Thursday, May 29, 2014

Collecting Norristown's Art

I think I mentioned that I've been helping the Norristown Preservation Society compile an inventory of the borough's historic architecture. For the background information, we've been using old NPS walking tours that were researched in the 1980s by former board members. So far we've got 63 photos in the collection and it's growing weekly. You can view them on the NPS Facebook page (you don't have to be signed into Facebook to see them). Just click on the individual photos to see their descriptions.

You'll notice we have a good number of public buildings in the collection--churches, schools, commercial structures--but that the majority of Norristown's fabulous architecture can be found in our houses. I thought I'd use today's Diary to share some of my favorites from West Main with you.

If you ask residents to name one historic house in Norristown, I've found that the majority will cite the Gresh Mansion (pictured above) on the 600 block of West Main. Few will mention or even know about its "twin" 6 blocks away at 1240 W. Main--the Adam Scheidt Mansion. Scheidt came from Bavaria in 1875 and built the Scheidt Brewery at Marshall and Barbadoes. He lived next door to the Gresh Mansion at first, and when he decided to build his own home in 1915, he used his old neighbor for inspiration. The house is built of Valley Forge Marble, even the porch brackets and columns which were carved to look like timbers.

But not all of the town's great architecture is mansion-sized. At 1007 and 1009 W. Main, you'll find a unique set of twin houses, built around 1880. 1009 on the left is your basic traditional twin style fairly common to Norristown. 1007 is what I think of as the evil twin--a total mash-up of styles, with a Flemish gable out front and a Tudor gable set back. There's a Roman arch facing the street and an Eastlake style dormer on the side.

922 West Main looks like something out of a Grimm fairy tale. It was likely built between 1880 and 1900, when non-symmetrical houses were in vogue. I love the curved roof with the little spires over the dormer and tower, and the long pointed corner eave. There's a slight arch over the windows echoed in the bricks showing through the stucco, and both Gothic and Roman arches on the porch. The bumped out bays keep the side of the house from being boring.

Here's another mansion--824 W. Main. There isn't a ho-hum square foot on its facade. The Valley Forge marble stones were laid in random courses, not straight lines, and was even used in the dormers (in most stone houses in Norristown, the dormers are wood or stucco).  The brackets around the roof line were place much closer together than any other house in town. The porch is all original. The shingles on the center tower vary in design, and fancy wood ornamentation caps the tower's top windows. My favorite part is the tower's onion-shaped roof.

My hope is that this inventory of Norristown's fine architecture can once more be used for walking tours, to encourage people to come to our community and see what great art we have in our buildings (and stick around to have dinner in our restaurants or to see a show). West Main is easily reached from the Schuylkill River Trail--we could put together self-guided cycling tours.

I'm going to be researching the East and North ends of town soon, collecting photos and information about more houses and buildings. If you have a favorite in your neighborhood (your own home?), or one that you see as you drive or walk around, let me know the address and I'll check it out. If you know any of the history, tell me that, too. Leave a comment below, or on Facebook, or email me.


  1. Elena, the house pictured at 824 W. Main Street, Norristown ws built in 1890 by my great-great-grandfather, John E. Comfort, for Henry C. Wentz.-Mike Comfort, Norristown, PA. It is made of blue granite from Conshohocken and was built with three chimmneys, each 16" tall.

  2. Selma Mansion? Not as sexy as the others, but of historical significance. Built in 1794 by Andrew Porter around an older structure, it is one of the oldest and most historic buildings in Norristown. Of note, Andrew Porter's granddaughter was Mary Todd Lincoln's mother.