Reinhardt Dempwolf viewed the Capitol Theatre design, building at right, as his favorite. The complex is seen here in 2008. (York Daily Record file).
Dempwolf architects made their home – and a lot of homes – in York County
John A. Dempwolf was born in 1848, the eldest of 12 children.
He and his family immigrated from Germany to America and later made their home in York County. Well, really, he made a many homes in York County.
The young Dempwolf started his career in carpentry in York, reminding you of another carpenter/artist who has shaped York County legacy – Lewis Miller.
Dempwolf moved beyond making things to designing buildings after his education at Cooper Union in New York.
He initially was headed for a big-city architectural career. But philanthropist Samuel Small stepped in and convinced the young architect to ply his craft in York in the mid-1870s.
In that 50-year period, his firm drafted York and York County’s skyline and produced a legion of associates who started firms of their own to design points on the county’s horizon.
His work reached into other states, and some estimates place the versatile firm’s design work at about 500 churches, schools, banks, houses and industrial buildings. A York County History Center inventory of Dempwolf drawings lists 428 designs.
York architect Mark Shermeyer is an expert on the firm’s work, studying Dempwolf buildings for about four decades.
So it’s fitting that he’s working on a current structural challenge at the Dempwolf-designed Centre Presbyterian Church in New Park.
He presented about Centre Church and a host of other Dempwolf-designed buildings for more than 90 minutes recently in the New Park sanctuary. Even at that, his engaging presentation on the ever-adapting Dempwolf firm covered only a fraction of its buildings.
8 quick points about the Dempwolfs
I’ve captured here 8 among scores of interesting points from Shermeyer’s presentation about Dempwolf buildings:
- In the late 1800s, Reinhardt Dempwolf bought and remodeled the residence of York businessman William C. Goodridge, a former enslaved man and Underground Railroad operator. A Dempwolf descendent told Shermeyer that in extensively remodeling the East Philadelphia Street home, workers found ladders, hidden spaces, passages in walls and other reminders of the house as an Underground Railroad station. The home is known as the Goodridge Freedom Center today.
- If the versatile Dempwolf firm had one specialty, it was the design of churches. The firm’s body of work in this 50-year period could be bracketed between its first church – First St. John’s on West King Street in York – and its last – Union Lutheran Church on West Market Street.
- The consensus of those who remember York City Market on South Duke Street, with its 140-foot-high tower, is that Central Market, another Dempwolf design, pales in comparison. That markethouse with its Dempwolf-designed neighbor, York Collegiate Institute, were demolished in the 1960s. A park and a service station sit on their footprint today, but the block has not changed significantly since the buildings came down.
- The Dempwolfs crafted features distinctive to their firm. Its architects designed turrets for buildings specifically in town squares. For example, the old Colonial Hotel on York’s Continental Square was built with a turret atop a seven-story conical structure. Today, the building stands on the square’s southwest angle but the turret is gone, succumbing to fire decades ago.
- Reinhardt Dempwolf’s designs sometimes sported a lion – the fountain in front of the York County Administrative Center is an example.
- Sometimes, the firm would design a building – or at least sketch it out – and it was never built. Such was the case in the Highland Inn associated with Highland Park in West Manchester Township. The park, built to boost trolley ridership in off-peak periods in the 1890s, was shortlived and is now covered by a quarry.
- The European-trained Reinhardt Dempwolf considered the Jackson Theatre, now the Capitol Theatre on North George Street with its bold façade, as his best design.
- The Dempwolfs even designed outhouses as part of their work on main buildings. The firm designed the Princess Street School in York, with an outhouse in the rear. And their work on Centre Presbyterian includes twin outhouses with similar design details as the main building that stands today.
Centre Church reflected its community
As Mark Shermeyer was providing insights in New Park about Centre Presbyterian and other buildings, you could look around the sanctuary and see the thought, detail, beauty and durability that the Dempwolfs poured into their projects.
The cupola above the spectacular chandelier, for example, was more than ornamentation. As Shermeyer noted, it was a part of a ventilation system when opened, an early form of air conditioning.
With change orders, the church paid almost $15,000 to construct the building in 1888.
“A lot of money for a country church,” Shermeyer told the audience.
When we think about York County’s past, we often turn to the hard times. We’ve had them – and some York countians still face great need.
But this beautiful New Park church coming from the minds and drafting tables of noted designers is a reminder that well-watered York County has long been blessed with rich soil and hearty residents who were able to till it.
Those southeastern York County farmers, like other Dempwolf clients, appreciated beauty as well as things that would last. They also might have considered giving – sometimes called tithing or giving 10% of their income – an act of worship.
The Centre congregation opted for costly stone construction rather than brick, brownstone sills instead of wood and stained-glass windows instead of plain colored glass, according to the church’s history.
The Dempwolfs, with the same view of the aesthetics and utility, toiled in an area tailor-made, or maybe we should say shovel-ready, for their talents.
Today, hundreds of Dempwolf buildings stand in York and in towns and the countryside as a testament to an era in pursuit of beauty, utility and durability that would have to be classified as York County’s finest artistic moment.