by Jill Gleeson, Photography by Haley Harned
It was very nearly too late. By the time Manor on Front Bed and Breakfast proprietors, Mike and Sally Jo Wilson, bought the Hull Mansion and Mary Sachs House, which are located next to each other on Front Street just north of Division, time and neglect had nearly destroyed them.
Both built in the 1920s, they had once been beloved gems of the Academy Manor neighborhood. But after interior designer Mary Knackstedt’s infamous 2005 plan to raze them and put up luxury condominiums was blocked by city council, they were abandoned to the elements.
“They probably sat for between a total of 10 to 13 years,” explains Mike Wilson, who also owns Integral Construction. “Mary K. thumbed her nose at the neighbors and let the houses go to Hades. Mother Nature completely took over both of them. There was water leaking through them – they were really in terrible shape. If we hadn’t bought them when we did, they might not have been able to be saved. We got them right at the point of close-to-no-return.”
The Wilsons bought the properties in 2014 for $361,000 after Knackstedt defaulted on her mortgages and declared bankruptcy. The couple, whose love for classic architecture has led them to repeatedly purchase old homes, renovate and sell them before moving on to the next in need of rescue, last restored an 1827 all-stone farmhouse in Lisburn. Transforming the derelict Hull Mansion into the glorious Manor on Front was a massive project unlike any other, taking 14 months and costing $1.4 million.
Despite the damage it suffered, many of the original features of the ledgestone Tudor Revival house remain, including the slate roof, oak floors and casement windows. Two of the structure’s bathrooms also retain Mercer tile, the famed Arts and Crafts-style handmade tile that lines the floors of the Pennsylvania State Capitol building and is still produced in Bucks County.
“And the staircase is just beautiful,” adds Wilson. “We were able to restore all the stair treads, the railing, everything. It’s all oak, and it’s open with beautiful leaded glass at the top and a landing with a little sitting area.”
The Georgian-style Mary Sachs House, which had been previously converted into office space by owners clearly lacking aesthetic vision, was less fortunate. Much of the interior had been gutted and precious details, including seven marble fireplaces, torn out. Once upon a time, Sachs, a prosperous dress-shop owner, had taken tea with Eleanor Roosevelt in her home; today the Wilsons live on the upper levels, while the ground floor serves as check-in for the B&B. But Wilson swears he and his wife will “bring it all back” – there are plans afoot to add guest rooms on the bottom floor of the Sachs House, as well as a honeymoon suite in the carriage house out back.
The Hull Mansion, which offers a gorgeous expanse of lawn and trees dubbed “The Greens” overlooking the Susquehanna River, was built for attorney Arthur Hull and his wife Margaret by renowned Harrisburg architect Clayton Lappley. The Richey family – headed by architect Robert, who helped design Strawberry Square – bought the home in the 1960s, followed by the Purcells some two decades later. Before Knackstedt purchased it, Hull Mansion was used for a time by Children’s Services as a safe space for troubled parents to spend time with their kids.
But it was thanks to the last family to call Hull Mansion home that Wilson first encountered the house he and Sally Jo would one day bring back to life.
“I’m a commercial contractor, and I did some work in the house for the Purcells,” Wilson recalls. “I loved the house and so I said to them – at that time I was in my 20s – ‘If you ever sell it, let me know.’ And they just kind of rolled their eyes a little bit and said, ‘Sure, Mike. We’ll let you know.’”
Sometimes, it seems, some things are just meant to be.
This article appears in the September 2016 issue of Harrisburg Magazine