WORDS BY RICK DAPP
Central Pennsylvania is, providentially, endowed with a number of first-rate colleges and universities: Franklin & Marshall, Gettysburg, Elizabethtown, Dickinson – to name just a few. Harrisburg, though, has had a somewhat difficult time of it, over the years, developing a permanent home for institutions of higher learning. Fortunately, the capital city has an array of institutions that now make up for all of those disremembered and defunct endeavors to provide advanced educational opportunities.
Public schools, despite some anomalies over the years, have soldiered on, providing both education and a dizzying array of neighborhood schools. Unlike many cities that simply name their public schools “PS” and a subsequent number, Harrisburg named every one of them with particular charisma. The golden age of school buildings gave rise to a list of no less than 30 distinct school buildings in Harrisburg in 1922, according to Dr. George P. Donehoo, in his Harrisburg and Dauphin County: a sketch of the history for the past twenty-five years, 1900-1925, National Historical Association. In 1925, the following schools extant were: Foose, Harris, Paxtang, Shimmell, Webster, Stevens, Willard, Boas, Reily, Calder, Hamilton, Penn, Downey, Woodward, Wickersham, Lincoln, Alison, Vernon, Forney, Steele, Cameron, Maclay, Melrose, Riverside, Pleasant View, Edison Junior High, Camp Curtin Junior High, Central Senior High School and Technical Senior High School. There were 13,084 students enrolled in those city schools that year from a total city population of 77,544.
Despite the passage of time and the inevitable cycle of demolition and development, many of the names on that list from 1922 still exist as schools or school buildings converted for other uses.
There have been, in addition to the public schools, a number of private and parochial schools that have had their moment in the sun before the advance of time – or a better school – doomed them to a footnote in history.
In 1795, James Ross opened a school in Harrisburg, such as it was, “to teach Latin and Greek.” That same year, Anthony Seyfert opened an “evening school,” and in 1814, Charles De Haas opened a military academy opposite the, then, state house. Despite the variety of educational offerings at the time, the Report of the Superintendent of Common Schools for 1837-38 notes but one private school, Harrisburg Academy, which reported its course of instruction as “all the branches of English and Mathematical Education, and the Latin and Greek Languages.” The establishment of the Harrisburg Academy was, perhaps, the beginning of higher education in the city proper.
First situated in a room of the Harris Mansion, after being founded by John Harris, Jr. in 1784, the academy was later relocated to what was probably a log structure on the grounds of the Harris Mansion “on a knoll 300 yards east of the Susquehanna River” probably behind the mansion near Walnut and Third streets. Presently, Harrisburg Academy is the 17th oldest non-public school in the United States. Outgrowing its humble confines, the academy moved to progressively more ornate digs, ending its East-Shore tenure at what is now Dixon University Center at 2986 North Second Street. The academy, exclusively a boys’ school, eventually became co-educational when it merged with a school operated by the daughter of the longest-tenured headmaster of Harrisburg Academy, Jacob Seiler.
Sue Seiler, established the Seiler School for Girls in one room of the Seiler home, curiously analogous to the founding of John Harris, Jr.’s school for boys more than 100 years previously. Seiler’s educational endeavor was so successful that, by 1947, enrollment in her school was larger than Harrisburg Academy’s 75 students. In 1948, with the better financial conditions of the Harrisburg Academy combining with the excellent status of the Seiler School, the “new” Harrisburg Academy – a co-educational institution – was established. It would exist in Harrisburg for only a dozen years before crossing the Susquehanna and setting up shop in Wormleysburg in September of 1959.
Unlike many of the educational structures in the city that have gone to wrecking-ball oblivion, the site of the original Seiler School for Girls can be found at 17 North Front Street. The building has recently been renovated by the Vartan Group into grand residential units that retain much of the character of the original home.
Another familiar name in the Central Pennsylvania higher-education community, Messiah College, had its beginnings in the capital city before relocating to its present home in Grantham. Founded by the Brethren in Christ Church in 1909 as the Messiah Bible School and Missionary Training Home, the first location for the school was in the home of its first president, Samuel Roger Smith. Smith’s home, and the site of the school, was in the Allison Hill neighborhood of Harrisburg at 46 N. 12th Street. Although photographs of the original building still exist, the structure does not, and a traveler seeking a historic view is greeted by a vacant lot at that address.
A number of business-oriented institutions of higher education waxed – and waned – in Harrisburg in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1881, the Pennsylvania Business College opened its doors at 307 Market Street. As you drive past that address, you’ll find that it’s now a Rite-Aid pharmacy. In 1922, the Harrisburg Business College and School of Commerce was open for business at, according to reports of the time, “15 South Market Square” in the city.
Another institution of higher learning that did manage to weather the storm was the Central Pennsylvania Business College that began in 1923 as a result of Professor William H. Hartsock being relieved of his position in the accountancy department at the Harrisburg Business College and School of Commerce in 1922. Professor Hartsock’s schism with his previous institution resulted in the movement of numerous faculty and “anywhere from 150 to 250 students” to his new school three blocks away. In short order, only Central Pennsylvania Business College remained and would be a city institution until 1970 when, like Harrisburg Academy and Messiah College, it moved across the Susquehanna to the West Shore, eventually becoming Central Penn College in 1977.
One institution of higher learning that had its origins in Harrisburg more than 50 years ago and has remained here ever since is Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC). In 1964, HACC became the first community college in Pennsylvania, welcoming a class of 426 students at – where else – the former Harrisburg Academy building on Front Street in Harrisburg. However, a permanent campus was planned on a 157-acre tract in Wildwood Park, near the State Farm Show Complex. At that same time, the Hershey Junior College closed, and most of its faculty and students relocated to HACC.
The closure of Hershey Junior College was the end of an era in “the sweetest place on earth” especially since the school had been established by Milton Hershey in 1938, offering tuition-free higher education to all Derry Township residents and employees of the Hershey corporations. Housed in the magnificent Community Building, Hershey Junior College became burdened by rising costs and cramped by a growing student body with no place to expand. It made perfect sense to merge with HACC and make the short commute to Harrisburg.
Since the establishment of Harrisburg’s “permanent” institution of higher learning at HACC, numerous other schools have come to the capital city with course offerings. Harrisburg University has an established presence, as does Widener University, Penn State Harrisburg and the State System of Higher Education-owned Dixon University Center.
With offerings from a number of colleges throughout the region, it is a testament to the growth of higher education in Harrisburg. Other cities, especially other capital cities, may have more colleges and universities within their boundaries but certainly no greater array of course offerings than can be found here.
Kind of an educational smorgasbord, isn’t it?