Before locomotives, GE built a town

Burlington County Times

When Pennsylvania General Electric Co. built the first buildings of its mammoth factory in Lawrence Park in 1910, there was no Lawrence Park.

Attorney James Sherwin, on the company’s behalf, had bought 800 acres of farmland east of Erie in what then was Millcreek Township. General Electric would need land not only for its factory but for a town to house its workers.

The only transportation from Erie was seasonal trolley service from Perry Square to Grove House Park, an amusement park fronting Lake Erie at Four Mile Creek. The people who worked at the plant would have to live close by.

Sherwin and GE architect Clement Kirby took pains on the town design, traveling to England to see “garden cities” and later enlisting the aid of John Nolen, now recognized as the nation’s first city planner.

Nolen’s work in Lawrence Park is the keystone of a Lawrence Park Historical Society application for National Register of Historic Places designation for the town that GE built.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission will consider the application Feb. 6. If approved, it moves on to the National Parks Service for final approval.

“Our history is unique,” said Marjorie McLean, a historical society director and author of “Lawrence Park” in Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series. “It’s a matter of pride for us, I think, to have it recognized.”

Nolen was at work in Erie at about the same time that Lawrence Park was designed, on the city’s “Greater Erie” plan. The Philadelphia native is famed for residential neighborhoods laid out with sidewalks, streetlights, parks, trees and open land for churches and schools.

A large lot set aside by Nolen for a school in Lawrence Park by 1913 was the site of the brick Priestley Avenue School.

Congregations were offered donations to build churches. One of the early takers was St. Mary’s Episcopal Parish, which built a combined parish hall and church on Silliman Avenue in 1914.

The original town was named for War of 1812 naval hero James Lawrence and laid out along streets named for inventors: Rankine, Silliman, Smithson, Field and Bell, according to McLean’s history.

There were 325 original home lots, most measuring 40 by 125 feet, according to a broadside in the historical society collection advertising “the opening sale of Lawrence Park” the week beginning May 29, 1911.

Lots were laid out to include front yards at least 25 feet deep from street to porches and large back yards for gardens.

Sale price was $300 to $1,500.

Commercial lots along Iroquois Avenue and Main Street sold for $800 to $1,500.

“Property must be seen to be appreciated,” according to advertisements by Erie land agent W.S. Pole in the Erie Daily Times preceding the sale. Photographs showed dirt fields labeled “Rankine Street” and “Main Street leading to east main entrance General Electric Works.”

In two days, 10 percent of the lots sold, and, better, “more than 30 percent of the purchasers have obligated themselves to commence construction of homes within the next 30 days,” the Times reported May 31, 1911.

Buyers committing to build within six months saved 20 percent on their lots.

Homes were served by electricity, water, sewer and gas.

Lawrence Park was expanded in 1917 to accommodate a growing number of employees as GE increased production during World War I. Nolen designed the new neighborhood, including the town’s signature row houses.

His role in Lawrence Park’s design wasn’t realized until recently when consultants hired by the historical society to write the application for National Register designation recognized Nolen’s name. After his work in Lawrence Park, Nolen went on to design communities across the country. His papers, including references to his work in Lawrence Park, are preserved in the Cornell University library.

“We had one or two letters that mentioned this guy, but the name didn’t mean anything to us,” Lawrence Park Historical Society President Anna Mae Van Dyne said. “The consultants got excited because Nolen was involved. In all these years doing research, we didn’t realize who he was or that he was involved in all of this.”

Nolen’s “industrial village” design embraced earlier “garden city” concepts, added green space between factory and town and included homes for factory managers next door to employees.

GE in later years built a community center on East Lake Road. GE Athletic Association provided leisure-time sports and activities.

In recent years, as GE Transportation pulled work and jobs from the local plant, “The Park,” as Nancy Wassell and other Lawrence Park natives call the town, has necessarily become less reliant on the behemoth next door.

“Just on the street where I live, people work at a lot of different places now,” McLean said, and fewer and fewer at “the GE,” as Lawrence Park residents refer to the plant. “But we still feel that sense of community.”

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