There was nothing organic about the birth of Norristown. In 1784, Montgomery County was created out of Philadelphia County by an act of the Commonwealth. A 27 1/2 acre parcel in what is now Norristown Borough was stipulated to be purchased for the new county’s seat of government, making it one of the earliest established in Pennsylvania. It took the name of an ancient landowner in the area, Isaac Norris. Norris had been mayor of Philadelphia 60 years earlier - Ben Franklin had just gotten to town and George Washington wasn’t even born yet. Norris himself was born in England in 1871 - and thus may be the oldest person for whom a Pennsylvania town is named.
Norristown was not destined to be a sleepy government town. Water power draining into the Schuylkill River along the Stoney Creek and Saw Mill Run encouraged early industry and Norristown was superbly sited to take advantage of early American transportation. The Schuylkill Canal was completed in 1826 and the Reading Railroad arrived in 1834. Horse drawn trolley cars ran through town by the 1880s and Norristown had some of the earliest electrified trolley lines in America. When the Philadelphia and Western electrified high speed line was constructed in 1912, Norristown was in easy commuting distance of Philadelphia, 20 miles away. It was heady enough for borough boosters to proclaim in Centennial literature that year that, “Norristown is now the biggest, busiest, brightest Borough in the world.”
Now on the eve of the centennial of that Centennial proclamation, our walking tour will investigate how that boast holds up, beginning at the county court house at the heart of the Norristown Central Historic District...
Montgomery County Court House
2 East Airy Street at southeast corner of Swede Street
The oldest part of the Court House, which faces Swede Street, is of the Greek Revival style. It was built as the result of a competition of 1849 between Thomas U. Walter (architect of Girard College and later of the U.S. Capitol dome) and Napoleon LeBrun, designer of Philadelphia’s Academy of Music and Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. LeBrun’s successful design originally featured a steeple that was even higher than the Presbyterian church’s to the east, and it was criticized as being out of keeping with the Greek Revival style. The steeple was replaced by the dome in a substantial renovation of 1904. The interior of the Court House dates largely from 1904, when the stained glass ceilings in courtrooms A, B, and C were installed.
WALK SOUTH ON SWEDE STREET. (THE COURT HOUSE WILL BE ON YOUR LEFT).
Courthouse Plaza and Public Square
Main Street at Swede Street
Courthouse Plaza is home to several notable memorials, the first being erected in 1868 to “the brave soldiers and sailors who fell defending the Union during the Great Rebellion.” Others include remembrances of David Rittenhouse, who calculated and observed the transit of Venus at his home in Norrtion in 1769, of Military Order of Purple Heart recipients, of Montgomery County sons and daughters lost in the Vietnam War, and to the victims of the World Trade Center attacks, sculpted with a twisted piece of I-beam from the North Tower. This square was owned by the University of Pennsylvania - rent was one acorn per year.
TURN RIGHT ON WEST MAIN STREET.
Penn Norristown Trust Building
1 West Main Street at northwest corner of Swede Street
In 1850, 24-year old Jacob Morton Albertson arrived in Norristown as a surveyor. By 1857 he was successful enough to establish his own private banking business. In 1889, with his sons aboard, the Albertson Trust and Safe Company was incorporated. In 1904 the bank was renamed the Penn Trust Company and when it merged with Norristown Trust twenty years later this handsome Renaissance Revival headquarters was constructed.
104 West Main Street
Cherry Court, now a government office building, began life as a decorated Colonial Revival headquarters for the Town and Country Building and Loan Association that was founded in 1924.
106 West Main Street
The Masons organized in Norristown in 1823; their Italianate-influenced temple with tall, slender windows, bracketed cornice and window hoods was constructed in 1854.
Montgomery National Bank
108 West Main Street
Norristown’s first bank, the Montgomery National Bank, originally the Bank of Montgomery County when chartered in 1815, was built on Main Street in 1854. It was still the only bank in Montgomery County when it was built and would remain so another three years until the opening of the Bank of Pottstown. The Greek Revival building is brick with a marble front.
TURN AND WALK EAST ON MAIN STREET TO GREEN STREET.
Humane Fire Company
129 East Main Street at northwest corner of Green Street
Norristown’s fourth fire department organized on July 27, 1852 and members officially adopted the name Humane Fire Engine Company No. 1 of Norristown, Pa. The name Humane was selected because the committee purchased their first piece of apparatus from the Humane Fire Company of Philadelphia No. 1. The company, still in operation moved into their current building in 1882.
RETURN TO DEKALB STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
208 DeKalb Street
This Greek Revival building opened in 1851 as a lodge hall and public auditorium for the Odd Fellows; a mansard fourth story was applied in 1858. Many famous figures spoke here, including Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Daniel Webster. Until 1873, when the Music Hall was opened on Main Street, the Odd Fellows auditorium functioned as the entertainment center in town. In 1868, native son, General Winfield Scott Hancock accepted the nomination of the National Democratic Party to run for President in the hall and ran his campaign from the Lodge. Early acts on the Vaudeville Circuit performed here and Phineas Taylor Barnum presented General Tom Thumb, world famous midget, and his wife, Lavinia Snow to a packed house here. In 1910 the building was bought by the Gas Company of Montgomery County and began its longest run as office suites. In the 1990s it was acquired by the Greater Norristown Corporation who have returned it to is roots as the Centre Theater.
St. George Coptic Orthodox Church
411 DeKalb Street
This splendid Greek Revival church was built in 1863 as the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran church, replacing an 1849 church. This building was renovated at the turn of the century by Louis Comfort Tiffany and boasts Tiffany stained glass windows, a Tiffany glass mosaic, and an alabaster and gilt-bronze altar rail.
southeast corner of DeKalb and Airy Streets
Built in 1850 in the Greek Revival style for William Jamison, son of the founder of Jamison Mills, this property once included stables and outbuildings extending all the way to Green Street. The original small spindly balustrade near the center of the flat roof has been removed. There is a story that the house was originally to be only three stories, but when Jamison heard of the plans for the vast church tower to be erected across Airy Street, he feared his manse would be dwarfed so he had another story added in such haste that it was one big room. This was used as a ballroom for the rest of the century except when used by the children for rollerskating.
The First Presbyterian Church At Norristown
113 East Airy Street at northeast corner of DeKalb Street
Completed in 1854, the soaring spire remains as much a landmark above the town today as it was 150 years ago. The Italianate building presents a Greek Revival façade on Airy Street.
TURN LEFT ON AIRY STREET.
Montgomery County Jail
north side of East Airy Street between Church Street and DeKalb Street
The prison was constructed in 1853, as part of the same plan as the Court House. Also designed by Napoleon LeBrun, the original competition drawings show versions of both buildings in both gothic and classical styles, but gothic was chosen here. The facade is of solid granite. There is an underground tunnel for conveying prisoners to and from the Court House.
28 East Airy Street
This Art Deco structure was completed as a Depression-era project by James Wetmore and Harry McMurtie. It has a lobby adorned with Works Project Association murals by Paul Mays and groundbreaking aluminum Deco/Classical metalwork. Note the decorative friezes at the top of the building.
St. John’s Episcopal Church
23 East Airy Street
St. John’s Church stands as the oldest church building in continuous use by an Episcopal congregation in Montgomery County and as the first Episcopal parish organized after the Revolutionary War in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. Founded during the Summer of 1812 as “The Rector, Wardens, and Vestrymen of St. John’s Church at Norristown in the County of Montgomery,” the church building completed in 1815 is the oldest in Norristown. At his consecration Reverend William Allen White, noted that “the size and beauty of the building does great credit to the zeal of the few members of our communion resident in the small town and its vicinity.”
11 East Airy Street, northeast corner of Church Street
This Greek Revival townhouse was fashioned for Elijah Thomas in 1856. It was the former home of Mary Stinson, thought to be the first female professionally accredited psychiatrist in America. She left her fortune to found a home for elderly women.
WALK A FEW STEPS TO SWEDE STREET AND THE START OF THE TOUR.