When William Penn was granted all the land west of New Jersey, north of Maryland and south of New York by King Charles II as payment of a debt owed his father, he had big plans for his vast new empire. One was to establish several townsaround Philadelphia to provide country homes for city residents and to support farming communities. So, the story goes that he traveled north from his “great town” in 1682 and stopped in the middle of some trees that bordered a creek flowing to the Delaware River to proclaim, “This is where I propose to build my ‘new town.’ “
Straddling what is now called Newtown Creek, the site included 640 acres. In time, the name was shortened to Newtown. Penn’s plan included 16 farm plots that fanned out from a common in the middle of 30-40 acres. Each farm lot was connected to the common by a townstead lot so settlers could be integrally connected to the going-on in town.
The small village became the Bucks County seat of government in 1725 and many substantial Colonial residences and taverns followed. Its central location made it an important supply depot during the American Revolution and General George Washington made his headquarters in Newtown from December 24-30, 1776. From this location, Washington marched his army into American legend on Christmas Eve to cross the Delaware and surprise a Hessian army in Trenton.
The county government left for Doylestown in 1813 and Newtown settled into a residential existence. Gradually the heritage farms gave way to houses and the borough was enlarged four times beginning in 1838. All the while the core of town in Penn’s original common resisted the overtures of modernization. The Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places with many of its buildings well into their third century of use.
Our walking tour of the Colonial shops and taverns and houses will begin at a relative newcomer to Newtown - the Friends Meetinghouse. Oddly for a town founded by William Penn it didn’t get it own meetinghouse for 130 years. Local Quakers were instead members of the Falls or Middletown or Wrightstown Meetings, forced to travel considerable distances to worship...
Newtown Friends Meeting
219 Court Street
The Newtown Meeting was co-founded in 1815 by Edward Hicks, a sign painter who evolved into an acclaimed folk artist. Hicks and his fellow Quakers assembled in the Court House that was left empty when the county seat shuffled off to Doylestown two years earlier. The main portion of this meetinghouse, simply designed as was the Quaker wont, was constructed in 1817. Several modest additions have accommodated expansions to the worship space and classrooms in the two centuries since, most recently a new Gathering Room on the main floor in 2004 where several full-size replicas of Hicks’ paintings are displayed. Edward Hicks is buried in the graveyard, across from the south porch of the meetinghouse.
WALK NORTH ON COURT STREET (THE MEETINGHOUSE WILL BE ON YOUR RIGHT).
Francis Erwin House
127 Court Street
This Federal-style house built of native brownstone anchors a picturesque block of stone houses from the 18th and 19th century. This one was constructed by Francis Erwin in 1806.
123 Court Street
This stone house was built in 1774 by Joseph Worstall. For many years a tannery and leather shop operated here. It is said that George Washington, when headquartered in Newtown, walked out with a pair of boots purchased in the shop.
107 Court Street
This house was built in 1757 for Margaret Thornton who took over operation of the Court Inn up the block after her husband Joseph died. The brick front was added in 1764, using bricks left over the construction of the town’s Brick Hotel. Prominent lawyer Abraham Chapman was the next owner and he sold it to Edward Hicks, who lived here from 1811 to 1821.
Half Moon Inn
101 Court Street
This famous Colonial watering hole began life in 1733 as the one and one-half story frame cottage of Margaret and Joseph Thornton. It became the gathering place of choice after court sessions across the street and became known as “Court Inn.” In the 1890s the local telephone company purchased the structure and reconfigured one of Newtown’s oldest and most historic buildings into two separate units. The LaRue family bequeathed the northern portion to the Newtown Historic Society which maintains its headquarters here.
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
100 East Washington Street
The Episcopalians organized in Bucks County as early as 1766 but the church was built in Bristol, not Newtown. It wasn’t until 1832, when this brick sanctuary was constructed, that the congregation got its own local church. The present brick bell tower dates to 1904; it replaced a wooden one that had served since 1835.
TURN RIGHT ON WASHINGTON STREET. TURN LEFT ON LIBERTY STREET.
Newtown Fire Association
14 Liberty Street
The first Newtown fire brigade appeared on town streets in 1824 as the Washington Fire Company with one piece of equipment, a hand-pumper known affectionately as “Old Washy.” In 1889 the Newtown Fire Association officially organized; the firehouse seen today was the second on the site and third in the borough. It was constructed in 1901 and features the 800-pound fire bell from is predecessor. When modern bays were added in the 1950s the 1901 firehouse was turned into a museum and meeting rooms.
35 Liberty Street
Wesley Hall carries the name of John Wesley, the fonder of the Methodist movement. It was built in 1846 for a congregation that formed in 1840 with a membership of 22 women and 11 men. The Methodists outgrew its first home in 1896 and moved to the new church a few steps to the north. Wesley Hall was enlarged in 1956 and is used for social and educational activities by the Newtown United Methodist Church.
RETURN TO WASHINGTON STREET AND TURN LEFT.
115 East Washington Street
Joseph O. Archambault wore many hats around Newtown - he was the town dentist, the postmaster and an innkeeper who owned the Brick Hotel. He built this late Federal-style home in 1830; over the years it picked up fashionable additions including a western porch supported by fluted Doric columns and a front porch framed in beautiful iron grill work. The house was reputedly used as a safe station on the Underground Railroad.
TURN RIGHT ON CONGRESS STREET.
Newtown Library Company
114 East Centre Street at southwest corner of Congress Street
The Newtown Library Company was founded in 1760 as the third oldest private library in Pennsylvania. This small Neoclassical building is the third home for the library and it will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2012. For the first 50 years the collection was kept in the homes of the librarians until the books could be stored in the abandoned Court House in 1813.
TURN RIGHT ON PENN STREET.
123 Penn Street at northwest corner of Congress Street
This stone manor house on the hill was constructed in 1833 by Isaac Worstall Hicks, son of Edward Hicks. Isaac apprenticed under his father and was in business with him in the 1830s and 1840s.
Edward Hicks House
122 Penn Street
Edward Hicks arrived with his family in 1811 at the age of 31 to set himself up in business as a sign and wagon painter. He did well enough to build this stone house in 1821. Besides signs, however, Hicks also painted what his fellow Quakers disapprovingly referred to as “ornamentals” - pictures of landscapes, people, historical events and animals. He became famous for a series of paintings interpreting the Bible called Peaceable Kingdom and is today considered one of America’s outstanding primitive painters. he lived in this house until his death in 1849.
CROSS COURT STREET AND TURN RIGHT ON STATE STREET.
127 South State Street
Squire Isaac Hicks, father of Edward Hicks, purchased this lot in 1796 and lived in a frame house here until his death in 1836. During the Revolutionary War that house had been used as a store and occupied by the Quartermaster Department for a time. Afterwards it began a long tenure as an inn that lasted into the 1970s. After a 1979 fire the original facade was restored and the building converted into commercial space.
Bird In Hand
121 South State Street
Records indicate a tavern was standing on this site as early as 1686 and it is considered the oldest frame structure still standing in Pennsylvania. It was known as the Red Lyon Inn during the American Revolution when George Washington used it as an overflow jail to hold Hessian officers before marching them to Philadelphia. When a Loyalist raid took place here in 1778 it marked the only action to take place in Newtown during the war. The name was changed in 1817 after Edward Hicks painted a signdepicting Benjamin Franklin’s adage, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
Thomas Ross House
119 South State Street
Thomas Ross built this three-story, Federal-style stone building as a hotel in 1810. Later on the international Order of Odd Fellows called this corner home.
Newtown Hardware House
108 South State Street
The Newtown Hardware House was built in 1869 by Cyrus Hillborn and Harrison C. Worstall. The business was destroyed by fire on March 4, 1899, one of the worst in Newtown’s history. The building was rebuilt to the exact specifications of the originaland is still in operation today. The Newtown Hardware House has been in continuous operation for over 140 years, which ranks as the longest tenure for any single business in Newtown.
107 South State Street
Anthony Siddons built this brownstone structure in 1768 to use as a tavern. During the American Revolution British general William Alexander, Lord Stirling, sought refuge here to recuperate after the Battle of Trenton. The building ceased to be an inn in 1800 and has been a private residence for over two centuries.
101 South State Street at southeast corner of Centre Street
Built in 1747 at this prominent intersection in town, this native brownstone building was purchased in 1772 by Francs Murray from Margaret Thornton, owner of the Court Inn. When he wasn’t distinguishing himself as a soldier in the Revolutionary War, Murray operated a general store here.
First National Bank & Trust Company
40 South State Street at northwest corner of Centre Street
The First National Bank & Trust Company of Newtown began modestly in a single room in 1864. After twenty years of steady growth the bank constructed a tidy brownstone headquarters on this corner. In 1928 a larger Neoclassical shell was built around the still operating 1884 structure. The same year, the landmark clock on the corner was put into operation; the four dials of the clock operate from a master clock inside the bank. It contains a set of Westminster chimes set to ring every quarter hour.
24 South State Street
William Linton built one of the finest mansions in town with the gable facing the street in 1796. It was changed to a place of business in 1916.
5-11 South State Street
When Andrew and Nancy McMinn built the first part of the current building in 1772 part of it was used as a tavern and part was used as a schoolhouse, where Andrew held classes. Not the first establishment to takes its name from a sign painted by Edward Hicks, it began being known as “The Niagara Temperance House” to complement Hicks’ sign depicting a moose standing by the famous falls. It is still an eatery today.
1 East Washington Avenue at northeast corner of State Street
Shadrach Walley, Newtown’s first settler, lived in a dwelling on this site in the years before 1750. Amos Strickland, a farmer and entrepreneur from Philadelphia, came to town in 1760 and bought the property as his homesite. In 1763 he constructed a two-story house with bricks fired in his own kiln on the outskirts of town. After Strickland’s death i 1779, the mansion house was sold and converted into a tavern known as the Brick Hotel. The brick addition to the west dates to 1835.
Newtown Borough Hall
23 North State Street
The borough was splintered off from the township in 1838 and this Greek Revival building put into operation in 1858. It is said to be the oldest building in Pennsylvania still serving its original purpose as borough chambers. The small building did double duty until the 1940s, also serving as the town lock-up. Oddly, the first “guest” of the town was the mason who built the walls, incarcerated behind his own handiwork for pig stealing.
120 North State Street
Newtown Hall dates to 1831 when it was built to be a hall for town gatherings and a “non sectarian” church for traveling ministers. It soon became a center of entertainment in Newtown. In 1883, the building was reconstructed, larger than the first, and designed with stage performances in mind. In 1906 the first movie was shown, laying to the foundation of its claim as the “oldest continuously operating movie theater in America.”
Randall Carriage Factory
156 North State Street
James and William Randall bought J. Ely Woolsey’s carriage-making business here in 1857. The brothers produced about 125 custom-built carriages each year as stock for highly anticipated spring auctions. Both sides of the street would be lined with sparkling new carriages on auction day. James Randall died in 1915 and five years later the business closed. The idle factory became a garage and was renovated in the 1960s for retail and office space.
TURN LEFT ON JEFFERSON STREET. TURN LEFT ON SYCAMORE STREET.
Old Presbyterian Church
76 North Sycamore Street
This church was erected in 1769 to replace a log structure from 1734 about a half-mile to the west. In 1776 George Washington used this church and its session house to hold several hundred Hessian prisoners captured during the Battle of Trenton before they were marched to Philadelphia and exchanged for American soldiers. When the building was renovated in 1842, workers discovered a poem scrawled in coal on the basement wall by a Hessian soldier. There are 22 graves of Revolutionary War soldiers in the burial ground.
2 Swamp Road at Sycamore Street
The Buckman Farm represents the last surviving agriculturally-related structures located directly adjacent to the Newtown Common. The barn on this site was built in 1705 by the Buckman family and rebuilt in 1901 after it was destroyed by fire. The Buckman House, an excellent example of Victorian Second Empire architecture, was constructed in the 1860s, probably using an earlier structure as its core. Across Swamp Road stood a house that George Washington used as his headquarters before and after the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776. In the house he wrote two famous letters to Congress giving the official report of his victory at Trenton - a letter Congress had not been used to receiving at that point in the war. The house was torn down in 1863 but soon rebuilt using stone of the original 1757 house. Alas the rebuilt house was demolished in 1964.
TURN LEFT ON CENTRE STREET.
Centre Avenue Bridge
The stone Centre Avenue Bridge was constructed in 1796 and is the oldest remaining bridge in Bucks County and the fourth oldest in Pennsylvania. It shares a foundation on its western approach with the McMasters House, which was built in 1833.
CONTINUE TO COURT STREET AND TURN RIGHT TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.