York City architect bridges old and new

Sean Philip Cotter

In a way, it all started with Central Market.

When Travel & Leisure named Downtown York one of  America s Greatest Main Streets several years ago, it cited Central Market as one of the area s highlights. Randy Flaum photo

That's the case for Frank Dittenhafer, principal at Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects in York City.

"I'm one of the people whose grandparents would bring them into Central Market on Saturdays," said Dittenhafer, who grew up in the Dover area.

And it awed him.

"It really had a magnetic quality to it," he said. The wide open space and the big bay windows appealed to him. "It's like York City's living room."

Frank Dittenhafer

One day, many years later, it would be his job to rehabilitate the building — one of the modern York's most prominent architects keeping up the building originally made by John Augustus Dempwolf, the architect who put York City on the map.

Frank Dittenhafer's not even willing to hazard a guess as to how many projects his firm has worked on over its 30-year existence in York City. Someone made a map maybe a year or so ago of the downtown area and the George Street corridor that reaches several blocks south, and just in those areas there are about 50 projects that have had his fingerprints on them.

Dittenhafer, whose offices are in the old Hotel Codorus at 226 W Market St., got his undergraduate degree from Penn State and then his master's from the University of Pennsylvania. He started his career at a few firms in Baltimore. That's where he met Michael Murphy, who was his business partner in York City for many years before his death in 2010.

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Murphy & Dittenhafer started small but eventually moved on to bigger projects.

About 15 years ago they did the Byrnes Health Center on South George Street; in the decade after that they did Marketview Arts and then the Codo loft projects, bringing  high-end apartments into the city on North George Street.

In this file photo, Matthew Clay-Robison, gallery director at Marketview Arts on West Philadelphia Street, hangs an exhibit. Bil Bowden photo

Those are the projects he's particularly proud of. Dittenhafer said the Marketview building in the first block of West Philadelphia Street was a "white elephant" — an odd structure that didn't really lend itself to any clear purpose  — so he's happy with how it came out. And he believes the lofts showed that good-quality, high-end apartments can work in York City, and that realization has led to other architects building more.

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All of those projects fit with Dittenhafer's fundamental principles of architecture.

"What really defines successful architecture to me is: 'Do people want to spend time there?'" Dittenhafer said.

For the market, that's definitely a yes, he said — hence the "living room" comment.

In terms of the existence of York as a city, Central Market was in a way how it all started, too. A year after the town of York was incorporated as a city in 1887, Dempwolf's Central Market building opened up.

"We are now a third-class city — we should look like one," said Terry "Dutchie" Downs, a local architectural designer and historian, who worked for Dittenhafer for nine years as a draftsman, focusing mostly on older properties.

J.A. Dempwolf and his brother, Reinhardt, worked on many of York City's most notable buildings over the several decades after that, from the old county courthouse that's now the York County Administration Building at 28 E. Market St., to the big Union Lutheran Church at the corner of Market and Penn streets in the city's west end, to the Rosenmiller building, which now houses York City Pretzel Co. in the first block of West Market Street.

"York was just starting to emerge on the scene as a developing community," he said. "York was becoming cosmopolitan."

Dittenhafer said he liked the thought that it seems  the Dempwolfs  put into their buildings, putting their own twist on the styles of the time. He called them "masters of fenestration" — their use of windows, something Dittenhafer holds in high regard. For example, there's the dormer windows in Central Market, a touch many architects wouldn't think to put in, he said.

"They didn't have to do that," he said.

Dittenhafer's modus operandi in terms of these buildings is to not force things — consider the building that's there and the unique opportunities it affords.

"Work with the building — not against it," he said.

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Shilvosky Buffaloe, York City's interim director of economic and community development, lauded Dittenhafer and said his effect on the city's current look can't be understated.

"In terms of leaving a lasting impression on the landscape, he closely mirrors the Dempwolfs from many years ago," Buffaloe said. "It’s a good compliment and a good ode to both architects."

Downs said much the same.

"In every era, there is a firm or firms who are the community’s architects, and I think it's fair to say that Frank is that," he said. "They embrace the philosophy and ideals of the community."