Erie was named after the Eriez tribe, which was destroyed by a combination of pestilence and the Seneca nation under Chief Cornplanter in the mid-seventeenth century. The first European settlers in the area were the French, who built Fort Presque Isle on the city’s site in 1753. The French abandoned the fort to the English, who lost it in 1763 at the start of Pontiac’s Rebellion. When General “Mad” Anthony Wayne induced the native tribes to make peace in 1794, the area was opened to settlement. The city was laid out in 1795 and became a port, engaged principally in the salt trade, in 1801. Erie became a borough in 1805, and was granted a city charter in 1851. The village of South Erie was incorporated as a borough in 1866, and was consolidated with Erie in 1870.
The city’s history throughout the nineteenth century was dominated by activity on the lake. During the War of 1812 Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry used a harbor on the east side of Presque Isle as a base of operations for the critical Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813. Most of the victoriousPerry’s ships were built in Erie. The fishing industry, which later gave Erie the name of being the largest fresh water fishing port in the world, began with the establishment of the Shaw Fish Company in 1821. The opening of the Erie and Pittsburgh Canal in 1844 brought a boom to business in the section; the canal did a profitable business for thirty years and lapsed quietly, despite the protests of the canal men, when the Erie and Pittsburgh Railroad bought it to eliminate competition.
Erie grew into the third largest third city in Pennsylvania (it is now fourth). The last decades of the 1800s brought a golden age to Erie. In 1885 Erie adopted the electric trolley system, being the second city in the United States to do so. By 1900 Erie had become nationally known for the manufacture of its engines and boilers, which were shipped to all parts of the world.
But the importance of the city and its port gradually diminished throughout the twentieth century as the development of automobiles, the railroad, and airplanes eroded the lake trade. In recent decades Erie has been the site of considerable renewal, developing the waterfront for resort activities, clearing buildings for parking lots to serve health care facilities and other projects.
Our walking tour will ignore the Great Lake that gives the city purpose altogether, starting six blocks away in the city’s central park that is dedicated to the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie...
State Street and 6th Street
Perry Square carves out two city blocks city blocks of greenspace, roughly in the center of downtown. The open-air plaza has been transformed in recent years with the clearing of many maple trees and in the warm weather now hosts the Erie Farmers’ Market. A statue of the namesake Oliver Hazard Perry, commander of the United States Naval Fleet in the Battle of Lake Erie and hero of the War of 1812, stands at the east end of the park. it was erected on August 23, 1985, the bicentennial of Perry’s birth. Other statues an memorials remember Revolutionary War hero Anthony Wayne (he died in Erie on December 15, 1796), the Civil War, and the various conflicts of the 20th century. Facing opposite directions mounted on a stone, was erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in 1902.
IN THE CENTER OF THE SQUARE START BY FACING LAKE ERIE, ON THE EAST SIDE OF THE SQUARE. WALK CLOCKWISE AROUND PERRY SQUARE.
Ford Hotel/Richford Arms
515 State Street
Now a residential high-rise, the 10-story Renaissance Revival brick building opened as a distinguished 400-room hotel. The Ford Hotels chain had hotels in Rochester, Erie, Toronto and Montreal and Buffalo.
Erie Public Library
southwest corner of French Street and South Park Row, opposite Perry Square
Completed in 1899, the Erie Public Library was designed by the firm of Alden & Harlow of Pittsburgh. It combines elements of the Beaux Arts Classicism and Second Renaissance Revival styles of architecture, clad in Pompeian red brick. The building features arched openings, a prominent cornice, swag and garland decorations, and a roofline balustrade. The original facade is dominated by a marble portico, which was removed and stored by previous owners. The library rotunda is one of the most significant interior spaces in Erie and was meticulously restored as part of the renovation. Mahogany paneling and marble floors serve as a backdrop for a decorative paint scheme. Spectacular allegorical murals on each side of the coffered skylight refer to literature, art, science, and poetry. They were completed by Elmer Ellsworth Garnsey, who also completed murals in the New York Stock Exchange and the Library of Congress. The building, no longer serving as a library, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
southeast corner of State Street and South Park Row, opposite Perry Square
The 1938 courthouse was designed in the Stripped Classical style, which was commonly used for Federal buildings constructed during the Depression era. The building has the monumental scale and form of earlier classically inspired Federal architecture, but lavish ornamentation commonly found on buildings from previous eras is stripped away. The building is clad in Indiana limestone with polished black granite accenting the building base and entrance area. Carved soapstone panels with a Greek key motif are on the second level. On the interior, the vestibules, lobbies, and corridors are clad with blue terra-cotta wainscot. Ceramic tile floors are bordered with another Greek key pattern. Two original courtrooms remain and are elaborately finished with paneled wood wainscot. Two related sculptures entitled “American Youth” flank the courtrooms. Completed by sculptor Henry Kreis shortly after the building was completed, the minimal forms are compatible with the architectural style of the courthouse.
TURN LEFT AND WALK SOUTH, AWAY FROM LAKE ERIE, ON STATE STREET. STAY ON THE EAST SIDE OF THE STREET.
Isaac Baker Building
northeast corner of State and Seventh streets
The 1947 Baker Building was originally a clothing store. Isaac Baker and Son established its first store in the 1850s at another downtown location. When fire destroyed an earlier building, the proprietor hired Erie architect Walter Monahan and consulting architect George Mayer of Cleveland to create a Moderne style building, rare n Erie. Its massing is horizontal and rectangular, with a juxtaposed rounded corner facing the intersection. This is the focus of the building and it contains the sign “BAKER’S” at the top of the parapet, and the recessed entrance doors at street level. The plan of the shop utilizes strategically-placed curved partitions to draw the shopper’s eye deep into the store. Mezzanines, balconies, and two-story spaces are also positioned to break up the uniformity of the space and provide transition from a room on one level to other rooms on other levels. In addition, balcony railings are long and curving, and subtilely evoke a nautical image. The building has been adapted for use as part of the United States courthouse next door.
811 State Street
Warner Bros., one of Hollywood’s leading studios, commissioned the building of the Warner Theatre in 1929. Designed by architects Rapp & Rapp, a Chicago architectural firm responsible for some of America’s most ornate theaters, spent $1.5 million Depression-era dollars to create Erie’s first and only deluxe downtown picture palace. Since its grand opening, the Warner Theatre became the major cultural center for the region. When the Warner opened its doors April 10, 1931, more than 8,000 colored lights illuminated the 10-ton marquee that announced the feature film of the opening evening, The Millionaire starring George Arliss with James Cagney. The 2,506-seat theater closed in 1976, when it was sold to the City of Erie. In the early 1980s, Erie converted the theater to a performing arts center, which has become the focus of a downtown revival. The theater features a 65-foot-by-28-foot proscenium stage and is complemented by crushed velour, gold and silver leaf, and gold-backed French mirrors. Today it hosts concerts and Broadway theatre performances and is home to the Erie Philharmonic and the Lake Erie Ballet.
CROSS THE STREET AND WALK NORTH ON STATE STREET, ON TH EWEST SIDE OF THE STREET, TOWARDS LAKE ERIE.
718 State Street at southwest corner of West 8th Street
In 1885 Elisha Mack purchased a bankrupt retail emporium called the Erie Dry Goods Company at 1604 Peach Street and renamed it “The Boston Store.” A year later he moved to larger quarters on this block of State Street. Mack was still going strong when his six-story, Art Deco-inspired flagship store was opened in 1931; he would pass away in 1952. The Boston Store was Erie’s premier department store and its favorite place to shop. Perhaps no other feature is as well-remembered as the tradition of the Boston Store clock. The familiar Erie phrase, “l’ll meet you under the clock” was used when friends would meet downtown. A large bronze clock is centrally located on the Boston Store’s ground floor. Whenever people met downtown, it was always under the Boston Store clock. Like so many of its downtown cousins across America, the Boston Store could not withstand the rise of suburban malls and closed in the summer of 1979.
626 State Street
On July 31, 1884 this cornerstone for a new City Hall was laid here that would become a 3-story building of red pressed brick, trimmed in sandstone, with a square tower rising from its northwest corner. In the basement were police headquarters and the dungeon-like city jail. The bell of the Queen Charlotte, the British flagship captured by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie, was suspended from the ceiling of the first floor corridor, at the foot of the wide oaken stairway. That building was razed in 1964 after 80 years of service to make room for a more modern city office building.
WHEN YOU REACH PERRY SQUARE, CROSS OVER TO NORTH PARK ROW, ON THE WEST SIDE OF THE SQUARE.
West Park Place
west side of Perry Square along North Park Row
West Park Place - bounded by historic Perry Square to the south, and by two leading thoroughfares, Peach Street on the west and State Street on the east - was the heart of Erie’s business district during most of the latter half of the 19th century. During the early decades of the century Erie’s commercial district gradually shifted from the bayfront to the periphery of the central park. This complex of commercial and professional buildings came into existence following a major fire in the winter of 1857 which destroyed all the wooden structures extending from the corner of Fifth and State Streets to the middle of North Park Row. In rapid succession substantial three-story brick buildings were erected in their space, and by 1865 all vacant space along North Park Row and Peach and State Streets had been filled. Although many building owners and tenants had suffered severe losses in the fire, there was little reluctance to start over on a grander scale. West Park Place is a typical mid-19th century business complex constructed mostly in the Italianate commercial style. In size and design, its buildings reflect the general prosperity and growth that Erie experienced as the city moved from the status of lake port to manufacturing center. All of the original 13 main buildings that were erected along North Park Row, and along State and Peach Streets as far as Fifth, remain with one exception. That exception is the Park Opera House which was demolished in 1939.
EXIT PERRY SQUARE ON THE NORTHWEST CORNER, ONTO PEACH STREET.
Mary, Seat of Wisdom Chapel
512 Peach Street
In 1860 Erie Presbyterians dedicated a brick church, marking the rise of a congregation that had come from an old military barracks at Third and Sassafras Streets in 1815. When constructed, this church was considered the largest building in Erie County, and its spire was visible mile. The building was partially destroyed by fire some twenty years later and not fully restored until 1940. A second fire then completely destroyed the building four years later. The only part of the original complex which remains today is the Seldon Chapel annex, dedicated in 1892. The present church was built in 1950. Gannon University purchased the property and its buildings in 1981 as the University Chapel and other buildings of the complex for Student Services; it was renovated in 1989.
TURN AND WALK BACK TOWARDS 6TH STREET.
524 Peach Street
The present Erie Clubhouse was originally the home of General Charles Manning Reed, one of Erie’s wealthiest and most influential citizens of the mid-1800s. General Reed, a Brigadier General in the Pennsylvania Militia, was born in 1803, the only child of Rufus Seth Reed, one of Erie’s first settlers in 1795. Seth Reed established a number of business enterprises, among them a store, a trading post and a hotel. Charles Reed continued in his father’s business footsteps, with interests in trading posts, grist mills, distilleries, banks, stage coaches, railroads, the Erie Canal, ship building and shipping lines. When Charles Reed died in 1871, he was rumored to be the wealthiest man West of New York City. He chose a site for his home “up and away from the center of town” on a tree shaded rise overlooking the “diamond” (what is now Perry Square). Construction began on plans drawn up by Edward Smith of Buffalo in 1846 and was completed in 1848. Reed chose the “boss carpenter” of his shipping lines to be the carpenter for the mansion; the beautiful wood carvings throughout the building attest to the wisdom of this choice. Architecturally, the mansion is classic Greek Revival, as evidenced by its classic columns and the two welcoming “goddesses” near the Peach St. entrance, both holding symbolic “torches”. The Erie Club evolved from two organizations in the early 1880s, the Undine Boat Club and the McClane Light Guard. The Erie Club was incorporated in 1882, and its list of charter members reads like the pages of “who’s who” in the business and industry of that day. After meeting in a house on West 7th Street the Erie Club purchased the Reed mansion in 1905 and the building has housed the Club ever since.
TURN RIGHT ON WEST 6TH STREET.
Erie County Courthouse
140 West 6th Street
The first court house, a small brick building that stood in the West Park, a little north of the soldiers’ and sailors’ monument [was completed] in 1808. In the early hours of Sunday morning, March 23, 1823, the court house was destroyed by fire, taking with it all the county records up to that time. The west wing of the current Erie County Court House dates to 1855, originally of late Greek Revival design. In 1929 the structure was entirely rebuilt and enlarged by Walter T. Monahan, Erie architect, to its present “U” plan, the west wing retaining the wall structure of the early building. Faced with gray, cut cast stone, its two similar Corinthian porticos with their tall fluted columns are monumentally impressive.
Strong Mansion/Gannon University Old Main
southwest corner of Peach Street and West 6th Street
The marriage of Anna Wainwright Scott and Charles Hamot Strong in 1896 also wed the two largest family fortunes in the history of Erie. William L. Scott, who amassed one of the largest personal fortunes in nineteenth century Pennsylvania through his investments in coal mining, steel-making, railroading and land development personally supervised construction of the house he built for his daughter. Since the tab for the massive 10-bay building was an estimated $500,000 who was to say otherwise. The result was the showiest house ever built in Erie, an English town house design, with considerable French chateau influence. It contains 40 rooms. Anna Strong was perhaps the most significant individual in the history of the district, and her home was the social hub of Erie well into the twentieth century. She was profiled in a November 1934 article in Fortune magazine as Erie’s “social dictator.” Strong Mansion was acquired in 1941 by Archbishop John Mark Gannon as the main building for Gannon University. During that time it contained classrooms, the library, cafeteria, offices, and some student housing.
TURN RIGHT ON WEST 6TH STREET.
The Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul
133 West 6th Street
The Cathedral of St. Paul was built in 1866, and stands as a monument of Victorian Gothic architecture. It replaced the congregation’s first church building, a modest brick structure constructed by Erie masons William and James Hoskinson at a cost of $3,500. Details characteristic of the style, derivative of classic Gothic Revival, include contrasting colors and textures, pointed arches, steep roofs and exceptionally tall spires.
150 West 6th Street
West 6th Street historically has been known as “Millionaire’s Row” and the grand residences really get rolling with this 1890 offering in the Richardsonian Romanesque style by E. B. Green of Buffalo. An eclectic who designed over 100 Buffalo landmarks including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Green and his associates are responsible for several mansions on the street. Many in the first several blocks have been incorporated into Gannon University.
162 West 6th Street
Gitnik Manse―a three-story, eighteen-room house that was built in 1885 by Erie lawyer Francis F. Marshall―now serves as Gannon University’s office of admissions.
John Hill House
230 West 6th Street
The John Hill House is a transitional building incorporating elements of both Greek Revival and Italian Villa architectural styles. The original frame structure consisted of a two story square building four bays wide with a small one story wing to the rear. That house was originally built around 1836 by William Johns, a former Burgess and prominent physician of the time. In 1840, ownership passed into the hands of Pierre Simon Vincent Hamot, an Erie pioneer who had become a wealthy and successful merchant-banker. Hamot lived in an imposing mansion overlooking the harbor which his heirs later donated for the purpose of establishing a hospital. Hamot presumably bought the Johns property for his daughter, but it is doubtful whether she and her husband, who had interest in Central America, spent much time there. In 1854, the house was acquired by John Hill. Although a carpenter by trade, there is evidence that Hill soon developed into an accomplished builder and architect. He had been in charge of certain portions of construction in the new Court House. Later he was to design and build a series of Romanesque Revival commercial structures along North Park Row and the west side of State Street. However, it was the “picturesque” additions which Hill made to his own residence which give it the distinct quality deserving of association with his name. George Selden, who made a considerable fortune in the Erie City Iron Works manufacturing boilers, bought the house in 1888 for two nieces and never lived there, but it was the most opulent of the several Selden residences in the immediate neighborhood.
First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant
southeast corner of Myrtle Street and West 6th Street
With its great height, steeply pitched roofs, and irregular, complex massing this 1929 church by Corbesier & W. E. Foster is a large, imposing edifice of English perpendicular Gothic design. The First Presbyterian Church organized on February 14, 1815 on property on the corner of 5th Street and Peach Street in 1825. Over the years, several churches sprung forth from First Presbyterian Church, including Belle Valley in 1841, Park Church in 1855, and Central Church in 1871. In the summer of 1926, three independent downtown Presbyterian churches welded into the “Church of the Covenant.” The congregation celebrated the dedication of the new church building on December 14, 1930.
Woman’s Club of Erie
259 West 6th Street
Another E.B. Green design in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, this 1892 house built for the Galbraith family now serves as the Woman’s Club of Erie.
The Boothby Inn
311 West 6th Street
Now a bed and breakfast inn, this red brick Victorian dates to 1888.
356 West Sixth Street
The firm of Green and Wicks of Buffalo delivered another Richardsonian Romanesque creation to the Erie streetscape in 1889, this one for H.F. Watson, his wife Carrie Tracy. Harrison Watson was president of the H.F. Watson Paper Company, which manufactured building, roofing and lining papers and materials, as well as steam pipe and boiler packaging and coverings. The mansion has 24 rooms, 17 closets, 5 bathrooms and 12 fireplaces. It was purchased in 1923 by Frederick Felix Curtze, president of the Erie Trust Company, Heisler Locomotive Works, Union Iron Works and the Keystone Fish Company. After his death in 1941 the house was offered to the School District of the City of Erie to be used as a museum. Today, the mansion is a fully furnished Victorian showcase open to the public.
Erie Community Foundation
459 West 6th Street
Erie Community Foundation traces its history back to 1935 when Elisha H. Mack, co-founder of the Boston Store, created a charitable endowment fund. The Mack mansion features Neoclassical touches such as a Corinthian portico, corner quoins and dentilled cornice.
519 West 6th Street
Built by prominent Erie banker Judah Colt Spencer for his son William in 1876, this building is a transitional dwelling incorporating elements of both Stick and Queen Anne styles. The visible stick-work in the apex of the truss of the central dormer is merely applied decoration with no structural relation to the underlying construction. In 1852, J.C. Spencer founded the First National Bank of Erie, only the twelfth bank in the nation of its kind. When he died, William Spencer became chief executive officer of the institution. He held the influential position until 1920.
TURN RIGHT ON CHERRY STREET. TURN RIGHT ON WEST 5TH STREET.
Firefighters Historical Museum
428 Chestnut Street
The first station built on this site was in 1873 when equipment was hand-pulled. It was then known as the Eagle Hose Company. When the Erie Fire Department started to use horses in the late 1800s a barn was added to the west side of the structure, this was the stable area. The original two-story station was replaced with this building in 1904. The name was changed to Engine Company #4 because it is located in the 4th ward. All the stables were removed when the Erie Fire Department became motorized starting in 1912. The last horses were used up until 1921. This station closed in 1974 and opened as a museum two years later.
TURN LEFT ON PEACH STREET. TURN RIGHT ON WEST 4TH STREET.
George Carroll House
401 Peach Street at 4th Street
The Queen Anne style house was built in 1872 for George Carroll, an early settler and lumber dealer.
Modern Tool Square
northeast corner of State Street and 4th Street
Modern Tool was an 1850s era tool and die shop and later an automobile factory (the Payne Modern) that was slated for demolition until a redevelopment project of the mid 1980s converted it into an indoor markethouse and loft-style apartments. The indoor market failed, but theapartments remain. Also known as the People’s Market House, the building was placed n the National Historic Register in 1987.
TURN RIGHT ON STATE STREET.
Erie Art Museum
411 State Street
The Art Club of Erie was established in 1898 and met in the then-new Erie Library on Perry Square. The Art Club moved to the Watson-Curtze Mansion in the 1940s and in the 1950sfound a home of its own next door in the Wood-Morrison House. In 1980 it moved here, in the Old Customs House. Completed in 1839 as the Erie branch of the U.S. Bank of Pennsylvania, the Old Customs House was designed by architect William Kelly; the building is an elegant example of the Greek Revival style crafted in Vermont marble, brought from the quarry to the Erie Canal by oxcart, then to Buffalo, and across Lake Erie.. The ceiling of the main room features egg and dart, anthemion, and Greek key patterns arranged in a circle. The architect’s name is carved into the portico, and can be easily seen from the doorway. By 1843, the bank had gone out of business, and in 1849 the building was sold to the U.S. government for use as a customs house. The U.S. Post Office moved into the building in 1853 and shared it with Customs Department officials until 1867. Customs occupied the building until 1888. Today, the building houses the Erie Art Museum’s galleries, offices, classrooms, and collections. collection of over 5,000 objects.
413 State Street
While Kelly was working on the bank next door he also had the commission for this Cashier’s House, a three–story, plastered brick, Greek Revival building The Coach House was also part of the 1839 complex. It was built primarily as the residence for the chief executive officer of the Erie Branch of the Bank of the United States. The bank closed in 1841, but the cashier continued to live in the house until his death in 1843. In 1850, the house was sold for $4,000 at half of its original cost. The interior of the Cashier’s House is a rare example of Egyptian Revival architecture in Pennsylvania.
TURN LEFT ON DOVER STREET.
Erie County History Center
419 State Street
The Museum of Erie County History is housed in the Erie County History Center, which was once the Bonnell Block building. As State Street developed commercially during the early nineteenth century, real estate became an ever-important trade. In 1839, Joseph and James Bonnell, new arrivals to Erie, purchased the parcel of land north of the Cashier’s House from Thomas G. Colt for the sum of $5,200. The Bonnell brothers immediately engaged James and William Hoskinson to construct a three-story commercial building along the State Street frontage. Upon completion, the building was leased to the firm of Kellog and Clark, dealers in groceries, dry goods, hardware and sundries. The real estate boom in Erie was short lived, however, and the Bonnell brothers were forced into bankruptcy and disappeared from the Erie area in 1842. Later that same year, the Sheriff deeded the northern two-thirds of the building, adjacent to the Cashier’s House, to Carson Graham, reserving the remaining portion until it was purchased in 1843 by John and James Van Nostrand. Numerous changes in ownership occurred for both sections of the building until the late 1900’s. Prior to hosting the administrative headquarters of the Erie County Historical Society, the complex was utilized by the Heyl Drug Company. The administrative offices of the Society moved into the renovated building in 1992 and it has been the headquarters of the Society since.
WALK ONE MORE BLOCK ON STATE STREET TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT IN PERRY SQUARE.