Some 40 years in the making, the process of earning a place for Schaefferstown on the National Register of Historic Places is almost historic in its own right.
“This goes back to 1980,” local historian Diane Wenger told LebTown. “Barbara Smith and I, and a number of other local people, were part of a survey being done by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Then we went on to do a nomination for a historic district then. We got tentative approval, but life got in the way.”
This was, Wenger recalls, back in those prehistoric days when people typed on typewriters and taking pictures involved developing rolls of film before you could see the results.
The notion “got shelved” for many years, she says – “until about five years ago. Then I picked it up again, and said let’s get this done.”
Back in the 1980s, Wenger and Smith were local history buffs who both lived in historic old houses, Wenger says. “It was a labor of love for both of us.”
But, after so many years gathering dust, Wenger – now an active member of Historic Schaefferstown Inc. – said she decided “it was important to get it done. A lot of things are changing around town … and it seemed like a good time to do it.”
And do it, they did. On Friday, Nov. 3, the National Park Service approved the nomination of the Schaefferstown Historic District, which has been officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
‘More than 200 properties’
The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of historic places in the United States that are worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archeological resources.
Schaefferstown, the primary population center in Heidelberg Township, is one of the oldest towns in Lebanon County, which itself was formed from parts of Dauphin and Lancaster counties in 1813. Schaefferstown is, according to local records, a century or so older than the county itself; records suggest the first settlers put down roots in the area sometime before 1725, although the town wouldn’t be formally laid out by German immigrant Alexander Schaeffer until 1758.
Wenger said the historic district contains more than 200 properties, although only 192 are considered “contributing” members of the district, each having some architectural or historical significance. The 17 “non-contributing” structures “aren’t historical, are too new or have been changed too much,” she explained.
She said about 95 percent of the properties are residential. Other features include a hotel, the Franklin House, plus a few churches, a post office and a government building.
Schaefferstown is among 31 properties in Lebanon County (including two other districts, in Annville and Mount Gretna) listed on the National Register.
‘Very Germanic in its architecture’
According to the listing on the National Register, the Schaefferstown historic district is roughly bounded by Route 501, Oak and Locust streets, Schaefferstown Cemetery, High Street, Fountain Park, the second blocks of South Market, South Lancaster, and South Carpenter streets, and the rear parcel lines of properties on the south side of Heidelberg Avenue.
“It is very Germanic in its architecture, very typical for its era,” Wenger said of the district. “Some of the early houses are built of log. Most of them now are covered, so you can’t see the logs, but they’re recognizable by the steep roofs, the smaller windows and the central chimney.”
Also within the district are a couple of half-timbered homes, “some nice limestone buildings,” some two-door Pennsylvania German farmhouses, and “a few nice Victorians.” There also is a section of homes from the 1950s and ’60s, representative of the post-World War II building boom, Wenger said.
The oldest surviving structures in the district are the half-timbered Stiegel House, built in 1757 and inhabited for a time by Colonial iron master and glassmaker Baron Henry von Stiegel, and the Rex House, also known as the Gemberling-Rex House, built in 1729 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Other Schaefferstown sites – Brendle Farms, added in 1972, the Philip Erpff House, added in 1979, and the Alexander Schaeffer House, added in 2011 – are also on the National Register. Wenger noted that a listing for an individual structure or site is different from a designation for an all-encompassing district.
“There are a number of buildings in town that would be eligible in their own right, because they are architecturally significant,” she said. “In some cases, they still could be individually nominated.”
‘Very lengthy, very intense’
The process of being listed started, as almost all government processes do, with paperwork.
“There was a lengthy form from the Department of the Interior that had to be filled out,” Wenger said. She got some help, she noted, from the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, which is a bureau of the state Historical and Museum Commission.
“I also did a lot of walking through town,” she added. “I took pictures of every building in town, and I did a lot of research.”
The process, she said, “was very lengthy, very intense.”
Heidelberg Township officials were encouraging of the process, she added.
Once the documentation was complete, Wenger said the application went to a review board in Harrisburg in October 2022. “They approved it,” she said. “Then we had a Zoom meeting for local people to hear what was going on and make comments. Just this past Friday, I got word that we had been listed officially on the National Register.”
She’s not sure yet if a sign denoting the district’s National Register status will be posted, but “I sure hope so,” Wenger said. “I suspect that funding would be something we’d have to raise ourselves, but I’d like to see it.”
‘Nothing but positive comments’
Although some property owners elsewhere have balked at the prospect of being designated within a historic district, Wenger said Schaefferstown seemed united in the cause.
“I haven’t heard of anybody who was opposed,” she told LebTown. “I heard nothing but positive comments. I was a little surprised.
“I was worried that people might think they couldn’t do anything to their house, if they wanted to put siding on it or paint it. But that’s not true. This doesn’t mean you can’t alter your property.”
So, if there are no restrictions, what does the designation mean?
“It’s honorary,” Wenger explained. “There are bragging rights. But there are no restrictions on property owners.”
Restrictions can only be imposed by the local government, which would create a historic review board to enact restrictions, she said, but “that’s not something we’re inclined to pursue. I don’t think we’d get much local support from homeowners for that.”
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