The Gov. Wolf Building: A Short History

The impressive Wolf Building on 2nd St. was recently sold to VM Development for eventual use as apartments and commercial space. Why not learn something about it?

The Governor Wolf Building on 45 N. 2nd Street in Easton was recently sold for $1.925 million to VM Development. Its CEO, Mark Mulligan (who is also overseeing the reconstruction of the Pomeroy Building and the Simon Silk Mill), plans to gut the interior and repurpose the building for apartments and commercial uses. And so now seems as good a time as any to go over why the building is important and who it is named after.

No, not Wolf Blitzer. Though he does have an awesome name.


     _____So, what is it now?_____

The imposing brick Wolf building on the hill overlooking Larry Holmes Drive, with its 3-story clock tower easily visible from the Delaware River, now houses Northampton County's Department of Human Services, the same governmental division that is in charge of Gracedale Nursing Home. But it never did end up with the whole department in it.

The county bought the 55,000 sq. ft. building, its 3.3 acres of land and 183-space parking lot in 1986 for $912,000. And no one has been very happy about it since.

You see, the building isn't in great shape - there have been mold and asbestos problems and the heating system could use some work. In that the heating system broke last winter and they had to close the place down while it was repaired. Which is kind of embarrassing.

As County Executive John Stoffa recently said,

"The problem is it never worked out. I think she (the Wolf Building) fooled us."

Well, maybe so, but I don't think building meant to fool anyone. It wasn't designed for human resources, after all, and it was built in the 19th century so things are bound to break. Hopefully, the new Human Services building in Bethlehem Township will do better for the department, but the Wolf Building was originally meant to educate children, not house a division of government.



     _____So, what was it then?_____

Actually, it was built in 1893 as the first Easton High School.

Yes, imagine that: Easton High used to be on 2nd Street, in the actual city. Think about having the current group of high school students taking their buses to that building. You see why they eventually had to move. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Nowadays, not many people in Northampton County know the German language very well. Up through the 19th century, however, this was not the case - even as late as 1850, half the children in Northampton County knew how to speak only German. No English. Half the child population. (And many more who were bilingual still spoke German at home.)

That still kind of blows my mind. It also speaks to why knowing history can be so important. The way most people assume it, English has been the majority language in Easton since the natives left. People use this as a reason to not include, say, Spanish translations on signs or packaging.  "English has been the language here forever!" or some variant of that argument.

But their whole premise is flawed. Dual languages has been the way of things for a long time in these parts - it just wasn't always English and Spanish.

There were German-only congregations, schools, and newspapers in the area well into the 19th century. English really only gained its supermajority status after the public school system taught it to every school child.

Which brings us back to the Governor Wolf Building. So, who was this Governor Wolf?

     _____So, who was this Governor Wolf?_____

Yeah, I already said - eh, never mind.

George Wolf was born in 1777, during the Revolutionary War, in East Allen Township (where the Governor Wolf Historical Society currently resides). Long story short, he was a principal of Allen Township Classical Academy, became a lawyer and settled in Easton Borough in 1799. Then he became postmaster general of Easton. Then he became Northampton County's Orphans Court clerk. Then he became a Pennsylvania Assemblyman in 1814. Then he became a United States Representative for three terms during the 1820s. Then, finally, he became Pennsylvania's seventh governor in 1829.

Basically, he was one of those guys who couldn't stop becoming things.

He was a Democrat during a time is was good to be a Democrat in the area, but he ended up losing reelection in 1835. Why? Because he had supported some wildly unpopular legislation: The Free School Act of 1834.

The act was unpopular for a number of reasons. Firstly, the schools in question were only going to be "free" in the governmental sense of the word (i.e., your taxes). But it was also because many people in 1834 preferred the status quo of schooling: children were educated - many in the German language - at home or at church. And when the legislation was pushed through due to Governor Wolf's involvement, many in in own party decicded to vote for Henry Muhlenberg instead, costing Wolf reelection. 

Don't feel too bad for him, though. Not only did he occupy some nice government jobs until his death in 1840, but he also had a lot of things named after him. Including the aforementioned historical society near Bath, a couple elementary schools, and of course the Governor Wolf Building. And, by extension, this article.


     _____Anything else?_____


  • The archway out front of the building, with the faded stone lettering and the big stone globe on top of it? (see: picture I took, above) That's the Penny Arch. It actually predates the Wolf Building by a few years, erected in 1888. Its name comes from how the money was raised to pay for it: children's precious, precious pennies! Taken from them, by force if necessary and sometimes just for fun, every time they entered the classroom!

    No, but seriously, children simply donated a penny towards it.

    It took a long time, as you might imagine, to raise all that capital, because even back then a penny wasn't worth very much. The idea was proposed in 1858, a full three decades before the arch became a reality. (Granted, the Civil War did put a stop to collection for a time.) There is a new replica of the Penny Arch outside the current Easton Area High School.
  • The building at the property's south that's not made of bricks? That's the former McCartney School, built in 1856, named after Judge Washington McCartney (1812-1856), the mastermind behind Easton's public schooling system.

  • There used to be a number of schools on the hill prior to the construction of the Wolf Building, actually: there was the Easton Union Academy, built in 1794, on the hill too stone-ridden for farming. It closed during the 1820s. Then there was a female seminary there from 1845 until 1853, when the first public school was built on the hill and eventually society - somehow - survived putting boys and girls near each other.
  • The Wolf Building's students grew too many in number, so a new high school was built at 12th and Northampton Streets in 1925. (You know it now as the current Paxinosa Elementary School, but I knew it as Easton Area Middle School during possibly the worst years of my young life.) The Wolf Building then became a junior high school and then an elementary school from 1962-1976.

Kyle M. Jones is docent at the Sigal Museum in Downtown Easton some weekends. You should go there - they have a big portrait of Governor Wolf, so that's relevant to the article. They have lots of other stuff, too.

Kyle owes many of the dates mentioned in this article to the meticulous research of Richard F. Hope, who has published a book about Easton's history that you really should read.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Kyle M. Jones June 12, 2013 at 06:11 PM
You're welcome, thanks for reading. Hopefully the Bethlehem Township facility will be to your liking. At least you don't have to leave for about a year, right?
Kyle M. Jones June 12, 2013 at 06:12 PM
I completely agree. Luckily, CEO of VM Development Mark Mulligan has stated that he plans to keep the exterior largely as-is. The interior has got to go, but that's understandable and - from everything I hear - necessary.
Kyle M. Jones June 12, 2013 at 06:15 PM
I have not glanced upon the word "feuilleton" since French history class. (Which is to say, a history class about France. Not, uh, a history class taught in French for some reason.) Thank you. Also, thanks for the Wolf info. I didn't know that about the man.
Kyle M. Jones June 12, 2013 at 06:21 PM
I'd also like to note that, aside from the odd grammatical errors I decided to include for you to find (in my lame defense, I'm usually awfully tired when I type these things), I'd like to make an obvious correction: There is no "Front Street" in the City of Easton anymore, and there hasn't been for quite some time. I meant Larry Holmes Drive. It used to be Front Street, and I have a bad habit of referring to things by their old names. Just including this here because I don't want word to get back to Larry Holmes that I snubbed him by referencing his drive by its old name. Or something. Because it wasn't intentional - I just read a lot of old history, and it became a habit. I guess. Because, for the record, I like Holmes. Both Larry and Sherlock.
David W. Seiple June 13, 2013 at 06:07 PM
The building was erected by the local construction company Steinmetz & Horn. One of the employees was a man named Robert Butler Tilton. His son, Ernest R. Tilton (1879 - 1971) was my surrogate grandfather (both my grandfathers had passed away before I was born). Robert Butler Tilton lived - and died - at 822 Spring Garden Street, a house he purchased brand new in about 1905. His grandaughter, Kathryn Case Tilton, later married Herman Pinskey and became my Godmother. When she became an orphan in 1916 she was raised by Ernest R. Tilton, my surrogate grandfather, and together they lived at 822 Spring Garden Street until she passed away in 1976.


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