T. Roney Williamson was commissioned to join two buildings into one Queen Anne-style station, with its patterned brick and carved stone and an eclectic design mix of Tuscan Romanesque, Gothic, and Colonial Revival. The tower was used for spotting fires, housing the alarm bell, and drying the company's 800-foot hose.

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Contact Malcolm Johnstone at

Many thanks to Fig Magazine and Chester County History Center.

More reading:

West Chester Six Walking Tours Book by Bruce Mowday

Contributing Sources:

Andy Dinniman

Mustafa M. Filemban

Pam Powell, Chester County Historical Society

Alice Kent Schooler, noted architectural historian of West Chester.

See also:

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