The Next Page: Mansion of Ironies
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For me, the Stanton Heights neighborhood of Pittsburgh has been a place of irony and intrigue.
My adventures there began in the 1940s as a newspaper delivery boy for the Post-Gazette. In those days, Stanton Heights was considered a fairly new neighborhood of fancy homes, bordered by the neighborhoods of Morningside, East Liberty, Garfield and Lawrenceville.
Much of my paper route extended along Stanton Avenue and adjacent streets. The neighborhood and avenue were named after Edwin Stanton, war secretary under President Abraham Lincoln, who lived in Pittsurgh for a few years in the mid-1800s.
One of my customers was the green-keeper of the long-vacant Croghan-Schenley Mansion on the Stanton Heights golf course. The mansion sat on the crest of a hill in the middle of the course, which years later became a new section of homes west of Stanton Avenue.
THE GREEN-KEEPER LIVED in a small house next to the mansion that once was occupied by the caretakers. During the week, I put their newspaper in the mailbox on Stanton Avenue. When I made my weekly collection rounds, I had to walk nearly a half-mile in from Stanton Avenue to the house (quite a hike for about seven cents a week profit).
One collection day during the summer, no one seemed to be home so I went around to the back of the house.
That's when I discovered the lake. It was actually a small pond, but to me on a hot summer day, it was a lake. It was in a valley down behind the mansion. I told my buddies and that lake soon became our favorite swimming hole. We hiked to the lake many times that summer and the next until we were chased off.
Come the fall, as a Halloween adventure, we explored the vacant mansion which was said to be haunted. It could have been, considering the history of the mansion and the fact that it was close to the Allegheny Cemetery. I remember hearing voices coming from inside the mansion, probably on a windy night, and running like hell. We spread the word about its being haunted because we didn't want the kids from Morningside and Garfield to know about our swimming hole. The alternative was a 3-mile hike to the public pools at Highland Park.
YEARS LATER, I LEARNED that the mansion once had been the elegant home of William Croghan, a prominent lawyer who built the 22-room, Greek Revival-style house in 1830 for his daughter Mary, their only surviving child. Mary's mother died a few months after she was born in 1827.
Ironically, at the age of 15, Mary Croghan ran off from a New York boarding school in 1842 with the director's brother-in-law, British Capt. Edward Schenley, who was more than twice her age. At the time, this was scandalous. Queen Victoria, who had learned of the misbehavior of Miss Croghan, refused several times to see her. Her enraged father even tried to intercept the honeymooners on their way across the ocean. He also suffered the first of several strokes.
The mansion, called "Picnic House" because of the parties Croghan held there, went pretty much unused after his daughter left. Unrelenting, Croghan visited her in England several times and even bought a house in London for the couple. In hopes of his daughter's eventual return home, Croghan had his will changed to protect against any possible sale of the mansion. He even had a large brick addition built, just in case she ever came back.
The heart-broken Croghan died there in 1850, alone except for his butler, Cox.
During the Civil War, the Croghan property became known as Fort Croghan when it became the site of gun battery placements for the defense of Pittsburgh. They, of course, went unused except for practice. The mansion itself, however, was never used by the family again, although Elizabeth Koehler remained there as caretaker until 1912, except for frequent voyages to England. She also was the Schenley children's nurse.
Mary Croghan Schenley, who already was a wealthy heiress of the estate of her grandfather, Gen. James O'Hara, returned there several times before her own death at age 77 in 1903. O'Hara, U.S. Quartermaster General in the Revolutionary War, had made a fortune in the civilian supply trade. Given the circumstances, perhaps the mansion could have been haunted after all.
DESPITE ALL THAT happened, Mary Schenley exhibited redeeming qualities, especially in her later years.
Perhaps best known are her donations in 1889 of a large part of the family's landholdings in Oakland that became Schenley Park and the Old Fort Pitt Blockhouse at the Point in 1894. The Schenleys' daughter Hermione, Lady Ellenborough, visited Pittsburgh and the mansion several times after her mother's death, the last time in 1926. Even after all that time, Croghan's will provided for the preservation of the home and furnishings in the event one of the children returned.
One explanation for Croghan's persistence could have been that he and his wife also ran off to get married. In any case, Lady Ellenborough finally relented and a public sale of the mansion's furnishings was held in 1931. In an interview 10 years later, Mrs. Koehler's daughter Caroline, who'd continued as legal caretaker of the estate, recounted these and other twists and turns in the Schenley family tale.
Ironically, it is not the Schenley's but the fortunes of Croghan's wife, Mary O'Hara, that were behind most of the family's philanthropies. Mary inherited her father's vast holdings and passed them on through her husband and their daughter, who became Mary Croghan Schenley. Her sister Elizabeth married Harman Denny, who was the son of Ebenezer Denny, Pittsburgh's first mayor.
The story of that family's prominence in Pittsburgh's history is an enticing subject in itself.
BACK TO THE SWIMMING hole: The pond (our lake) behind the mansion was part of the eighth hole of the Stanton Heights golf course, which opened in 1909. The Golf Club leased the property from the Croghan estate. They used the addition as a clubhouse, sometimes holding larger events in the unoccupied mansion.
The Golf Club, billed as Pittsburgh's largest private course, bordered the edges of Morningside and Garfield and the Allegheny Cemetery. During World War II, it fell into disuse and was closed after 1950. That explains why no one usually was around when my pals and I took a dip in the old swimming hole.
One winter morning in 1947 as I was delivering papers, fire trucks sped up the road to the mansion. Fearing the worst, I inquired later at the fire house nearby on Stanton Avenue. Thank goodness it was just a small kitchen fire in the green-keeper's house that was quickly extinguished. That fire house at Stanton Avenue and Hawthorne Street (Pittsburgh Fire Station Number 7), opened the same year as the golf course, is observing its 100th anniversary this year.
After the golf club closed, the land and the mansion were sold to steel company owner William Miller, who had the mansion torn down by 1955. The land was sold to several developers -- including my uncle Bart, who built some 400 homes on the site. Some of its streets are continuations of those from other parts of Stanton Heights east of Stanton Avenue, but in remembrance, one was named Schenley Manor Drive.
Miller had the mansion's ballroom and oval foyer carefully dismantled and moved to the University of Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning. The Croghan-Schenley rooms have been a principal attraction there since restoration was completed in 1982.
Rumors of hauntings have continued even there, including the voice of Mary Croghan Schenley and strange visitors to the rooms at night.
EXCEPT FOR THE FIRE house, there are few remaining landmarks of Stanton Heights' early days. Sunnyside Elementary School was built in 1907, but it was replaced by a new Sunnyside in 1952. There's also the Stanton Avenue bus which has connected Butler Street in Lawrenceville with East Liberty since the 1920s. Which reminds me of a once familiar Pittsburgh conundrum: "You can't get there from here."
But that's another story from the past, for perhaps another time.
First Published March 1, 2009 12:00 am