Lanacster YMCA

The 1903 YMCA, at North Queen and West Orange streets in Lancaster city, is the only example of YMCA designed by architect C. Emlen Urban among his more than 275 known works. The building was demolished in 1965 as part of the development of Lancaster Square to the north. For other "one-off" examples of Urban's work, scroll through the photo gallery below. 

Following two years of research, there is sufficient evidence to claim that C. Emlen Urban designed at least 39 different building types encompassing 25 architectural styles! In short, Urban spoke 25 languages, and possessed enough knowledge to understand the design components, nuances and requirements for nearly 40 categories of buildings ranging from a single-story residence to a 14-story skyscraper — and everything in-between.

As prolific as Urban was in producing more than 273 designs during his career, there are a fair number of “one-off” commissions in his portfolio. Those are defined as building types or design styles of which he designed only a single example. Some were quite glamorous, while others were rather mundane.

Some of his one-offs include a bakery, funeral home, community center, hospital, children’s home, free-standing farmers market, movie theater, a YMCA, drugstore, tobacco shop, insane asylum, opera house interior, tavern, Moose Lodge, home for the aged, a storybook-style cottage, a church crown steeple and storage garages. All are worthy of mention, and a few certainly deserve explanation.

In April 1898 and the months following, Urban and other representatives of Lancaster County were directed to tour and inspect insane asylums around the Pennsylvania to gain knowledge before commissioning the design and construction of a state-of-the-art facility for Lancaster. The end result was an attractive three-story red brick structure sitting on East King Street where Conestoga View now stands.

It was, according to LancasterHistory.org’s summer/fall 2000 historical journal, designed to support the latest concepts in the “moral treatment” of patients with a special focus on “the psychological and emotional state of the individual.”

Beyond design concepts, Urban introduced the latest building technologies, including refrigeration, production kitchens and mechanical systems. The structure remained in use for 70 years.

The five-story Lancaster YMCA was constructed at the corner of North Queen and West Orange streets in 1900. Urban was only 37 years old when he designed this monumental Beaux Arts building complete with an indoor pool. He only designed one YMCA in his career.

Interestingly, the building type that launched his career in 1888 also was a one-off design. The free-standing Queen Anne-style Southern Market was heralded in the Aug. 22, 1888, New Era newspaper as “one of the grandest in size and appearance” in the city.

The 873-seat Grand Theatre, at 135 N. Queen St., offered movies to audiences from 1913 through the 1960s. This one-off design by Urban was considered a showpiece for movie-goers.

Designing a hospital requires a great deal of knowledge, trust and communication with the stakeholders. The 1902 three-story Georgian Revival Lancaster General Hospital designed by 39-year-old Urban was his only free-standing medical hospital.

All architects fall on hard times sometime during their careers. Perhaps 1919, when he agreed to design a row of one-story garages in the 300 block of North Queen Street, was a slow year for Urban. These simple red-brick structures survive today and house the retail shops of Building Character 100 years after they were built.

Can anyone deny that C. Emlen Urban was clearly a “one-of-a-kind” architect himself?

  • This column is contributed by Gregory J. Scott, FAIA, a local architect with more than four decades of national experience in innovation and design. He is a member of the American Institute of Architects’ College of Fellows. Email GScott@rlps.com.