Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Bart Everts

Doylestown, Pennsylvania

[caption id="attachment_29324" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Photograph of historic buildings in business district Doylestown residents fought to preserve historic buildings in the county seat. (Photograph by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Located a mile north of the Routes 611-202 convergence, thirty-five miles north of Center City Philadelphia, Doylestown has served as the government center of Bucks County for over two centuries. Once a small village surrounded by farms, Doylestown developed into a bustling borough with a thriving downtown, a university, two museums, and commuter rail that carried passengers to Philadelphia in an hour.

Prior to European colonization, the Lenni Lenape Indians lived on the land that later became Doylestown. Ceded by William Penn to the Free Society of Traders in 1682, it was subsequently owned by Jeremiah Langhorne (1672-1742) and Joseph Kirkbride (1662-1736). The borough’s origins traced back to William Doyle (1712-1800), a tavern keeper of Irish ancestry. Doyle’s home sat adjacent to Dyers Mill Road, a north-south route established in 1722, which ran from Philadelphia to Easton (and later became Route 611). In 1730, a new east-west route (later Route 202) was established that ran from Coryell’s Ferry (later New Hope) to Norristown along the Schuylkill River. In response to the increase in traffic at the intersection of these two roads, Doyle opened a tavern that operated from 1746 to 1776, and a commercial and legal hub quickly developed around it.

Newtown had been the county seat since 1726, but as northern Bucks County’s population grew over the eighteenth century, county residents seeking a more central location petitioned the Pennsylvania legislature following the Revolutionary War. In 1810, the legislature appointed three commissioners from outside Bucks County to choose a new location for the county seat, stipulating that it could be no more than three miles from Bradshaw’s Corner, the county’s geographic center. In May 1810 the commissioners voted unanimously to make Doylestown the new seat.  

Following the American Revolution, a stagecoach was formally established between Philadelphia and Easton, with a stop in Doylestown. The weekly coach charged $2 and was soon joined by a biweekly route from Bethlehem to Philadelphia. Beginning in 1810, when Doylestown became the county seat, local coaches left for Philadelphia every Monday and Thursday (with return trips on Wednesdays and Saturdays). Mail coach lines through Doylestown were established in 1823, and a daily coach to New York began in 1829, with stops in New Hope and New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Rail Services Arrive

[caption id="attachment_29330" align="alignright" width="250"]Map of Doylestown in 1850 Doylestown's development by 1850 is shown in this detail from a map of Bucks County. The county seat's original courthouse and jail are depicted in the lower right. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Train service arrived in 1856, when the North Pennsylvania Railroad built an offshoot from its primary line stretching from Philadelphia north to Bethlehem. In addition to passenger trains, that branch line also serviced commercial interests, taking milk and other agricultural goods to Philadelphia and bringing industrial goods as well as coal to Doylestown. The Reading Company later took over the North Pennsylvania Railroad, and the Doylestown route was among Reading’s first to be electrified, in 1929. Trolleys also served Doylestown. Initially run by the Bucks County Electric Railway Company and later by the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, the first trolley line ran twelve miles between Doylestown and Willow Grove, with later lines established in Newtown and Easton. 

In 1928, an airport opened as Doylestown Flying Field, later renamed Doylestown Airport. In addition to private planes, in 1946 the Veterans Administration accredited the airport to provide subsidized flight training to former GIs.

In 1897, Joseph Krauskopf (1858-1923) founded the National Farm School. A leading reform rabbi in Philadelphia, Krauskopf had been encouraged by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) to build a farming school for Jewish immigrants similar to farm schools in Russia. Krauskopf chose Doylestown as the location for the school because of its proximity to the city, as well as the abundant farmland that surrounded the downtown area. Over the twentieth century, as the school expanded its programs of study, it became Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture in 1960 and Delaware Valley University in 2015. 

In the 1930s, Doylestown acquired the formerly unincorporated land to the north known as the Doylestown Annex, resulting in a nearly threefold population increase between 1930 and 1940. Lacking a tributary to the Delaware River, Doylestown eluded the growth of commercial factories experienced in New Hope and other towns along the river and remained largely agrarian outside the commercial district. The newly incorporated land consisted primarily of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century dwellings in a residential setting, in contrast to the business district of the borough and outlying farms of the incorporated district.

Postwar Population Boom

[caption id="attachment_29337" align="alignright" width="300"]Aerial photograph of Doylestown In this aerial photograph taken in 1971, the crossroads that gave rise to Doylestown is still evident, but construction is underway for the Doylestown Bypass. (Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)[/caption]

In the postwar era, deindustrialization and “white flight” from Philadelphia neighborhoods led to a dramatic increase in population in Bucks County, with the overall county population more than doubling between 1950 and 1960. While lower Bucks County experienced the largest growth in population, Doylestown saw a steady increase as well. Between 1950 and 1980, the population of Doylestown grew from just over five thousand residents to nearly nine thousand, and over two thousand new homes were constructed, primarily in developments outside the downtown area. The growth in the county’s population meant a growth in the central bureaucracy, and in the 1960s, the nineteenth-century courthouse was demolished to make room for an expanded county courthouse and administration building. 

Following a national trend, car-centric office, retail, and recreational complexes rapidly replaced main street business districts as the preferred locations for commerce and leisure throughout Bucks County. As a result, the downtown Doylestown business district suffered, and by the early 1960s, many storefronts stood empty. In response, the Bucks County Redevelopment Authority, backed by a federal grant, proposed tearing down twenty-seven historic structures, to be replaced by strip-mall-style complexes as well as parking lots. Among the structures slated for demolition was the Fountain House, a former tavern built by William Doyle. 

The plan met resistance from longtime residents, who overwhelmingly rejected tearing down the historic buildings. At a public meeting in June 1964, Doylestown civic leaders organized and presented  “Operation ’64,” a plan for restoring dilapidated historic structures and repurposing empty residential structures for retail. With the assistance of low-interest bank loans and assurances that building improvements would not lead to tax increases, the plan called on business and homeowners to improve their facades and landscaping. The project also provided parking incentives such as merchant discount tokens to customers who used parking meters.

[caption id="attachment_29336" align="alignright" width="207"]Photograph of brick building formerly used b Doylestown Agricultural Works The former Doylestown Agricultural Works, which produced farming implements from 1867 to 1967, was restored and developed into offices, shops, and restaurant space. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Doylestown’s approach to revitalization through restoration drew national praise and produced a moderate increase in sales and foot traffic to the downtown business district over the next decade. Moreover, Operation ’64 ensured that the historic buildings and layout of the business district survived the era of urban renewal. The Doylestown Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

Doylestown maintained its historic character and pedestrian-friendly business district in the early twenty-first century, and it benefited from the renewed popularity of the downtown business district model. In 2015, a larger justice center complex replaced the court and administration building from 1960. At a cost of over $85 million, the Bucks County Justice Center became the most expensive public project in Bucks County history.

In the two centuries it has served as the county seat, Doylestown saw a steady growth in population, with a spike in the 1930 when it annexed the unincorporated land outside the downtown center. Because of its distance from the Delaware River, Doylestown did not experience the upheaval of industrialization or a crisis of deindustrialization and remained a largely residential community, as it had been since the eighteenth century. 

Bart Everts is a reference librarian at the Paul Robeson Library at Rutgers University-Camden and teaches history at Peirce College.

Admiral Wilson Boulevard

Admiral Wilson Boulevard, a two-and-a-half-mile section of U.S. Route 30 extending from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Camden to the Route 70 overpass in Pennsauken, was the first “auto strip” in the United States. Originally named Bridge Approach Boulevard when it opened in 1926, it was renamed in 1929 to honor Rear Admiral Henry Braid Wilson, a Camden native who served in the Spanish-American and First World Wars. The road had a significant impact on the development of the inner South Jersey suburbs and Camden City in the twentieth century.

When the Benjamin Franklin Bridge (originally named Delaware River Bridge) opened in 1926, the accompanying egress road on the New Jersey side attracted little fanfare. Yet boosters in Camden envisioned Bridge Approach Boulevard as the flagship road in an automotive-centric civic project known as “Greater Camden’s Gateway to New Jersey.” They hoped the project would elevate Camden’s position in the region and make Camden a “second Brooklyn,” the hub of southern New Jersey.

[caption id="attachment_19277" align="alignright" width="300"]a color map of Camden following the proposed Leavitt plan Landscape architect and civil engineer Charles Wellford Leavitt designed this plan for Camden based on the principles of the City Beautiful Movement. His proposal included green spaces and wide, tree-lined roads, including Admiral Wilson Boulevard. (Camden County Historical Society)[/caption]

To this end, the city hired landscape architect Charles Wellford Leavitt (1871-1928) to create an intricate web of highways that would connect Camden to the suburbs all the way to the Atlantic coast. Leavitt was an advocate of the “City Beautiful Movement,” which advanced the idea that the beautification of cities through parks and monuments would have a positive effect on the morals and behavior of their residents. Leavitt believed the entryway into South Jersey should showcase Camden, and city boosters lobbied for a hotel near the foot of the bridge, as well as a civic center. The remainder of the Boulevard, which extended into the suburbs, would feature extensive landscaping and a park with a view of the western tributary of the Cooper River and Camden High School.

It was not long before business interests saw opportunities on the new Boulevard that would alter its original civic goals. When it decided to open its first store in Camden, Sears, Roebuck & Company insisted on a location along the Boulevard, rather than in downtown Camden. The company and the city struck a deal that modified the original plan for a civic center near the western end of the Boulevard, and instead a new Sears with ample parking opened there in 1927. Although the city abandoned the civic center concept, it still influenced the design of the store. Unlike other Sears retail stores it had designed in Boston and Chicago, the architecture firm Nimmons, Carr and Wright adopted the classical revival style for the Camden location, influenced by Leavitt and the City Beautiful Movement.

[caption id="attachment_19278" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of automobiles parked in front of the drive-in movie screen in Camden The first drive-in movie theater was opened on Admiral Wilson Boulevard in June 1933. Its inventor and owner, Richard Hollingshead Jr., lived in nearby Riverton. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

With the opening of Sears, other businesses envisioned opportunities to appeal to the driving consumer on the Boulevard. In 1933, Camden native Richard Hollingshead Jr. (1900-75) opened the world’s first drive-in movie theater on the north side of Admiral Wilson. Based on a design he worked out in his driveway, Hollingshead combined his blueprints and received a patent on the drive-in theater in 1932. The drive-in resonated with an automobile- and Hollywood-crazed public, and Hollingshead’s first night showing of Wives Beware, in June 1933, was a sellout. In ensuing years, drive-in movie theaters opened all over the country. Unfortunately for Hollingshead, most of the theater owners ignored his patent and he received few royalties from their success. Hollingshead’s own theater struggled to make a profit, as an independent theater owner during the studio era he had to pay upwards of $400 for each film shown, and many of the pictures had already shown at traditional theaters before he acquired them. Hollingshead sold the theater in 1935 to a Union, New Jersey, theater owner who relocated the screen and equipment to that city.

Other automotive entertainments were attempted on the Boulevard, including the “whoopee coaster,” a Depression-era attraction in which drivers could take their cars on a series of roller coaster-like tracks. Unlike Hollingshead’s drive-in, the whoopee coaster failed to gain national footing.

Changing City, Changing Boulevard

Businesses continued to grow and expand through the 1950s and 1960s. Several car dealership franchises found success on Admiral Wilson, jointly declaring it “the right route for savings” in a 1952 newspaper advertisement, and motels thrived on both sides of the Boulevard. The opening of a bar in 1949 called The Admiral prompted Henry Wilson to unsuccessfully petition the city to remove his name from the Boulevard, after which he vowed never to travel on the road again.

[caption id="attachment_19280" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of Philadelphia-bound traffic on Admiral Wilson Boulevard, 1949 By the late 1940s, Charles Wellford Leavitt's plans for an aesthetically pleasing boulevard were abandoned. This photograph of holiday traffic on the Boulevard also shows newly constructed liquor stores and bars along the south side. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In the 1970s a business model that had not been seen before on the Boulevard emerged: the go-go club. A Camden City ordinance passed in 1977 restricted businesses related to “prurient interests” to Admiral Wilson Boulevard and banned such businesses from the rest of the city. By the 1980s, adult-themed clubs, hourly rate motels, and other businesses related to sex work dominated the southeastern end of Admiral Wilson. At the same time, Camden’s uptick in crime left employees and customers of these businesses vulnerable to robberies, assaults, and other crimes. In addition to the clubs and motels, many sex workers lined the Boulevard working outside the sanctioned businesses. As these new businesses thrived, the car dealerships and retail businesses that had been at the heart of the Boulevard for much of its existence closed or moved to new suburban locations, following Sears, which left Camden for Moorestown in the early 1970s.

The Gateway Project

In the 1990s, the state of New Jersey and the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) proposed a new plan for the road that would incorporate the original tree-lined design with new development. Called the Gateway Project (later expanded to the Gateway Redevelopment Plan), the proposal called for the destruction of a majority of the businesses on the southeast end of the Boulevard, to be replaced by a park along Cooper River with paths for pedestrians and cyclists.

[caption id="attachment_19279" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of the Four Winds liquor store on Admiral Wilson Boulevard In the late twentieth century, Admiral Wilson Boulevard was lined with liquor stores, hourly rate motels, and strip clubs. An initiative in 1999 closed and demolished most of these buildings in preparation for the 2000 Republican National Convention. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

The plan remained dormant until the national Republican Party announced it would hold its 2000 presidential nominating convention in Philadelphia. Convention planners expected many delegates would stay in hotels in the South Jersey suburbs, using the Ben Franklin Bridge and Admiral Wilson Boulevard to commute back and forth to the city. With that prospect in mind, New Jersey’s Republican governor, Christie Todd Whitman (b. 1946), seized the opportunity to accelerate the Gateway Project by pledging $45 million to “restore Admiral Wilson Boulevard to the beauty that it enjoyed long ago.” Thus beginning in 1999, demolition of the strip clubs, hourly motels, and other businesses advanced, and by the time the Republican National Convention opened in late July 2000 the south side of Admiral Wilson Boulevard once again resembled the tree-lined road imagined in the original design, with a public park to be completed at a later date. There were exceptions: A new gas station and mini-mart opened on the south side of the road along Cooper River, and the Sears Building remained on the Boulevard until it too was demolished in 2013.

At the other end of the Boulevard, the planned Gateway Park project had yet to be implemented as of 2015. Runoff gas and oil as well as remnants of the demolished buildings required an environmental cleanup in order for the space to be suitable for public use.

Throughout the twentieth century, Admiral Wilson Boulevard played a significant role in expanding Camden’s retail center from downtown and facilitating the exodus of that center to the suburbs. Originally designed to be a “gateway to Camden,” the Boulevard became a gateway through the city to both the inner and developing outer suburbs. In the twenty-first century, the Boulevard reflects the tree-lined road imagined by Leavitt as well as a new focus on corporate office parks influenced by twentieth century suburbia. One consistency was Admiral Wilson Boulevard’s debt to the driving public. With over one thousand parking spaces, the new office park on the old Sears site would continue the auto-centric nature of the Boulevard.

Bart Everts is a reference librarian at the Paul Robeson Library at Rutgers University-Camden and teaches history at Peirce College.

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