Willis House

York City, York County, PA

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The Willis House (135 Willis Road) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1]


The William Willis House is part of a farmstead located near a large spring on the northern edge of York City. The house is a 30' x 31' banked brick structure 2 1/2 stories high with an exposed basement on the east end. The classically fenestrated facade presents five openings and a pent roof; the back presents a balanced three opening form, as well as a full length pent roof.

The William Willis House is of locally made brick, laid in Flemish bond on the front and rear wall, with a two element belt course and a water table. The roof is of very steep pitch and gable ends are capped by large brick chimneys. The western gable is marked with the builder's initials "W W" and the date of construction 1762. The first floor windows are 15-light sash recently restored and conforming to the glass tax description. The basement contains four rooms, one of which has a large cooking fireplace formerly backed by a bee hive oven on the exterior wall; another room had a hard packed dirt floor and was probably a storage room. A summer kitchen and cold cellar of later construction no longer exist.

The first floor plan is a variation of the Georgian center hallway with two rooms opening off to each side. However, in this house the hallway does not run all the way front to back; it occupies only the rear half of the depth of the house. The front entrance opens directly into the great hall. Each of the first floor rooms contains a cross corner fireplace with arched opening; The great hall shows indications of originally having a mantle surrounding. The original floorboards, chair rails, and door frames remain in all these rooms, except for the southwest room where the floor was replaced at an early date with wide pine boards.

An enclosed stairway leads to the second floor hallway which is also only half the depth of the house. The original wide beaded boards still enclose the stairways to all floors. The second floor also contains four rooms, two of which have cross corner fireplaces. The original floorboards and door frames and some chair rails remain intact upstairs.

The third floor is one attic room of spacious proportion due to the steep pitch of the roof.

Structurally the William Willis House has not been altered. The pent roofs and porch were removed but could be easily restored. The original window sash were replaced with the masonry openings adjusted by merely laying in an additional brick; the first floor sash have been restored to the original size and style. Interior walls and doors are all in the original locations and the fireplaces in working order.

Also on the property are springs which lead into Willis Run and the ruins of a barn. At one time a stone and log house and a walled basin for watering livestock edged the spring.

The barn was of white limestone with cut red sandstone quoins and keystone lintels over the stable doors and vents. The barn burned but the stone gable ends remain, one intact, the other partially collapsed. The barn was quite large, 34 x 100 feet, and was built in 1809 by Samuel Willis.


The William Willis House built in 1762 is significant for its associations with the early brick industry and the English Quaker Willis family who was influential in 18th and 19th century York. The house shows the English Georgian style of architecture as interpreted by an American-born builder in the mid eighteenth century.

The Willis family settled in York County in 1754. The first Willis to appear in records of the Society of Friends was Henry Willis, born in England in 1628 and married to Mary Peace (Pease). They moved from Devizes, Wiltshire to London and in 1675 the Willis family migrated to Westbury, Long Island, New York. Between 1700 and 1708 the family permanently settled in Pennsylvania and William was born in 1726. He married Betty Harlan at New Garden (Chester County) Monthly Meeting in 1753. The couple transferred to Warrington Meeting, Wellsville, York County in 1754.

In 1752 a deed by Thomas Penn and Richard Penn granted 480 acres to John Wright and James Wright and William Willis. (The Wrights, also Quakers, operated a ferry across the Susquehanna River). This land is where William Willis built his brick home in 1762. The house is in Manchester Township and was undoubtably one of the first brick houses therein, stone or log being the common building material. Thirty-six years later the Direct Tax of 1798 (Glass Tax) lists 15 brick houses out of a total of 264 houses in the township. The relative valuations from this tax list put William Willis's house in the upper 5% of property values with only twelve houses of equal or higher valuation.

William Willis was a mason and farmer according to tax records. In January of 1754 he signed an agreement with the county commissioners to "make the bricks to the commissioners' specifications and raise the walls by September" of that year for the new county courthouse in York. Plans were furnished and various other contractors signed agreements to do scantling work, carpentry, ironwork, and to haul shingles from Philadelphia.

There is an oral tradition that Willis was the architect of the courthouse but the original plans no longer exist and nothing is available to substantiate this claim. The courthouse was in the center of the square and was torn down in 1842, however a reconstruction was completed in 1976. Continental Congress used the original court house while meeting in York from September 1777 to June 1778.

Another local building associated with the Willis family is the York Friends Meeting House, a National Register property, on which William Willis completed the masonry work in 1766. He was also one of the major financial contributors for buying the land and erecting the meetinghouse. Betty Willis was buried in the meeting's graveyard in 1769. William Willis was appointed overseer of the York meeting in 1768 and was listed as an elder when he died in 1801, at age seventy-four.

The William Willis House subsequently passed to William's son Samuel, and later to Joel, another son. Samuel is frequently mentioned in local histories as "kindly Friend Willis" and was associated with the underground railroad. His name appears on the datestone of the barn on the property dated 1809. Samuel left no heirs so the property passed to brother Joel Willis upon whose death in 1853, the house passed out of the Willis family.

Architecturally, the English spirit pervades this house from the steep pitched roof with large chimneys at the gable ends, to the modified center halls and corner fireplaces, to the basement kitchen. There is no other extant structure in York County demonstrating this early Quaker influence so vividly.


Gibson, John History of York County, Pa. F.A. Battery Publishing Co. 1886.

Historical Society of York County: Direct Tax of 1798; Records of Friends Library of Swarthmore College.

York County Court House: Register of Wills Office; Recorder of Deeds Office.

  1. National Register of Historic Places, nomination form, 1979, prepared by Historic York, Inc., Willis House, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.

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