One of the first Europeans to arrive in what would become Phoenixville was attorney Charles Pickering who sailed to America with colony founder William Penn. While Penn sought religious freedom for his fellow Quakers, Pickering sought financial opportunity in “Penn’s Woods.” He obtained a large tract of land around the creek that now bears his name and began silver mining operations. His silver ore was found to be worthless by inspectors back in England. Pickering’s financial affairs spiraled downward and he was eventually imprisoned for counterfeiting.
A few years later, a Moses Coates and his friend James Starr purchased a strip of land along the French Creek within the present boundaries of the borough. The entire 1000 acres of forest had been deeded to Chester County political figure David Lloyd, who called it the “Manavon Tract” after his birthplace in Great Britain. Starr cleared his portion of the land for agriculture and built a grist mill around which a little village grew.
After the Revolutionary War a small mill was built to make nails. It was to be the precursor of Phoenix Steel. The town was renamed Phoenixville, because the Foundry’s molten metal reminded the manager of the fabled bird that died and rose from its ashes. During the first half of the 19th century, the iron industry expanded enormously, growing from a few small rolling and slitting mills to several larger blast furnaces and finishing mills. With the completion of the Chester County Canal in 1828 and the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad in 1837 ironmasters gained easier access to raw materials and more efficient transportation of finished products. After the mid-nineteenth century Phoenix Iron and Steel became the largest iron and steel producer in Chester County, and one of the largest in southeast Pennsylvania. By 1881 Phoenix Iron Company used 60,000 tons of ore annually in the blast furnaces to produce 30,000 tons of pig iron, and employed 1,500 men.
Our walking tour will start in Reeves Park, a greenspace donated by David Reeves, founder and president of the Phoenix Iron Works, the economic engine that drove Phoenixville through its development years...
David Reeves Memorial
Reeves Park, center
Phoenix Iron Works arose from a small nail factory set up in 1812. It never produced more than three tons of nails per day, and was eventually sold. In the early 1820s, David Benjamin Reeves and James Joseph Whitaker provided a much-needed infusion of capital to the little foundry. In 1835, the Phoenixville enterprise was reorganized and incorporated as the Phoenix Iron Company with David Reeves, founder, as president and his son Samuel as vice president and treasurer and Phoenixville was on its way from small farming community to nationally known steel town. The monument in his namesake park was paid for by employees of Phoenix Iron Company and dedicated, two years after his death, in 1873.
Reeves Park, southeast corner of 2nd Avenue and S Main Street
This is a four-sided replica of a Victorian Seth Thomas Street Clock, installed in 2006. Connecticut-born Seth Thomas founded America’s oldest clock company in 1813 when he was 28 years of age. The famous clock in the center of Grand Central Terminal in New York City is a Seth Thomas clock.
Reeves Park, in corner along 3rd Avenue and S Main Street
In 1854 John Griffen, Superintendent of the Safe Harbor Iron Works, owned by the Phoenixville Iron Company, was hammering and rolling round iron for Government lighthouses. Griffen convinced Samuel Reeves, then President of Phoenix Iron, that the technique could be applied to guns and produced a prototype that was successful in Army trials. During the Civil War the company delivered 1,400 highly accurate rifled cannons to the Union Army. Gunnery like the one on display here were credited with laying the foundation for Northern success in many battles, including Gettysburg in 1863.
CROSS S MAIN STREET AT 3RD AVENUE.
Saint Ann Roman Catholic Church
southwest corner of S Main Street and 3rd Avenue
In 1905 Archbishop Patrick Ryan established the fourth Catholic Parish in Phoenixville, named in honor of St. Ann, the grandmother of our Savior Jesus Christ, the mother of the Mother of God, and the spouse of St. Joachim. Work on the new church began in March 1905 and on Sunday, September 15, 1907, Archbishop Ryan dedicated the new Church.
WALK SOUTH ON S MAIN STREET (REEVES PARK WILL BE ON YOUR RIGHT).
northwest corner of S Main Street and 3rd Avenue
The beautifully preserved Queen Anne Victorian Dismant House with a turret, several gables, and tall slender chimneys was built around 1890.
400 S Main Street, southwest corner of S Main Street and 2nd Avenue
Thomas F. Byrne was born on October 21, 1854 in the village of Carrigans in County Tyrone, Ireland. Nine days later his mother, Ann Lynch Bryne, died. Having migrated from Ireland to the United States, and with the consent of his father, the 18-year old Thomas F. Bryne entered into a three year indenture as an apprentice with the Phoenix Iron Company in order to be instructed “in the art, trade or mystery of a machinist.” Byrne would develop and patent a number of inventions, and he made a fortune in the manufacture of seamless underwear. The Byrne Knitting Mill, once one of the largest such mills in the country, still stands at Lincoln and Morgan streets. The south portion of the stone mansion house dates back to 1884. The remainder was added in 1898 by Byrne. The basement is home to the Schuylkill Valley Model Railroad Club that hosts open houses on weekends in November, December and January.
Phoenixville Public Library
northeast corner of S Main Street and 2nd Avenue
The Public Library of Phoenixville began its existence in 1896 when a group of prominent citizens took advantage of a law passed by Pennsylvania legislators making it legal for school districts to own and operate public libraries. A small collection of books from the Young Men’s Literary Union, a private subscription Library set up in the mid 1850s, formed the core collection of the new Library, which was housed in a succession of rented buildings. In 1901, the Library trustees contacted famed steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who was then actively engaged in bestowing Library buildings on worthy communities in the United States and Scotland. Carnegie agreed to supply a town Library and sent architect’s plans and $20,000. The school Directors purchased a lot at Second and Main Streets and the new building of Avondale stone and Indiana limestone with a high covered ceiling was opened in September 1902.
215 S Main Street
This brick Second Empire Victorian features a tell-tale mansard roof. It dates to 1890.
208 S Main Street
Somewhere along the line the owners of this 1885 Dutch Revival duplex could not agree on an exterior color.
F.E. Bader House
northeast corner of S Main Street and Washington Avenue
The F.E. Bader House looks much as it has for over 100 years.
First Presbyterian Church of Phoenixville
145 S Main Street
The colonnade of Doric columns are not original; the facade is a 20th century addition to the Greek Revival-styled church.
123 S Main Street
The City Armory, built of bricks with battlements atop the roofline, was the gathering spot for servicemen during World War I. Today it is occupied by the Phoenixville Civic Center.
Phoenixville Historical Society
southwest corner of S Main Street and Church Street
The English Gothic Central Lutheran Church was built in 1873; today it is home to the Phoenixville Historical Society. The Society museum, dedicated in 1980, has many Phoenix Iron and Phoenix Steel Company artifacts, including a sample of the famous Phoenix Column. It is open Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
Farmers & Mechanics National Bank
southeast corner of S Main Street and Church Street
The Neoclassical Farmers & Mechanics National Bank dates to 1925.
Phoenixville Trust Company
northeast corner of S Main Street and Church Street
The Phoenixville Trust Company building has not changed much in the past 100 years although the bank is no longer serving the community.
TURN RIGHT ON CHURCH STREET.
Sacred Heart Church
148 Church Street
During the late 1800s many Slovaks settled in eastern Pennsylvania to work in the coal fields and steel mills, including the Phoenix Iron Company. In 1901 the local Slovak population purchased a building that was being used as the town library and renovated it in a Romanesque Revival style for a new church. Its round arch window and column facade are dominated by the large square tower and broached spire. The recessed, round arch doorways face out from vaguely Gothic peaks and buttresses.
Phoenixville Senior Center
153 Church Street
The Phoenixville Senior Center began life as a Greek Revival Methodist church.
Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church
121 Church Street
The Saint Peter’s Episcopal congregation goes back 170 years. The church is in the style of a typical English parish church, built entirely of stone, and enhanced by many very beautiful stained glass windows that illustrate not only the history of the church but also honors important local leaders of the congregation. St. Peter’s Episcopal is the classical epitome of a stone Gothic church, complete with heavy buttresses, cinquefoil tracery and stained .glass windows, and ornate pointed arches. Designed by Philadelphia architect George Nattree, its Gothic embellishments and sprawling size are indicative of the financial support by its congregation.
AT THE END OF CHURCH STREET CROSS STARR STREET AND CLIMB THE STONE STEPS TO THE PARKING LOT ON THE HILL.
Whitestone was built by John Griffen, Phoenix Iron Works superintendent, in 1858. Its style is Italianate, with a central tower and large window areas.
RETURN TO STARR STREET AND TURN RIGHT. TURN RIGHT ON BRIDGE STREET.
Mansion House Inn
37 Bridge Street
The Mansion House was built in 1830 and put in more than 100 years of service as an inn close to, first, water traffic on the Schuylkill River and then for railroad travelers. Those travelers from a century ago would still recognize the building. The Mansion House is an imposing Federal structure over three stories tall with double gable-end chimneys, gable dormers, and a two-story veranda with original spool-work railings.
Philadelphia & Reading Railroad Station
east end of Bridge Street at Schuylkill River
The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad was established in 1834 to haul coal from Schuylkill County. In the 1870s, it was the largest corporation in the world. This station handled passenger service while a depot on Vanderslice Street received freight trains. The Phoenixville station once sported two large spires but otherwise looks much the same as a catering business as it did when it serviced thousands of riders. Bridge Street takes its name from the bridge that spans the Schuylkill River at this point, connecting Phoenixville with Mont Clare. That bridge at one time was one of the longest covered bridges ever built in Pennsylvania. The wooden bridge burned spectacularly in 1912 and was replaced with a concrete bridge. That in turn was replaced by the present bridge in 1997.
WALK AWAY FROM THE RIVER BACK UP BRIDGE STREET.
Phoenix Iron Works Office
101 Bridge Street
Only two buildings remain from the great Phoenix Iron Works complex; this brownstone Victorian-era headquarters and the foundry down the street. The building has recently been rehabilitated and put back to use as a restaurant.
148 Bridge Street
Frank H. Ecock opened his hotel and restaurant on April 6, 1893. He called it the Columbia House. The cherry and mahogany bar was built in London, England in 1892. The Columbia Hotel is a brick Period Revival inn built by T. D. Grover. It is three stories with an outstanding two story spool-work veranda topped by a third story single width porch and gable roof. The window treatments are typical of the Period Revival influence―half-round and elliptical arch/ accenting plain and relieving arch styles. Today’s Columbia Bar & Grille still looks much as it did then. When Steve McQueen was filming his first feature, the cult classic The Blob, he frequently ate at the Columbia, proclaiming it, according to legend, to serve “the best steak and apple fritters I ever had.”
northeast corner of Bridge and Main streets
The Irish pub is a recent inhabitant; in the 1800s this building was the home of the Dancy Drugstore.
TURN LEFT ON MAIN STREET.
Old Post Office
15 Main Street
When this building served as the Phoenixville Post Office for decades through the 1930s it had a cornice over the first floor that matched the roof cornice, still unchanged, on the Main Street side of the building.
WALK BACK DOWN MAIN STREET TO THE MURAL AT THE CORNER OF BRIDGE STREET.
northwest corner of Bridge and Main streets
This prime retail location was occupied by the John Smith business at the turn of the 20th century dealing in men’s hats, neckwear and general haberdashery. Many other businesses followed until the building burned in 1970. Instead of rebuilding, the space was replaced with Renaissance Park and the wall mural in 1994.
CONTINUE ON N MAIN STREET.
10 N Main Street
James Starr, one of the first settlers to arrive in the area, erected a grist mill and his home here, considered now the oldest structure in Phoenixville. It wasn’t nearly this large; merely a log cabin in 1732 that has been engulfed by alterations over the years. The nail factory that would evolve into the Phoenix Iron Company originated here.
The Foundry/Schuylkill River Heritage Center
2 North Main Street
Built in 1882 along French Creek in the Richardsonian Romanesque style the foundry of Phoenix Iron & Steel Company poured iron castings well into the 1970s. The fortunes of the Phoenix works peaked in the early twentieth century. The company moved into steel production, but sales of bridges soon declined, in part due to a string of catastrophic failures of Phoenix bridges under construction, including the 1907 collapse of a bridge being built in Quebec that killed seventy-five workmen. The Phoenix works also encountered a formidable competitor, the United States Steel Company, organized in 1901. The growing use of reinforced concrete in bridges further reduced sales of metal bridges. The two World Wars temporarily increased sales of structural steel, but did not stave off the end. In 1962 the bridge company went out of business. The parent company struggled on, but, like much of the Pennsylvania steel industry during the late 1970s and 1980s, it too died, and the Phoenix works ceased production in 1984. Abandoned after the decline of the steel industry and the company’s shuttering in 1987, the symbol of Phoenixville’s industrial past has been resurrected as the home of the Schuylkill River Heritage Center. Blending old and new, a unique band of clerestory windows divide the double-tiered roof structure allowing light to pour into the column-free open space. Inside, there is a huge wooden cantilever crane still in its original location and thought to be the last and largest of its kind in the United States.
The Foundry/2 N Main Street
The greatest claim to fame for the Phoenix Iron Works was the invention, fabrication, sale, and utilization of the versatile Phoenix Column. Invented by Samuel Reeves in 1862, the Phoenix Column is hollow and circular and made up of four, six, or eight wrought-iron segments that are flanged and riveted together. Reeves had created a device that would greatly facilitate the construction of tall buildings by eliminating the need for brutally heavy and thick load-bearing walls. The column also had application in bridges, viaducts, and elevated lines. Phoenix Columns played a vital role in many noteworthy buildings in New York City and the Eiffel Tower.
STAND IN FRONT OF THE FOUNDRY AND LOOK ACROSS FRENCH CREEK TO THE TOP OF THE HILLSIDE.
47 N 4th Street
Phoenixville has one of the largest collections of high style mansions built by mill owners and entrepreneurs in northern Chester County. Levi Oberholtzer and John Vanderslice adhered to the Second Empire style for their mansions overlooking the valley on the north side of French Creek.
WALK UP THE STEPS BEHIND THE FOUNDRY TO MILL STREET.
1-31 Mill Street
Phoenixville has the largest collection of mid-nineteenth century worker housing in Chester County. Most of this housing is vernacular in appearance and has little ornamentation. In 1846 Reeves, Buck and Company, which was the forerunner of Phoenix Iron and Steel, erected 1-31 Mill Street for employees at their nearby nail factory. The construction helped alleviate an acute housing shortage when the mill increased it work force to 300 men and the town’s population doubled during the mid-1840s.
RETURN TO BRIDGE STREET AND WALK WEST (AWAY FROM THE RIVER).
203 Bridge Street
This Italianate commercial building dates to 1856, erected for Vosburg N. Shaffer, editor and publisher of the Independent Phoenix, the town’s first daily newspaper.. Note the well-proportioned label lintels on the two-over-two windows that compliment the elaborate cornice fenestration It wasn’t always the Independent-News Office, but the ornate top of the building has never changed even when the lettering inside does. In the early 1900s this was the Benjamin Hardware Company and lettered as such. The original newspaper name was restored with the building.
Italianate Commercial Buildings
200 block of Bridge Street
Phoenixville’s collection of Italianate commercial buildings constructed between 1850 and 1890 is unique in northern Chester County. For example, Vosburg Shaffer and John L. Dismant, as well as Philip, Christian and Frederick Wall popularized the Italianate style with their commercial buildings at 203 Bridge Street, 224-228 Bridge Street, and 214-216 Bridge Street.
Bridge Street opposite Bank Street
Children’s Plaza was established on Bridge Street in 2008, built with Phoenix columns.
National Bank of Phoenixville
225 Bridge Street
The National Bank of Phoenixville building, with its Neoclassical facade of four fluted Ionic columns, dates to 1924. Today it houses the offices of The Phoenix newspaper.
227 Bridge Street
The Colonial may be the only theater in the country more famous for being in the movies than for showing movies. After a fire and financial reversals in 1901 the world famous Griffin-Smith-Hill Pottery, producers of Majolica, at the bottom of Church Street went out of business, casting secretary and treasurer Harry Brownback out of work. Now free to pursue his dream of bringing top quality theatrical productions to Phoenixville he used his proceeds from the sale of the pottery plant to purchase two adjoining properties on Bridge Street and built Harry’s Colonial Opera House at a total cost of $30,000. The first stage show was held on Saturday, September 5, 1903. Internationally known actor, Fred E. Wright, starred in the musical extravaganza The Beauty Doctor. The first movie presentation, a series of four one-reelers lasting 40 minutes, was shown on Saturday, December 19th. Harry Houdini appeared in 1917, freeing himself from a burglar-proof safe. The last stage show appeared in 1925 and in 1928 the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, was screened at the Colonial. Meanwhile the restrained Italianate facade was modernized with marquee and colorful lights. In 1957 the theater was used as a location in the very low-budget sci-fi film, The Blob, with an unknown named Steve McQueen in the lead. In the movie patrons run in frenzy out of the theater after realizing a creature from outer space was among them. The marquee proudly announcing that the Colonial is “healthfully air conditioned” is clearly visible in the movie. Years later, with McQueen a Hollywood legend and The Blob a cult classic, the Colonial Theatre, now restored to its former grandeur is the centerpiece for the Blobfest celebration every summer.
Odd Fellows Building
237 Bridge Street
The Odd Fellows Temple in the heart of the business district is a tall Italianate building with an ornate bracketed cornice and impressive inscribed fenestration frontispiece.
400 Bridge Street
The Queen Anne style Hotel Chester, built in 1894, had forty rooms offering both gas and electricity. The building has soldiered on into the 21st century.
DETOUR: CONTINUE THREE BLOCKS ON BRIDGE STREET TO ROUTE 23, NUTT ROAD...
The Fountain Inn, originally the William Fussell residence during Colonial times in the 1770s, was the furthest point inland reached in America by the British during the Revolutionary War. The British arrived in Manavon (Phoenixville) on September 21, 1777 with 14,000 troops. According to firsthand reports, the British camp stretched along Nutt Road from the old Bull Tavern one mile east of the borough, all the way to present-day Bridge Street. For the three days that they were here, the British and their hired military, the German Hessians, ransacked every home and business in the area. The spot is memorialized by a stone marker in the intersection.
TURN LEFT AND WALK EAST ON CHURCH STREET. IF YOU HAVE TAKEN THE DETOUR RETURN TO CHURCH STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
northeast corner of Church and Gay streets
A square brick addition for commercial purposes has been glued to the middle of an elegant house.
southeast corner of Church and Gay streets
This stone church with Gothic and Romanesque influences was built in 1911, replacing an earlier Baptist church located on the same site.
TURN RIGHT ON GAY STREET.
Phoenixville Post Office
northwest corner of Church and Gay streets
The current post office, with Neoclassical Palladian elements, was built in the 1930s.
Charles Bader House
Gay Street at Morgan Street
The Charles Bader residence is an example of the Second Empire, late Victorian style from the 1880s. Many grand homes were built along Gay Street and most retain much of their original appearance. Along the street you can examples of Queen Anne, Gothic, and Craftsman-style homes.
Gay Street School
Gay Street between Morgan Street and Washington Avenue
The Gay Street School was built in the Italianate style in 1874. Over the years it has done duty as an elementary school and a secondary school. It no longer operates as a school but the four-sided clock is still visible across Phoenixville.
TURN LEFT ON FIRST AVENUE.
241 First Avenue
The Forge Theatre, a community theater founded in 1962, operates in the former F.B. Neiman and Sons Funeral Home. Performances range from classic to contemporary, musical to non-musical, comedy to drama.
RETURN TO GAY STREET AND TURN LEFT TO CONTINUE WALKING SOUTH. TURN RIGHT ON 2ND AVENUE.
Barkley Elementary School
320 2nd Avenue
This brick building with engaged Greek columns was built in 1930 as a junior high school. In 1963 it was renamed the Samuel K. Barkley Elementary School and has been educating younger children ever since. A complete renovation in the 1990s retained the original appearance of the building.
TURN AND WALK EAST ON 2ND AVENUE TO REEVES PARK AND THE TOUR STARTING POINT.