Paul Beers, the former Patriot-News columnist, once wrote that the “Front Streeters,” as he called them, were a unique breed. Yes, the men who built mansions along the Harrisburg waterfront were wealthy, but they retained a social mission to help the city where they lived and had earned their wealth.
Dr. Robert Hopkins Moffitt is an excellent example. His Queen Anne-style mansion, clad in dressed blue limestone, certainly showed Victorian-era Harrisburg that he had arrived. At the same time, the successful dentist was deeply involved in his church and community, understanding that his fortunes were dependent upon the health and progress of Harrisburg as a whole.
Unfortunately, that communal spirit increasingly was lost, beginning with the Depression and accelerating with the post-war flight to the suburbs. One by one, Front Street’s great houses fell into disrepair, often sold by the original owners’ children and grandchildren for whatever they could get. They then were sliced, diced and carved up into offices, group homes and medical facilities.
The circa-1895 Moffitt mansion, located at 1703-05 N. Front St., is an excellent example.
Walking past it today, the building looks like someone has sheared it in half. It appears that way because, three decades ago, a previous owner decided to tear down the stunning, two-story front porch that anchored the house, an element that gave the structure much of its magnificent street presence. However, even before then, the building had been divided into a warren of offices, including serving as the long-time home of Midtown Harrisburg’s magisterial justice office. The barred holding pen at the rear of the building, with chains attached to the floor, shows just how far this once-noble home had fallen.
Fortunately, some of the grand Front Street buildings today are being repurposed and revived. The Moffitt Mansion is the latest, purchased last month by WCI Partners LP, which plans a complete renovation. By early next year, it will become the new home of WebpageFX, a quickly growing Internet/Web design firm that is relocating from Carlisle.
We thought our readers would enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at the renovation of this building. In this installment, we show the “before” shots, including the first floor magistrate’s courtroom and offices. The upper floors housed a real estate company, among others.
The interior is very similar to other houses, large and small, that suffered 1950s to 1970s-era “renovations”: drop ceilings, industrial carpeting over hardwood floors, disregard for the historical nature of the property. According to design consultant Kristine Werley of Urban Interiors, the renovation will be sensitive to and will complement the house’s original architecture, while providing for the 21st-century needs of WebpageFX. Future issues of TheBurg will include “during” and “after” photo features, so readers can follow the progress of the project.
Grand Harrisburg homes that fell into abuse and disrepair are now slowly coming back, bought and restored by a new generation who share the social mission of their Victorian-era forebears. Soon, the Moffitt Mansion will join the ranks of such buildings as Char’s at Tracy Mansion (a gorgeous mansion then a mental health facility and now a fabulous restaurant) and City House Bed & Breakfast (a grand home then a group house and now the city’s premier B&B). And the “Front Streeter” story continues.