The Newtown Theatre is the oldest movie theater in the country. Built in 1831, it began showing films in 1906. Today it shows first-run films and stage productions.
A walk through Newtown Borough is testament to its distinct historic character within Bucks County. Meticulous preservation of its Colonial architecture and landmark sites is well worth seeing in order to learn its story and respect the evident town pride.
A gateway between Central and Lower Bucks, Newtown is steeped in culture and historical significance, and particularly its geographic role in one of America’s most decisive events that shaped the country’s independence during the Revolutionary War.
General George Washington headquartered in Newtown between Dec. 26 and 29, 1776, following his first crossing of the Delaware. He and his troops then departed from Newtown for a second victorious battle, while more than a thousand Hessian prisoners remained in Newtown, housed in its prison and local churches.
William Penn founded Newtown in 1683, establishing a central farming community for settlers from Philadelphia. Its first rural families had documented their arrival and land purchases as far back as the early 1600s. As the town grew, it became the seat of Bucks County in 1726, and remained so for 88 years until 1813, when Doylestown replaced it in this capacity.
Newtown Borough’s population is estimated to be approximately 2,500, although it continues to experience rapid growth and demand for housing and commercial space. The surrounding Newtown Township has also experienced exponential growth in the last 40 or more years. This month, Newtown Borough faces a mixed-use development proposal, Steeple View, which potentially represents the largest building project in the borough’s history.
Judy Musto, Newtown Borough’s secretary, tax collector and volunteer president of the Newtown Library Company speaks with enthusiasm about the town’s eclectic mix of historic landmarks and organizations, most of which still remain active. She describes how she usually tells visitors and residents of Newtown to make sure they visit and understand in particular three notable destinations, all of which are included on the town’s self-guided walking tour.
Built in 1733, and followed by several additions, Thornton’s Tavern, the Hicks House, is known today as both the Court Inn and Half Moon Inn. The building, 101 to 107 Court St., now owned by the Newtown Historic Association, was restored in 1965, and awarded status on the United States National Register of Historic Places in 1977. It was in the tavern (the innkeeper was Margaret Thornton) where for the decades during which Newtown was county seat, many attorneys and judges gathered between court sessions.
The inn was also the residence of the Isaac Hicks Esquire, the father of primitive painter Edward Hicks.
Today, Court Inn and its lovely gardens remain open for tours between 2 and 4 on Sunday afternoons, June through August, and by appointment to access its research room.
Just around the corner, 114 E. Centre St., is the Newtown Library, operated by The Newtown Library Company, which was established in 1760 as the first library in Bucks County, and third in commonwealth. Somewhat unique to this day is its structure as a private membership library in which members are assessed an annual fee. (It is not part of the Bucks County Free Library System.) Donations are also accepted, librarian Karolyn Fisher explains.
The existing library is not the original building, however. The library was maintained in private homes until 1824, when a lot was donated by Squire Isaac Hicks for the construction of a new library. In 1882, having again outgrown its capacity, a new library was constructed on the Centre Street site.
It is well documented and notable that three prominent Newtown families were influential for generations in the welfare of Newtown’s beloved library: the Quaker farming family of Twining, the Thorntons of the Court Inn, and the Hicks family. Many of the library’s collections are considered to have been influential to artist Edward Hicks.
The library’s iconic sign depicting Benjamin Franklin reading a book was painted by Hicks; the image is still used as the library’s logo. The original has been restored, and now hangs on display inside.
“A Peaceable Kingdom,” perhaps Hicks’ most coveted painting, is now owned by the Bucks County Historical Society in Doylestown; however, the Newtown Library and Newtown Historic Association are also in possession of several Isaac and Edward Hicks documents and memorabilia.
At 120 North State St. is the Newtown Theatre, home to several movies, events, musical and dramatic productions. It has the distinction of being the oldest movie theater in the country (first showing was in 1906), even though it was originally built in 1831 as a hall for town gatherings.
By the 1850s, it was the center of entertainment and social meetings, including those of abolitionists. Lucretia Mott and Frederick Douglass reportedly spoke there. The theater was rebuilt in 1883, and has received several renovations and equipment upgrades as technology has changed. The theater is now owned and operated by the Newtown Community Welfare Council.
Landmark buildings, homes and businesses of Newtown too numerous to mention deserve to be discovered.
Wander through the Newtown Hardware House on State Street, which at age 133 is the oldest single operating business in the borough. Visit the historic district, attend an event at the Newtown Theatre, or dine at the Brick Hotel, which hosted George Washington and his officers, or the historic Temperance House, originally established by Quakers.
The most popular events include a Christmas house tour, a summer car show and Market Day.
The annual Market Day on Oct. 1, a tradition for generations, features local produce, artisans, food vendors and entertainment. It benefits the Newtown Historic Association, which in turn helps to preserve the integrity and charm of Newtown, Bucks County.