Over coffee, on a sunny day in the city, two writers speak of the beauty of Lancaster’s architecture. I am chatting with architect turned author, Gregg Scott, about Cassius Emlen Urban. And I am discovering how deep another writer will dig to unearth a story with veins touching almost everyone who strides upon the Red Rose city’s sidewalks.
Anyone who has walked along the streets of Lancaster has met the work of architect C. Emlen Urban. There is Lancaster’s first “skyscraper,” the Griest Building; the Southern Market; and the Fulton Theatre. Tourists meet Urban through staying at the Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square, its façade the remains of his Watt & Shand building. The pious know him as they walk past the St. James Parish House on North Duke Street. He created Roslyn, the mansion home of Peter T. Watt on Marietta Avenue. The list of Urban’s projects, I soon discover, stretches beyond my wildest suppositions.
Reynolds Middle School, which Urban created in 1927, is my closest appreciation for the architect’s work. The building was not only my junior high school, but also the view from my bedroom window. I always loved the building. My young hands traced the building’s tan bricks; we kicked soccer balls against its walls, skateboarded in its shadow. Wonder drove my thoughts on school days passing under the cast stone embellishments over the doorways. My mild curiosity with Urban pales in comparison to the connection Gregg has made with his fellow architect. He is now poised to release a detailed book on Urban.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I loved art. Drawing was my passion. I was terrible at mathematics, except for geometry,” remembers Gregg, who was even tapped to help instruct his high school geometry classes. “So, when it came time to choose a career, I was bent on becoming a graphic designer. However, my father had a different idea because he was a mechanical and electrical engineer and couldn’t wrap his head around art as a way to make a living.”
Gregg’s father started to bring home charts and graphs detailing possible careers. They agreed architecture was a blend of what they both wanted for a future. Gregg attended Penn State and graduated with honors in 1973. Originally from Bucks County, he now laughs at the seriousness of what brought him to Lancaster: unemployment. This was the ’70s, and the economy was mired in stagflation. A former professor connected him with Jim Reese, who was looking to fill a position at Haak Kaufman Reese and Beers Architects in Lancaster, which is now RLPS Architects.
“I became a partner four years later. My career was essentially designing retirement living, travelling throughout the United States, and I didn’t really have too much time to appreciate our community historically,” says Gregg. Nonetheless, Gregg embraced an opportunity to write a column on architecture for LNP. The idea was sparked by his newly discovered joy of Lancaster’s buildings.
Scott & Urban
“I was standing in Penn Square on a beautiful autumn afternoon enjoying the day when my attention was directed to the surrounding buildings,” he recalls. “I realized then that I wasn’t just looking at them, but was appreciating them. I said, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’” Even though Gregg was active in the community throughout his professional career, including 22 years of writing a monthly architectural column for LNP, it was not until 2018 that he began to focus on the brilliance of one particular architect who “benchmarked everything.”
Thus began a mission to find out more about C. Emlen Urban. “I embarked on a quest to learn more about this guy. Who was he? Where was he born? Where did he grow up? What made him tick? The more I learned, I realized Urban was different than any other architect I have studied in terms of his ability and his moxie,” recalls Gregg.
He found two unheralded, historical pamphlets about Urban, which served as the perfect launching point for his research. Then, in 2019, Lancaster Newspapers released its archives to newspapers.com, opening a trove of information. He employed Deb Oesch, a research historian. The investigation took off, and he soon uncovered hundreds of architectural commissions assigned to Urban for buildings throughout six states. “It was like a Gatling gun of information. I didn’t know what to do,” explains Gregg. “All this information came flooding in, and no one was aware of it. It helped me to learn who he was and what he did.”
In 2016, there were 94 commissions accredited to Urban in those two publications. When we met for coffee in the spring of 2023, Greg reported the known total had boomed to 544 projects. Since then, Gregg’s work has continued, and the number has escalated to an architectural feat exceeding 760. Gregg has no problem declaring Urban as Lancaster’s most prolific architect of the 19th and 20th centuries. “How does one person with only a high school diploma and no partners produce that much work in 50 years, and quality work? It’s unheard of.”
Cassius Emlen Urban, who always reduced his forename to C., was born in Conestoga Centre, Lancaster County, on February 20, 1863. His father was a successful carpenter by trade, a musician in the Civil War, and operated a mill in the city. The family moved to 544 South Queen Street with the young Urban, his three sisters and one brother; in 1880 the family built and moved to a home one block away. In that same year, Urban graduated from Lancaster Boys High School, where he tied for last place scholastically but nonetheless was invited to present a valedictorian address. He did not attend a college or university; instead he went straight into apprenticeship with a combined four years spent in Scranton and Philadelphia.
At age 21, Urban moved back to Lancaster and set up his first office in the Urban & Burger’s Planing Mill. Soon after starting his practice, he was married to Jennie Olivia McMichael and moved to 141 East New Street. He and his wife had two children and moved to 212 East King Street in 1896, where the family lived until 1914.
“Through my research I have discovered not only was Urban prolific in his work, but he practiced in 21 different styles of architecture,” says Gregg. In Urban’s time, it was customary for an architect to specialize in a particular style, be it Romanesque, Victorian, Queen Anne, etc. – Gregg likes to call these “architectural languages.” Specialization means an architect will know every detail about the design. “He had to understand design details, colors, materials, proportions in 21 different languages. Not only that, but he was also able to design 54 different kinds of buildings,” Gregg elaborates.
Urban was, and still is, a force on the city skyline. Of his approximately 650 projects in the city, Gregg suspects about 85% are still standing today. One of Gregg’s favorite Urban buildings is the Kirk Johnson building on West King Street, which he calls “a toybox of lush, gooey architectural details,” followed closely by the former Stevens High School at the corner of West Chestnut and North Charlotte streets. One of the most respected and admired Urban works is the Watt & Shand façade. “He was a little unorthodox and bold. When he debuted Watt & Shand’s new department store in 1898, it was the only white building in the city. That takes courage. Every other building in Lancaster was red brick. He convinced Peter T. Watt and James Shand to introduce a Beaux-Arts French-inspired building in Lancaster County! I mean, we are as far removed from Paris as the man in the moon,” says Gregg. “He obviously had some persuasive power. He introduced Europe into this city.”
The culmination of Gregg’s acquired information will result in the first hard-cover book on Urban. Gregg’s goal is to pre-sell 500 copies of his book, Urban Legend: The Life & Legacy of C. Emlen Urban, before its release in mid-November. (He emailed me one month before the release date to let me know sales had just passed 425 copies.)
“Through 25 narratives, the book chronicles Urban’s life and his work with some of the most beautiful architectural photography you will ever see,” says Gregg. The book includes creative exterior visuals and photos of interior work not available to the public. Lancaster photographer, Matthew Tennison, presents Urban’s work “in ways you have never seen it before. He is able to catch the magic of the buildings,” Greg notes.
The book will also include reproductions of ink-on-linen drawings and designs by Urban. Urban Legend will explore the facts surrounding some residential and commercial commissions designed by the architect. The photos are rich with captions that complement the narratives. In all, the book will detail 17 architectural styles while delving into the history of buildings and their owners. “It is not just about the architecture. That is only one part of the story. I will not put readers to sleep with architectural jargon. I aim to entertain and educate,” promises Gregg.
Gregg chose the ancient Roman decoration, Egg & Dart, as the name of his publishing company and partnered with Fig Industries for the design and marketing. Preorder sales are discounted until November 14 and will be signed by the author. A purchase also comes with an invitation to an appreciation party on November 14 at the Southern Market. A portion of the proceeds from sales will be directed to LancasterHistory and the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County. Preorders will be available for pickup beginning November 14, while shipped orders will commence on November 15. Urban Legend will retail for $120 and can be ordered online at egganddartbooks.com. Egg & Dart can be found on Instagram @egganddartbooks.
Greg’s research uncovered new Urban projects, but it also confirmed some suspicions. It turns out Urban was the designer of the arch leading into Lancaster Cemetery off Lemon Street. The Liberty House, which housed the soccer equipment when I was a kid playing in Buchanan Park, was designed by Urban and helped promote the sale of war bonds. A cowbarn for Milton S. Hershey, steeple tops on local churches, the Malta Boathouse interior on Boathouse Row in Philadelphia (which he completed at age 22) and other “curious commissions” have further piqued Gregg’s curiosity. He is already thinking of book two even before the first book has hit the shelves.
Scattered thundershowers rolled through Lancaster on a cloudy Monday, May 22, 1939. In the early hours, in a home he designed on Buchanan Avenue, Urban succumbed to a two-year illness. His architectural mark on Lancaster will live on forever, if not for the durability and quality of his designs but for the appreciation of fans and scholars like Gregg Scott.
Upcoming Events For Urban Legend: The Life & Legacy of C. Emlen Urban
November 15, 5-7 p.m.
Release Party at Campus of LancasterHistory
230 N. President Ave.
November 24, 10 a.m.-12 p.m.
Book Signing at Pocket Books Shop
903 Wheatland Ave.
December 1, 5-7 p.m.
Book Signing at Lancaster City Welcome Center
38 Penn Square
December 5, 5-7 p.m.
Book Signing at The Trust Performing Arts Center
37 N. Market St.
December 9, 10 a.m.-12 p.m.
Book Signing at Ellicott & Co.
45 N. Market St.
For details, visit egganddartbooks.com.