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Harrisburg’s Penn-Harris Hotel, a downtown landmark, was demolished 50 years ago | Column

E.Z. Wallower proposed a toast.

For several years, the Harrisburg businessman had led an effort to provide the city with a first-class hotel. And now, on New Year’s Eve 1918, the Penn-Harris Hotel had finally opened.

“This handsome hotel,” he told the more than 500 people gathered for the festivities, “will be a key to open the doors to the future hospitality and prosperity of Harrisburg.”

For more than five decades, the Penn-Harris Hotel provided Harrisburg and its visitors with top-notch hospitality and the largest banquet and meeting facility in the city.

The downtown hotel reflected Harrisburg. It was built during a time of significant civic improvements and population growth in the early 20th century. But after World War II, as the suburbs drew people and businesses out of the city, the Penn-Harris declined.

Fifty years ago, it was demolished.

A downtown institution

The Penn-Harris was built on the southeast corner of Third and Walnut streets, the former location of another popular place for gatherings and entertainment: the Grand Opera House.

But a gas explosion sparked a fire that destroyed the opera house and 10 other buildings in February 1907.

When the Wallower-led Harrisburg Hotel Co. was formed in October 1916, the site had been vacant for nearly a decade.

Because World War I boosted the costs of labor and materials, the hotel was built with reinforced concrete instead of steel.

“The 10-story hotel — expanded to 12 stories and 400 rooms in 1924 — was class for a town that long had spurned luxury,” longtime Patriot-News columnist Paul Beers writes.

It had phones and bathtubs in each room, a rarity at the time. At its peak, the hotel had five restaurants and more than 200 employees.

The Penn-Harris was a magnet for conventions, civic group activities and popular social events such as the Art Association of Harrisburg’s Bal Masque. Located across from Capitol Park, the hotel was a place where lawmakers, in fact, brokered deals in “smoke-filled rooms.” Celebrities stayed there.

Yet not everyone was welcome at the Penn-Harris.

Discrimination case

In March 1937, a group of Philadelphia educators who were in Harrisburg to advocate for a teacher tenure bill went to the Penn-Harris dining room. But Black educators in the group, including activist and historian Arthur H. Fauset, were denied service, told that “it was against the policy of the hostelry to serve persons of the colored race,” The Pittsburgh Courier, a Black newspaper, reported.

The teachers filed discrimination lawsuits against the hotel’s manager, Franklin Moore, and assistant manager, George Stauffer.

Local historian Norman Gasbarro writes that the lawsuits were tests of whether the state’s new equal rights law, enacted in 1935, was constitutional and whether it could be effectively enforced.

The act, an amendment of the state’s 1887 civil rights law, provided “equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of any places of public accommodation, resort or amusement,” including hotels.

Undeterred, the Penn-Harris expanded the dining room that had been ground zero for the lawsuits and rebranded it the Plantation Room in the summer of 1938. It was the hotel’s main dining quarters, offering “a touch of the leisure and charm of the Deep South,” as one postcard put it.

A newspaper ad for the new dining room included a sketch of a Black “mammy” character serving a white family, as well as Moore’s signature.

Months later, in December 1938, a Dauphin County jury acquitted Moore of violating the equal rights act, but he was ordered to pay the costs of the prosecution, $355.70. A judge had tossed the suit against Stauffer.

Dangerous demolition

In the years after World War II, the Penn-Harris started to struggle, Beers writes. New highways enabled travelers to bypass Harrisburg. In the early 1960s, new one-way traffic patterns in the city hindered access to the Penn-Harris. Businesses followed residents to the growing suburbs, finding new places to hold events and conventions.

The hotel’s owners opened the Penn-Harris Motor Inn, today the Penn Harris Hotel Harrisburg, across the river in East Pennsboro Township in April 1964.

In 1972, the Penn-Harris’ owners decided to close the Harrisburg hotel, citing “structural obsolescence, change in travel patterns and patron preferences.”

The hotel’s last day was, appropriately enough, New Year’s Eve 1972.

“Wags contend more legislation got off the hook in the Penn Harris than in the House and Senate chambers,” The Evening News said on the hotel’s final day of business. “Deals, big and little, cut their teeth over coffee cups, or amidst the clatter of ice cubes. Smoke-filled rooms? Head-to-head sessions? If there was one there was a thousand.”

Demolition took place in stages from August to October 1973.

Seeing detonations blast through the landmark hotel brought at least one person to tears: bell captain German Jackson, who worked for the hotel for 52 years.

Jackson was one of Harrisburg’s most successful Black businessmen, having owned the Jackson House hotel on North Sixth Street and a hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, both of which served African American travelers in the days of segregation.

“A part of me is going,” he told The Patriot as he watched the Penn-Harris crumble. “I have learned that good things don’t last for always.”

On Labor Day, demolition went awry. As a blast knocked down a hotel tower, two steel beams smashed into four North Third Street buildings housing two businesses: Rogal’s Travel Service and David’s clothing store. Three days later, debris from the hotel fell on an Enola couple’s car, injuring them.

Demolition ended without incident Oct. 21.

For the first time since fire destroyed the Grand Opera House, which had opened in 1873, 100 years before the Penn-Harris’ demolition, the southeast corner of Third and Walnut was occupied by rubble.

But that would change.

Strawberry Square

Two weeks before the Penn-Harris closed, the nonprofit Greater Harrisburg Movement unveiled in the hotel’s ballroom a proposal to create the Harristown project, a plan to revitalize the city’s central business district.

Out of this came the formation of the Harristown Development Corp. and a plan to transform downtown with office buildings, stores, restaurants and residences.

The main component of the plan was Harristown’s flagship property, Strawberry Square, a retail, office and dining complex built on the Penn-Harris’ former site and the rest of the block.

Strawberry Square opened in 1978 when its first occupant, Bell Telephone Co., moved in.

A Hilton would connect with Strawberry Square in November 1990. Harrisburg would always have a need for a first-class hotel.

Joe McClure is a news editor for The Patriot-News. Follow him on Instagram: @jmcclure5nine.

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