Monday, May 2, 2016

Short Memories

Old Borough Hall
In the last year, I've noticed what seems to be a growing trend in things not known or remembered about Norristown. I don't mean our lifelong residents. They're excellent sources of information, yet they're not often asked questions by the people who need the info, that is, our government. Last week's Council Meeting illustrated this trend, so let me correct some of the misinformation that was flying around that night.

The statement was made, with disdain, that Norristown has the largest set of historic districts in the whole state. I thought that sounded pretty impressive myself, and wondered why we weren't using the fact as a promotional tool. But then I fact-checked it and found it's NOT TRUE. Norristown's combined historic districts cover 4650 acres and approximately 3500 buildings. Philadelphia has 15 historic districts, with 22,000 properties. I think Philly might be the largest in the state, but I haven't gone through all the entries to be sure. But even if you eliminate Philly, there are several other towns in southeastern PA alone that have historic areas covering more acreage or more buildings, or both, than Norristown. West Chester, for instance ~ another county seat ~ has a total 5730 acres and 3560 buildings, 12 structures and 2 objects.

N-town's Historic Districts

But why was it said with disdain? Because the suggestion was made (by a director, not by a Council member) to eliminate one of the districts. Another borough employee said he didn't understand why the districts were so large ~ why didn't Norristown start small and let them grow? As if back in the 1980s council decided we needed historic districts, so they planted seeds that grew into Victorian houses. I guess they accidentally spilled the whole seed envelope on Main Street. You can't grow a historic district. By the time you're ready to expand, the buildings are gone.

If Norristown alone had established its historic districts, sure, they could eliminate one. But they didn't. The districts are federally mandated, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If you go to the National Register listing for historic districts, you'll find that a whole slew of districts were added to the register in 1970 or later, all over the country. The reason is that in the 1970s, historic architecture across America became endangered species. A lot of it was destroyed for development. The Federal government created these districts to save the fine works of architecture that we had left and created tax incentives for people to restore them. (Unfortunately, the second Reagan Administration removed the tax incentives.)

The front of the Norris Theater, now in Florida.
Any lifelong N-town resident over 40 years of age will tell you about the Norris and our other theaters, old Borough Hall, both Ys and other landmarks, and they'll say what a shame they couldn't be saved. Back in the 1980s, they asked that districts be formed here too, to preserve the character of our town and protect our remaining historic buildings. In 1984, the Central and West Historic Districts were approved by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, then by the Feds, and listed on the National Register.

So no, we can't get rid of our historic districts. But let's look at the good they've accomplished.
The area along Marshall on either side of Markley was once littered with blighted industrial buildings ~ the Cigar Factory and the Olde Mill were vacant and blackened. The Scheidt Brewery looked like a war zone. The building at Markley and Marshall across from the Getty station was a mess. These structures were restored. The brewery restoration was so miraculous in how it transformed the site that it was written up in a national journal. Without preservation, we'd still have blight there today, or acres of vacant lots. And not just there, but throughout our historic districts.

West Chester, PA
Let's skip down the road a moment and look at West Chester. They designated the majority of their district when they revitalized their downtown. It covers their ENTIRE downtown, something Norristown was too short-sighted to do. West Chester has turned their economy around and a lot of that has to do with historic preservation. Don't believe me? Where is Norristown's most thriving shopping district at the moment? Our downtown is filled with vacant lots and stores. Look over on West Marshall, though, where the buildings are protected within the West Historic District. The facades have character and that attracts businesses.

West Chester's historic design guidelines begins with "Visitors and residents alike sense that West Chester Historic District is a unique place." Look up information on Norristown's Historic Area Review Board (HARB), assuming you can find it on the website (it's well hidden). All it says is, if you own a Historic Area building, you have to go before the board if you want to make changes to the facade. Nothing about us being a unique place. We need to change our attitude.

Norristown is LUCKY to have 2 National Historic Districts. We ought to be bragging about them. We ought to have signs on our main routes ~ Main, Swede, Dekalb, Airy, and Marshall ~ that say "Now entering Central Historic District ~ National Register of Historic Places," and the same for our West Historic District. Signs don't cost much and would go a long way toward instilling pride in these areas, both for our residents and our visitors. Why don't we want to impress the world by showing off what we have?

Yet, in order to use these Historic Areas to our economic advantage, we need to fully support our HARB board in their work, and HARB is probably the most misunderstood and maligned entity in Norristown. In a few days, I'll post another Diary entry, explaining what they do, how they do it, and how their work is quietly improving our town one building at a time. 


  1. I think that historical districts can be a wonderful thing. I live on the edge of the one on West Marshall, and my brother lives in the Shipoke section of Harrisburgh. Will the current crop of nail salons, hair salons, dollar stores, mom and pop groceries, etc. on Marshall Street be expected to comply with these standards, too?

    1. They aren't just expected to comply, they're required by law. The ones who've made facade changes without getting them approved have been or are in the process of being fined. That said, most of the businesses on West Marshall do a much better job of maintaining their properties, and the look of the street (many add flower planters, etc), than many of those downtown or in other parts of town.