The Heart of a Town: Titusville’s Diamond Block

Look at a map. Anyone born here can instantly find Titusville. It’s where our hearts live, no matter where we currently reside. Now, look closer. Scour the streets and glance across the names and the businesses, ever-changed by time. Let your eyes fall upon the center of our city – the downtown. Compared to many cities, it’s not much at all. But for us, it is the heart of our community. Our heart has been battered and bruised lately. Our spirits tested time and time again. But we are not alone.

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Diamond Block, 1896. Source: http://gg-art.com/news/photoshow/82422l5.html

Within Titusville lives the spirit of those people and businesses that have come and gone; indelibly leaving their mark on our collective soul. One of our oldest districts – what I will affectionately call the Diamond Block – took a heavy blow just last night. This is a hardy block, one of the oldest in our town. Let me tell you a little bit about the history of the various storefronts that have graced Diamond Street through time.

The most valuable asset we have to tell us the story of the Diamond Block ironically exists because of fire. The Sanborn Maps were created as fire insurance maps to understand the layout of cities and the built environment in the case of tragedy. There are five publicly accessible Sanborn Maps of Titusville, Pennsylvania. The first appeared in March of 1887.

Sanborn March 1887 Diamond St.png
Sanborn Map, March 1887. Source: Penn State University Libraries

Some of the buildings that were heartrendingly damaged by fire last night housed a handful of major businesses in early Titusville: 8-10 Diamond Street, was home to E.K. Thompson Druggist; 12 Diamond Street was shared by a variety of people including A.B. Howland (civil engineer, notary public, and surveyor), H.S. Bates (architect), W.W. Kingsland & James Pusey (real estate agents), and Titusville’s first American Express office. The west end of the Diamond Block was already a happening location early in our history.

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Sanborn Map, December 1893. Source: Penn State University Libraries

The Sanborn map from 1893 shows that E.K. Thompson’s business was still residing there, as was the American Express. Additionally, Joseph Smith, a civil engineer, moved in, as did a restaurant owned by Theobald and McGrath at 14 Diamond Street. All of these businesses were still there when Sanborn made another map in 1898 (the furniture store now next door was Fortney & Co. Furniture).

Sanborn May 1904 Diamond St.png
Sanborn Map, May 1904. Source: Penn State University Libraries

In 1904, Thompson and American Express were still going strong, as was the restaurant, which had been since sold to John F. McMahon. McMahon also procured the establishment a liquor license in order to become a saloon.

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E.K. Thompson & Family. Source: familyoldphotos.com

In the Spring of 1909, E.K. Thompson moved his business to South Franklin Street, which would become the business’s home for the next century. Thompson and his sons moved the entire business overnight and opened up again bright and early the next day. Thompson had been a fixture in the downtown since 1865 when he and friend James Hilton bought out druggist E.B. Rhodes & Co. to start their own venture. Thompson and Hilton moved to Titusville due to the oil bonanza and wanted to capitalize on the wealth of the region. Their strategy worked and the business thrived. Anyone who can remember an ice cream soda or a “Caracas” sundae from E.K. Thompson & Son understands why.

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Sanborn Map, January 1912. Source: Penn State University Libraries

By 1912, Sanborn completed his last fire insurance map of downtown Titusville. At that time, 8 Diamond Street was the home of Attorney George Frank Brown, 10 Diamond Street housed the Dentler & Merker Grocery and Bakery (which featured an iron oven), 12 Diamond Street was home to a restaurant owned by E.A. Swanson, and 14 Diamond Street was attorney J.A.C. Dunbar’s place of business.

For a short period of time, this section of the Diamond Block also saw the YMCA and the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic), a social club for Civil War veterans.

Dentler & Merker Ad Diamond St 8.27.1909
Dentler & Merker Ad in Titusville Herald, August 27, 1909.

Since the last Sanborn map was drawn, Titusville was renumbered (in 1915) and the addresses of the businesses in the block have changed. Storefronts have come and gone, and the people within them too. But the Diamond Block has withstood the test of time. No matter what happens, we can always take comfort in knowing where we come from and the importance of the physical history to which we feel so attached.

Buildings are important, and this one is no exception. They are beautiful. Purposeful. Ageless and yet supremely aged. They remind us that we are not the first, nor are we the last, to call Titusville our home. But the most important connective thread to our history we have is our memories, our hope, and our love for one another and this community. We must work collectively to understand and save our past so that together, we will have a stronger future.

Diamond Block Post Fire 2.15.18 Josh Sterling
West end of the Diamond Block after the February 14-15, 2018 fire. Photo by Josh Sterling.

 

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