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What Ever Happened to the Ross Law Office?

The History Guy relates the remarkable survival of a gem from Doylestown's early years.

There's a small brick building at the corner of Broad Street and Garden Alley. I've heard this used to be on East Court Street next to the old courthouse. Why and when was the building moved? - J.W., Doylestown

 

The former Ross Law Office is the sole survivor of buildings that once graced the triangle bounded by Main, Court and Broad streets.

The patriarch of the Ross family was John Ross (1770-1834), a Bucks County native who began practicing law in Easton and served as prothonotary of Northampton County. Ross later was elected to the state House of Representatives and then served five terms in Congress.

In 1818, Ross was appointed judge of the judicial district that comprised Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties. After Bucks and Montgomery were made a separate district, Ross moved from Jenkintown to Doylestown in 1824. He bought the Indian Queen tavern at the intersection of Main and Court streets, in the same block as Doylestown's first courthouse, constructed in 1812-13.

Ross converted the tavern into his home, known to locals as the Ross Mansion. In 1830, Ross became an associate justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

One of his sons, Thomas Ross, was admitted to the bar in 1829, and built a 11/2-story brick law office in 1830 on East Court Street, between the mansion and the courthouse. During his career, Ross (1806-1865) was a county district attorney and served two terms in Congress.

Thomas Ross had two sons, both of whom continued to practice law in the Doylestown office. Henry P. Ross was a Bucks district attorney and a county judge. George Ross was elected as a Democrat to the state Senate and later to Congress.

George Ross's sons, George and Thomas, carried on the legal tradition as partners in the firm of Yerkes, Ross and Ross. In 1905, a one-story wing was added to the original law office in the same Federal architectural style.

Meanwhile, the 1813 courthouse was replaced with a larger brownstone structure in 1878. The Ross Mansion was torn down in 1897 and replaced with the Doylestown National Bank.

By the 1920s, the "new" courthouse was overcrowded and the county government needed more space (sound familiar?). In February 1928, the county commissioners passed a resolution condemning the Ross Law Office and several other properties in the triangle. Under the law at the time, the condemnation could not take effect unless approved by two successive grand juries

The Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, on behalf of 220 architects in the region, sent a letter of protest to the commissioners.

"It has been brought to our attention that there is danger of the loss of one of the best-known and most authentic buildings in Doylestown, the Ross house [office]," the letter read, as recounted in a 1955 article in The Daily Intelligencer. "This matter was immediately referred to the committee and the chairman reports that the building is a most interesting and thoroughly good example of architecture of the early 19th century."

The letter continued: "Too few of our outstanding buildings erected in an age of intense interest to our country and indicative of its life and customs of that period have been preserved. The chapter [is of the] unanimous opinion that not only should the life of the Ross house not be endangered by an action which may open the road of condemnation and eventual destruction, but that steps should be taken to preserve it in perpetuity."

Twenty-six Bucks County artists, "many of whom consider the old Ross law office one of the purest examples of early Pennsylvania architecture in existence," signed a petition urging the grand jury to reject the condemnation, according to a February 1928 article in the Philadelphia Public Ledger. Signers included Edward Redfield of Center Bridge, Daniel Garber of Lumberville and George Sotter of Holicong.

The grand jury refused to approve the condemnation. After the Doylestown National Bank and the Bucks County Trust Company merged and moved into a new building at East Court Street and Printer's Alley in 1932, the county bought the former national bank building on the triangle and converted it into the county administration building

County government outgrew this and several other satellite buildings. In 1955, the commissioners unveiled a grandiose plan to replace the 1878 courthouse with a seven-story administration building and a five-story circular judicial wing. The plan also called for tearing down all other buildings in the triangle, including the Ross Law Office, the administration building and another office called the Lehman Building.

After 125 years, the Ross building was still in use as a law office and owned by members of the Ross family.

John Ross of Solebury, a Philadelphia lawyer and great-great-grandson of Judge John Ross, wrote a letter to the Intelligencer in July 1955. "If the Bucks County Commissioners persist in using the inadequate center-town site, our family, and particularly the owners of the law office--my brothers, Thomas Ross, Jr., and George B. Ross, and I--hope they will preserve the building by relocating it," he wrote.

The Ross office was untouched while the new administration building was constructed from June 1958 to March 1960. The county demolished the old courthouse and several other structures in the fall of 1960 to make way for the judicial wing (completed in 1962), but left the Ross office intact until a decision on its fate could be made.

"The commissioners have been mulling over the problem for some time, trying to decide whether to leave it there, destroy it, or bear the expense of moving it to another location," the Intelligencer reported in September 1961. That month, the county sold the building for $1 to Howard M. Barnes, a lawyer and executive vice president of the Doylestown National Bank and Trust Co.

Barnes told the newspaper he would move the building to the rear yard of his home at East State and Broad streets. He said it would cost more than $15,000 (as much as some new houses cost then) to move and dig a foundation for the office.

"A lot of people in town hate to see an old building destroyed, and I do too," said Barnes, adding that saving the building would help preserve the character of the town.

Ironically, Barnes was chairman of the county planning commission in 1955, when it voted by a narrow margin to recommend tearing down the old courthouse and building a new one on the same site.

In late October 1961, a crew from a New Jersey company raised the Ross Law Office onto steel beams attached to tires and slowly moved it a block down East Court Street and around the corner to the Barnes property facing Broad Street, where the foundation already was dug. To accommodate the move, the chimney had been removed but was reconstructed at the new location.

Barnes, a 1909 graduate of Doylestown High School who received his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, divided his time between his homes in Doylestown and Tinicum.

A bachelor, Barnes died in 1970 at age 78. He left the law office to Geoffrey E. Bullard, a Doylestown landscape architect, according to a July 1970 Intelligencer article.

In the late 1980s, the former Barnes house and grounds was divided into residential condominiums called Barnes Court. The former Ross Law Office remains on Broad Street, looking much as it did 180 years ago.

Pat Achilles December 30, 2011 at 08:50 PM
Wonderful slice of our hometown lore! Thank you for writing this. One tiny typo, I think: Signers included Edward Redfield of Center Bridge, Daniel Garber of Lumberville and George Setter of Holicong. I believe that should be George Sotter, also a renowned Bucks Co. painter.
Sarah Larson December 30, 2011 at 09:22 PM
Thanks, Pat. Got it.
Judge Ed Ludwig April 28, 2012 at 08:45 PM
My comment on "What Happened to the Ross House?" is much too long, but it's a piece of D/town history that needs to to be preserved. I was there. Ed Ludwig
Judge Ed Ludwig April 28, 2012 at 08:47 PM
Much too long for a Comment.
Fred Beans July 22, 2012 at 12:11 AM
We love the house Fred Gisela Beans We hope it is in good hands

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