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Doylestown Historical Society presents grand opening of “Operation ’64” exhibit

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The Doylestown business district thrives today thanks to the vision of a few passionate individuals who laid the groundwork for self-preservation within the community and created the desire to revitalize the business district while protecting its historical character.

Until the 1950s, Doylestown’s business district flourished as a bustling shopping destination. However, by the 1960s the downtown area faced significant challenges, with over half of its retail spaces vacant. This decline was exacerbated when major retailers like Sears and Acme relocated to the newly opened Doylestown Shopping Center.

Shopping malls were a key component of the urban renewal philosophy which aimed to replace small historic buildings with new modern buildings with multiple shops.

The 1877 Victorian County Courthouse, designed by well -known architects Addison Hutton and John Ord, was replaced in 1960 by a seven-story administration building and then was later demolished in 1962 to make way for the modern rotunda. After this historic loss, the Doylestown community became more cautious of change and later united in opposition to future proposed plans for modernization.

Since other communities had moved forward in the direction of renewal, Borough Council turned to the Bucks County Redevelopment Authority to develop a revitalization plan. Parking was a concern in the early 1960s and Borough Council had spent over $6,000 for a parking survey, looking for an answer to the problem. It was optimistic that with the help of government aid, the parking issues in Doylestown would be resolved.

The Redevelopment Authority’s plan, presented at a public meeting on May 28, 1963, called for the demolition of 39 buildings in the center of the downtown business district, including the historic Fountain House. When John F. Mason, council president, took a verbal poll, he was shouted down with a chorus of 250 “nos” and the acceptance of $500,000 in federal aid was denounced.

The issues remained, but with the determination of a few local businessmen the initiative later known as “Operation ’64” was created. Frank X. Shelley Jr. and Joseph Kenny, leaders within the community, decided to take matters into their own hands.

Their program started by taking pictures of over 100 Doylestown storefronts and local businesses. They hired local artist William Erwin, who provided sketches and watercolor renderings, showing what the old buildings could look like with fresh paint and minor facade restoration work, along with the addition of trees and shrubbery.

Shelley and Kenny extended an invitation to all landlords, tenants, and business people of Doylestown to attend a meeting on June 1, 1964, to hear about “Operation ’64” – The Doylestown Plan for Self Help Downtown Renewal.

The grassroots revitalization effort that focused on preserving the town’s rich history while revitalizing its commercial core was underway. With some paint and perseverance, the shopping district was transformed into a vibrant and charming place to live and shop.

Later, Shelley and Kenny traveled to share their experience with other towns, highlighting that the success of a local program depends entirely on the community’s involvement and dedication.

When Doylestown felt the impact of challenging times in the ‘90s, and again during the pandemic, it turned to the framework of Operation ’64 to meet those challenges with strength and perseverance.

Operation ’64 laid the groundwork for the ongoing improvements and community involvement that are seen and practiced in Doylestown today making it a national example of downtown renewal and historic preservation. Recognition as one of the best small towns in America is the result of the community’s past and continuing efforts, inspired by the great leadership of Operation ‘64’s visionaries.

The grand opening of the Doylestown Historical Society’s “Operation ‘64” exhibit, at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, July 18, begins with a social hour of light refreshments, followed at 6:30 p.m. with the showing of a new “Operation ’64” video, 7 p.m. introduction of authors of Neshaminy Journal “Operation ’64: A Matter of Civic Pride” article, and 7:30 p.m. Q&A, in the Doylestown Historical Society Magill Schoolhouse, DHS Park and Barn, 56 S. Main St., Doylestown.

Call 215-345-9430 for information. The event is free and open to the public with a donation in any amount to the Doylestown Historical Society.


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