By Rick Dapp
The Portal to Nowhere
Patrons on Harrisburg’s 2nd Street Restaurant Row have certainly passed by it, and some may have stopped to admire its workmanship and decidedly different architecture. Most have little idea what it represents. Sandwiched between Tom Sawyers’ diner-like façade and Capitol Shoe Repair is a remarkable brownstone portal impossible to reproduce and certainly more elegant than the entryways of its neighbors.
Dwarfed by the parking garage behind it, the entrance to the Donaldson Building leads to a 250-square-foot brick structure that most recently housed a modest eating establishment specializing in pretzels. The elegant and impressive doorway, with the keystone in its arch containing the year 1905, offers little insight into its history. The doorway to the Donaldson Building is the remnant of one of the first major apartment building in Harrisburg.
There is some debate as to whether it was the first apartment building in the city. Evidently, 1906 was a watershed year for apartment buildings in the city, which prior to that time had many hotels but no buildings specifically for multi-family permanent residences. Another building, Potts Apartment House, apparently opened for residents weeks before the Donaldson Flats – as they were originally known – but the Potts building wasn’t as big as the 400-room Donaldson enterprise.
In the amusingly titled Annals of Harrisburg: Compromising Memoirs, Incidents and Statistics from the Period of its First Settlement by Lulu Frances Morgan Black (Evangelical Publishing House, Harrisburg, Pa. copyright 1906), Ms. Black discussed the Donaldson Building and Potts buildings. “The first modern apartment houses were erected in Harrisburg in the spring of 1906,” she wrote. “Donaldson Flats, a brick structure of five stories, with a frontage of 76 feet, situated on Second Street above Locust, was erected by William Donaldson in 1906. Potts apartment house, a brick building of four stories, corner of Third and Herr Streets, was erected by George C. Potts in 1906.”
Harrisburg in 1906 was in the midst of a building boom with approximately 55 hotels and 10 apartment buildings around the city. Of the apartment buildings, the Donaldson Flats at 204 through 210 N. 2nd St. was the most unique. Not only was apartment living a novel concept for Harrisburg, the Donaldson Building offered the benefits of a single-family home and comforts not often within the means of the middle class. The building itself, designed by noted Harrisburg architect Charles Howard Lloyd, was based upon New York-style “tenement” buildings in what has become known as the “dumbbell” plan. Called a “dumbbell” for its layout, the building featured single-loaded corridors with side halls facing a common light well. The light wells – air shafts that allow light and air to reach dark, unventilated areas – were what made the Donaldson Building distinctive among the apartment buildings in the city. Curiously, the design of the building and the use of ambient light made it possibly the first environmentally “friendly” building in the city and made the developer, William Mayne Donaldson, famous within the region for his vision.
The construction of the Donaldson Building began in September 1905 at a cost of $70,000. The contractor for the project was Augustus Wildman (1856-1919), who had often worked with Lloyd, completing projects like the Masonic Temple and the Edison Junior High School. Wildman was well-known in the city – even running, unsuccessfully, for mayor at one point – and was often vocal in his opposition to the erection of wooden buildings. Wildman was a believer in brick and masonry, as the last vestiges of the Donaldson Building demonstrates. The remaining portal is constructed of locally quarried Hummelstown brownstone, a favorite among contractors and developers in the area at that time.
William Mayne Donaldson (1850-1928), the developer and owner of the Donaldson Apartments was well-known throughout the city and involved in a variety of endeavors. He was owner of the Donaldson Paper Company, having started it on N. 2nd St. in 1882, and he was a principal in both the Paxtang Electric Company and the Harrisburg Steam Heat Company – both established in 1886. A year later, he became one of the founders of Merchants National Bank and the Central Guarantee Trust & Safe Deposit Company. Today, a remainder of Donaldson’s banking legacy may be seen in the Central Trust Bank Building on 3rd Street, which sits opposite the Broad Street Market and is home to the Historic Harrisburg Resource Center. Donaldson served as president of both banking organizations, which existed jointly under one roof, safeguarding depositors’ money and valuables behind a fortress-like façade of – yes, you guessed it – Hummelstown brownstone. Donaldson not only lived at the Donaldson Apartments, but he died there as well, in late August 1928. As one of the largest single owners of real estate in Harrisburg at the time, his wealth, estimated at $1.4 million, enabled him to create trusts for a number of charitable organizations, most notably the Harrisburg Public Library. His wife, Ella, passed away just five months later in 1929. Their son, J. Allen Donaldson, served as president of the Central Trust Company and president of the Polyclinic Hospital Board. After passing away in 1947, he was memorialized when the nurses’ residence at the hospital was renamed after him.
The Donaldson Apartment Building was eventually sold to John N. Hall, owner of the trucking and freight business bearing his name, for $225,000 in 1937. Hall owned the building for nearly 40 years, giving it to Family and Children’s Services of Harrisburg in 1975. The recipient of Hall’s largesse created a corporation known as Donaldson House, Inc., but the inevitable wear and tear that humanity and the passage of time wreak upon a building was becoming evident inside the walls of the Donaldson. Within two years, a demolition application was secured for the building.
During the period of the late 1970s, many historic preservationists attempted to save as many buildings as possible from the wrecking ball that was sweeping through Harrisburg to make way for newer, grander structures, like Strawberry Square and the Hilton. Among the buildings on the preservationists’ list was the Donaldson Building. Unfortunately, Harrisburg’s love affair with parking, be it multi-story garages or surface lots, would prevail in the case of the Donaldson Building, and all that would remain after the demolition is what exists on 2nd Street today.
Harrisburg attorney Arnold Kogan, who was a leading proponent of building preservation in the late 1970s, said of the Donaldson Building: “I and other preservationists did not favor appending an artifact of the historic building to the new structure [the parking garage]. Jeb [Stuart] and I worked to save the entire building for use as a significant market-rate rental housing project in downtown Harrisburg. Our efforts were premature, as such a project was later done in Old City Hall.”
In a span of little more than 70 years, an architecturally, historically and environmentally significant building flourished, waned and was destroyed – save a curious portal on 2nd Street leading to nowhere.
Well, it does open into a 250-square-foot building that’s too small for a restaurant, not really designed for a walk-up food stand and too little to be a retail shop. It would, however, be a dandy spot for Harrisburg’s Downtown Welcome Center, conveniently located on the city’s popular Restaurant Row.