By Rick Dapp, Photography Cassie Miller
Like most American cities that began as small settlements and grew exponentially in all directions, Harrisburg has a surfeit of streets linking the community and, in some areas, are maze-like in complexity.
The city has the traditional numbered streets: Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and so on. What should be First Street is Front Street for some reason, and the numerically named aren’t always consistent; someone slapped a Green in between Second and Third.
There are the trees: Walnut, Pine, Locust, Chestnut, Mulberry, Pear (yes, Pear) and the quaintly named Nectarine among the streets of the forest. Then come the directional and emblematic streets, like North, South and State. Adding to the milieu are the famous people streets named after, invariably, male figures of historical significance, like Reily, Forster, Cameron, Penn, Boas, Harris, Calder, Maclay and, of course, unpronounceable to the uninformed, Muench.
Traveling upon the streets of the city will occasionally allow the traveler certain impressions that have remained consistent for decades, or even a century-and-a-half. If the afternoon sun is just right, and the itinerant enters the east end of the State Street Bridge and looks up in the distance, the unmistakable pillars of the “Acropolis of Harrisburg” positively glow in the distance.
Situated on a winding street just off of Market and surrounded by a confounding array of surrounding thoroughfares, the John Crain Kunkel Center at 1101 Market Street, home of the YWCA Greater Harrisburg, sits supreme on Allison Hill, dominating the landscape and all other structures surrounding it.
The YWCA Greater Harrisburg has an estimable history, beginning in 1894 when a group of local church women rented a nine-room house at 712 N. Third Street. They had reading rooms and a “noon rest program” where young working women could eat their lunches in a comforting and secure environment. Membership was $1 per year.
Moving to a building at Fourth and Walnut streets in 1905 to accommodate the growing membership, the YWCA thrived in the city. Building additions eventually expanded it from the original small brick house into an eight-story building.
The Phyllis Wheatley Branch, serving the needs of African-American women, began in 1920 at 800 Cowden Street. The two branches of the Harrisburg YWCA merged in 1955, their integration following the lead of the national organization and one of the first organizations of its kind in the Harrisburg area to do so. The YWCA has occupied the John Crain Kunkel Center since 1998, but that’s just a small portion of the building’s saga.
Originally built as a private residence by John H. Brant (1810-1882), the Greek Revival-style structure resembles more of a public building than a home and has been a source of fascination and even public scorn since its inception in 1856.
Brant, a figure whose vividness has diminished with the passage of time, was not a statesman or a politician (although he was appointed Postmaster of Harrisburg from 1853 -1857 by President Franklin Pierce), he was not a professional man – lawyer or doctor. He was representative of many of the business people in Harrisburg in his time – a merchant.
In J.A. Spofford’s Harrisburg Directory of 1843, Brant is referred to as “Wholesale Grocer, at the Foot of Walnut Street by the Pennsylvania Canal.” Another advertisement from the same period announces him as “John H. Brant, wholesale grocer and dealer in grain,” again giving his business address as “Foot of Walnut, Pennsylvania Canal.” Additionally, this ad includes more products available from his enterprise, including “Fish, Salt, Plaster and Coal.”
Clearly, Brant was a man on the move in the capital city and dwelt in what is presently called the “mover and shaker” category but known euphemistically in the 19th Century as a “man of affairs.”
During his tenure as postmaster, he began two things that would ensure his stature in local history. In approximately 1856, he branched out into the entertainment business by erecting Brant’s City Hall on Market Street. A combination hotel, restaurant and meeting hall, it became a major venue for conventions, meetings and performances. Also known as “Brant’s New Hall,” the building hosted a variety of shows, including such curiosities as conjoined twins and little people. In an 1867 announcement, the following information by a writer named Sylvester Bleeker appeared: “Positively two days only! Brant’s New Hall, Harrisburg, Market St., between 2d and 3d Sts. Monday & Tuesday, Nov, 25 & 26, two levees at 3 and 7 ½ p.m. a return from Europe after an absence of three years where they appeared before nearly all the kings, queens, emperors, and nobility of the old world, four beautifully and symmetrically formed ladies and gentlemen, being the smallest human beings of mature age ever know on the face of the globe: General Tom Thumb, and his celebrated little wife, late Miss Lavinia Warren, whose beauty, grace, and accomplishments captivate all hearts, Commodore Nutt, the famous $30,000 Nutt, and the infinitesimal Minnie Warren of fairy proportions.”
Clearly, Brant had made the transition from merchant to entrepreneur and impresario, bringing some of P.T. Barnum’s panache to the city.
To further confound local residents, he began construction of his mansion, Sylvan Heights, on Allison Hill overlooking Harrisburg’s downtown. Perhaps it was the magnitude of the project – and the interruption of the Civil War from 1861-1865, when Brant rose to the rank of colonel – but Sylvan Heights was not completed until 10 years had passed from its inception in 1856. During that period, it became known as “Brant’s Folly” and, when completed, became Brant’s home. Despite the length of time it took to construct, it remained the Brant residence for only approximately five years until it was sold to the Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg in 1871.
The diocese used Brant’s edifice for charitable purposes and, in 1901, established the Sylvan Heights Orphanage for Girls, expanding the building and adding a gabled roof to enhance the Greek temple aspect of the structure. Oddly enough, the longest continuous use of the building was as an orphanage. In the mid-1970s, it was vacated and acquired by the City of Harrisburg.
Brant slowly faded into the fabric of the area’s history. His “City Hall” on Market Street had become the home of the Commonwealth Trust Company and eventually gave way to the wrecker’s ball for the present Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts. He also built a half-dozen houses on Market Street with a French character using the limestone blasted from the construction of the street as it made its way up Allison Hill. He also built two English-style cottages on Bailey Street.
In his way, he was a Renaissance man for the city in the 19th Century, and very little is remembered about him – no statue, no photograph, nothing but a truly impressive colonnaded building overlooking the city.
An article in the Harrisburg Daily Independent from May 11, 1906 paid tribute to Brant and his impact: “A very unique figure in Harrisburg during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, was Colonel John H. Brant. A hustling and alert business man along various lines, positive, dogmatic, energetic, kind-hearted, full of pronounced eccentricities, he was one of those anomalies those combinations of opposite qualities that defy analysis or description.”
Gee, the very least they could have done was to name a street after him.