What Lies Beneath Market Square?

Architecture and development have coexisted uneasily throughout the history of Harrisburg. The city seems to be in a constant state of oscillation with new construction attempting to supplant existing structures in a struggle for valuable space defined by the boundaries of areas described as downtown, midtown, uptown and the like. No portion of the city has had a more visible battleground than that of Market Square.

It is, arguably, the hub upon which the spokes of progress have radiated throughout the history of the city. In Harrisburg, structures have been erected and – after being used and outliving their usefulness – have been demolished to provide space for new structures. Market Square, originally the site of, ostensibly, markets for an economy based upon agrarian suppliers providing food for urban consumers, no longer has need for those buildings today. Hotels that provided lodging for those travelers to Pennsylvania’s capital city have been pulled down to make way for newer, larger hotels and office buildings that reflect the preferences of a more sophisticated and mobile clientele.

Author John Connolly in his novel, Dark Hollow, eloquently summarized the dichotomy of the past existing with the present in a city: “It was a place where the past was alive with the present, where a man could find a place for himself as long as he understood the fact that he was a link in the chain, for a man cut off from his past is a man adrift in the present.”

Downtown department stores, clothiers and theaters have long since departed for the suburbs with their vacated quarters left largely to the wrecking ball. Curiously, a vestige of the time when Market Square was more than just a transitory location for those who work downtown may, or may not, remain: the euphemistically designated comfort stations.

The comfort stations that existed below ground in Market Square were a reflection of the stylistic force of the City Beautiful movement that directed construction in Harrisburg after the turn of the 20th century. An indicator of the desire to construct these bathroom facilities below street level at Market Square is expressed in Municipal Journal and Public Works Vol. 27(1909), entitled “Suggested Arrangements for Comfort Stations in Square.” It reads: “Tentative plans for the construction of two comfort stations and the relief of congested traffic in Market Square were exhibited at a Board of Trade meeting. Park Commissioner J. Horace McFarland explained the drawings made by Albert Kelsey as a suggestion for the purpose of arousing comment rather than as final plans.”

Apparently Mr. Kelsey’s renderings were sufficient for the ball to begin rolling on the comfort stations, but the task of finalizing the design fell to another. Charles Howard Lloyd (1873-1937), Harrisburg’s most prominent architect of the time, designed a variety of buildings, including the Zembo Shrine on North Third Street across from Italian Lake, the Tracy Mansion on Front Street, the Furlow Building on North Third Street, the Shimmel School Building, Old City Hall (now the Old City Hall Apartments), various residences in Bellvue Park and, yes, the comfort stations beneath Market Square.

Financing for the comfort stations came through a bond issue in 1914 as described in Harrisburg and Dauphin County, published in 1925 by George P. Donehoo, a two-volume set that provides a wealth of information on the history of the city and the individuals who were the movers and shakers of an earlier time: “$300,000 for sewers, bridges, foot walk on Market Street, comfort station in Market Square, apparatus for fire department, municipal asphalt repair plant, park improvements, etc.” An article in the Harrisburg Telegraph dated June 24, 1922 provides an architect’s drawing of the proposed comfort station for Market Square that includes, in addition to the toilets, shoeshine stands and telephones. The men’s comfort station includes shower rooms and two electric air dryers, while the ladies’ facility includes three “rest rooms” each featuring a couch. Apparently they were staffed by employees who kept the tile and marble underground facilities spotless for the patrons. To understand the quality of workmanship that went into these facilities, one can visit the restrooms in the Forum Building near the main entrance to the State Library.

Harrisburg was not alone in the business of constructing comfort stations for the public during the City Beautiful era. Comfort stations built below ground in town squares in Pennsylvania cities were the practice rather than the exception. Harrisburg, Lancaster, Allentown, Reading, Easton, Scranton, York and even Ephrata held claim to underground facilities. York has had an on-again, off-again love affair with its underground comfort stations, originally built in 1929. York’s facilities included the requisite shoe-shine stand, as well as a barber shop, beauty salon, brass doors, porcelain water fountains and Italian marble in their construction. They were closed in 1978, but have been re-opened periodically in the years since. Allentown, in an economic move, closed their comfort stations for good in 1982 and, though buried, they remain underground.

The fate of Harrisburg’s comfort stations remains a mystery at this point. Although they co-existed with other underground structures beneath Market Square, notably large sewer lines, some of which date back to the Civil War, they were, like York’s facilities, closed permanently in 1978. In a photo taken by the late Tom Leask for the Harrisburg Patriot-News dated August 25, 1978, the caption reads: “End of Downtown Facilities ‘Workmen dig up one of two former comfort stations at Market Square Thursday. Removal of the station marks the end of the facilities, which were closed by former mayor Harold Swenson in the early 1970s as an economy measure. From left are Leonard Smith, Dave Truax and Frank Prunty.’”

Further research indicates that they were “concreted over” and does not specify that they were necessarily filled in, or excavated at the time. Harrisburg historian Jeb Stuart provided additional information regarding their fate. He spoke with the city engineer’s office and discussed their status with an employee who had previously been with the Water Bureau. “He remembers pulling the water meter from the station in 1986, but that the interior of the place was still there,” said Stuart in an email. “The Hilton went under construction in 1989, opening in 1990. It would appear that the interior was demolished when the Hilton went under construction given the extent of the plaza design area and the need to install new utilities. I can’t confirm that they were actually demolished, although it would appear likely.”

The comfort stations, once a destination for relief in Harrisburg’s downtown, remain a mystery. Did they go the way of the department stores, old hotels and theaters? Or are they still there, awaiting the arrival of some late 21st century urban archaeologist when the next wave of new construction in Market Square changes the landscape again?