Vaulted roof of the underground room exposed

This article was originally published October 10, 2013. Updated May 13, 2015.

by Malcolm Johnstone

West Chester PA — You never know what you might find beneath the 200-year-old sidewalks in downtown West Chester.

On October 9, 2013, as construction crews were preparing a portion of Church Street to replace the sidewalk, a round manhole was discovered when its glass cover was broken during excavation. It sat over a small brick room located on South Church Street near Market Street.

A West Chester Public Works crew was quickly called in and they examined the inside of the room with a robotic camera. This allowed them to determine that the roof of the room is stable enough to remain ‘as is’, and it has since been resealed. Before they finished, they searched for clues about the function of the room. The only thing found was an old chair and a bottle (see below) plus a lot of brick and dirt.

What could this mysterious room have been used for? It’s located in front of where the old Mansion House Hotel existed from 1833 until the early 1970s, when it was demolished. During its heyday, it served as a social gathering place and West Chester lore is full of stories of tunnels that ran beneath the streets connecting the Mansion House to various buildings.

There has been much speculation on the function of the room, which is about the size of a walk-in closet. Was it part of a tunnel system beneath the streets? Maybe part of the Underground Railroad? Or does the opaque glass cover suggest that the room was simply used for storage? A few have suggested that perhaps the room was originally built as a root cellar, and may even have predated the Mansion House when, according to historian Jim Jones, a farmhouse occupied the location. (Root cellars were fully bricked, subterranean rooms where the ground temperature kept the such a storage area at a constant 56-degrees (F). Once food markets became more prevalent, root cellars took on other functions.)

The most likely answer
At least one expert has a well-studied take on the room: he’s Rob Petito, a restoration architect in Philadelphia, who has often run across such structures.

“It strikes me that this structure is too close to the surface to have been a root cellar,” Petito states. “Usually those types of structures were set down lower under a building (almost like a sub-cellar) or were removed from the building proper where they were built into a hillside or embankment, and covered with several feet of soil to better insulate the room. And, it seems unlikely that it was part of a farmhouse that formerly stood on the site, as the structure is in the street right-of-way.

“Based on the photos in the article and Tim Vaughan’s photos, it appears that it is a brick walled and vaulted roofed structure that was plastered on the inside, suggesting that it may have been used as a water cistern.  Many towns and small cities in the days of hand-pumper or early steam pumper fire engines constructed water cisterns under the sidewalk in the street right of way to use for water storage for fighting fires. Another option is that this cistern was ‘recharged’ by downspouts from the former Mansion House hotel that stood on the site and the water used for (at present) unknown purposes.”

This appears to be the most logical conclusion — a water cistern next to a large hotel built long before a municipal water system was created.

No doubt there will be more speculation on this discovery. But for now, West Chester has one more historic feature to intrigue us.

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  • Many thanks to Rob Petito and Jason Birl for sharing their expertise.

Below are additional images of the underground room. Scroll over the image for the caption.

Underground room opening at sidewalk

Rim of glass cover showing opaque glass

Chair and bottle visible among the debris

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