This letter was submitted to LebTown. Read LebTown’s submission policy here.
In honor of May being preservation month, it seems timely to draw more attention to historic preservation – or lack thereof – here in Lebanon County. In keeping with that theme, I was recently alerted to Shakher Patel’s proposed plans to redevelop the former Lebanon Catholic School site to fulfill the need for housing via your publication’s February 24 article about it (“Developers of Lebanon Catholic site…”). While this proposition has value, considering the need for smart land use and affordable housing, the proposed plan also includes demolition of the former Donaghmore/Patch mansion. Should Patel follow through with that plan, Lebanon will lose yet another irreplaceable piece of its ever-dwindling historic structures.
While it may seem that there are historic buildings aplenty here, the truth is too many have been lost due to a lack of preservation efforts. The ones that exist often are not well-maintained or given the protections they deserve. As they crumble away, so do pieces of our heritage. Nothing can give us a sense of place quite like historical buildings. For example, where would Lebanon be without iconic buildings like the Samler building downtown, the Reading Railroad and Pennsylvania Railroad stations at North 8th street, as well as Tabor Reformed Church, Salem Lutheran Church, and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church?
Some may question why the Donaghmore/Patch Mansion in particular is worth a second thought. I would argue that there are plenty of reasons this building is worth saving, mainly because the building is a central feature in Lebanon’s industrial and military history. Initially, the building was built as an iron furnace manager’s home during the site’s time as the Dudley and then the Donaghmore Furnace. It is the last surviving edifice of the furnaces that once occupied the space, standing as a testament to our county’s rich contributions to Pennsylvania’s iron industry. The estate and home were subsequently owned by the Patch Family, famous in both local industry and the U.S. military. Among the best-known was Alexander M. Patch, who, after his military career, eventually became president of the Cornwall Railroad. His sons Joseph Dorst Patch and Alexander M. Patch, Jr. both became major generals, his namesake considered by many military historians, including Keith E. Bonn, to be the “most underrated general of WWII.” Later, it was purchased by the American Legion and eventually by Lebanon Catholic High School.
Again, one may ask: why bother saving one building? Because Lebanon County, and the city in particular, has a poor legacy of preservation. Many long-time residents may remember or have heard of several exemplary buildings that are now merely fading memories. Their absence means that newer or younger residents likely don’t even know they ever existed, and don’t benefit from their presence to reinforce our significant local history. Among these many examples are the former Colonial Theatre, now a parking lot, St. Mary’s Catholic Church’s Gothic structure, and many of the Coleman mansions in the city and elsewhere in the county, now only ruins, to name a few of the most egregious losses.
Let me share some preservation alternatives to demolition. The most conservative option would be for the developer to save the building intact as is, building his development around it. Another option could involve incorporating the building into a new building, similar to what was done with the Federal Style Montgomery House that was integrated into the Marriott Hotel in downtown Lancaster, PA. Barring that, the building could be sold to someone willing to dismantle and rebuild it elsewhere. Should any of these options be dismissed and the building be destroyed, the very least that could be done might include salvaging the architectural fabric and materials of the building for use somewhere else. It would also be advisable to include an appropriate, publicly accessible, historical marker and statue, fully recognizing the iron industry and military heritage of the location, including General Patch’s contributions. This could be on the grounds of the redevelopment site, or at least include a marker on Chestnut Street.
In conclusion, Mr. Patel and the Lebanon County Building and Zoning Division have several options that don’t include destroying the house, as well as some that may at least somewhat make up for its loss. Either way, more and more people are drawn to places with a sense of history and continuity, and if, to paraphrase Patel’s statements in the said LebTown article, he wants to draw people because of local historical attractions like the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail, why should the mansion and its influential residents be any less worthy of that draw? Why not avoid – as the famous German proverb goes – throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
Laura A. Kise is a historic preservationist and conservation technician. She lives in Lebanon.