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Working together to save York County history

Before--buildings at Market and Water (later Pershing) in 1918, decorated for end of World War I
Before–buildings at Market and Water (later Pershing) in 1918, decorated for end of World War I

During--restoration work going on in 1961.
During–restoration work going on in 1961.

After--restoration complete, c. 1964.
After–restoration complete, c. 1964.

My previous post on the 50th anniversary of the Golden Plough Tavern and General Gates House restorations gave a few highlights of the “smallest urban renewal project in the country.”

See below for more on the story from my recent York Sunday News column. It relates how the whole community, including government, came together to save these significant properties from an imminent tax sale and turn them into a nationally acclaimed historic site.

The Gates and Plough restorations, along with the replica Colonial Court House, make a nice break in the streetscape of storefronts on West Market Street. As I mentioned in a previous post, saving these properties and turning them into a showcase of our heritage is even more remarkable when you consider that this was done in an era where modernism was often more revered than preservation.

Today there seems to be a renewal of cooperation to rejuvenate downtown York. It is nice to have a reminder of our very early heritage in its midst, a reminder that we can accomplish much more by working together.

Team effort rescued York historic sites

Fifty years ago the York County community came together to save from demolition two significant historic buildings, the Golden Plough Tavern and General Gates House. Now restored and sitting side-by-side on their original sites on West Market Street, they offer a look at the York County of 250 years ago.

Individuals, organizations and government at all levels pitched in funds and uncounted volunteer hours for the project, especially astounding in the early 1960s, when countless old buildings came down for modern replacements.

Clippings at York County Heritage Trust, mostly from the Gazette and Daily, trace the story.

On July 12, 1958 the federal Housing and Home Finance Agency informed York Mayor Fred Schiding that the “long discussed plan for saving the historical landmark” on West Market Street should be “executed without delay.” Interest was focused on the residence of General Horatio Gates, head of the Board of War during the 1777-78 stay of Continental Congress here, citing Lafayette’s alleged toast there to Washington, thwarting the so-called Conway Cabal to replace Washington with Gates as head of the Continental Army.

Three days later the Gazette reported: “Gates House on Upset Sale List,” one of a group of 11 properties at Market and Pershing set for sale August 2 because of nearly $13,000 of back taxes owed by the J. R. Spangler estate. The York Tax Claim Bureau said it would withhold the sale with written assurance that taxes would be paid. Just in time, an August 1, 1958 headline read: “Gates House Removed from Tax Sales List.” City and county governments and York school district all requested that the tax sale be halted to find a way to fund restoration.

A week later the mayor asked council to approve $2,000 for planning a Gates House restoration, even though some thought the location of the 11 houses should be turned into municipal parking. By March 12, 1959 the Planning Commission recommended that York Redevelopment Authority acquire the historic Market street site and clear surrounding buildings through a federally-aided urban renewal project. Jesse Naile, planning director for both the city and the York Redevelopment Authority, pointed out: “One it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

Organizations, such as the Conservation Society of York County, asked the city to buy the buildings, offering to help with labor and fundraising. By now it was realized that an extremely rare mid-18th century example of log and half-timber construction lurked under the dingy clapboards of the corner building (Plough Tavern).

The Historical Society of York County (now part of York County Heritage Trust) jumped in. Although in the midst of its own $600,000 relocation campaign, HSYC Director Daniel Porter did extensive research on the sites, producing a report that preservation was warranted on the architecture alone of the “sagging structures.” He also said that HSYC would be willing to administer a restoration program for the Gates House and Plough Tavern if outside funds were raised.

Soon, in May 1959, [State Senator Harry] “Seyler Asks State to Acquire Three Historic Buildings: Bill is introduced in Senate authorizing Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to acquire and restore buildings at corner of Market and Pershing.” Seyler’s bill didn’t get out of committee because “there isn’t enough money” in the Governor’s budget.

The York Redevelopment Authority would request federal aid to buy the buildings from the Spangler estate if assured that someone would buy back the sites and restore them. All 11 buildings were described many times as “dilapidated.” The plan was to restore the Gates House, Plough Tavern and an early-19th century fieldstone house that fronted on Pershing Avenue right behind the tavern. That building was later deemed not restorable.

In July the Chamber of Commerce considered buying the Gates site, but: “The tentative plan reportedly calls for erecting a new building on the site, with useable portions of the Gates house for the façade.” Most officials and the public, however, still supported full restoration, as indicated by a noontime poll taken on mid-summer Fridays on the square by members of “Youth on Call,” a local jobs for youth initiative. Of 835 individuals polled, 598 were for restoration, 96 opposed and 141 had no comment.

The window to obtain the properties was fast closing, but on October 24 the Gazette announced: “City May Restore Gates House, Tavern if No Other Sources Take Over Project. The city probably will restore the historic Gates house, Plough tavern and Fieldstone house if no non-profit or public organization can be found to do the job within a year after the properties are made available, according to a resolution passed unanimously by city council yesterday.” This provided the assurance needed by the York Redevelopment Authority to file the federal aid application to buy the land. The authority proceeded, still seeking a non-profit group to take over the buildings and restore them.

In January 1960 the York Junior Service League became very active in the movement to save the historic buildings, rallying community leaders and organizations. By the time the July 14, 1960 Gazette published “Federal Funds for Gates House, Plough Tavern Work Approved,” the Junior League had initiated founding a non-profit organization., Historic York County, to restore the buildings. The Authority purchased the properties, assessed at $110,000, for $85,000, mostly with federal grants and loans and some state participation. At about .04 acre, it became known as the nation’s smallest urban renewal project.

The generosity of organizations and individuals allowed the work to go forward. Historic York County engaged well-known restoration architect G. Edwin Brumbaugh, and after over three years of exploratory demolition and careful reconstruction, using centuries old techniques, the Gates House and Golden Plough Tavern opened for visitors June 6, 1964. Two years later Historic York County merged with the Historical Society of York County. Guided tours of the buildings as well as the reconstructed Colonial Courthouse are typically offered Tuesday through Saturday, at 10 and 11 a.m. and 1, 2, and 3 p.m.