The Plate Glass Houses
In 1872, the Downingtown Real Estate Association was incorporated and went into business to develop a tract of unimproved land north of West Lancaster and west of Hunt Avenues. The approximately 40-acre tract straddled the Borough of Downingtown and Caln Township. Two hundred building lots were surveyed.
The economy was strong in the post-Civil War years and Downingtown, with its location along the Main Line, easy access to Philadelphia, and continual shift to a manufacturing economy, was ripe for development. But things quickly changed with the Panic of 1873 which kicked off the worst depression in the United States up to that time. As a result, buyers for lots in this new development never materialized. John Johnson faced similar difficulties with his new development in the southwestern section of Downingtown (the area which later became Johnsontown).
The 1893 bird's-eye-view of Downingtown shows four of the Plate Glass Houses, though a bit off from their actual locations.
Perhaps not knowing the extent of the economic situation and to continue in business, in 1874 the Downingtown Real Estate Association received a $10,000 loan from the United States Plate Glass Insurance Company of Philadelphia. The loan was secured by a mortgage held by the insurance company for the entire tract of land. The insurance company, a first of its kind in the United States, was incorporated in 1867 for the purpose of insuring plate glass (such as large storefront windows) against breakage. The company was also a shareholder in the Downingtown Gas and Water Company, so it had a vested interest in the success of the venture.
The Plate Glass Houses were advertised for rent in an 1881 publication put out by the Pennsylvania Railroad for "Rural Retreats" along the Main Line. This one may be 421-423 West Lancaster Avenue.
As the Depression worsened and with little interest from buyers in their lots, the Downingtown Real Estate Association saw the writing on the wall and entered into an agreement with the U.S. Plate Glass Insurance Company where the latter would take ownership of the tract for forgiveness of the remainder of the $10,000 loan. The deal also included a one-time payment of $10,000 to the Association from the insurance company.
By the end of 1876, all parcels in the tract had been transferred to the U.S. Plate Glass Insurance Company. They were now in the real estate business themselves, and at the time of the transfer, all but ten of the 200 building lots were empty. On these ten lots were “five double tenements of brick” that were completed (or almost completed) by the Downingtown Real Estate Association. Similar to John Johnson's large and ornate home constructed on Church Street in what became Johnsontown, these homes were built by the Association to attract purchasers and builders to the location, and to create market value for the land.
This 1897 map shows three of the Plate Glass Houses (in blue) just west of Hunt Avenue. The development straddled Downingtown Borough and Caln Township. The other two Plate Glass Houses were in Caln before this area was annexed by Downingtown.
These ten original homes became known as the “Plate Glass Houses” and were rented out by the insurance company. In fact, in an 1881 Pennsylvania Railroad publication for “Rural Retreats” along the Main Line, the homes were advertised and described as follows: "These houses are built of brick, with stone finish, and have French [mansard] roofs, bay and balcony windows, nine rooms, range, bath, hot and cold water; large yards, sodded and planted with young shade trees. These very desirable properties are within three minutes’ walk of the [Downingtown] station, and rent at $10 per month." Three of the Plate Glass Houses were on Highland Avenue and two were on Lancaster Avenue.
The Plate Glass Houses were probably the only ones completed on the original tract well into the twentieth century. In the early 1920s the land, including the parcels with the ten Plate Glass Houses, were sold to local real estate developer Wilmer C. Johnson and his partner Louis Gibney. The land was re-surveyed, parcels sold, and the area eventually became the neighborhood that the Downingtown Real Estate Association originally envisioned. The Plate Glass Houses still stand, providing a unique contrast to the bungalows, ranches, capes and other housing types surrounding them.
These three Plate Glass Houses are on Highland Avenue. From left to right: #311 and #313, #310 and #312, and #408 and #412. Source: Google.
These two Plate Glass Houses are on West Lancaster Avenue. From left to right: #421 and #423, and #525 and #527. Source: Google.