West Chester grew up at the intersection of two Colonial wagon roads, one that went from Philadelphia to Lancaster and one that went from Wilmington to Reading. The crossroads was roughly a day’s ride for teamsters from each of the four cities and was an ideal location for a tavern. That tavern appeared in the 1760s and became known as Turk’s Head Tavern.
By the 1780s the name “West Chester” was being used by petitioners trying to pry the Chester County seat off the Delaware River at Chester where it had been since since the county’s creation in 1720 as Pennsylvania’s first jurisdiction outside Philadelphia. In 1788 West Chester became that more centrally located seat and was incorporated as a borough in 1799.
But there was no industry here, no water to power it, no marketplace. For the better part of 50 years there was no development beyond shouting distance of the little courthouse. The first to take a gamble on West chester was William Everhart who set up shop on Gay Street in 1824 to sell ceramics imported from England. Everhart’s reputation was made when he survived a shipwreck off the Irish coast, losing $10,000 in the tragedy. Afterwards he declined to accept any of the money found in the wreckage because he couldn’t vouch that it was his.
In 1829 Everhart paid $16,000 for 102 acres of farmland on the western edge of town. Confounding skeptics who had witnessed no growth in West chester for decades, he divvied the land up into building lots and listed them for sale. On the very first day he sold fifty lots and recouped his original investment. He would continue to hold land auctions into the 1840s and built over 100 brick homes on his lots along the streets he laid out and named after his friends - Miner, Barnard, Darlington, Wayne.
Like its fellow suburban county seats Doylestown and Media, West Chester never became an industrial town despite its new residential appeal. It developed as the governmental, legal, cultural and commercial focal point of its county. Much of the downtown remains intact and the entire district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2001 an exuberantPhiladelphia Inquirer article declared West Chester “the perfect town” and borough promoters have taken the compliment and run with it. Our walking tour to see for ourselves will begin, appropriately enough, at the highest point in town...
Marshall Square Park
northeast corner of North Matlack Street and East Biddle Street
The borough’s oldest park was acquired from Anthony and Adelaide Bolmer in 1841. The five-acre park, initially used as a water basin, was named after Humphrey Marshall, a noted local botanist. Rare trees, some of which can still be found in the park, would be planted here over the years. In 1886 surviving members of the 97th Regiment raised $5,000 to erect a monument to their service in the Civil War. The granite soldier at parade rest was dedicated on October 29, 1887; a brief history of the unit is inscribed on its base. The monument is sited at the highest point in West Chester.
LEAVE THE PARK ON THE NORTHEAST CORNER AND TURN LEFT, WALKING WEST ON MARSHALL STREET. TUN RIGHT ON HIGH STREET. TURN LEFT ON WEST VIRGINIA AVENUE.
100 and 200 blocks of West Virginia Avenue, north side
Much of the land in West Chester from the northern edge of the business district along Chestnut Street to the current West Chester Country Club was farmland and orchards belonging to John Rutter. Rutter was a Delaware County farmer who migrated to West Chester in the 1820s to become a lawyer and businessman. The four lots that came to be known as the “Four Sisters” were all sold by Rutter in 1872 and each contains a home designed by Addison Hutton, one of the busiest architects of the age along the East Coast. Hutton’s design for Main Hall, the first structure of the West Chester State Normal School won him these commissions. The four houses he designed feature Gothic and French Second Empire detailing and, most dramatically, all are created with green Chester County serpentine stone. A notoriously fragile building, the Four Sisters are weathering impressively towards their 150th birthdays. The house closest to High Street (101 West Virginia) graces a corner estate owned by Thomas Marshall, president of the National Bank of Chester County). Moving west is a more modest home (121 West Virginia) build for dry goods merchant Samuel Parker and two houses (205 and 221 West Virginia) constructed for lawyers, Robert T. Cornwell and William B. Waddell.
RETURN TO CHURCH STREET AND TURN RIGHT, HEADING FOR DOWNTOWN.
428 North Church Street
Joseph T. Rothrock, an influential 19th century conservationist and “Father of the Pennsylvania State Forest,” lived in this house from 1876 until his death in 1922. He pioneered the development of forest fire control, reforestation and methods of scientific forestry. The brick house was built in the late 1850s for noted Chester County attorney Addison May and is one of the earliest Gothic houses to be built in West Chester.
West Chester Public Library
415 North Church Street
The West Chester Public Library was established in 1872 and moved into its current Queen Anne building in 1888. Note the festive “Library” inscribed in the corner tower.
320 North Church Street
This handsome Georgian brick building houses the offices of the Swedenborg Foundation, founded in 1849 to propagate the words of eighteenth-century Swedish scientist, nobleman, civil engineer, and religious visionary Emanuel Swedenborg. His work covers such areas as the afterlife, heaven and hell, dream imagery, angels, and a new understanding of Christianity.
21 West Washington Street at Church Street
Schools came early to West Chester, in 1837. The first public school was built on Barnard Streetfour years later. West Chester High School graduated its first class in 1866; bricks from that building, demolished during World War I, were used in building this Biddle Street School in 1917. The Colonial Revival-style elementary school has since been adapted for residential living.
TURN RIGHT ON GAY STREET.
Taylor’s Music Store
116 West Gay Street
The family-owned music store has been in operation since 1929, although not in the family of founder John Taylor, who sold the business decades ago. In addition to being a full-line music store, Taylor’s offers 25 studios. Its distinctive “keyboard awning” is a creative use of the distinctive Pennsylvania pent roof form.
St. Agnes Church
233 West Gay Street
This is the third Catholic church to stand on this site, the first being the first church in West Chester, erected in 1793. It was a one story brick structure containing three windows on each side with a front door facing west. It accommodated 150 people.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON GAY STREET TO CHURCH STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
First West Chester Fire Company
14 North Church Street
The First West Chester Fire Company dates its service to the community back to 1799. This station house, one of West Chester’s most picturesque buildings, was designed in the Queen Anne style with red brick and terra cotta by architect T. Roney Williamson in 1887. The side tower was used for drying fire hoses.
Judge Bell House
101 South Church Street
This highly refined Federal Style residence, the home of Judge Thomas Bell, is attributed to celebrated architect Thomas U. Walter. Note also the marble stoop and brass handrail.
Samuel Barber home
107 South Church Street
This was the boyhood home of orchestral and vocal works composer Samuel Barber, who twice won the Pulitzer Prize in music, in 1958 and 1963. Among his least important, though no less beloved pieces, is West Chester High School’s Alma Mater song.
TURN RIGHT ON MINER STREET.
First Presbyterian Church
130 West Miner Street
The oldest extant church in West Chester and one of the first commissions for Thomas U. Walter, who would later become the Architect of the United States Capitol. The 27-year old old Walter gave the new Presbyterian congregation a Greek Revival temple entered through a pair of impressive Ionic columns. The first service as held on January 7, 1834 with 52 original members.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON MINER STREET, CROSS CHURCH STREET AND GO TO HIGH STREET. TURN LEFT.
Old Borough Hall
15 South High Street
This Colonial Revival building was built as the borough hall in 1912 but it has been a dining establishment nearly as long.
11-13 South High Street
The Buckwalter Building was constructed in 1893 for West Chester’s lead bank and real estate
developer, Henry Brinton. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Farmers and Mechanics Building
southwest corner of Market Street and High Street
The Farmers and Mechanics Building was constructed on West Chester’s most prominent intersection in 1907 as the town’s first “skyscraper.” The roof of the building was used in World War II as a lookout station for enemy planes.
TURN LEFT ON MARKET STREET.
Lincoln Biography Building
28 West Market Street
The first published biography of Abraham Lincoln was printed in this building on Feb. 11, 1860. It was prepared from Lincoln’s own notes, and served to introduce him to the public as a potential presidential candidate.
CROSS OVER TO THE NORTH SIDE OF MARKET STREET AND TURN RIGHT, HEADING BACK FOR HIGH STREET.
Court House Annex
northwest corner ofMarket Street and High Street
In 1891 T. Roney Williamson designed the Court House Annex. Built of Indiana limestone, it is an interpretation of the Italian Renaissance style and was erected contiguous to the Greek Revival Court House. The interior was embellished with Italian marble wainscoting; stained art glass; and decorative wood garlands, diamonds, and pilasters.
TURN LEFT ON HIGH STREET.
Town Drinking Fountain
northwest corner of Market Street and High Street
The Town Drinking Fountain “for people, horses, and dogs” was donated in 1869 by John and Mary Hickman. This was its original location but it must have wandered off for a time because it was restored here in 1987.
Chester County Courthouse
2 North High Street
In 1682 William Penn established Chester County as one of three original counties in the Pennsylvania Colony and a Court House was constructed in 1724 in Chester near the Delaware River. Population density and immigrant migration necessitated moving the facility inland. Between 1784 and 1786 a Court House was built in the village of West Chester on High Street. The current Chester County Courthouse, the architectural centerpiece of West Chester, was designed by Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter in the Greek Revival Style and opened officially on Washington’s Birthday, 1848. In 1859 the stone-and-brick Court House facades were faced with Pictou stone.
First National Bank of Chester County
9 North High Street
Founded in 1863, First National is the eighth oldest bank in the country, operating for nearly 150 years as an independent wholly owned financial institution. The current Neoclassical headquarters building was constructed in 1912.
15 North High Street
This early Federal Style building was built in 1789 and includes most of the elements of the style: Side-gable form, central front door with elongated sidelights, simple porch with classical elements, planar walls, simple exterior woodwork, and dormers. It is one of a handful of buildings that survive from West Chester’s nascent days; another is across the street, a 1793 residence that was converted to a drugstore in 1866 and remains commercial to this day.
First Bank of Chester County
17 North High Street
The First Bank of Chester County was designed by Thomas U. Walter and completed in 1837, eleven years before the completion of the Courthouse and 13 years before he was chosen to re-configure the dome on the U.S. Capitol in Washington. The First Bank of Chester County was designed in the Greek Revival Style.
TURN RIGHT ON GAY STREET.
Chester County Trust Building
15 East Gay Street
This small mid-block bank vault was built in the newly popular Beaux-Arts style in 1905 for the Chester County Trust Company.
northeast corner of Gay Street and Walnut Street
This Colonial Revival post office was built at a time when the post office was the federal government to most people and it was intended to be an impressive bit of local architecture.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON GAY STREET TO HIGH STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
Green Tree Building
northeast corner of Gay Street and High Street
Art Deco is not a common architectural style on the West Chester streetscape but there are some decorative touches of the style on the Green Tree Building, including the namesake symbols. The current building that houses luxury apartments remembers the Green Tree Hotel and Tavern that was built on this corner in 1787.
Iron Hill Brewery
3 West Gay Street at northwest corner of High Street
This building, an excellent form of early 1900s commercial architecture once housed the town’s Woolworth Store. It was built in 1928.
120 North High Street
Opened in 1930, the Warner Theatre was designed by the firm of Rapp & Rapp in flamboyant Art Deco style. The vertical sign and facade of the West Chester Warner was very similar in appearance to the Rapp’s famous Warner Theatre in Erie, which opened a year after this theater. After its movie days ended in the 1970s, the Warner Theatre was renovated and live entertainment was presented for a few years, until the theater closed in the early 1980s. The Warner Theatre was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 but couldn’t stave off demolition. Surviving are the lobby and one-story stores.
Major John C. Groff Memorial Armory
226 North High Street
The town National Guard armory is named for John Groff. Groff entered World War I as a captain and rose to the rank of major in action in Europe. When he ran for the office of Register of Wills in 1919 the Daily Local News wrote, “He is of Chester County stock, upon which there isn’t a single stain, and so it happens in recognition of his merits in civil and military life his many friends are backing him for the count office he now seeks.” He won the election.
225 North High Street
When Thomas U. Walter designed this unassuming serpentine stone building witha round-arched Romanesque Revival entrance in 1848 it was only the second building in the United States built for horticultural exhibitions. Over the next 160 years it would be home to four different organizations. Besides the Chester County Horticultural Society, founded in 1846, the West Chester Opera House, the McCall Post of the Grand Army of the Republic and the Chester County Historical Society would all set up shop here. In 1852 women’s rights activist Hannah Darlington convened the first Pennsylvania Women’s Rights Convention in the building. This convention passed resolutions promoting women’s legal, educational, and vocational rights.
TURN RIGHT ON EAST WASHINGTON STREET.
Simon Barnard Row
104-116 East Washington Street
Simon Barnard was a farmer until the age of 50 when he moved to West Chester and went into the lumber business and building houses. The Barnard family was active in the antislavery movement in the southern section of Chester County as well as in the Underground Railroad. Many of the Federal-style houses on East Washington Street were Barnard’s. Wild West show promoter Buffalo Bill Cody rented a house on East Washington for a winter in the 1870s.
300 Evans Street at Franklin Street
Sharples Works was originally built in the 1890s to house the dairy industry’s first tubular cream separator. At the time, it was considered one of the country’s most significant industrial production plants as it efficiently churned out cream products for countless Chester County dairy farmers. Obsolete by the Second World War the complex of redeveloped brick buildings has been re-adapted as residential apartments.
TURN LEFT ON FRANKLIN STREET TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT IN MARSHALL SQUARE PARK.