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The Pennsylvania Cartographic Record of Architecture and Town Planning

by Harold Cramer

Historical architecture and town planning records are important in the field of historic preservation. An often overlooked source is preserved on cartographic prints, or maps. Pennsylvania has a rich heritage of such records from the nineteenth century in four major forms: vignettes on the classic county wall maps circa 1850 to 1880; lithographs from the classic county atlases circa 1860 to 1900; bird's-eye-view maps (or panoramic prints) circa 1850 to 1920; and fire insurance maps circa 1860 to the present. These cartographic sources preserve a record of architecture and town layout that is unsurpassed by any other state.

The idea of preparing town plans or views comes from Europe where it has a long history. Town views began in the Renaissance and were an exploitation of the newly discovered perspective drawing. A town plan, with its grid of streets and rectangular buildings, was an ideal subject. There are three basic views of buildings and towns, as illustrated here. The elevation view is from ground level or a slight rise and is the usual view seen of buildings today, particularly on photographs. The plan view looks straight down and is the usual map, or layout, view. The bird's-eye-view is from an oblique angle, usually about thirty to forty-five degrees, and is most familiar today from aerial photographs.

One of the earliest and best-known Pennsylvania views is George Heap's An East Prospect of the City of Philadelphia... published in 1753. The year before, 1752, Nicholas Scull and Heap published the more famous A Map of Philadelphia and Parts Adjacent , which contained the first published view of Independence Hall , then known as the Pennsylvania State House. This image, preserved on a map, is used today as a guide in maintenance and restoration work on this National Historic Landmark. This is the most famous example, at least in Pennsylvania history, of obtaining architectural information from a map.

A distinction is sometimes made between 'panoramic' and 'bird's-eye-view' maps. The panoramic map is an elevation view showing a town or farmstead as if from a distant hill, similar to Heap's 1753 view of Philadelphia. They originated in Europe and the idea migrated to America. The bird's-eye-view map is an imaginary prospective from way up in the air. These maps provide a view of a town at an oblique angle showing street patterns, individual buildings, and local landmarks. They became very popular in America in the latter nineteenth century and drove mere elevation views off the market.

Thaddeus Fowler produced nearly two hundred bird's-eye-view maps for towns all over Pennsylvania. He was just one of many such artists, but by far the most prolific for the Keystone state. Fowler was born in Massachusetts and worked for his uncle, a photographer, in Madison, Wisconsin, which happened to be a center for Midwestern bird's-eye-views due to Albert Ruger and J. J. Stoner. Fowler became associated with Ruger for a while then moved to Pennsylvania. He settled in Morrisville and prepared town views in eighteen states and Canada over a period of fifty years. The Pennsylvania State Archives has about 160 of Fowler's Pennsylvania prints. Many of Fowler's personal drawings and documents are in the Library of Congress including an additional 24 different town prints. An additional 18 different prints from other artists, including many views of Philadelphia, are also in the Library of Congress. A compilation from eight repositories by Stout identified 324 views, some multiple views of the same town. [1] Thus, there are town view maps for about three hundred Pennsylvania towns and cities, more than for any other state.

Thaddeus Fowler drew the 1902 bird's-eye-view of Dawson in Fayette County shown above. Included are 8 vignettes of buildings, which were not usual for these maps. Of the three hundred or so, only about a fifth have such building vignettes. The ones on the Dawson map are of the Methodist Church (above), the Central Hotel, the First National Bank, a general street view, and several residences. Though small, Dawson is an interesting town and has several significant houses built by coal and coke bosses in the late nineteenth century. Linden Hall, the most famous of these residences and open to the public today, is on a hill north of Dawson and is not included on the map. Fowler has faithfully executed the look of Dawson buildings. The large stone Romanesque Methodist Church is still the dominant building in town today. There is a classic county atlas of Fayette County published in 1872 By G. A. Hopkins of Philadelphia. It has no lithographic views of prominent buildings; perhaps this is why Fowler included some on his drawing of Dawson. The atlas does contain a town plan of Dawson's Station, shown here, that can be compared to Fowler's view. As Linda Ries says in her article on Fowler: "(Bird's-eye-view) Images are studied for information about period architectural styles, settlement and growth patterns, local industries, and land use and development. They are also appreciated as works of art." [2]

A commercially successful map in the mid-nineteenth century was the large county wall map, a type of landownership map. From about 1850 to 1880, a wall map appeared for every county in Pennsylvania coming from many different publishers. [3] The first of the classic county wall maps from this period is one of Chester County published in 1847 and the last an 1879 map of the recently created (1878) Lackawanna County; however, most appeared in the 1850s and early 1860s. About half of these maps contain town plans and vignettes, which are usually elevation views of prominent buildings. An example from Shearer's Map of York County, published in 1860, is shown above. The upper right corner of the map is pictured, with title, town plan insets, and a building vignette in the corner. This large map, 60 by 60 inches, has thirty-five town plan insets and eight building vignettes along the periphery of the large-scale county map in the center. The vignettes include residences and views of Collage Hill College, a late Georgian building with an interesting design. There is a classic Georgian projecting portico in front and a matching recessed portico in the rear, as pictured above.

With the advent of lithography and mechanized printing, publishers came up with the idea of presenting county maps in the form of an atlas, which could now be produced cheaply. Large wall maps were unwieldy, and could only accommodate so much information. An atlas could be 10 pages or a 100, and easily include text, prints, and advertisement in addition to maps. Henry Bridgens created the first of the classic county atlases in 1861 by cutting up a large wall map of Berks County prepared by Lawrence Fagan and published by Bridgens in 1860. The classic American county atlas that Bridgens originated is unique, with no European predecessors and no real imitators since. The closest comparison today would be plat books. These atlases, and the county wall maps, were an entirely commercial venture; the government was not involved. Their popularity was likely due to patriotism with the approach of the centennial year, 1876, and the intense interest in land speculation during the period.

Bridgens published the Berks County atlas again in 1862. He published only two other atlases: Lancaster County in 1864, Chester County in 1873 and 1874. However, other publishers quickly entered the business. Some leading publishers of Pennsylvania county atlases were Frederick W. Beers along with his cousins Silas and Daniel Beers of New York, G. M. Hopkins, A. Pomeroy, and L. H. Everts of Philadelphia, and J. A. Caldwell of Condit, Ohio. The lithographer Otto Krebs of Pittsburgh printed several county atlases, including four with color lithographs. The only counties for which no atlas was published in the nineteenth century are the following: Cameron, Clinton, Elk, Forest, Fulton, McKean, Northumberland, Pike, Potter, Sullivan, and Wyoming; or only 11 out of 67 counties. Most of these counties had small populations that perhaps would not support atlas sales. Venango County does not have a name atlas, but was covered by Atlas of the Oil Region of Pennsylvania, published by F. W. Beers in 1865. Lackawanna County was part of Luzerne County until 1878 and is included in the 1873 Luzerne County atlas published by A. Pomeroy of Philadelphia. For a few counties, Lancaster and Delaware for example, more than one atlas was published. Some atlases covered two or three counties, such as Atlas of Perry, Juniata and Mifflin Counties from Beach Nichols, a brother-in-law of Silas Beers. Graves & Steinbarger of Boston and Philadelphia published an atlas of Lancaster County in 1899. Thus, for Pennsylvania, the age of the classic county atlas covers the last forty years of the nineteenth century. There are 64 different Pennsylvania county atlases from this period, not counting city atlases for Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton, and other cities. Typically, the city atlases did not contain the lithographic building views that appear in over half of the county atlases, more in some than others.

The atlases, like the county wall maps, were a commercial venture. Salesmen, illustrators, and surveyors hired by the publisher would go door to door soliciting orders for the atlas and for an illustration of one's home, business, or farm. If enough people signed up, the atlas was made and the purchaser could proudly point to the image of his house or business. Advertisements and glowing accounts of local notables were also solicited and printed in the back. Maps were hand colored. The lithograph prints in county atlases were usually in black and white; a few atlases included prints with pale color, usually green. Color lithographic prints similar to those in the atlases were a separate market filled almost exclusively by Currier & Ives, whose history is a story all its own that has little to do with Pennsylvania maps. The atlas prints also included panoramic views, similar to the panoramic town maps discussed above, but for a more restricted area, usually a farm or street corner. [4]

A typical county atlas is that of York County, whose title page is shown above. Beach Nichols, who was responsible for several of Pennsylvania, prepared the atlas; Pomeroy & Whitman of Philadelphia was the publisher. The word 'illustrated' on the title page means the atlas contains lithographs of buildings and town views. One such view of the courthouse is also shown above. This Greek revival structure has a tower probably derived from an architecture book by the Englishman James Gibbs, a common public building design in the early nineteenth century. This is the second of three courthouses in York. The Continental Congress met in the first courthouse in 1777 when the British occupied Philadelphia. The modern courthouse is also a Greek revival structure similar to the second pictured, but larger.

Insurance cartography developed in the middle of the nineteenth century as cities rapidly grew and small local insurance companies merged. [5] Local agents could no longer keep track of every building and the task fell to specialists. The town plan views, which appear in the classic county wall map and atlas, were adopted and amended for insurance purposes. These maps contain information of insurance interest such as building construction materials, location of water supplies, presence of firewalls, and so forth. In doing so, they provide an excellent plan view and historical record of street, railroad, space and building arrangement in towns and cities.

The Sanborn Company, founded by D. A. Sanborn in 1867 in New York City, came to dominant the insurance map business. Sanborn fire insurance maps are large-scale plan views of towns and cities prepared to assist building inspectors and insurance agents in determining the fire hazard of buildings. They date from 1867 to the present and cover thousands of cities in North America, almost three hundred Pennsylvania towns and cities are included. These insurance maps are still commercially available and are required legal documentation for many building matters. Most of the historical Sanborn maps, together with some older insurance maps from other sources, are available at the Library of Congress. A small section of an 1893 Sanborn map for Pittsburgh is shown here. It depicts a section of the 'strip district' centered on 30th Street north of Smallman Street and adjacent to the Allegheny River. The precise locating of buildings, streets, and rail lines, along with color-coding and emendation, are evident.

Bird's-eye-view maps, county wall map vignettes and town plans, lithograph prints and town plans from the classic county atlases, and fire insurance maps are important visual documentation of the architecture, layout, and look of nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings, farms, villages, towns and cities. With its many town views due largely to Fowler, its many county wall maps, atlases, and fire insurance maps, Pennsylvania has an extensive documentation of this type. These sources provide a valuable archive for anyone doing historical preservation work, and a valuable supplement to plat books and courthouse land records.

[1] Stout, L. J., Pennsylvania Town Views, 1850-1922: A Union Catalogue, The Western Pennsylvania Magazine, 58 (July, October 1975), 59 (January 1976). This author knows of three additional views, not in Stout, of Highspire, Nanticoke, and Philadelphia. Stout includes repositories for each town view. The Library of Congress holdings are on the Internet at their Panoramic Maps site. A finding aid listing Pennsylvania Archive holdings is available at their Internet site.

[2] Ries, Linda A., Pennsylvania Places Through the Bird's-eye Views of T. M. Fowler, Pennsylvania Heritage 21(1) 1995.

[3] A list of the classic county wall maps and atlases can be found on this website.

[4] A list of the Pennsylvania county atlases and most of the city atlases can be found in LeGear, Clara. E. (Ed.), United States Atlases. A List of National, State, County, City, and Regional Atlases in the Library of Congress. Vol. I 1950, Vol. II 1953. Reprinted by Martino Fine Books, Mansfield Centre, CT 1999.

[5] A discussion of fire insurance maps can be found in Chapter 16, Urban Plans and Atlases, of Ristow, Walter W., American Maps and Mapmakers - Commercial Cartography in the Nineteenth Century, Wayne State University Press, Detroit 1985. The Library of Congress historical insurance map collection is available in microfilm at some state libraries.

Copyright 2003 by Harold Cramer. All rights reserved.


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