Friday, May 29, 2015

You're from Lancaster...

So you're Amish, right?  I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked this question.  Depending on who asks my answer can vary significantly.  But as our firm is from Lancaster and we work all over the country, I decided to provide a little historical background for those who may not be familiar with our fair city.  Because where we're from has something to do with who we are.

We've been using wind and solar energy here for a long time.

RLPS is a unique firm in that it is well known in the senior living circle as a national firm, yet we are not based where one might expect.  Instead of New York, Washington, DC, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, RLPS is located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the heart of Amish Country.  Many years ago, I imagine this was a barrier to us getting work outside of Pennsylvania.  But today, we routinely compete with a half a dozen or so national firms that specialize in design for the senior housing industry.  We are the only firm that is based in a non-metropolitan area, however.  We speak at national conferences and at conferences for individual states from coast to coast, and our staff have been published in various national publications and trade papers.  We recently had people in both Portlands (Maine and Oregon) on the very same day, so we had all 3,187 miles covered, coast to coast.

Slate roof on First Reformed Church of Lancaster steeple.

Lancaster has a rich history of fine masonry workers. (Central Market)

RLPS began modestly in 1954 and at that time built its reputation upon the design of churches.  In the 1960’s and 70’s, many of those congregations created not-for-profit senior living campuses for their parishioners and missionaries, and RLPS provided design services for those same clients.  Now, a half-century later, we have worked on nearly 1,500 senior’s housing and care center projects.  We enjoy a national reputation, having worked in more than 30 states over the last 30 years, but we still have our roots in Lancaster.

Smell that?  Must be Spring!

Many of our staff is native to this area, including myself.  I was born in downtown Lancaster and, as I like to put it, Mehaffey’s have been polluting Lancaster County for centuries.  My earliest ancestor I have yet traced with the surname Mehaffey (also James) was in Marietta, Lancaster County in the 1700’s.  I believe our staffs’ roots has something to do with our endurance and our work ethic.  Lancaster County was part of Penn’s Woods and was a haven for those fleeing religious persecution in Europe.  As a result, the area became a home to the Amish, Mennonites, Anabaptists, as well as the Scots-Irish looking to put some distance between themselves and the Crown.  These religious folk have a tradition of hard work and perseverance.  Today, there are employees at RLPS who have worked here for 30 and even 40 years and beyond!  This is unheard of in the architectural offices around the country, really.  I have been employed at RLPS for 20 years, and I still consider myself a young pup compared to five or six other guys who easily average more than 35 years.

Amish kids bringing their dads lunch at a local construction site (Landis Homes)

Lancaster is both a City and a County in South Central PA.  The city has a population close to 60,000 residents and the County is slightly over a half-million people.  There are those who may argue for other towns, but we say Lancaster is the oldest inland town in the United States, founded in 1734.  The very first paved road in the US ran from here to Philadelphia (now Route 30).  Lancaster is situated between the State capital (37 miles), Philadelphia (76 miles) and Baltimore (78 miles), making it ideal for commuters.  RLPS has been known to attract new employees from these more metropolitan cities.

Lancaster City and County have a rich history as it relates to the rest of the United States.  In 1777, after the British took Philadelphia, the Continental Congress met in Lancaster on September the 27th, making it the Capital of the US for that day (the Congress had to continue to move west, away from British forces soon after).  In terms of politicians, Lancaster City is home to the James Buchanan estate, Wheatland.  As fifteenth president of the United States, he doesn’t get a lot of love for keeping the US from entering the Civil War, but that may have something to do with another Lancastrian, Thaddeus Stevens, famed abolitionist portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones in the film Lincoln.  The residents here from the Swiss and German stock especially were resolutely against slavery.

There are some tremendous buildings downtown (North Duke Street)

In terms of commerce and industry, Lancaster also played a part in manufacturing from infancy of the Nation.  The Conestoga wagon and the Pennsylvania Long Rifle both were manufactured here.  Robert Fulton, inventor of the steam boat, was a native son.  FW Woolworth opened the first Five and Dime store here in 1879.  Armstrong World Industries was founded in Lancaster in 1891 (by one of those Scots-Irish families), known of course for their floor and ceiling products, but started out in cork and linoleum made from plant fibers and oils.  Milton Hershey’s first successful candy shop was in Lancaster in 1886 and it is still home to the plant that makes Twizzlers (Hershey was one of those Swiss-Germans).  RCA had a factory here in the 1940’s, and along with Hamilton Watch Company and the Stehli Silk Mill, Lancaster made massive contributions to the War effort (radio parts, bomb timers and parachutes).  If you’ve ever been to an airport; you’ve seen Auntie Ann’s Pretzels, headquartered in Lancaster.  And MapQuest, formally a division of RR Donnelley (a printer of maps among other things), has its roots in Lancaster.

The old Silk Mill - windows were blacked out to prevent the Nazis from bombing it.

I give you this background to augment most folk’s knowledge of Lancaster, PA with full acknowledgement of the steep agrarian history.  We mostly come from farmers, yes.  In the attempt of full disclosure; the place I am typing right this second was a cornfield years ago, and I literally was picking corn on this site in 1989.  But we as a county (excluding the Amish) were part of the industrial revolution and every other revolution since.

A very large percentage of our staff was born or grew up in Lancaster County or a neighboring county and I think it has a lot to do with who we are.  And those staff who aren't originally from Lancaster have been here long enough to have raised their children here.  We sometimes have to overcome backwoods or hick stereotypes, but our reputation nationally has been steadily building.  And while much of our work ends up outside of city centers based on the availability of large tracts of land, RLPS has been making some headway into more metropolitan work as of late.  This may be one of the last barriers we need to cross as a firm, getting that high profile, city center commission.  But based on information from the US Census Bureau, 97% (footnote 1) of the land in the United States is considered rural, not urban, so maybe we will be just fine.

Other Notable Lancastrians: 

Jim Furyk, golfer and US Open champion 2003 (he was a senior when I was a freshman at our high school)
Kristen Wiig, Famous Actress (also went to my school up to 8th grade, in my class)
Lt.. Cdr. Andy Baldwin, US Navy, from the Bachelor (also from my high school, though younger than me)
Brad Rutter, all-time money winner on Jeopardy! (also from my high school)
Charles Demuth, painter, 1883 - 1935
Tommy Herr, Major League Baseball player
Bruce Sutter, Hall of Fame pitcher

Major Dick Winters, US Army, my personal hero from Band of Brothers fame, and my grandfather’s first cousin

Footnote 1:  Information obtained at on May 29, 2015.

Photo Credits:  Photos 1, 2 and 3, Gregory J. Scott.  Photos 4, 5, 6, & 7 by the author.

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