Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

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Preserving Titusville: The Birthplace of The Oil Industry Finds A Path Towards Saving Its Historic Architecture

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by Abigail Watson-Popescu 

As a child growing up in Titusville the first thing you are taught about your hometown is that Edwin Drake struck oil here on August 27, 1859. The thing you notice, though, is that your town feels very different from other towns. With wrought iron fences lining slate sidewalks, horse hitching posts and carriage mounting blocks dotting the streets, and gigantic Victorian houses abounding there is a feeling of actually living in another time.

As the birthplace of the modern petroleum industry, Titusville is one of the most historically significant towns in Western Pennsylvania. Architecturally, the town displays a remarkable compendium of popular nineteenth century American styles such as Italianate, Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, and Colonial Revival.

Victorian Homes on Main Street, Titusville, Crawford County, 2016. Photo courtesy of Abigail Watson-Popescu.

Victorian Homes on Main Street, Titusville, Crawford County, 2016. Photo courtesy of Abigail Watson-Popescu.

View of Main Street, Titusville, Crawford County, 2016. Photo courtesy of Abigail Watson-Popescu.

View of Main Street, Titusville, Crawford County, 2016. Photo courtesy of Abigail Watson-Popescu.

Although the oil boom petered out in the 1870s, Titusville successfully stabilized itself economically by developing other industry related to the producing, transporting, and selling of oil. The wealth that came about from petroleum related industries resulted in the construction of a great many incredible Victorian commercial and residential buildings. Early on, Titusville residents had a vision for this idyllic rural town. They yearned for community permanence and were optimistic that the town had moved beyond the boom/bust cycle, which resulted in a more orderly approach to town planning. As Brian Black’s fine book, Petrolia: The Landscape of America’s First Oil Boom points out, the residents of Titusville, tired of the raucous troubles associated with boomtown life, established “community committees” to control the planning and development aspects of the town in 1865 after a national cholera epidemic.[1] Titusville was designed to be the ideal nineteenth century streetscape that we see today: flat and walk-able, with wide tree lined streets forming a grid, dotted with several beautiful green parks. There is an orderly flow between the shaded, peaceful residential Main Street and the commercial and industrial sections beyond. The Victorian plan of the town continues to shape the way we live and move about today.

Birds eye view of the city of Titusville, Crawford County, Pennsylvania 1871.

Birds eye view of the city of Titusville, Crawford County, Pennsylvania 1871. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Ruger, A. Chicago Lithographing Co. (Chicago) Chicago Lithographing Co. (1871) https://lccn.loc.gov/73694524

While the inhabitants of Titusville after the oil boom placed the town on a path of order and stability with regards to city planning, the intervening years have not been necessarily kind to the Victorian intentions. Over the course of the twentieth century, with the tumultuous ups and downs of the manufacturing sector typical of any rust belt city or town, Titusville was unable to maintain several of the grand Victorian buildings that made it so remarkable. There have been great losses, not all in the distant past: The Citizens Bank Flatiron-style building demolished in 1966 to build a strip mall (according to the Titusville Herald), The Colonel Drake Hotel, which was sold and torn down in 1998 to make way for a CVS Pharmacy, and The Odd Fellows Building in 2009, an anchor building on a corner torn down to make way for a parking lot.[2]

Citizens Bank (Flatiron Building), Spring & Diamond Streets, Titusville, Crawford County, 1873. Courtesy of PHMC, Drake Well Museum, Titusville, PA

Citizens Bank (Flatiron Building), Spring & Diamond Streets, Titusville, Crawford County, 1873.
Courtesy of PHMC, Drake Well Museum, Titusville, PA

Some destruction has not been intentional, however. Most significantly, on March 18, 2015 Titusville very nearly lost its most important historic commercial building to fire. Built in 1877, the Towne Square Building, historically known as the Chase and Stewart Block, is now owned by the Titusville Redevelopment Authority. Home to Titusville’s popular Blue Canoe Brewery, the building became engulfed in flames when a fire in an adjoining building reignited. This was a truly unfortunate turn of events, as the Redevelopment Authority had just wrapped up a successful multi-year rehabilitation project of the building. The building sustained nearly 2 million gallons of water, smoke damage, as well as the loss of the entire fourth floor (including a mansard-style shingled parapet with window detailing). Yet, the Redevelopment Authority decided to rehabilitate, once again, this important historic building that had served as the hub of the community.[3] After standing helplessly on the sidewalk watching fire engulf their beloved downtown building, Titusville’s citizens came out in droves to vocally and financially support the effort to rehabilitate Towne Square. As of this writing, The Blue Canoe Brewery has opened for business to the delight of its many fans far and wide!

Towne Square/Chase and Stewart Block Pre-2015 Fire, Titusville, Crawford County, 2010.

Towne Square/Chase and Stewart Block Pre-2015 Fire, Titusville, Crawford County, 2010.

The fire ignited a sense of urgency among Titusville’s citizens about how vulnerable the remaining historic architecture is, and has spurred an effort to take the steps towards historic preservation that have eluded the town for so many years. The City of Titusville has a large historic district that was listed on the National Register in 1985. The Titusville Planning Commission has spent many years attempting to identify how best to deal with the historic overlay district that exists on the zoning map, yet holds no legal protections. After many years of investigation, the Planning Commission recommended that City Council decide the next step towards preserving our historic district. With discussion playing out in the town newspaper and at City Council meetings, there was something of a sea change among town residents. Many people came out to vocalize their support for the preservation of Titusville’s historic buildings. Indeed, the Council did vote 4-1 to apply for a Keystone Historic Preservation Grant to procure design guidelines. It is the hopes of lifelong residents and preservationists like myself that the design guideline process will result in a lot of public input and feedback on the best way forward to protect the historical structures that make up our town—one that is truly a unique snapshot of a momentous era of American industrial history.

[1] Black, Brian, Petrolia: The Landscape of America’s First Oil Boom. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 132-133.

[2] Weber, David. Photo Captions. The Titusville Herald, June 14, 2007.

[3] http://www.tcda.org/townesquare.php

 

 

The author of today’s post is Abigail Watson-PopescuHere is a little bit about her…

While my higher education background is in English Literature, I was introduced to historic preservation eight years ago as a volunteer for the Oil Region Alliance’s Ida Tarbell House restoration project. In the time since, I have acquired an AAS degree in Building Preservation/Restoration from Belmont College in St. Clairsville, OH. I am a member of the Titusville Planning Commission, a group of five individuals appointed by City Council to address and make recommendations on various planning matters in the town.

Author: Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office occassionally asks our partners to share their news, successes, challenges, and perspectives on historic preservation matters in Pennsylvania.

2 Comments

  1. A very nice read on my 65th birthday! Well written; exceptional style, grammar, punctuation, and usage. We must all realize the great sacrifices that were bestowed upon us by the pioneers, family, and the many strangers that helped settled Titusville, Pennsylvania. A very proud, and authentic locale.

  2. What a great article. Interesting background on Titusville’s architecture & planning. So glad the commitment to preservation continues despite the recent losses.

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