The Mystery House on Washington Avenue

There are a number of little mysteries in the Downingtown area that have caught our interest, one of which is the origin of a small house on Washington Avenue. If you have ever driven through this area you may have noticed this unique, one-story structure on the north side of the street behind Dane Décor. This house is 255 Washington Avenue and has a three-sided front, tall windows, and decorative roof corbels. One side of the three-sided front has a door with an overhang. The structure has a flat roof. Attached on the west side is a simple flat-roofed addition that lacks that character of the main portion of the house though it appears to be from the same era.

The above image of 255 Washington Avenue in Downingtown was taken from the 2012 Google Street View.

We often heard that the house was related to the trolley line that came to Downingtown in 1903 (perhaps as a ticket office) and had been moved to Washington Avenue at a later time.  However, we never had any clear evidence tying it to the trolley.  But we think the mystery has now been solved.  The house was not a trolley ticket office but was an office for another business.

We believe the house at 255 Washington Avenue was the office for the Heilbronn Hotel and that it was moved to this location when the hotel was sold in 1900 and reverted to a single family home. The Heilbronn Hotel building was originally constructed as a single-family home in the early 1800s, was a boarding school from 1870 to 1886, the hotel from 1887 to the late 1890s, and became a single-family home again in 1900. It was torn down in 1938.

1898

1903

The two Sanborn Insurance maps above show what is probably the same structure but in two different locations.

Theodore Griffith was a prominent businessman in Downingtown who purchased the old hotel in 1900 and turned it back into a single-family home.  After taking ownership, he tore down additions at the rear of the structure.  Attached on the east side of the building facing Green Street was a one-story structure that was the hotel’s office.  It was probably built in 1887 when the building became a hotel.  The interior of the building most likely lacked space suitable for a hotel office, so adding one to the side of the building where there was enough space was probably the best option.  Instead of tearing down the old office in 1900, Griffith moved it to the rear of his home facing Washington Avenue.  After it was moved into place, a small addition was built on its west side for more living space.  Here are three reasons why we believe this house was the office for the Heilbronn Hotel:

  • An article from 1929 in the Downingtown Archive newspaper on the hotel property states that “the present bungalow on Washington Avenue was the office for the hotel and was on the Green Street side of the house.”  The bungalow referred to is most likely the house at 255 Washington Avenue.  No other structure past or present fits that description.

  • The 1898 Sanborn map of Downingtown shows this office on the east side of the old hotel facing Green Street.  The 1903 Sanborn map shows this structure is no longer there, but one of the same size and shape is about 75 yards away on Washington Avenue where our subject house is located.

  • The corbels, flat roof, and tall windows of the house at 255 Washington Avenue are features that were on the Heilbronn.  When it was constructed, the office was most likely built to blend in with the existing hotel’s architecture.  If the home was built on Washington Avenue, it is unlikely that it would be built with such features.

The photograph above was probably taken around 1920 and shows the house on Washington Avenue. A portion of the old Heilbronn Hotel can be seen in the top right.

Downingtown has had its share of beautiful buildings that became victims of the wrecking ball.  This includes old East Ward School, West Ward School, the Methodist Church on Brandywine Avenue, the Mittal Building at West Lancaster and Stuart Avenues, the Swan Hotel in the center of town, and the Heilbronn Hotel at East Lancaster Avenue and Green Street.  But fortunately for the Heilbronn, we at least have (what we believe) is a small piece of this once grand structure still in our midst.

© 2020 Downingtown Area Historical Society  ~  P.O. Box 9, Downingtown, PA 19335  ~  610-269-1709  ~  dths1709@gmail.com