It’s hard to assess the exact time measurement of a single generation. How long is it? Fifteen years? Twenty? Usually not more than that. However, it’s intended typically to convey the time necessary for a person to “come of age”—that is, the duration from birth to the point when he/she is making adult decisions, including having children. Given the ever increasing median age for when both men and women tend to bear their first child, the more logical time metric for a generation would be twenty-five or even thirty years. But those numbers aren’t persuasive to much of anyone: an age cohort rarely extends that many years forward, since a 25- or 30-year-old could clearly be of the age to conceive a child, even if he/she chooses not to do so. Rejecting that interval and turning to the original of 15-20 years, the term “generation” also reflects a sort of encoded knowledge and understanding of the world characterized by people born within a reasonably tight interval. And the act of “coming of age” within that interval ineluctably imparts certain common values. That generational shared understanding may in turn reflect why the following photos, all taken within a single point, seem much more striking or even bizarre to one generation over another. The point in question comes from a spot just a few hundred years away from the absolute center square of the small, well-kept city of Chambersburg, in south-central Pennsylvania.
Unlike most municipalities in central PA, Chambersburg has not suffered decade over decade of population decline. Aside from minor population losses in the 1960s and 70s, it has gained population with every decennial Census, including a remarkable 8.1% as of 2020 (quite a surprise since the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania only grew 2.4% in that same time). Pennsylvania’s municipalities are more likely to have suffered population loss even when they didn’t face significant economic hardship or job loss, simply as a result of the fact that in Pennsylvania, unlike most states, 100% of the land is incorporated. All of it is either a city, a township or a borough (or a single municipality classified as a “town”: Bloomsburg). But, due to the fact that no unincorporated land exists in Pennsylvania, the existing communities cannot annex; they cannot expand their boundaries into adjacent lands, because those lands already “belong” to another political body with a municipal charter.
Annexation has proven a powerful tool that other municipalities (particularly in the southern US) have used to stave off population decline: as people leave the old town center and move outward, population predictably goes down. But a municipal body can then annex the unincorporated territory to bring those hinterlands into its political control, like rustling cattle. Though this approach to reversing a declining population is somewhat artificial, it at least allows a municipality to recoup a tax base it otherwise looses as people emigrate. However, with all its land already under municipal charters, Pennsylvania cannot do this. So virtually all of boroughs and cities, formerly tightly knit and densely populated, have lost population since 1950. Conversely, Chambersburg has nearly 5,000 more people than it did seventy years ago, having surpassed 20,000 within its limits as of the 2010 census, and now, by the most credible metric, it is approaching 22,000 people.
The only reason I offer this overture is because, unlike many other similarly sized small cities in the Keystone State, Chambersburg is growing from one generation to the next, up to and including its generally prosperous downtown. I’ll concede that the most visible point of development is, in fact, a public sector initiative: the new Franklin County Judicial Center was approaching completion when I visited this past winter, as seen below.
But the fact remains that Chambersburg is gaining population, and it is achieving this gain by people moving in. It is, by and large, an economically healthy small city, and new development is taking place throughout the borough’s 6.92 square miles. Its density—3,165 persons per square mile—is lower than many Pennsylvania boroughs, suggesting that the long-established Chambersburg municipal boundaries stretched out further into undeveloped farmland than is typical in the Keystone State. In other words, Chambersburg had room—enough vacant land—to take in quite a few more people. Still, the entirety of Franklin County has grown a modest or good pace each decade as well (double that of the state as a hole)—again an indicator of a region with above average job growth.
This strong fiscal condition manifests itself not just in construction projects downtown; it’s obvious through the hybridization of old and new. Take this example again (first photo in this article), which is part of the same superblock flanking the central circle-square as those previous development pics.
To the left is the stately Franklin County Courthouse, a well-maintained example of (to my best understanding) a sort of Greek Revival architecture (with some apparent Georgian influences), dating from 1865. Belying its current prosperity, the Confederates sacked Coatesville three times during the Civil War, burning the courthouse the third (1864). The current structure has enjoyed recognition from the National Register of Historic Places since 1974, but check out the “appendage” in the back.
A skyway from the second floor connects the courthouse to a visibly newer structure, the Franklin County Courthouse Annex, continuing the administrative work for which the historic building ran out of room as both the city and county gained population. This is hardly an unusual occurrence, but it’s less common to see in a state like Pennsylvania, which for the last half-century has typically ranked in the bottom quartile among all states in terms of population growth.
From what I can tell, the construction of the courthouse annex dates from around 1979. It’s possible that the design and development of the extension predates the Historic Register designation; regardless of the intentions, historic compatibility and architectural compliance undoubtedly fell within different standards at that time. After all, tastes change from one generation to the next, and what might have passed as “authentic” among the preservation advocate cadre in 1979 doesn’t mean so much 40 years (or two generations) later. Or maybe it never mattered: after all, a minor alley (North Central Avenue) separates the two structures; if it weren’t for that umbilical skyway, it would be hard to make a case for better architectural compatibility. They’re two separate buildings, and Chambersberg didn’t achieve a Historic District designation until 1982. In some respects, it’s almost better that the two buildings deploy a vaguely similar massing but completely different architecture; if the annex tried hard to mimic the Greek Revival of the 1865 courthouse, the contrived effort may look much worse. Regardless of the differences in roof shape, brick color, fenestration, and level of ornamentation, my biggest cavil is the skyway itself. Was it really necessary when the only right-of-way separating these two buildings is a minor alley? Why not get people out on the street, if only for a 90-second walk? Why was walkability so unimportant to the influencers of that generation?
These rhetorical questions don’t really matter as much as the fact that Chambersburg, unlike so many similarly sized communities in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, prompted me to ask them. This juxtaposition doesn’t need to take place in the government seats to most semi-rural counties; there’s just not enough growth. But this old/new fusion is also distinctive enough that it enhances the visual interest of Chambersburg’s generally healthy downtown small business scene.
Not everything in Chambersburg dates the late 19th century., even if most of the buildings downtown still do. Instead, the texture of multiple time periods—various architectural fashions, all in within a few blocks of one another, morphed across generations—sharpens the senses toward any modest difference or anomaly. I have a suspicion the second big courthouse expansion taking place on that superblock—the Franklin County Judicial Center—will achieve much the same effect, through an architectural style redolent of the present. It’ll date nearly a half-century after from the building with the skyway.
But these sharpened senses don’t just detect the massive architectural gestures; they spot the weird little details too. Take the side view of this building, just across Lincoln Highway from the courthouse complex.
It’s a regional bank with locations scattered across south-central Pennsylvania. And that wood paneling at the cornice line is straight out of the 1970s—the same time as the courthouse annex, still vaguely visible in the background left. Next to the letter, it’s easy to spot a droll curiosity to this otherwise nondescript building:
A burglar alarm box! I don’t remember ever seeing such a thing (not my generation), but something tells me it was a much more common feature in the banks of yesteryear—an era before mass surveillance. I’m sure the fact that it’s labeled “burglar alarm” is a huge theft deterrent: I mean, why bother robbing this bank when there are others who (for lack of labels) night not even have a burglar alarm?! I love seeing stuff like this. Hopefully as Chambersburg grows, they don’t tear this down. Or cover it up with a goofy skyway.