Where I grew up in the Midwest, most county seats enjoy an almost overbearingly consistent urban form at their historic core. With few exceptions, they feature the archetypal courthouse square. The four blocks fronting this courthouse—the four sides of the square—serve as the commercial core, with a variety of different sizes of 19th century buildings: retail on the lower level, offices or storage above. Any additional downtown buildings splay outward on the road segments closest to this square, with commercial structures or buildings supporting county-level governance (or municipal government), though for a small county seat (under 4,000 people) those four sides to the square may be all that is needed. And if the county seat is too small (under 2,500 people), it may not be able to justify a full courthouse square surrounded by commercial buildings. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule. In Indiana, where the topography is usually flat enough to support this configuration easily, and the majority of the state’s 92 counties feature seats that are populous enough, this pattern becomes something visitors almost instinctively expect.
Further east, in states that belonged to the original thirteen colonies, many of the downtowns and county seats date from the 18th century (or older) and don’t fit such a tidy pattern. The topography might impede the ability for the towns’ original surveys to design a logical street grid, and the village might have emerged organically as an early settlement, lacking the sort of carefully conceived geometry that is the hallmark of a surveyor. No grid—just a jumble of streets, as is often the case in New England. The county courthouse isn’t always right there in a central square; as I reflected in a previous article, the absolute center of Easton, Pennsylvania (incorporated in 1752) features a Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, and, while the original street configuration framing this monument was a square, engineers converted the traffic patterns to the circle Eastonians know today in the mid 19th century, long before the invention the car.
And Easton’s not the only colonial city with a different approach. Take a look at Georgetown, Delaware, the seat of government in the southernmost of the First State’s three counties.
In fact, Georgetown’s only original reason for being was to serve as a seat of government, concurrent with its 1791 founding. Prior to that point, the county seat had been Lewes, a . coastal settlement founded 160 years earlier by Dutch colonizers as “the first town in the first state” and a popular summer tourist attraction that I have covered multiple times on this blog. But Lewes wasn’t remotely the center of geography to this large county (almost 1,000 square miles), so settlers who lived among the fertile lands west of coastal Delaware found it inconvenient to travel 30+ miles to Lewes for county-level administrative services. Georgetown is close to the center of Sussex County. (To this day, Georgetown celebrates Return Day, a half-day unique-to-Delaware festival two days after Election Day during federal and mid-term election years. Those two days represent the lag historically needed to deliver election results from the state capital in Dover, 36 mile to the north of Georgetown. If this lag isn’t evidence for the need of a centrally located county seat, I don’t know what is.)
Delaware’s comparative scarcity of counties—it has fewer than any other state (even Rhode Island has five)—enables the state to distinguish itself through a few other characteristics. With only three major subdivisions, Delaware required fewer county delegates than anywhere else to assemble and agree upon the US Constitution, to which most historians ascribe its First State moniker. It’s also the state with the most populous least populated county, if that makes any sense. Translation: Kent County, just to the north of Sussex, is the least populated of the three counties in Delaware, but at over 180,000, it has considerably more people than the least populous county in any of the other 49 states. And Georgetown is any outlier: though it serves as the primary source of public administration for Sussex County’s 240,000 people, it has been surprisingly light in population: as recently as 1980 it had only 1,710 people. Though Georgetown now claims over 7,000 people, it was stagnant for the vast majority of its first 200 years as an incorporated municipality, yet it managed to carry the weight of a fairly important county: Sussex cracked 50,000 at the 1940 census and has almost quintupled in population since then.
Southern Delaware, boasting a comparatively low cost of living, reasonable proximity to major cities like Baltimore, Washington DC, Wilmington (and Philadelphia) and Norfolk, and easy access to Delaware’s increasingly popular beachfront towns (like Lewes), has betrayed its historic reputation as the Mid-Atlantic’s best kept secret. Everybody in the Mid-Atlantic and beyond now knows that Lower Delaware is a desirable place to live. And Georgetown, a county seat punching above its weight class, boasts an aesthetically landscaped town circle without a structure in the middle.
This town circle is recognized by National Register of Historic Places as Georgetown Circle Historic District, and it forms the critical core of a town that sheds its colonial character just a few blocks outside of that circle. And why shouldn’t it? It was a small town as recently as 1980, and I’m going to speculate that most of its growth comes through a combination of incremental annexations and the arrival of more moderate-income service workers lured to the jobs along the Delaware beachfront towns like Lewes, but unable to afford the home prices there.
So yes, Georgetown is a county seat that defies the Midwestern archetype in almost every conceivable manner. Georgetown Circle is the town’s oldest park. The commercialized main street is very dinky; basically just a block with a half-dozen shops, and it doesn’t abut that central circle. Instead, it’s a bit down the road.
Meanwhile, the Sussex County Courthouse does in fact abut the circle’s perimeter.
But in much of the Midwest, it would occupy the absolute middle itself. And that middle would be a definitive square, not a circle.
But maybe this attractive, 225-year-old, verdant node cut a few corners to get this way—literally. Note the orientation of the buildings, the sidewalk, and the white stripes on the street in the above photo. They form a right angle. And it isn’t the only one. Here’s a view of another right angle encapsulating Georgetown Circle.
I love the photo above because of that inexplicable ray of sunshine on another otherwise cloudless summer day, but it isn’t so demonstrative. The photo below is better:
And there it is again: a right angle formed by the positioning of these homes, reinforced by the sidewalk and the curb.
By this point, it should be obvious: the original plat for Georgetown used a square rather than a circle. The Google aerial reveals this:
If it’s not obvious, I’ve traced the curb between the road and the sidewalk in blue. And it reveals more or less the exact same condition I reported in Easton a couple years ago: a structural square that circumscribes Georgetown Circle. However, the two municipalities’ histories belie one critical difference. As I noted in my Easton article, Easton’s Centre Square only gradually morphed into a roundabout through incremental changes that begin in the 19th century to accommodate horse-drawn vehicles. Conversely, Georgetown’s original surveyors always conceived of the Sussex County seat as a central square (100 yards laterally and longitudinally), but the parklike center always had a circular configuration.
The result, as is obvious from the striping, is that central Georgetown offers a fairly narrow circular path for cars passing through, but the four corners to the larger square allow for fairly generous parking, without ever compromising on the geometric harmony of the two shapes. Such parking is no doubt helpful and necessary to all the back-country folks needing Sussex County services; most of the other government buildings flank Georgetown Circle (Square) as well, as evidenced by the labels on the aerial. Most urban planners, however, will cavil about transforming a historic square into a circle, since it usually means rounding otherwise sharp corners, and gentle curves are easier for cars to zip through than right angles. But Georgetown Circle was always a circle within a square. The local signage reinforces this:
They call the square a circle. Its form, as defined by the three-dimensional structures protruding from the flat and fertile planes of Southern Delaware, is a quadrilateral. But nobody notices it as such. They notice the interior parkland and the road—a path for cars—that traces its perimeter. Georgetown Circle clearly feels like a circle. Only those attuned to this type of thing notice the square.
The differences between this Delaware seat and the typical county seat of Ohio or Indiana or Michigan may be subtle, but they reflect an additional hundred years of maturity to many Delaware towns, and the ethos that prompted their design, as well as the tidy federal-style homes often built right to the sidewalk, whereas most homes in the Midwest will have at least a bit of a front yard. And yet these central circles function as precursors to the modern roundabout; something that drives urban planners crazy. And by relegating the courthouse to a space outside this absolute center, the physical form does not impress itself to outsiders as an obvious county seat. When I was passing through Georgetown, it was only by poking around that I determined Georgetown was the Sussex County seat. Nothing about Georgetown Circle itself indicated such. But I’m not complaining: there’s something admirable about not attaching undue importance to legalism and bureaucracy in the seat of one of Delaware’s three counties, instead making the central attraction in this minor (but quickly growing) town a leafy green ring. One that is worthy of announcing the election results…two days later.