WORDS BY RICK DAPP
Travel north on Second Street in Harrisburg, and slow down as you approach Division Street. On the right, there on the corner, is a house that doesn’t fit the neighborhood. It’s Spanish in influence with a clay tile roof and, unlike the typical home in the vicinity, it’s not brick, or limestone, or frame. Like its original owner, it stands as testament to taking a different approach and to the entrepreneurial spirit. That original owner, Farley Gannett, truly was a Harrisburg entrepreneur of the first order.
Farley Gannett (1880-1958) and Theodore Seelye, established the firm of Farley Gannett, Consulting Engineer in 1915 in a two-room office of the recently built Telegraph Building at 216 Locust Street. From that beginning, Gannet created one of the premier engineering companies in the world – Gannett Fleming, Inc. – now headquartered in Camp Hill. Gannett’s name and reputation as an engineer came to prominence when, as the chief engineer for the Pennsylvania Water Supply Commission, he investigated a disaster in Potter County in 1911.
The Austin (Bayless) dam was a 50-foot-tall and 544-foot-long concrete dam constructed to supply water to the Bayless Paper Mill. Gannett’s investigation of the collapse of the dam that destroyed the towns of Austin and Costello, leaving 78 people dead, was instrumental in Pennsylvania adopting dam-safety laws and regulations.
Prior to Gannett’s investigation and report, the construction of dams on what were not considered navigable waterways was unregulated. The Water Supply Commission didn’t even know that the Bayless Dam was under construction until it failed and Gannett investigated. The dam was never reconstructed, and remnants of the structure stand today in the same position as when it failed 106 years ago.
Gannett, having unquestionably established himself in the engineering profession as an expert on infrastructure, partnered with Theodore Seelye on August 1, 1915 to establish a practice focusing on it. Only two days later, they accepted their first assignment when Mill Creek, near Erie, flooded the town resulting in 36 deaths and millions of dollars in damage. Gannet, consulting engineer, was hired to study flood control and to later design and construct a conduit to divert excess flow into Lake Erie. As their firm grew in both size and revenues, Gannett and Seelye began acquiring electric and water utilities across the United States and designed and built improvements into them. When a utility was operating profitably, the firm sold it to generate funds to acquire the next utility. This archetype became part of an expanding sphere with Gannett and Seelye acquiring electric utilities in South America, as well, in the 1920s and 1930s.
As Gannett reaped the rewards for his hard work and visionary outlook, he also became an integral part of Harrisburg’s social scene. An avid horseman, Gannett was one of the founding members of the Harrisburg Horse Show Association and was instrumental in the start of the Pennsylvania National Horse Show, held at the recently constructed Farm Show Arena on Cameron Street.
He had a true passion for fox hunting and its attendant criteria, as well. He, with fellow devotee, Ehrman Mitchell, led a small entourage to England in 1929 to ask the Duke of Beaufort for permission to call their Harrisburg assemblage the Beaufort Hunt. With the Duke’s blessing, Gannett and friends returned to Pennsylvania to develop a pack of foxhounds and encourage local friends and horse owners to join them. The Beaufort Hunt exists to this day, going out September through March on Tuesdays and Sundays.
In 1929, Gannett finished the unique eight-bedroom, five-bath, 5,400-square-foot house at 2nd and Division where he lived with his wife and daughter. The home was featured in a book by the Portland Cement Association entitled Beautiful Homes of Concrete Masonry published in 1929. The accompanying description describes it as “A splendid example of old Spanish architecture. Walls are of cinder-concrete block, covered with textured Portland cement stucco, the finish coat a salmon pink. The white trim scone, both inside and out is precast concrete. The first floor is of concrete, surfaced in various rooms with different colored tile.”
Clearly, the Lawrie & Green architectural design for Gannett’s home was not only innovative but fairly radical for residential architecture in Harrisburg.
Despite the stock market crash in the same year that Gannett finished his home, his firm continued to thrive and grow. As time went by, the addition of Samuel Fleming and the eventual resignation of Theodore Seelye resulted in, despite the addition and deletion of names from the corporate masthead over the years, Gannett Fleming, Inc. as the official name of the organization.
With a continued emphasis on infrastructure and utilities, the company became global in scope with, at present, 2,000 employees in 60 offices worldwide. As the company grew, it maintained its focus on infrastructure but diversified its engineering and architectural design services to include, among them, wastewater-treatment systems, highway and bridge design, mass-transit systems and geographic-information systems.
It was, possibly, the visionary emphasis fostered by Farley Gannett that attracted another young engineer and entrepreneur to Gannett Fleming 55 years after that two-room office was opened on Locust Street and 12 years after Gannett’s death in 1958.
John Keosheyan, an Armenian émigré and graduate of Michigan Technological University with a degree in civil engineering and a master’s of engineering from Penn State, came to work at Gannett Fleming in 1970. Having changed his name to the more American sounding John O. Vartan, he quickly established himself as a force within the engineering firm.
Perhaps unaware of Vartan’s drive and vision, the executives at Gannett Fleming didn’t heed an early statement by him. A company officer and coworker of Vartan’s in the early 1970s recounted an assertion that he made in 1970, avowing that it was his plan to remain at Gannett Fleming for five years and then start his own firm. And, according to the company source, Vartan left the firm in 1975 with half of the company’s municipal accounts following him to his newly established engineering venture.
Vartan’s success was only surpassed by his charismatic image within the Harrisburg region. As his company grew, employing more than 200 people, he diversified, even publishing a weekly newspaper for a period of time, opening a restaurant and purchasing a local bank. He continued to maintain a high profile within the area with an occasional performance designed to attract attention. One memorable exploit involved purchasing a full-size Hummer and attempting to drive it across the Susquehanna River. His colorful moments notwithstanding, Vartan had a keen eye for development and was a gracious patron of the arts as well as assisting in establishing the Harrisburg campus for the Widener School of Law.
Two entrepreneurs, two engineers; one, born in Washington, D.C., the other in the Armenian village of Anjar in Lebanon – both opened startup engineering firms. One expanded globally, while maintaining its headquarters in the Harrisburg area; the other focused on Central Pennsylvania while also maintaining headquarters in the capital area. One, whose company allowed the other an opportunity; the other, whose prescience was halted far too soon, died in 2004.
It’s too bad they didn’t have an opportunity to cross paths. It would have been a memorable convergence.