Mansions on the Hill
By: John Ziats and Nancy Avolese
On land that was originally part of Colonel James Young’s farms there stood four magnificent mansions that beckoned remembrance of a time forgotten. It was a period of wealth and grandeur, form and architecture, the “Mansions on the Hill” welcomed all who traveled by the stately homes and yards guarded by huge old trees and bountiful flower beds.
Sitting on the edge of Lower Swatara Township, on the west side of Main Street in Middletown, in the neighborhood now known as “Eagle Heights”, part of the Penn State University’s student housing, these lovely homes were designed and built.
By the 1880’s and into the early 1900’s, Middletown had its own industrial revolution. Middletown Car Works, American Tube and Iron Company, Raymond and Campbell Stove Works, pipe mills, a brownstone quarry, a lathe factory, Cobaugh Brothers Paint Works, Olmstead Airforce Base and the P.R.R. Railroad were all running to capacity.
The first house on the very top of the hill was built in 1901 by William David Matheson (1867), third son of George Matheson and Isabella Hewison. William became superintendent of the American Tube and Iron Company in Youngstown, Ohio and later the superintendent of the Middletown plant (his father, George was the treasurer and partial owner of the Middletown plant). William married Fannie Nisley in 1891 at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. Two years later, they created their dream home.
The Matheson home was shaped in the Edwardian style with a wraparound porch and gazebo on the corner. At the time, it was considered one of the finest houses in eastern Pennsylvania according to the History of Dauphin County 1907.
As you entered the front door into the vestibule there was an inner stained-glass door to keep out the cold. The reception hall had beamed ceilings and a fireplace at each end. Over the one fireplace was the Matheson family crest etched in stone. The family motto was “Fac-et-spera” translated, “Do and Hope.” The right side of the hall was the living room with a fireplace: off to the left was a music room. There was a large dining room containing a fireplace. After the dining room there was a pantry and kitchen. The kitchen had a gas stove and a coal stove. The pantry had closets and cupboards. The baking and dishwashing was done in the pantry.
There was an open staircase to the second floor with a platform in the middle. Upstairs were four big bedrooms and a bathroom. The master bedroom had a dressing room. Off one of the bedrooms was an office. The hallway was wide and furnished with couches and chairs. The staircase continued to the third floor where there was a large bedroom. The third floor contained a bedroom for the servants and another bathroom. The bathroom on this floor led to a Widow’s Walk where the children used to go to look out over the town.
The back of the house had a tennis court and a croquet court. Gardens in the back extended into fields.
A gardener took care of the grounds and the car. His wife helped with the household chores. There was a carriage house (pictured at right) in the back which served as an apartment for the gardener and his wife.
By 1920, the home was sold to Michael Bachman, another local business owner.
This home was demolished in 2011 by Green-Works Development to make way for student housing at Penn State.
The second house was built by one of the Matheson family between 1888 and 1900 in the Eastlake style. This house had ornate spindles and knobs throughout the trim inspired by the decorative furniture of English designer Charles Eastlake 1836-1906.
In 1956, the house was sold and became the Houser - Clouser V.F.W. Post 1613. Fire raced through it in the 1970’s and it was eventually torn down.
This picture was taken before it was torn down.
The third house was built by Franklin Musselman (1849) in 1885. Musselman was the treasurer of American Tube and Iron Company. He hired York County architect Joseph Dise to design a grand home in the Queen Ann style from local brownstone.
The home showed off many gables, towers, and decorative cornices. The three turrets at the top of the house were large bedrooms overlooking the town. (There were seven bedrooms in all) As you entered the front door there was a lobby, a doorway led into the bar and restaurant. The tables set up at the windows gave you a view of Main Street. The covered front entry porch held beautiful decorative balustrades and fretwork. The kitchen was located at the back of the house in the screened porch. Large oak doors led from one room to another. Each room had a fireplace and all the art-glass windows could be covered with interior shutters.
At one time the house went up for sheriff sale and was bought for $1, that owner turned it into a boarding house for renters. Later, it became the Pine Lodge Motel. This home was also demolished in 2011 by Green-Works Development to make way for student housing at Penn State.
The fourth house at 277 West Main Street was built in 1889 by British industrialist John (JT) Bradley. It was to be Mr. Bradley’s retirement dream home. It was built with German clapboard siding, fish scale, and fretwork which were painted various colors. The bay stained-glass windows on the first and second floor were quite beautiful. Mr. Bradley had one installed in memory of his daughter who died while still a young child. The beautiful picture is the face of a heavenly looking young cherub with wings somewhat like an angel. It was inscribed, “In Memoriam of Our Beloved Katie”.
A sweeping staircase greeted visitors who entered through the double stained-glass front doors. There were hardwood floors, and original pocket doors, shutters and portiere rods. The home featured nine rooms with an additional cold storage, underground wine cellar. The kitchen was big and had a built-in butler’s pantry. The home had four bedrooms. Seventeen original stained-glass windows brightened the interior and Mr. Bradley, his wife, and ten children enjoyed a five-mile view from the tower. The original paint colors were thought to be beige with a moss-green trim.
However, Mr. Bradley’s dream lasted only ten years. In 1909, Middletown’s American Tube & Iron Co. closed without warning. Over one-thousand men were thrown out of work; Mr. Bradley included.
The house was sold to the Conklins, then to the Burkholder Family. It became a boarding house/rental for visitors to the Olmstead Airforce Base. The home stayed in the Burkholder/Coble family for many years. Clyde Coble (grandson of the Burkholder’s) built an addition on the back of the house and ran a funeral parlor. In 1921, Ruth (Betty) Coble family bought the home from her parents and continued to keep the home’s original details and appearance. Upon her death in 2002, Thomas and Susan Coble inherited the property.
They sold it in 2004 to James R. Heckman and Blake H. Mauney. Mr. Mauney operated a coffee shop, tea-room and gift shop there until 2011, when he sold it to Campus Heights Associates.
It was recolored in blue, gray, and white and is used as the rental office for Campus Heights Student Apartments. Many of the original features have been retained.
In the passing of only forty years, Lower Swatara Township and Middletown lost three of her most glorious mansions.
The Bradley’s Victorian cottage is the only grand painted lady still standing to evoke Middletown’s opulent period and industrial boom.
18th Annual Middletown Colonial Arts and Crafts Fair Book 1993
The Dailey Journal, Middletown, PA Columbian Edition July 1893
Middletown Press and Journal November 2, 2011
History of Dauphin County 1907
www.pa-roots.org, Matheson Family April 2019
Dauphin County Deeds April 2019