Address: 302-306 West Vine Street

Built: c.1890

Architect: Unknown

In certain pockets of the city, the lock-step march of Lancaster’s ubiquitous Victorian rowhouses encountered topographical and street grid abnormalities that forced otherwise by-the-book builders to improvise.  One of the best examples of this vernacular free-form is at the five-corner intersection of Vine, Mulberry and Strawberry Streets, where this teetering cluster of turrets, chimneys, bay windows, porches and balconies turns a hilly corner.  It is enough to make Frank Gehry blush.

Slide 5-8

East King Street (B. Leech, August 2009)

Given that Kodachrome film has been on a nationwide backorder for the last few months, the Lancaster Kodachrome Campaign has been off to an understandably slow start.  But while rolls are still unavailable locally, New York City’s venerable B&H Photo is now restocked and selling online HERE, though they expect their current stock to run out within the week.

The Lancaster Building Conservancy also has a few extra rolls for the cause, and will donate one (1) to each of the first three (3) people who contribute five (5) new photos to our Flickr group.  Email for more details.


Formstone.  Its the fake rock veneer we love to hate.  The stuff that makes large parts of our city look like Fred and Barney’s Bedrock.  In a self-professed red-brick town like Lancaster, Formstone is not something to be discussed in polite company.  Like a rash we picked up in Baltimore, or the tub of expired sour cream we just found in the back of the fridge, this infamous cement skin is an embarrassing pox on our houses.  And churches and stores and garages.  While Baltimore might be the epicenter of the outbreak (John Waters famously called the stuff “The polyester of brick”), we have no shortage of the stuff.  We try to ignore it, but there is hardly a block in the city that is Formstone-free, and in some neighborhoods it covers a good quarter of the building stock.  Its ubiquity renders it almost invisible, the architectural equivalent of white noise or the gray static of television’s old dead air.


Formstone coverage in part of Cabbage Hill, Lancaster.

As architectural travesties go, however, Formstone has an certain charm.  If you stop and really look at the stuff, there is a surprising diversity of forms.  Some is monochrome, some has four, five, or even six different colors.  There are pinks and blues and purples and tans mixed in with the standard grays.  Some have recessed mortar lines, some have raised beads.  It is a widely-held misconception that the stuff was rolled on or hung in sheets like other veneers– in fact, most Formstone was shaped by hand, on site, with a series of special tools in an extremely labor-intensive process, making it a true (if inexplicable) form of folk art.  The original 1937 patent describes how each “stone” was formed with its own batch of colored concrete, textured with special rollers, and powdered with mica or other surface additions.  Mortar lines were drawn and shaped freehand.  Every mason had his own style, his own abstract interpretation of a stone wall.  Few were convincing, of course, but that wasn’t really the point.  For most of the twentieth century, a red brick house was boring and ugly and needed to be painted all the damn time.  A Formstone house, on the other hand, had a touch of class to it.  In the words of one Baltimorean interviewed in a great documentary of the same name, they were “Little Castles.”



Name: Keppel’s Wholesale Confectionery Company Building

Address: 323-329 North Queen Street

Built: 1913 (323-325); unknown (327-329)

Architect: C. Emlen Urban; unknown

The former R.F. Keppel & Bro. factory on North Queen Street is an elegant heap of a building, half Beaux-Arts dandy, half square-jawed pugilist, and crowned by a rusting industrial spire that looks like it was conjured out of a Charles Demuth painting.  In a town that gave birth to Hershey’s, Peeps, and chocolate Easter bunnies (none of which were a Keppel innovation) the building had a long but undistinguished clock-punching career as a candy factory.  But in its afterlife, the Keppel Building has transformed into an ad-hoc cultural institution that’s the envy of forgotten industrial buildings everywhere.  Lured by adaptable space and cheap rents, dozens of artists and musicians have taken up residence within its walls, beatifying the structure through the simple act of  doing exactly whatever they want to do within it.

The building was recently sold, and rents are reportedly going up.  The new developer has inevitable condominium aspirations, but radical change does not appear imminent.  Which in this case is a very good thing.  This is a building that’s comfortable in its own skin, be it terra cotta, brick, or rusting corrogated metal.

Lancaster Station

Eastbound, Lancaster Station (B. Leech, May 2009)

As you may have heard, Kodak recently announced that its signature Kodachrome slide film will be discontinued at the end of the summer, a few months shy of its 75th anniversary.  While most people will forever associate Kodachrome with that Paul Simon song, any fan of architecture, photography, or urban history should be equally familiar with the work of another man– Charles W. Cushman (1896-1972).  Cushman was a zealous amateur photographer and globetrotter in the early days of Kodachrome, and his life’s work (available online here through the benevolence of the Indiana University Archives) is testament to Kodachrome film’s visceral, almost alchemical ability to capture the colors, textures, and details of the built environment.

Harpers Ferry, WV

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (1940)

New Orleans, Louisiana (1941)

New Orleans, Louisiana (1941)

New York City, 1942

New York City (1942)

Chicago, Illinois (1946)

Chicago, Illinois (1946)

It is our loss that Cushman never passed through Lancaster– the closest he came, it seems, was Harrisburg in 1941.  But the world he photographed– the dynamism of everyday life amid the forthright patina of weathered cities– still surrounds us here.  At the twilight of the Kodachrome age, there is still time to document the city in a way that Cushman might have done.

To eulogize the passing of Kodachrome, Lancaster Building Conservancy is calling all interested photographers to participate in the First (and Last) Annual Lancaster Kodachrome Campaign.  Dust off your film camera, pick up a few rolls of Kodachrome, and take to the streets.  The Campaign will culminate in the fall with an exhibit of your best images, along with any historic Kodachrome slides we can dig up (if you have any you’d like to share, please contact  Stay tuned for submission details and event info.  Kodachrome processing is notoriously slow, so there will be plenty of time to hammer out the details.

Groff Funeral Home

One in a series of portraits of Lancaster’s landmark architecture, acknowledged or not.

Name: Fred F. Groff Funeral Home

Address: 234 West Orange Street

Built: 1954

Architect: Henry Y. Shaub

The Fred F. Groff Funeral Home is an enigma: a monumental slab of a building tucked discreetly into the rowhouse-dominated streetscape of West Orange Street.  Resembling nothing so much as an enourmous barge to ferry the dead across the river Styx, the building exudes a mysterious sobriety in spite of the gleaming stainless steel curlicues of its Eisenhower-era signage.  Befitting a house of coffins, cadavers, and hearses, the building travels along starkly horizontal lines, from its long Roman bricks to its sweeping ribbons of marble.  Its entry portals glow like the Art Deco pearly gates etched into a flat limestone tablet looming mutely above the Orange Street sidewalk.

The building is the work of Henry Y. Shaub, a Lancaster native whose other notable contributions include the Posey Ironworks (1910, 1916), Shaub’s Shoes (1929), and McCaskey High School (1938).

Strawbelly Hill_detail_2toneLBC

The first in a series of portraits of landmark Lancaster architecture, well-known or not….

The Strawberry Hill Grocery, aka Mamta Grocery Store, stands sentinel at the crest of Strawberry Street before its long plunge down Cabbage Hill towards the old Conestoga Steam Mills.  It is an especially exhuberant example of that most enduring of neighborhood institutions– the corner grocery.  Built in the mid-1890s as an odd Chateauesque flourish anchoring a ten-unit rowhouse development, the corner has remained a grocery of one sort or another ever since.  The widow Catharine St. Clair kept a store here in 1899, as did three generations of the Stauffer family (though not of the Stauffer’s of Kissel Hill fame) in the waxing twentieth century.  The ensuing years brought a formstone skin and asphalt shingles, though its slate-roofed turret survives unscathed.  Now tattooed with ads for cigarettes and iced tea, Coca-Cola and ice cream bars, the building nevertheless maintains a perseverant dignity.  Today’s storekeepers are Indian immigrants (Mamta, I am told, means “motherly love”) who bemoan their long days behind the counter surrounded by Cheetoes, Newports and Slim Jims, and who stoically keep a small bin of fresh vegetables for sale.  They report that they are strict vegetarians (no meat, no chicken, no candy) who want more time to cook and to sleep.

Name: Strawberry Hill Grocery

Address: 100-102 West Strawberry Street

Built: c. 1895

Architect: Unknown