December 2009

Name: R.L. Gerhart & Co, aka El Capitan

Address: 341 East Liberty Street

Built: c.1910

Architect: Unknown

Gerhart Building in 1926.  Photo courtesy of

Except for rowhouses, there are probably more warehouses in Lancaster than any other type of building.  Most are straightforward brick boxes, handsome but not particularly distinctive.  The R.L. Gerhart & Company Building is an exception.  In addition to some fancy brickwork and monumental stone detailing, the building’s original contents were literally carved in stone: TEA, COFFEE and RICE,  as if the building would never have any other purpose.
The Gerhart Coffee Company still exists– its roasts are delicious, and can be purchased, among other places, at the new Expressly Local grocery store downtown.  But the company moved out a long time ago, also abandoning the “El Capitan” moniker they adopted mid-century to give their products an exotic, Juan Valdez-ish kind of flair.
But while the building’s stoic visage might now be tomb-like, there is life inside.  It is partially occupied by a cleaning supply company run, fittingly, by Peruvian immigrants.  The sign for their products, however, is a more ephemeral sheet metal.

Name: The Flatiron House, aka the Steamboat House

Address: 620 Marietta Avenue

Built: c. 1900

Architect: Unknown

At the confluence of Columbia and Marietta Avenues, right where West King Street begins its Mason/Dixon march across the city, there is a little spit of land that, on a map, looks barely able to fit a building.  But a building stands there regardless– an improbable sliver of a house that thrusts its lone pressed metal oriel towards downtown like a ship’s figurehead pointing toward harbor.  It is one of the city’s most charismatic streetscapes, yet one that drivers along its two flanking avenues never see, since traffic speeds past in the wrong direction.

The house has been vacant for years, and is up for auction at the Sheriff’s sale in January.  Built at the turn of the twentieth century as a grocery store and dwelling, it was converted to single-family use in the 1920s.  In the 1960s it became the Steamboat House, listed in the phone directories as an antiques store but remembered in the neighborhood as a coffee shop.  Carved into apartments, the building later served as a women’s shelter and social services office before its current state of dormancy.  It was last on the market for $285,000, but could be a potential bargain at auction.  The last time the building went into foreclosure during a recession, in 1982, it sold for a cool $735.