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History of the Chester County History Center

Founded by local citizens in 1893, the Chester County History Center’s early years were occupied with collecting items of historical value, dedicating historical markers and searching for a permanent home. Those years created the nucleus of the current extensive library collections, which today include over 500,000 manuscripts, 20,000 volumes, and what one author in National Genealogical Society Quarterly called “one of the state’s best collections of newspaper clippings.”

In 1942, the Chester County History Center, as it was known, moved into historic Horticultural Hall, adding a wing for its expanding museum collections. Succeeding years consolidated a strong emphasis on the collection of regional furniture, textiles and decorative arts objects, as well as material representing all aspects of life in southeastern Pennsylvania. Today, the museum collection contains over 80,000 artifacts.

Horticultural Hall was modernized in 1979 to improve collections management and increase exhibition space. In the early 1980s, the CCHC initiated a joint project with Chester County government to administer the Chester County Archives, adding 300 years of public records to its care, one of the finest and most complete collections of historic county records in the nation. The CCHC also established its photo archives, which encompasses more than 80,000 images dating from the early 1840s.

The Historic Vision Capital Campaign that launched in 1992 enabled the renovation of the adjacent YMCA building. The resulting 56,000 square-foot complex became a vital location for exhibition, collection storage, and research. In fact, the CCHC’s assets were a pivotal component of the National Register of Historic Places naming West Chester as one “America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations” in 2006. The facility also allowed for an increased emphasis on educational programming, making CCHC one of Pennsylvania’s premier history museums and educational centers with an expanded library and research area, a 250-seat auditorium, and seven exhibition galleries.

The CCHC blends two distinctive buildings in Chester County’s history. Horticultural Hall, designed by noted architect Thomas U. Walter and built in 1848, was a center of activity in West Chester. In addition to the meetings and shows of the Chester County Horticultural Society, the building was used for a variety of public events, including the first women’s rights convention in Pennsylvania. Uriah Hunt Painter converted the building into the West Chester Opera House in the late 19th century. In 1904, his widow gave the building to the General George A. McCall Post #31, the Grand Army of the Republic, with the stipulation that the building would go to the Chester County History Center when the G.A.R. no longer needed it. 

The main body of the old YMCA building was built in two sections, both begun in 1908. The Sharples gymnasium was built by business entrepreneur and philanthropist P.M. Sharples, who offered to donate it to the YMCA if the organization agreed to build an additional building on the same land. The two structures were both designed by noted Philadelphia architect Charles Barton Keen and were ultimately joined by a “hyphen” or corridor. An addition in 1928 expanded the facilities, and in 1959, a new entrance corridor obscured the buildings’ original appearance. A restoration project undertaken by CCHC in the early 1990s restored the High Street façade to its original Colonial Revival appearance.

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