The Transect of Orwigsburg


Figure Ground Mapping


This is Figure Ground Map of the original extents of Orwigsburg as they are today. The gray figures are outlines of existing buildings give a clear indication of the most densely populated portions of the town. The most recognizable portion of the map is Center Square (at the center of town). This is arguably the most delightful and loved portion of the town today. It is the most fully culminated portion of the plan.

Cardo & Decumanus

The idea of a grid as a system for planning can be traced back to the Ancient Romans. When the Romans set out to build a new castrum in a land that they had conquered, they would typically start out with a strategic center point from which they would establish two main roads, a Cardo (North- South) and a Decumanus (East West). These two streets served as the main two streets that would then expand into a grid that will eventually become many of the European cities that we know and love.

This concept became deeply engrained in European city and town planning and eventually colonial America. Therefore it is no surprise that the two main streets in Orwigsburg are a true Cardo (Warren Street) and Decumanus (Market Street). It is also highly appropriate that the first Schuylkill County Courthouse be built on a lot at the intersection of these streets facing a beautiful town square.

The Position of Orwigsburg

When taking a first glance at the plan of Orwigsburg, it seems to be randomly tilted with no reference to any sort of cardinal direction. However it seems that based on me research, there is much more behind the 20 degree tilt East of North. Historically, many towns and settlements were “oriented” to the North. This determination could be made in a few ways, one of which was to use a compass. However, a compass’ North does not actually point to true north. It actually points to magnetic north. Interestingly, science tells us that the location of magnetic north has moved over time and continues to move to this day as it is part of a glacier in the arctic circle. Therefore, I hypothesize that the orientation of early towns has moved with magnetic north over time.

This can be seen in Orwigsburg as the rear projection of magnetic north at the time of Orwigsburg’s founding was indeed very close to 20 degrees East of North.

The Urban Fabric of Orwigsburg

As seen in the diagram above, Orwigsburg’s block structure can be broken down into lots, blocks and streets. The original block size is 16 Rods by 11 Rods. The original lot sizes were two rods wide, thus creating eight lots per block. Later as development grew down Warren Street the grain of the blocks turned and faced the main thoroughfare. The blocks and lots are then organized around a network of A and B streets.

The Rod and Block Sizes

The main way that I was able to correct the GIS map was through the utilization of historical standards for town planning. The basic unit for laying out block, lot and street sizes for centuries, was the Rod. It became standardized in 1625 by Sir Edmund Gunter. This unit can be broken down as follows:

1 Rod = 16.5 Feet

1 Chain = 4 Rods = 66 Feet

1 Furlong = 10 Chains = 40 Rods = 660 Feet

1 Acre = 1 Chain x 10 Furlong

1 Mile = 8 Furlong = 80 Chains = 320 Rods = 5280Feet

These units were the basis for many early towns and villages in the United States and Great Britain. Orwigsburg is no exception to this rule and so it is no coincidence that the original lots, blocks, streets, and limits of the town are exact multiples of the Rod.

Remnants of this mode of subdivision can be seen all throughout the town when examined carefully. Because of this pattern, I was able to correct the GIS map on a grid.

Entering the Digital World… and Then Correcting It.

The next step was to acquire a CAD map from the Borough. Fortunately, one existed. However it was drawn using  GIS (Geographic Information Systems) which are legendary for being highly inaccurate and sloppy.  This map was no exception. It would be fine for broad overviews of the community or for rough zoning, however on any level of detail it would not be sufficient. In order to have the end product for which I am looking, I will need to retrace the entire map and correct the line work based on any patterns I can find or information I can get. The goal of this process is to have an accurate digital model that I can analyze and eventually use for future proposals.

The Orwigsburg Archive

One of the first steps of the process was to go to Borough Hall and look at the maps in the archive. Fortunately the Borough recently completed an inventory of all the maps they had and assigned them call numbers. This was incredibly helpful since there are over 400 Drawings and Maps in the archive, the oldest of which is from 1837. I was given the opportunity to get digital scans of the maps for later use and reference. A huge thanks is due to Mike Lonergan (Borough Manager).

The Beginning

Welcome to the Blog site for my Master of Architecture project. This project seeks to explore, analyze and document the Morphology of Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania. The information that is gathered about the morphology and Architecture of the town will inform projections of what future development and growth within the borough could and should look like. Within the context of this urban proposal, I will be designing two Civic Buildings for the community’s consideration. The urban proposal and resulting Architecture will be designed and viewed through the lens of The New Urbanism which promotes walkable mixed- neighborhood development, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions.