Thaddeus M. Fowler’s 1893 Bird’s Eye View of Downingtown
In 1893, a man barely five feet tall hobbled up and down the streets of Downingtown sketching in precise detail each building and landmark he passed. Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler, age 51 and crippled from an old Civil War wound to his foot, came to Downingtown that year to draw the town from a bird’s eye view, or panorama.
Fowler’s artistic work began soon after being discharged from the Union army in February 1863 due to his disability. It was at that time he took up photography, and eventually went to work in his uncle’s photographic studio in Madison, Wisconsin. During his time in Madison he became acquainted with other artists who were experimenting with aerial drawing. Fowler took up the skill, and after perfecting it, left Wisconsin and set out on his own, going from town to town drawing bird’s eye views and selling the prints to earn a living.
Fowler eventually married and settled in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, but spent much of the time on the road. In some years he would draw dozens of towns, but would try to stay in one geographic area to keep travel to a minimum. In one particular place, a resident asked him how it was possible to sketch from this perspective. He simply replied, “I just imagine I’m a bird flying over the town.”
When he came to Downingtown in 1893, Fowler was at about the mid-point in his career. He would end up drawing over 400 panoramic views throughout the United States and Canada. Of these, about half were of Pennsylvania towns. It is believed that Downingtown is the only Chester County town he drew.
Like most of Fowler’s drawings, Downingtown’s is very accurate and detailed, and offers us much in the way of historic value. While the panorama is not entirely to scale, and there is some artistic license, the overall appearance is superb. It’s not only a beautiful image to view in its entirety, but can also be examined in detail. In some ways it’s like a 19th century version of Google Street View. If you live in a home in Downingtown built before 1893, it is most likely shown on Fowler bird’s-eye-view. Fortunately, if you would like to get a copy at a high-resolution it can be downloaded from the Library of Congress’ website here: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3824d.pm007620/
Fowler’s 1893 Bird’s Eye in Detail
Fowler’s detailed work is especially noticeable on East Lancaster Avenue (right). The building labeled “9” is the Shelmire Mill (where Georgio’s Restaurant is now located). The building labeled “B” is the old Central Presbyterian Church (now Dane Décor). The home east and north of the two respectively is where McDonald’s is now located.
Below is the only known view of the shoe factory that was at the top of Church Street.
Below, the triangle-shaped dormers on these Church Street row homes can still be seen today.