Photo: Newtown Friends Meeting
Transcribed here from the Borough's Comprehensive Plan PDF, this summary of Newtown's rich history was adapted for easier reference on a smartphone. Take it with you as walk or bike through the Borough Streets. .
An Overview of Events, Places, and People From New Towne to Newtown
Walking the streets of Newtown Borough is like traveling back in time. The concentration and preservation of historic resources breathe life into accounts of the Borough's past. What follows is a summary of the history of Newtown, Pennsylvania, as outlined in the application to have the Borough's Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Surveyed in 1683 and 1684 by Thomas Holme under instruction of William Penn, the layout of the "NEW TOWNE" was a prime example of Penn's theories of town planning. Each purchaser was to have a lot in the townstead as well as a plantation in the outlying part with a village common in the center for the use of all.
The first warrants for land in Newtown were issued by William Penn in 1683. Settlement followed almost immediately. By 1700, a small but substantial village community existed along the banks of the Newtown Creek.
Newtown as the County Seat
In 1725, the Bucks County Courthouse was moved from Bristol to Newtown. Newtown served as the seat of Bucks County government from 1725 until 1813, when the courthouse was moved to Doylestown. This role as County seat was an impetus to the early development of Newtown Borough.
The courthouse, treasury building, jail and County offices were located within the Borough. Commercial, residential, and office development followed.
Newtown was the polling place for portions of the County, and Election Day was a festive day when booths selling food were set up in the streets. In present-day Newtown, Market Day, held annually in September, is a similar festive occasion.
Newtown in the Revolutionary War
By the 1770s, Newtown had become an important transportation center, with eight roads connecting it to neighboring communities. This was due in part to Newtown's role as the County seat and contributed to its role during the Revolutionary War.
During the American Revolution, Newtown was an important supply depot for the Continental Army during its campaigns in New Jersey. George Washington and several of his officers had headquarters in Newtown. Hessian prisoners were housed in inns, private houses, the meetinghouse and the jail after the victory at Trenton. A number of streets are named after Revolutionary War heroes, including Washington, Jefferson, Greene, Mercer, Sterling, Barclay, and Lafayette. George Washington marched from Newtown in 1776 on his way to victories over the British at Trenton and Princeton.
The only local combat during the war occurred February 9, 1778, on South State Street near the courthouse, when a small company of invading British soldiers seeking supplies after a raid on the Jenks Fulling Mill encountered a group of Revolutionary soldiers. One was killed and a number injured. A bronze plaque mounted on stone on the property of the "Bird-in-Hand" marks the site.
In April 1778, a 10-day conference was held at Newtown to arrange for the exchange of prisoners of war. Elias Boudinot, Commissioner of Prisoners for the Americans, was accompanied by several high-ranking officers, including Col. Alexander Hamilton. Sir William Howe appointed several officers to represent the British at this meeting in Newtown.
Incorporation of Newtown Borough
The Borough of Newtown, originally settled as a village within Newtown Township, was incorporated in 1838. Newtown in the 19th century was an important agricultural center, as evidenced by its hosting the County's agricultural fairs.
Many retired farmers moved into the village during this period and constructed the spacious Victorian houses so common along State Street, Washington Avenue, and a section of Chancellor Street. The town continued to gain in importance as a commercial center, which spread northward along State Street.
During the 20th century, the Borough of Newtown remained the commercial and cultural center of the area. Being the "hub" when the surrounding portion of Bucks County was still relatively undeveloped did not carry the disadvantage it does today, of drawing heavy volumes of vehicular traffic. Newtown today remains a center of commercial and professional services for the surrounding area.
When Newtown was laid out, a lot of approximately 30 acres was reserved for common use, on both sides of Newtown Creek. The Newtown Common ran from south of present-day Penn Street to north of present-day Frost Lane and from present-day State Street to present-day Sycamore Street.
In the late 1600s planners realized the potential value of common open spaces and preservation of open space along streams. Unfortunately, the Common was not maintained and eventually was divided and sold.
A town green in the heart of the Borough would certainly be a desirable public space today. All that remains of Newtown Common is a small area at Newtown Creek near Greene Street. Recent efforts have been made to improve the attractiveness of the Common and promote access to it.
The tradition of the Common could be furthered by reservation of open space along Newtown Creek between the Ten Centre parking lot and Barclay Street. Given the development that has occurred along the creek in the remainder of the Borough, it would be a positive step in realizing William Penn's vision by re-establishing public open space in the area
Inns in Newtown
Inns have been important structures in the past, and still are today. Restaurants and taprooms within the Borough continue a tradition of public houses and gathering places that predates the Revolutionary War.
In 1764, a one-story residence was enlarged into the brick building now known as the Brick Hotel, at the intersection of State Street and Washington Avenue. It was converted to a tavern in 1780 and today houses a restaurant and guest rooms.
The original portion of the current Temperance House along State Street just south of Washington Avenue was built in 1772. The White Hall Hotel, along State Street just north of Penn Street, became a tavern in 1852 and is currently used for several businesses, including two restaurants.
The Bird-In-Hand, along South State Street just north of Mercer Street, began as a tavern about 1727 and was a center of activity in the Borough for over 125 years. It is now a private residence.
The Half-Moon Inn, later known as the Court Inn, at the intersection of Court Street and Centre Avenue, was built in 1733 across from the court buildings. It was a gathering place when the Borough was the County seat. It is now the headquarters of the Newtown Historic Association.
Justice's House, 107 South State Street, was built in 1768 as a tavern. It was used as a hotel until approximately 1800, when it became a private residence. During the Revolutionary War, Lord Sterling had his headquarters at Justice's House after the battle of Trenton.
Chancellor Street School
In 1872, a school was built at the site of the present-day Chancellor Center on North Chancellor Street. An addition was constructed in 1884. In 1916, a large portion of the school was destroyed by fire, but the building was rebuilt, enlarged and reopened in 1918.
For many years, the school was used as both an elementary and high school. After the Council Rock Junior-Senior High School was built in 1954, the building was used solely for elementary students. Today it is used as administrative offices for the Council Rock School District.
Newtown Borough Hall
The Borough Hall at 23 North State Street was built in 1854. Initially, it was used as both the Council chambers and a jail. Now it houses Borough administrative staff, and its assembly room is used for meetings of many of the Borough's boards, committees and commissions.
Newtown Library Company
The Newtown Library Company was founded in 1760, the first library in Bucks County. The present library building was dedicated in 1912. Two public reading rooms are available to non-members.
The Newtown Theatre, originally built as a community hall in 1831 and reconstructed in 1883, screened its first movie in 1906. It's the oldest move theater in the United States. The 353-seat theatre is owned by the nonprofit Community Welfare Council of Newtown, Inc., and, in addition to showing films, serves as the stage for the Newtown Arts Company.
The folk artist Edward Hicks, perhaps best known for his painting of the Peaceable Kingdom, lived in Newtown for almost 40 years. Hicks built a house on present day Penn Street in 1821.
In addition to painting pictures, Hicks painted coaches and signs. Two of his signs are located within the Borough, one in the library and one in the Court Inn. Hicks, a Quaker minister, was involved in the establishment of the Friends Meeting House on Court Street, first used in 1817.
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