Norristown Boro, Montgomery County, PA

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Prior to the redevelopment of David Rittenhouse Junior High School (1705 Locust Street) was developed as senior apartment housing, the property was entered onto the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Text, below, was excerpted from a copy of the original nomination document.


The David Rittenhouse School is a three story Colonial Revival style building in red brick with limestone trim and detailing embodying a classical vocabulary. The school is located on a large lot on Locust Street bounded by West Roberts and Pine Streets in a residential neighborhood in Norristown, Pennsylvania. While the formal address is Locust Street, the building is oriented toward the west, so that the main elevation faces West Roberts Street. Ritter and Shay, one of Philadelphia's finest early architecture firms, established a design framework and palette of materials sympathetic to the surrounding residential neighborhood. The school stands intact from its original period of construction in 1928 as a three story building with double-loaded corridors and many original classrooms. The floor plan is roughly T-shaped with the east-west axis forming the stem of the T and the north-south axis forming the top of the T. A large two story gymnasium and a one story corridor were added to the rear in the 1950s and were removed in the spring of 1995. The property survived with a high degree of integrity despite these additions, a result of the secondary location and compatible materials. With its ornate central projection, semi-circular portico and limestone-clad tower, the building contains the representative features that define the Colonial Revival architectural style.

The property's boundaries are delineated by lawn areas, sidewalks and streets on the main and side elevations and a large vacant lot planted with grass to the rear. Mature native deciduous trees shade the front lawn area. Concrete walkways lead to the building's entrances. Surrounding houses are built in frame and brick and primarily date from the early-mid 20th century.

Characteristic of the Colonial Revival architectural style, the main elevation, facing West Roberts Street, embodies unyielding symmetry in massing and in detail. The central section rises three stories and contains an ornate, projecting central entrance with flanking secondary entrances. Adjoining the central volume are two story sections to either side which continue the symmetrical composition, materials and detailing.

The central section of the main elevation rises three stories and is organized into eleven structural registers. The central register is denoted by elaborate detailing and features including a portico, Palladian window and ventilation tower. A two story projecting classical, semicircular portico distinguishes the main entrance location. Four limestone columns support the portico's shallow, conical roof. A classical Palladian window provides light to the third floor above the portico. A denticulated cornice crowns the projecting central register. Limestone features adorn the building on all elevations. The main and side elevations are embellished with limestone at various locations including carved swags, columns, beltcourses, window surrounds, entrance surrounds, porticoes and the ventilation tower. All window heads throughout the building contain flat limestone keystones. Fenestration is provided by a variety of window types. The predominant type, found throughout the main elevation, is a large rectangular window opening which contains modern metal, vertically oriented four-light sashes organized in sets of threes. The lowest light is operable.



The 1928 Rittenhouse School contains significant characteristics and features which define the Colonial Revival style of architecture and is important as an educational institution within the community. The Rittenhouse School was one of Norristown's first schools built exclusively to hold junior high students. The building remains intact from its original period of construction, and stands in good condition as an example of the work Ritter and Shay, of one of Philadelphia's finest early 20th century architects and as a representative example of the typical design features which are common in early 20th century school building architecture.

Summary History

Norristown began as a mill site on the banks of the Schuylkill River selected by the Norris family in the mid 18th century. [1] In 1784, the newly founded Town of Norris was made the county seat and shortly thereafter, in 1812, was incorporated as the Borough of Norristown and was expanded to over 500 acres.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Norristown's industry served only one purpose, to sustain its own population. This way of living, typical of an agrarian society before the advent of industrialization and mechanical transportation, changed in the 1830s when freight-carrying railroads began service to Norristown, and shipping goods outside of the town's limits became profitable. [2] Norristown had other incentives to offer, aside from its excellent transportation services, incentives such as inexpensive coal, more than adequate amounts of water ad a seemingly unending reserve of mill hands.

By 1880, the former mill site had grown into a thriving town reliant upon four main sources: industry, retail business, banking and insurance and county government. [3] Although the population growth would begin to level off and decline slightly by the mid to late 20th century, Norristown experienced a steady growth rate which began in the late 1700s and continued through to the start of World War II.

As the population grew, so did the need for a more formal educational system. On September 24, 1834, the first directors' meeting was held, and on July 27, 1835, the public school system was accepted. [4] Before this system was adopted, most schools were run by private individuals or institutions, and were sustained by tuition, receiving no private funding. [5] Although classes were separated by gender until 1784 and by race until 1883, the passage of the public school system meant that education was free and open to anyone wishing to attend. [6] By 1872, Norristown had organized its students unto thirty-one classes. In three years that number rose to thirty-eight, all of which were kept in three buildings. Overcrowding necessitated the construction of three additional schools within the next decade. [7]

In the 1920s, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania began mandating the construction of junior high schools. The George Washington School, formerly located at the corner of High and Marshall Streets, was built in 1922 in the east end of Norristown and was originally intended to function as a junior high school. It instead opened as an elementary school. [8] This brick structure was designed in the Colonial Revival style and was enlarged with an architecturally compatible four room addition in 1928. A fire devastated the building in the late 1980s and the school was demolished. The only junior high school that existed in the early 1920s was the Thomas Stewart Junior High School, located at the corner of Marshall Street and Forrest Avenue, which opened in Norristown's west end in 1925. Built in the Colonial Revival style, it was a two story building built of tapestry brick and trimmed with Indiana limestone. It contained 26 rooms, a 1,000 seat auditorium, a cafeteria and a gym with two wings extending out from the central section. [9] Significant alterations in 1949 compromised the integrity of the structure which remains a Norristown school.

In 1926, school directors decided that the construction of a new junior high school was necessary, and on July 26 of the same year at a special meeting, the board voted to purchase the Coleman Tract Terrace for slightly over $18,000. [10] This site, located in the north end of Norristown, was open land prior to the school's construction. [11] Settlement on the property was made on September 20, 1926, and the architects, Ritter and Shay, were chosen in October. In the months that followed, Ritter and Shay presented preliminary plans to the school board, and in February 1927 final plans for the school were approved. Although a date-stone on the southwest corner of the building bears the date 1927, research into period newspapers confirmed that 1927 was the date of project initiation and likely ground-breaking, whereas 1928 was the actual date of completion.

Norristown's new Junior High School, The David Rittenhouse building, to be erected in the north end, west of Powell, beyond Brown, will be a colonial structure of magnificent design, the architect's sketch, reproduced above indicates.

The architects Ritter and Shay have visioned a structure with an imposing facade, harmonizing throughout and surmounted by a cupola. The later, by the way, will not be merely for show, but will be an important part of the ventilation system.

The school board, at a special meeting last evening, awarded the contract for plumbing to John Borden and Bros. of Philadelphia at a price of $20,354. Last week the general contract was awarded to P.H. Kelly Co., Inc. of Philadelphia for $363,369, after the board had eliminated a number of things from the plans, which it felt could be dispensed with. The electrical and heating contracts have not yet been awarded.

The general contractor expects to begin work within a few days. The school is expected to be completed November 15, and will be occupied at the expiration of the mid-year term, the end of next January." [12]

A delay in construction, caused by the heating contractor in the later part of 1927, postponed the laying of the cornerstone until January 26, 1928. [13] Eight more months would pass before the new school opened its doors for classes. An article appeared in the local paper in late August announcing that the school would open on September 10:

"The new Rittenhouse junior high school will be opened Monday, September 10, with an approximate enrollment of 800 students. Byron K. Hunsberger, principal, stated today. Every one of the 28 regular classrooms will be occupied on opening day, he said. The capacity of the school is 1000 students. The faculty will be composed of 33 teachers. The schedule has been arranged so that each instructor will conduct regular classes the entire day, with the exception of the scheduled "free" periods. The beautiful new building, which is built of colonial design, was constructed at an approximate cost of $475,000. In addition to the 28 classrooms, the school includes 15 other compartments, including the library, two consultation rooms, auditorium and other smaller rooms." [14]

The dedication of the school took place in the school's auditorium on September 28, 1928. Irvin P. Knipe, president of the Historical Society of Montgomery County gave the principal address which elaborated on the decision to name the school after David Rittenhouse. The subject was "David Rittenhouse - The Great Pennsylvanian. He said in part,

"The suggestion to name this particular school for David Rittenhouse was especially appropriate because from it alone, of all the Norristown public school sites, can be seen, to the north, the Methacton Hills, at the foot of which he dwelt and from the summit of which he observed the transit of Venus on June 6, 1769 and by the superiority of his own astronomical calculations and the accuracy of his home-made instruments earned the acclaim of Europe and America and a leading place among the scientists, astronomers and philosophers of all time." [15]

For many years an original David Rittenhouse clock stood in the school's administrative offices as a tribute to the great Pennsylvanian. [16]

A number of the school's students went on to become famous, both locally and nationally. Many of the Rittenhouse School students became locally prominent doctors, lawyers and political officials. In the 1930s, Tommy LaSorda, manager of Major League Baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers, attended Rittenhouse School. Years later, two students who went on to become Olympic athletes attended, Josh Culbreath and Albert Cantello. Both were track and field athletes and were contemporaries at the Rittenhouse School. [17]

Following World War II, a long-range planning committee was formed to oversee the improvement of the education aspects and physical conditions of the district's schools. When referring to the Rittenhouse School in the report, the committee recommended that attention be paid to the following items:

  1. Building of an additional thirty-foot, two-story extension.
  2. Moving the boys' and girls' gymnasium locker rooms to a new location.
  3. Making alterations and additions to the cafeteria. [18]

In the 1950s the recommendations of the committee were executed and various renovations were undertaken. [19] The renovation of the cafeteria was the first directive and, following a delay in construction, was completed in 1956. Increasingly stringent state mandates necessitated the upgrading of the rooms for home economics, shop, art and music. In addition, the state determined that the gymnasium was found to be inadequate for the number of students in attendance. Therefor, in 1956, plans for additional improvements to the school were prepared. They were:

  1. The construction of a new gymnasium and six additional classrooms
  2. The complete repainting of both the interior and exterior
  3. The sanding and sealing of all floors
  4. The purchase of new furniture for the library
  5. The purchase of new equipment for the home economics and science rooms [20]

Originally, the gymnasium was a two-story space that was located in the north wing, opposite the auditorium. It was decided to build a new two-story gymnasium off the rear elevation of the building and to subdivide the original gymnasium into two floors allowing for upgraded and larger specialty rooms. [21] A one-story enclosed hallway was constructed which lead to the new gymnasium. The gymnasium and walkways were removed in the spring of 1995.

With the opening of Norristown Area High School in September, 1973, the three junior high schools located in the district became middle schools. The Rittenhouse School, which from its inception held grades 7-9, began housing grades 5-7. The grades were again restructured in 1979, at which point grades 6-8 were taught in the school. [22] The school district had planned for the building to be transformed into the Rittenhouse Alternative Vocational School in September of 1981, but for various reasons this never occurred. [23] The Rittenhouse remained a middle school until its closing which reportedly occurred in June 1981. [24] Since that time the building has remained vacant.

Architectural Significance

Possessing a high degree of integrity, the David Rittenhouse School contains the distinctive characteristics of the Colonial Revival architectural movement in the region and stands as a representative example of the work of one of Philadelphia's finest early 20th century architecture firms. Strictly adhering to the classical tradition, the main elevation is symmetrical in execution and retains those essential elements which characterize the Colonial Revival style. Throughout Norristown and the region, the 1910s and 1920s brought great public favorability of the Colonial Revival style. With its large window openings, its central projecting entrance with flanking secondary entrances, and its ornate limestone-clad portico and tower, the school stands as an exceptional institutional and architectural landmark in its residential scale neighborhood.

The Rittenhouse school represents a typical late 1920s public school building. Its overall design embodies the mainstream educational philosophies of its day with its specialized rooms for art, music, home economics, mechanical drawing and shop. The elaborate central entrance, for use only by teachers and parents, the girls' entrance to the south near the auditorium, and the boys' entrance to the north, near the gymnasium represent common early 20th century traditions. As was customary, the administrative offices were centrally located at the intersection of the main axes. The Rittenhouse School was one of the largest schools built in the district and it served all of the neighborhoods in the north end of Norristown. Its prominence within the neighborhood is further accentuated by its setting, occupying the entire city block.

Verus Taggart Ritter and Howell L. Shay established a partnership in 1920 under the name Ritter and Shay, a firm which designed a number of commercial, office and school buildings in and around Philadelphia. [25] Their career spanned a decade and a half, dissolving circa 1936 with the years immediately prior to the Great Depression being their busiest.

The firm of Ritter and Shay was one of Philadelphia's finest architecture firms in the early 20th century. They designed a number of commercial, office and school buildings, and were well known for their Philadelphia skyscrapers, most notably the Packard Building at 111 S 15th Street, the Francis Drake Hotel at 1512 Spruce Street, and the United States Custom House at 2nd and Chestnut Streets. Between 1919 and 1930 the firm designed more than thirty school buildings. Ritter was raised in north-central Pennsylvania, first Muncy and later Williamsport, and many of Ritter and Shay's early commissions were obtained through his central Pennsylvania connections. [26] By the mid-1920s the majority of their school commissions were in the Philadelphia suburbs. Among these were the Pottstown High School, Springfield (Montgomery County) High School, Darby High School, Upper Merion Junior High School and the Phoenixville Junior High School. The firm was known for their sensitive mixing of traditional architectural forms with progressive construction methods and materials. Their buildings represent the popular architectural styles of their period. Most often they designed in the Colonial Revival and Art Deco styles. They exhibited a strong preference for the Colonial Revival style for use in school buildings, perhaps to evoke a sense of tradition.

In 1926 the Norristown School District retained Ritter and Shay to propose a design for the David Rittenhouse School. The Rittenhouse School was designed in the middle point of their career, begun in 1927 and completed in 1928. In 1927 Ritter and Shay were retained by at least four other school boards to design, add to, or alter school buildings.

During the 1910s-1920s the federal government passed legislation to expand curriculums to improve education in the fields of agriculture, industry or trade and home economics. This brought the need for designated rooms in the schools for these specialized programs. Changes were seen on a regional level as small, unspecialized schools created under decentralized school systems were replaced by larger, specialized schools built by centralized administrative systems. The need for specialization in school design led to the development of specialized architecture firms, made up of architects who exclusively sought school commissions. While Ritter and Shay were most regarded for their Philadelphia skyscrapers, considering the high percentage of schools that made up their total commissions by the mid-1920s, they were certainly a leading school design firm in the region.

The influence of the architects on school building design was immediately apparent. These school architects sought to achieve efficiency in plan while designing multi-purpose schools that could be used for educational as well as social functions. Accordingly, the auditorium evolved as its own designated space, as did large rooms for the new non-traditional classes. To achieve this blend, changes came about such as improved circulation, the departure from the single to 10' wide double loaded corridor and the isolation of the auditorium and its arrangement to the stairs and exits for after school usage.

Ritter and Shay adhered to the construction methods that were developing as standards during the period, particularly to meet the newly established fire codes. Modern building codes necessitated the construction of enclosed stair halls, the utilization of fireproof materials and methods of construction and adequate means for egress in addition to numerous other stipulations. The design also included such features such as masonry construction, terra-cotta block fireproofing and the enclosing of stair towers. [27] The 1920s and 1930s brought additional requirements for light and air. Ritter and Shay's seemingly decorative tower actually functioned as a ventilation unit. The floor plan further emulates the characteristics typical of schools of the period. The school is laid out in an axial plan, a critical component as established by leading school designers who sought to bring a more traditional means of organization and hierarchy to school buildings. Ritter and Shay's typical classroom is rectangular in shape and comprises approximately 800 square feet with one wall of windows and the other of chalkboards. The also included generous exterior auditorium entrances to accommodate after-hours functions.

By the turn of the 20th century, school importance in the lives of children and families had far exceeded the dreams of educators half a century before. This period of educational refinement is the most significant in American education and prompted the construction of the building type recognizable as the 20th century school. The Rittenhouse School symbolizes this period of refinement and retains the essential design features and characteristics that enable it to convey the public attitudes toward education during the early part of the 20th century. Designed by an important Philadelphia firm, its design reflects the influence that architects brought to the school building such as the blending of advancements in construction technologies with the public propensity for tradition.

With its classically designed exterior, characterizing the popular architectural style of its period, and its intact interior with many original features, the Rittenhouse School conveys the critical design elements of period school building. The school remains in good condition with a high degree of architectural integrity.

Educational Significance

The Rittenhouse School embodies certain characteristics and features that were the result of developing philosophies in education and the manifestation of these theories in the early 20th century school building.

The turn of the 20th century brought a phenomenal growth of enrollment and the continued refinement of the educational system.. It was during this time that centralize school systems were coming into being. Throughout the country, ward districting was eliminated in favor of a central school board that was given full control over larger districts. In the cities, teachers formed organized unions in response to the government's gaining control. These newly established centralized boards assumed great control over many aspects of school design including setting and the size of buildings. A notable change in the region was the size of the school increased to server more than one neighborhood. Lot sizes also increased with schools now occupying an entire city block rather than one small lot which was often the case in the 19th century. It was also during this time that the government expanded their role in education, establishing rigid regulations and minimal standards for school design.

Perhaps the most significant societal change to effect the educational system was the further industrialization of society and the migration of people to cities seeking employment in factories. Children were no longer working the farms and could stay in school longer which meant many more years of education were possible. By 1914 the majority of children across the country attended school through the 8th grade, particularly in the cities. By 1918 all states had compulsory school attendance laws. [28] In 1890 the school year in most states was 135 days, but by 1930 this figure had increased to 170. Continuing enrollment increased to such a degree that between 1890 and 1920 high schools were constructed at a rate of 1 per day. [29]

With the rapid rise in enrollment brought the need for separation of the large classes into grades, and consequently the grouping of the grades into elementary, junior high and high school. The Rittenhouse school became one of Norristown's first schools built exclusively to hold junior high students. The success of the Rittenhouse School is represented in the longevity of its existence and its importance in its community.

  1. Hean Barth Toll and Michael J. Schwager, eds., Montgomery County, The Second Hundred Years (Montgomery County, Pennsylvania: Montgomery County Federation of Historical Societies, 1983), 455.
  2. Ibid., 464.
  3. Ibid., 455.
  4. Theodore W. Bean, ed., The History of Montgomery County, (Philadelphia: Everts and Peck, 1884), 753.
  5. Richard McDonough, The History of Norristown, (1980), 46. No other bibliographic information available. Private collection of Mrs. Mary A. Burkert, Norristown, PA.
  6. Ibid. 46-47.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 53.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Taken from "Rittenhouse 1928-1929 to 1978-1979," a history of the David Rittenhouse school compiled by the Rittenhouse Historic Committee in 1979, in celebration of the school's fiftieth anniversary. The history is mainly based on the meeting minutes of the school directors of the Norristown School District and the Norristown Area School District (after July 1, 1966). The committee was also assisted by many former and, at the time, present staff and students.
  11. Mary A. Burkert, Telephone Interview, July 12, 1995. Mary A. Burkert and Sara Colbert compiled a great deal of valuable information on the history of the school for this nomination. They were exceptionally generous with their time and in sharing their information with the author. Both Mrs. Burkert and Mrs. Colbert were teachers at the David Rittenhouse School for a number of years and have expansive knowledge on the construction history, building layout and significant events and persons historically connected with the school.
  12. "David Rittenhouse Junior High School as Visioned by Architects," Norristown Register (March 8, 1927). Scrapbook A-7.1, Historical Society of Montgomery County Collection, 217.
  13. Rittenhouse History Committee, "Rittenhouse," 1.
  14. "New Rittenhouse Junior High School will be opened Monday, September 10." Norristown Herald (August 25, 1928) Scrapbook A-7.1, Historical Society of Montgomery County Collection, 259.
  15. "Tribute to David Rittenhouse paid as Junior High School in North End is Dedicated," Norristown Herald (September 29, 1928) Scrapbook B-7.8, Historical Society of Montgomery County Collection, 183.
  16. This clock still remains in working condition and stands in the Norristown School District's Administration Building.
  17. Mary A. Burkert, Telephone Interview, July 12, 1995. Mrs. Burkert and Mrs. Colbert also have memories of various locally significant events which occurred in the World War II vintage.
  18. Rittenhouse History Committee, "Rittenhouse," 3.
  19. The dates 1953 and 1955 are given as the dates of renovation in Jean Barth Toll and Michael J. Schwager, eds., Montgomery County, 1057. This does not address the scope of the renovation work.
  20. Rittenhouse History Committee, "Rittenhouse," 4.
  21. Mary A. Burkert, Telephone Interview, July 12, 1995. Mrs. Burkert was a teacher at the school during the period of renovations and remembers this period of renovations and the regulations that precipitated the new addition.
  22. Rittenhouse History Committee, "Rittenhouse," 5.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Mary A. Burkert, Telephone Interview, July 12, 1995. Mrs. Burkert believes that the school permanently closed in June 1981.
  25. Sandra L. Tatham and Roger W. Moss, Biographical Dictionary of Philadelphia Architects, 1700-1930 (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1985), 664.
  26. A biography of Ritter and Shay and a reasonably complete project list is given in Tatham and Moss, Biographical Dictionary, 664.
  27. William Roger Greeley, "The Fourth Dimension in Schoolhouse Design," The Architectural Forum Vol. 36 (April 1922): 128-129.
  28. James A. Johnson, et. al, Introduction to the Foundations of American Education (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, Inc. 1969).
  29. B. Edward McClellan and William J. Reese, eds., The Social History of American Education (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 161.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
Locust Street

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