C. Emlen Urban: the Man who Gave Lancaster its Iconic Look

Cassius Emlen Urban

Many Lancastrians are unaware of the lifelong work of celebrated local architect Cassius Emlen Urban. His deft eye for design transformed Lancaster’s cityscape more than 100 years ago. Urban’s massive but approachable buildings utilize classical designs. Technology played a significant role in his success. The introduction of structural steel, cast iron, and plate glass allowed Urban to design taller buildings with larger windows.

Throughout his 45-year career in Lancaster, Urban’s designs included significant commercial and public buildings, churches, hotels, schools, industrial facilities, and private residences. His designs were stylistically eclectic, reflecting the influence of Queen Anne, French Renaissance, Gothic Revival, Beaux Arts, and Colonial Revival periods. Although he spent his entire professional career living within the City of Lancaster, his designs were informed by knowledge of classical and historical architecture and work produced by his contemporaries in larger cities such as Philadelphia and New York. He adapted historical architectural styles to modern building types and materials. He was equally adept at designing small-scale private residences and modest churches as he was at creating major commercial buildings on a monumental scale.  

In A History of Lancaster County (1924), historian H.M.J. Klein wrote of Urban: “Few men of Lancaster County can point to a finer array of useful and beautiful work than can Cassius Emlen Urban, of the City of Lancaster, whose skilled hand and artistic talent mean much to the civic dignity of this and other municipalities.”

Brief History

Emlen Urban was born in Conestoga Township on February 20, 1863. He was the son of Amos B. and Barbara (Hebbel) Urban and the grandson of a farmer and carpenter who specialized in coffins. He had three sisters and a brother. Emlen’s brother, Christopher, moved to the Delaware Valley in 1886 and worked as a construction supervisor. After many years, he returned to Lancaster and worked with Urban.

The family moved to Lancaster after the Civil War and lived at 444 South Queen Street. His father, Amos, was a carpenter and part owner of the Urban and Burger Planing Mill on South Prince Street from 1873 until 1885. They specialized in the manufacture of window sash, doors, and millwork.

After graduating from Lancaster’s Boy’s High School in 1880, C. Emlen Urban served as an apprentice to Scranton architect E.L. Walter for eighteen months. He moved to Philadelphia in 1884 to serve as a draftsman in the Philadelphia office of architect Willis G. Hale. Hale specialized in the flamboyant and highly ornate style that was popular in the 1880s and 1890s. 

Urban returned to Lancaster in 1886 with a firm background and quality training with the goal of establishing his own architectural practice. He was one of four architects in Lancaster at the time. 

Southern Market

In 1888, he received his first major commission in Lancaster, the design of Southern Market. Within eight years of designing that remarkable building, Urban released a promotional booklet or portfolio, Recent Work by C. Emlen Urban, Architect (1896), that illustrated the wide range of his clientele and the high quality of his work, signifying that his career was firmly established.

Urban embraced and adapted many styles such as Queen Anne, Beaux-arts, Colonial Revival, Gothic Revival, and French Baroque Revival Style. He was known for his precise renderings and creating beautiful drawings, even as general construction documents. His ability to borrow and move ideas fluidly in an eye-pleasing manner made him a successful architect.

Here are several of Urban’s most buildings located in downtown Lancaster.

Urban’s office was in the Woolworth Building on North Queen Street for most of his career for most of his career. His assistant was Ross Singleton, and his son, Rathfon, worked as a draftsman for many years. At the time of his death, many drawings, blueprints, and specification notes for his buildings became the property of Donald Reidenbaugh, who moved out of town. As a result, the list of Urban’s buildings is incomplete.

Woolworth Building on North Queen Street

As an established business man, Urban belonged to many civic and professional associations. He was a member of the American Institute of Architects and the “T Square” organization of architects in Philadelphia. He belonged to the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary, and the Hamilton Club. He was an honorary life member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

Urban was a charter member of the Young Republicans Club of Lancaster and a director of Stevens Trade School, now Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. He was also a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), a past president of the Southern Pennsylvania Chapter of the AIA. He held memberships in the T-Square Club and the Art Club of Philadelphia. Urban made contacts with Lancaster’s leading businessmen through these circles and earned valuable commissions throughout his lifetime. His family worshiped at the First Methodist Church of Lancaster.

In this photograph, renowned architect E. Emlen Urban is shown on the far right, businessman Frank W. Woolworth is at the far left.

Urban married Jennie Olivia McMichael, and they had two children, a daughter, Miriam Grace, and a son, Rathfon Merrill.  

Urban retired in 1930 at age 67. He took several European vacations with his wife and daughter, Miriam. He was able to see firsthand the classical architecture that so inspired him. He loved the arts, opera, the classics, and freshwater fishing.

After battling cancer for two years, Emlen Urban died on May 21, 1939. He is buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Lancaster, PA. The large Urban monument has a quote from the Song of Solomon 2:15, “Until the day breaks, and the shadows fell away.”

Closing Thoughts

C. Emlen Urban was a prolific and talented architect. He was a reserved man who quietly designed over 100 buildings in Lancaster County and Hershey. Two-thirds of them were public buildings: schools, churches, and businesses. About one-fourth of his work has been demolished or substantially altered. Nevertheless, some of the most beautiful are on the National Register of Historic Places and will be preserved for future generations.

In his address at the December 1905 dedication ceremony for Boys High School, Urban spoke of the requisite use of high-quality materials and workmanship in architecture “to build strong and substantial” to produce solid and enduring work. That philosophy is embodied in all of the timeless buildings that Urban left behind, rooted in his own high standards and artistic skills and reflective of Lancaster’s turn-of-the-century civic pride and economic prominence. 

The architectural legacy of C. Emlen Urban continues to enrich Lancaster’s unique historic character. 


Purchase a copy of the beautiful 60-page C. Emlen Urban Architectural Tour in the City of Lancaster booklet from the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County’s 2022 architectural tour. Click here to purchase your copy for only $18.99

You can also purchase a beautiful reproduction map of Lancaster City from either 1875 and 1899.

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