A Look Back in History: Travelling historic roads and bearing witness to architecture in our rural countryside

English architecture, German builders, the 1783 Georgian Hottenstein Mansion is limestone with red sandstone accents located in Maxatawny Township but the simplicity of these keystone crowned window lintels allows attention to be focused on the stylish doorway; the only unit of the facade that is different from the other nine windows. Also of note, are the Dutch doors.
English architecture, German builders, the 1783 Georgian Hottenstein Mansion is limestone with red sandstone accents located in Maxatawny Township but the simplicity of these keystone crowned window lintels allows attention to be focused on the stylish doorway; the only unit of the facade that is different from the other nine windows. Also of note, are the Dutch doors. Submitted photo - Courtesy American Folklife Institute Collection

No matter what one’s station in life in America during Colonial times, there was room for all to make a home and seek happiness if they were able to meet the challenge. That so many of our ancestors exceeded in not only meeting that challenge but having devotion and inspiration to provide their families with “more” than the necessities of life, had given this nation a rich legacy of extraordinary architecture. These pioneer families, who came to America and settled in the wilderness of the East Penn and Oley Valleys in the mid-18th Century had enough wealth by the beginning of the 19th Century that they were able to build impressive homes that matched the landed aristocracy anywhere in the Nation.

The hallmark of a Georgian mansion is its keystones (placed over windows) and a central architectural doorway whereby an equal number of windows and wall space are balanced on either side of it. It is the symmetry of the facade, which accented by the keystones in relief, that created an imposing structure of some grandeur. In actuality though, a Georgian mansion was not generally a huge building, but its details which can be quite ornate at times magnify its size. The most common way of constructing a fieldstone home was to lay the stone walls in a random fashion, which is, laying the stones in no particular pattern but just as they come out of the field. However, if one wishes to be fashionable, one can “dress” the stones (cut them square) and lay them in straight courses (rows).

The dressed stone method was considered high fashion in the early 1700s, and obviously took considerable time for masons to cut each stone. When one thinks of a façade, the architectural front of a building, one is prone to think of churches and government institutions with their embellished fronts. However, even the simplest stone homes also had facades. Several early Colonial homes in Berks County’s rural countryside have facades of dressed stone that is in direct contrast to random laid stone, and was obviously an attempt to keep up with the fashionable architecture style of Colonial Philadelphia. The cornice trims were often very intricate, the equivalent of carving. A popular style can found on the Schaeffer mansion in the village of Oley, for example, and is known as wall-of-Troy cornice trim.

Another type of trim was known as dental molding, which was used as widely outside the house as inside on the interior ceiling trim. The most common of all cornice trim, and found mostly in the Oley Valley, this type is a slender, rectangular series of curved blocks. Obviously, the small panes of glass which were in the window sash of early Georgian mansions had the effect of making them appear large and grandiose. Early sash in the third quarter of the 18th Century had heavy cross bars but by the beginning of the 19th Century the crossbars were thinner and more elegant.

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Besides the historic roads which led to Philadelphia in the Colonial period, travelers who visited this quaint agricultural center known as the Oley Valley were often amazed at its early American trade route known as the “Oley Valley Turnpike.” Organized in 1862 by local farmers to improve commerce between the early Oley Valley plantations and the more modern development of Reading, founded in 1748 by William Penn’s sons, Richard and Thomas Penn. A well-traveled commercial turnpike, connecting Pleasantville to the Black Bear Tavern on the outskirts of Colonial Reading, this was an industrious traveled route marked by historic turnpike mile markers. Pioneers were able to take advantage of a modern roadway route in which they could pay their pro-rated fee at turnpike Toll booths, often operated by general stages or taverns, which became the economic backbone of our early American trade route- prior to the American Civil War and the modern Reading Railroad..