By Rick Dapp; Photography by Jadrian Klinger
Shoemaker Architecture in Harrisburg
The Payne-Shoemaker Building stands as a testament to an end of an era, both economically and architecturally, for the city of Harrisburg. Standing 13 stories high, the building departed from the prevalent beaux arts style of architecture (think Pennsylvania Capitol Building, designed in 1902) to the art deco/art moderne style, which caused some consternation among prominent city residents.
Designed by the noted Harrisburg architect, Clayton Lappley, the Payne-Shoemaker Building was the brainchild of Frank Payne, a developer, and Ray Shoemaker, a contractor. On March 23, 1929, Ray Shoemaker announced the proposed building at Third and Pine streets with the additional information that both he and Payne were each putting up $500,000 to finance the project. The building went up fairly quickly under the direction of Shoemaker’s construction company, S.W. Shoemaker & Son, and was opened for tenants on April 26, 1930. What the partners could not have foreseen was the stock market crash on October 24, 1929 that signaled the beginning of the Great Depression.
Calculating inflation, the relative value of $500,000 ranges from a minimum of $6 million to as much as $75 million, depending on how it is calculated. Nevertheless, an investment of that magnitude by two individuals during a period of economic collapse indicated either foolhardiness or supreme certainty in their ability to prevail.
Apparently confidence was personified in Ray Shoemaker. The son of S.W. Shoemaker, a contractor who built a successful business from, literally, one man with a wheelbarrow, Ray Shoemaker took confidence a step further, announcing at virtually the same time the construction of another art deco/art moderne building – even taller than the Payne-Shoemaker Building – The Hotel Harrisburger. The Harrisburger, at 21 stories, was truly to dominate the city skyline and remains today, renamed as the Fulton Bank Building.
The economic courage of Payne and Shoemaker extended beyond their efforts at the beginning of the Depression. In 1937, they teamed up again to erect the State Street Building at the northwest corner of Harrisburg’s Third and State streets at a cost of $400,000. That same year, Shoemaker teamed with Payne’s business partner, E.S. Gerberich, to build the seven-story, 100-unit Grayco Apartment Building at 115 North Street for $550,000, completing it in just five months.
S.W. Shoemaker & Son was also awarded general contracting responsibilities for the YMCA buildings, both the Central Branch located on the northeast corner of Front and North Streets in Harrisburg, as well as the Forster Street Branch at 614-626 Forster Street. Racial discrimination prevailed in Harrisburg at the time, with the Central Branch Building designated for whites while the Forster Street Branch was designated for blacks.
Another Shoemaker-built landmark still standing in Harrisburg is the Mary Sachs Building at 208 North Third Street, designed by the Harrisburg architectural firm of Lawrie & Green.
According to Ken Frew, author of Building Harrisburg: The Architects and Builders and librarian at the Historical Society of Dauphin County, “A trademark of S.W. Shoemaker & Son found throughout the city of Harrisburg was the placement of a brass plate in the shape of a mason’s trowel, with the company name on it, set into the concrete of sidewalks constructed by the Shoemaker concern. Although many are gone, an occasional one remains in older sidewalks throughout the city.”
Other structures credited to Ray S. Shoemaker’s company during its zenith are the South Office Building (now known as the Leroy K. Irvis Building); part of William Penn High School; Lemoyne High School; and the 30-million-gallon covered reservoir at Harrisburg’s Reservoir Park. Active in Masonic circles, he was also instrumental in the site and erection of the Zembo Mosque at Third and Division streets, another Harrisburg landmark.
In his relatively short life – he died on October 24, 1940 at the age of 55 – Shoemaker made a significant impact upon the skyline and architecture of Harrisburg, achieving it with like-minded business partners during one of the most economically distressed periods in American history. He could, however, afford an indulgence that placed him apart from many people struggling through the Great Depression. He owned an extensive dairy and horse farm, located northeast of the city. Shoemaker was instrumental in bringing the National Dairy Show to Harrisburg, and his horses won championships for his Goose Valley Farm at shows in N.Y., Pa., Md. and Va.
An article in an August issue of The New Yorker magazine in 1939 makes reference to Shoemaker and the presence of his show horses in venues on Long Island, describing him as “an elderly contractor from Harrisburg, Pa.,” although he was just 54 years old at the time. His horses, primarily hunters and jumpers, were shown by a young horseman named Otis Dodson whom Shoemaker had brought in from Va. Dodson would make Harrisburg his permanent home and, after Shoemaker’s death, would eventually gain ownership of Goose Valley Farm.
The farm no longer exists. Dodson, in later years was fond of saying that “it was a wonderful place, with one of the oldest houses in Dauphin County on it. Unfortunately, Route 81 came right through the front door.” Part of the farm was sold to the Italian firm Olivetti for their short-lived foray in Central Pa., and the remainder was used by Dodson as his thoroughbred breeding farm until his death. The central portion of Shoemaker’s farm is the Progress Avenue interchange of Route 81.
While we can still view the results of his efforts in the city and in its skyline, another enduring legacy for Shoemaker, and one that is probably best known by the present-day public, is the Ray S. Shoemaker Scholarship. Administered by the Foundation for Enhancing Communities based in Harrisburg, the scholarship is open to students attending Harrisburg City Public Schools and has allowed many Harrisburg graduates to further their educations through Ray Shoemaker’s generosity.