About the City

New Kensington Historic District

The New Kensington Downtown Historic District is significant under National Register Criterion A for commerce as representing a largely intact commercial business area, which downtown evolved from an initial settlement of the city in the late 19th century, to a live, bustling community after World War II. The district also is significant for industry for its association with the aluminum manufacturing in Southwestern Pennsylvania from 1891 to 1947 and as an area where aluminum workers from the New Kensington Production Works lived and shopped. The district played a significant contribution to the growth of the manufacturing of aluminum in the United States. While Alcoa’s manufacturing center grew, the commercial and residential center grew accordingly. Aluminum workers depended on commercial centers for food, dry goods, health related services and recreation after they finished working for the day. The downtown and the residential areas grew as the number of workers in the mills increased from 1891 through 1947. It is also significant for architecture as embodying the style, forms, methods of construction and artistic values of commercial and residential buildings associated with early twentieth century architecture in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The period of significance for the New Kensington Historic District begins in 1891 when the community was laid out and continues until after World War II. The district meets the registration requirements specified for commercial-residential districts in the Multiple Property Documentation Form, “The Historic Aluminum Industry Resources of Southwestern Pennsylvania, 1888-1947” for commercial-residential districts.

The development of New Kensington began in 1890 when the Burrell Improvement Company, a group of Pittsburg(h) businessmen, purchased level land on the east side of the Allegheny River as prime location for a city. They had the land surveyed and laid out the town of “Kensington” with a rectilinear grid pattern. The avenues paralleled the railroad and the river and ran from Second to Sixth, and the streets were numbered from Second (in Parnassus) to Nineteenth (in Arnold). The land between Second Avenue and river was to be maintained in larger pieces for sale to industrial users.

The first public sale of lots took place on June 10, 1891. Purchasers were given a free train ride from Pittsburgh and refreshments if they came to view the site of the proposed new town. The price range of the first several hundred lots ranged from $30.00 to $300.00. By the end of 1891, New Kensington was home to 12 companies, providing jobs to 4,000 individuals. In addition to the Pittsburgh Reduction Company (PRC), the companies were the Bradley Stove Works, the Brownsville Plate Glass Company, Kensington Chilled Steel Company, Kensington Roller Process Flour Company, Kensington Tube Works, Logan and Sons Planning Mills, New York Piano and Organ Factory, Pennsylvania Tin Plate Company, the Rolled Wheel Steel Company, the R.F. Rynd Planning Mills, and the Chambers Glass Company (in what was to become Arnold).

In the same year, 500 houses along Kenneth Avenue (on the other side of the Conrail railroad tracks), and Second and Third Streets were built by private individuals to house the growing aluminum workforce. To service the residents of the growing community, a variety of businesses were locating to New Kensington along Fourth and Fifth Avenues between Ninth and Tenth Streets and on Ninth and Tenth Streets between Cherry Alley and Ivey Alley. These businesses included a drug store, fish monger, dry goods store, hardware store, meat market, variety store, fancy goods, tailor, clothing, offices, millinery, laundry, jeweler and grocer.

The City of New Kensington was incorporated November 26, 1892. By 1893, the Cold Rolled Steel Company, the Excelsior Flint Glass Works, the Kensington Stove Works, the Kensington Enameling Works and the Sterling White lead Company had all located to New Kensington. Three new banks were also located in the new community including the First National Bank of New Kensington, the Pittsburgh National Bank and the Jacobs Banking Company. New Kensington took on the appearance of a thriving and diverse industrial community.

By 1895, the central business district was concentrated along Ninth and Tenth Streets, with some businesses located on Third, Fourth and Fifth Avenue between Eighth and Tenth Streets. The business district contained six grocery stores, three variety stores, five clothing stores, three drug stores, four bakeries, three meat markets, two laundries, three tailors, five milliners, two tobacconists, four hotels, a book store, jewelry store, three hardware stores, two butteries, two undertakers, a dry goods store, two barbers, a carpentry shop, two fruit store, a restaurant, two pool rooms, and several office buildings. Most of these buildings were wood framed, although several of the more prominent commercial blocks were of masonry construction.

In 1895, in recognition of the rapid business growth in New Kensington, streets in the district were paved with brick. The first paved street was Fifth Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets. The following year, the business district met its first setback with the New Kensington Opera House, located on the Corner of Fourth Avenue and Tenth Street, and ten nearby houses were destroyed in a fire causing an estimated $50,000 in damage. Despite the destruction of the Opera House, the community retained a cultural center. News items published in the local newspaper, New Kensington Dispatch in 1899 indicated Behm’s Opera House hosted performances by the Mozart Concert Company, the New Kensington Philharmonic Glee Society, and the New Kensington Military Bank. The social and commercial significance of the community was becoming well established.

New Kensington’s commercial and industrial growth continued during the first decade of the twentieth century. By 1900, the density of the Downtown Historic District has increased to the point that most of the lots on Fourth and Fifth Avenues between Ninth and Tenth Streets were occupied by brick and wood framed, two and three story commercial buildings. The variety of goods increased as well, as the merchants catered to the needs of the growing community.

In 1902, a streetcar line was completed between Natrona and New Kensington. This streetcar line ran cars every 20 minutes and with the continued growth of the aluminum industry, resulted in increased business and patronage for the shops and services within the central business district of New Kensington. The following year, the City Council and the Pennsylvania Railroad reached an agreement for construction of a station at Barnes and Ninth Street. The Freight Building is still standing today and is included within the historic district. The growing community gained a social service institution, where former resident Charles Parkins announced a donation of $13,000 to begin a building fund to construct a YMCA on Fifth Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets. The remaining necessary funds were soon raised, and the building was completed within the year.

By 1905, most of the blocks within the core of the central business district had become completely developed, and wood framed buildings had been largely replaced by masonry buildings. The streets within the commercial district were lined with adjoining two and three story brick commercial buildings.

In 1906, the New Kensington Land Company developed East Kensington. This area extended west to Wood Street and was bordered on the south and east by Seventh Street and to the north by what is now Powers Drive. The city’s estimated 1911 population was 13,000. The west side of the 1000 block of Third Avenue had become more heavily developed with a mixture of wood framed houses and shops. By 1915, the district had sustained additional residential and commercial development.

By 1921, the population of the City had swelled to 15,000. Empty lots along Third Avenue had become the sites of additional houses. Development of the central business district continued in the 1920’s. By 1921, when new immigration laws severely curtailed immigration, the central business district had begun to expand northward and eastward. Commercial development extended to the railroad tracks on the east side of downtown. The 1200 blocks of Fourth and Fifth Avenue contained a mixture of wood framed detached residences and masonry commercial buildings, and light manufacturing plants. Several social clubs and churches were also located in the northern section of downtown New Kensington. On May 2, 1921, the first of the new theaters, the Liberty Theater (demolished in 1996) opened on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street and the Ritz Theater (958 Fifth Avenue) opened the next year. In 1924, the cornerstone was laid for the Salvation Army Citadel on the north end of the central business district and was dedicated the following year. The State Theater opened on Fifth Avenue in 1925, the newest of five theaters in New Kensington, reflecting the growing popularity of movies as entertainment. In 1928, the city’s first public free library opened. No longer just an aluminum boom town, New Kensington matured into a community managed and dominated by aluminum interests, but also with social, religious, ethnic institutions and recreation and entertainment facilities typical of the 20th century industrial communities. Architects and builders for these buildings are largely unknown.

The 1928 Sanborn map portrays the district much as it presently appears. The Rorabaugh Block and a now demolished adjacent block on the south side of Tenth Street had been constructed. The commercial blocks on the north side of Ninth Street had been constructed by 1928. Both Dyke Automotive building (now demolished) and the Edelson building housed businesses serving the growing number of automobiles in New Kensington. Several of the houses along Third Avenue had been faced in a brick veneer.

The surviving fabric is significant as an example of commercial and residential buildings associated with the aluminum industry, 1891 to 1947. The district as a whole reflects the architecture of a period working class aluminum community.

Information Sources:
Lore of Yore:A History of New Kensington, Arnold and Lower Burrell
Pittsburgh was not spelled with an “H” from 1890 to 1917
Sanborn Map Company
Women’s Club of New Kensington, p. 53
Idid, p.37
Sanborn Perris Map Company
Idid, p.70