Why is Italian Lake Called Italian Lake?

Just north of Division Street nestled between Third and Green streets lies the most beautiful park in the city of Harrisburg. With its easily recognizable Japanese bridge and a sculpture entitled Dance of the Eternal Spring located in the center of the southern portion of the lake, it attracts both city residents and visitors to the area with its serene atmosphere and lush foliage. And if you read the inscription on the historical marker erected there, you’ll learn that this jewel was part of an overall plan initiated by the Harrisburg League of Municipal Improvements in 1901 called the City Beautiful Movement. The plan encompassed a public improvement program, which became a national model that – despite the ravages of urban deterioration in the ensuing 112 years – is still evident throughout the city.

The citizens and civic leaders who spearheaded the City Beautiful Movement had the collective presence of mind to engage the services of landscape architect Warren H. Manning to design Harrisburg’s park system, which included the Italian Lake project. Manning, a key figure in the establishment of the American Society of Landscape Architects and an advocate of the National Park System, emphasized the informal and natural features of pre-existing plants and vegetation in his designs.

Curiously, Italian Lake Park began as a side project to the construction of William Penn High School. The high school, which overlooks the park, is a testament to the City Beautiful Movement with its lovely campus and imposing architecture, despite the ravages that time has visited upon it. The 10-acre site for the project was donated to the city of Harrisburg by the McKee-Graham estate.

But, why “Italian” Lake?

According to noted Harrisburg historian Jeb Stuart, in his work regarding the midtown historic district in Harrisburg, the population consisted primarily of born Americans rather than immigrants or first-generation Americans. And, according to the 1880 census, only 4 percent of the neighborhood population was born outside of the United States, principally in Germany or Great Britain. In a town dominated by names like Harris, Maclay, Cameron, McCormick, Herr, Boas, Kelker and Verbeke, the name of Patricio Russ stood out as the inspiration for Italian Lake.

According to the historical marker at Italian Lake, “the ‘Italian’ reference can best be attributed to Harrisburg hosteler Patricio Russ (1852-1925) who, in addition to operating several downtown Harrisburg hotels, had established a traveling lodge on N. Front Street known as the ‘Italian’ Hotel, a name that became associated with the surrounding area.” Born Patricio Rossi in 1852 on a ship carrying his mother, father and older brothers from their home in Lucca, Italy, he became a dynamic force in the development of Harrisburg and the nascent West Shore.

The marker reference provides a brief sketch of the man, but doesn’t do justice to his accomplishments and the real meaning behind the naming of Italian Lake.

Russ, whose name was Anglicized from the original Rossi, probably by his father, John (Giovanni), was one of five brothers: James (Eugenio); William; Louis (Luigi); John (Giovanni); and a cousin, Narcissus (Narcisco) who dominated the hotel business in turn-of-the-century Harrisburg as well as produce, fish and beer distribution businesses. Narcissus Russ was the proprietor of the Columbus Hotel, William operated a successful fruit and fish business on Market Square, James operated the Commonwealth Hotel, John was a beer distributor for Ruppert’s Beer and Lewis had charge of the Grand Hotel. Patricio ran the Hotel Russ.

According to Harrisburg author and historian Ken Frew in his excellent book, Building Harrisburg – the Architects and Builders 1719-1941 (published 2009 by the Historical Society of Dauphin County): “In 1903 the McCormick estate bought the Commonwealth. The McCormicks’ were noted teetotalers and banned liquor on the premises. The Russes, undiscouraged, moved across the Square to a building on the northwest corner – the building contract was let to Philadelphia’s George F. Payne Company – which also had charge of the Capitol and Union Trust Company projects. The Senate Hotel was the Russ family’s achievement – demolished in 1995 to make room for the current Penn National Insurance building.”

Given that Harrisburg certainly had need of hotel rooms for the many people who came to the state capitol to conduct business, satisfy their appetites and to slake their thirst, the Russ family was certainly willing to provide accommodations.

Interestingly, and despite the Anglicization of his surname, Patricio Russ retained the Italian spelling of his first name and became far more than a footnote on the historical marker. His business interests were varied and significant to the development of Harrisburg and the surrounding area. Historical data shows that, in addition to running various lodging establishments in the city, he was president of the Riverton Consolidated Water Company – which placed him squarely in the utilities business of a developing Harrisburg and attests to the influence and wealth that he possessed. Further historical data –including some information in Valley Railways by C.L. Siebert, Jr. and Richard Steinmetz – shows him to have been the general manager and major shareholder in the Carlisle and Mount Holly Railway Company, which was part of the extensive rail and trolley system that provided public transportation from the West Shore to Harrisburg. Again, it is another interest in the utilities business that underscores Patricio Russ’ involvement and significance in the development of not only Harrisburg, but also the entire area. His prosperity is also evidenced in the membership list of the socially influential New York Athletic Club, which lists him as a member elected in 1902.

Patricio Russ, certainly a business leader in late 19th and early 20th century Harrisburg who, oddly, doesn’t seem to have a street named for him like many of the other civic leaders of the city, and whose fame has faded with the passage of time, is at least remembered on the marker at Italian Lake – a tribute to an immigrant who made a true contribution to the city and to Central Pennsylvania.