The Interesting History of our Building
Realm and Reason thrives on imagination, and we have the pleasure of owning a building, steeped in a history that captures imagination.
Our understanding is that the building was originally constructed around 1850. Lancaster in 1850 was powered by steam. Locomotives on the Pennsylvania railroad delivered raw goods and people to and from Lancaster industry, notably including the brand new Conestoga Steam Cotton Mill just around the corner on Prince Street, which employed over 350 workers. Future US president James Buchanan was returning to Lancaster after his term as Secretary of State under Polk. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 sparked some rebellion in the abolitionist Pennsylvania, and the tone had been set for the impending Civil War that would be fought 11 years later. Out west, the California gold rush was beckoning adventurous young men to seek their fortunes.
It was also the year, P.T. Barnum introduced Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale to an American audience and Millard Fillmore became president in July following the death of Zachery Taylor.
We still aren’t sure who the original owners of the building were, but we do know that Jacob L. Frey had his home and office here in 1874 and may have been in fact been the original owner. Frey was a tobacco man and was the first to bring Lancaster tobacco to outside markets when he brought four cases of leaf tobacco to New York, establishing him a major player in Lancaster’s tobacco industry. The 1875 Sandborn Fire Map shows a cigar factory room located where our gallery room now stands, although about 1/3 more narrow. His operation also included a warehouse behind the property on Grant Street, currently serving as a co-working space known as Warehouse 210.
In 1912 the property was sold to Willian H. Beittel, a merchant who had operated a produce store and several general stores in Columbia and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This would be his final store and his name still graces our threshold. Just two years away from becoming fully engaged in World War I, America was also at the threshold of a technological revolution. Electricity and internal combustion had been harnessed, but indoor lighting and automobiles wouldn’t trend standard for another 10 years. 1912 was also the year the HMS Titanic sank, and 1500 souls were lost. That same year Japan gifted America with 3,020 cherry trees, two of which still stand today along the banks of the Potomac
Beittel expanded the building tremendously. The initial renovation included the plate glass storefront windows that we see today, an upgrade from a flat brick facade, updated living areas upstairs for the family, and the room that is now our gallery was expanded to the width of the property and farther back toward Grant Street. The store he managed at this location was a hardware and pet store, and we understand it sold a great number of interesting things beyond that.
William H Beittel died in 1946, and the store closed in 1957. One of William’s daughters, Edith, would continue to live in the home above the store until the late 70s. At the time of this writing, she was the last resident of the household. We are currently renovating it to be re-occupied.
There have been a number of other commercial occupants who rented our property, but we are only the 4th or 5th actual owners of the building. It’s an honor to carry on the history of innovation, imagination and entrepreneurship.
Reminders of the history in the architecture:
Some folks remark on the slight uphill climb from the front of the building to the back. This was intentional to the construction, you’ll notice the ceilings are level. From our research we have found that this was a tactic that elevated items in the back of the store, supposedly making them more visible from the front of the store. Another theory supposes that items loaded into the back of the store could be rolled easily to the front.
When Beittel built his store 1912, electricity wasn’t an especially reliable method to light interiors yet, and you can see evidence of that on our storefront windows. Luxfer glass prism tiles are leaded into the tops of the window cases. These prism tiles were patented in 1887 as a way to effectively refract natural light farther into retail and factory spaces. These tiles were a game changer for lighting and were the standard on commercial buildings until the late 20’s when electric lighting became more practical. Before electric lighting, gas lighting was the source of illumination in the building, and we still have gas line pipes running in the floors and walls. The residential home above the store still has gas lamps installed on some of the walls.
The wooden window sashes and doors in our store-front are made of American Chestnut, a wood that is now extinct, an unfortunate casualty of the fungal chestnut blight of the early 1900’s. American chestnut is commonly considered the best furniture wood in history.