By David J. Morrison
Fronting the Susquehanna River some thirty blocks north of Center City Harrisburg lies one of the most scenic, historic, and bucolic pieces of real estate to be found anywhere in Central Pennsylvania.
In the early 20th Century, the Harrisburg Academy acquired the land, some fifteen acres, with plans to build a boys’ boarding school campus to rival Mercersburg, Hill School, Lawrenceville, and the storied New England prep schools celebrated in generations of literature and cinema.
The Academy, which had been founded by John Harris in 1784 in the parlor of his Front Street mansion (now home of the Historical Society of Dauphin County), and from 1847 to 1908 occupied the larger Maclay Mansion (now home to the PA Bar Association), erected six “prep school Gothic” brick buildings – dormitories, classrooms, a gymnasium with indoor pool, and a “Headmasters House” -- surrounding a spacious green “quad” that remains to this day.
Soon, this section of Harrisburg, much of it previously swampland, was transformed into the picturesque Academy Manor and Italian Lake neighborhoods, gaining such stupendous landmark neighbors as William Penn High School, Zembo Shrine, and Italian Lake itself, created by draining the swamp for good. Through the “Roaring Twenties,” Harrisburg, Harrisburg Academy, and Academy Manor exemplified the prosperity that was sweeping America.
In 1942, the twin forces of the Great Depression and the advent of World War II prompted a significant downsizing of the Academy, first to the McCormick Mansion (305 N. Front) and then to the Wallower Mansion (2100 N. Front). The old Front Street families were downsizing, too! The old Academy campus was sold to the U.S. War Department for use as an intelligence officers’ training school. Its students, who included sons of America’s most prominent families as well as Hollywood movie stars, were frequently entertained a few doors down the street in the mansion of legendary retailer Mary Sachs, known nationally as “Harrisburg’s Merchant Princess.”
Although the Department of Defense continues to own a small piece of the property to this day as a naval reserve facility, the post-war history of the campus depicts a tapestry of educational trends and initiatives for which the old “HA” complex repeatedly has found itself ideally suited.
Pennsylvania’s bounty of higher educational institutions, including several within 50 miles of Harrisburg, ironically rendered Harrisburg itself an educational desert. Penn State, founded in 1855 as the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania, was located, not in the Capital City but in geographically central Centre County.
Suddenly, as the post-war era took off, with millions of returning veterans clamoring for the free educational benefits of the G.I. Bill, eligible providers, from technical schools to colleges and universities, operated around the clock to meet the demand. Americans were buying automobiles by the millions, gas and tires were no longer rationed, highways were being built, resulting in a hot market for commuter students.
A number of Pennsylvania institutions of higher education saw the Capital City as an underserved market, and they moved in quickly. By 1950, at least half a dozen institutions offered courses in Harrisburg. Within a year, they were merging their efforts, harmonizing their schedules, and coordinating their marketing, giving birth to what became “The College Center in Harrisburg.” For several years, this operated at night in William Penn High School.
By 1960, and now incorporated as the “Harrisburg Area Center for Higher Education (HACHE),” they had outgrown the high school facilities and were seeking a new home. The HACHE Facilities Committee, which included such local businessmen as Wallace H. Alexander and Robert M. Mumma, recommended the old HA campus, still owned but underutilized by the Department of Defense. Some saw in this the evolution of HACHE into a stand-alone four-year college.
Meanwhile, as the national frenzy to expand educational capacity in the Sixties in anticipation of the huge college-bound “baby boom” generation, Harrisburg civic leaders Bruce Cooper and James Evans were poised to create Pennsylvania’s first community college under a new provision signed into law by Governor William Scranton. Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) would open on September 21, 1964, initially sharing space with HACHE at the Federally-owned HA campus.
Within two years, HACC had begun building and occupying its “Wildwood” Campus, and HACHE, with more universities than colleges in its portfolio, had reincorporated as “The University Center at Harrisburg” (UCH). It would take some 20 years of real estate wrestling and operating under a “quit claim deed,” until October 10, 1985, when the Feds, acting through the Secretary of Education, transferred full control and ownership of the remaining 6.7-acre campus to UCH.
The next major evolutionary step occurred as a consequence of the formation of PA State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), which occurred July 1, 1983. Comprised of the fourteen state-owned colleges and universities, such as Millersville and Shippensburg, the system’s central administration, previously a division of the PA Department of Education, was headquartered in leased office space in downtown Harrisburg. As the expiration of the ten-year lease neared in the early 1990s, UCH board members Anton Hess, Bernard Schmidt, and Ralph Peters approached PASSHE founding Chancellor James McCormick about the possibility of relocating to the old HA campus.
At first, State officials proposed both a stark, governmental office building and a broad surface parking lot, elements that would have severely damaged the historic character of the campus. Academy Manor neighbors quickly intervened and voiced objections. According to one neighbor who led the effort, Joel Burcat, the State was persuaded to correct both issues. The parking would be placed underground, beneath the historic grass quadrangle, and the proposed new office building was redesigned in the “academic Gothic” style of the historic campus.
Fitz E. Dixon, the Philadelphia tycoon who was the first chair of the PASSHE Board of Governors (and a major benefactor of Widener University, named for his grandfather), liked the new plan so much he offered to kick in a million dollars. Soon, the old campus was repurposed once again, with a new administration building replacing the old Academy commons and with the entire complex renamed Dixon University Center.
“I’ve been happy with Dixon since it was completed and have visited it many times for meetings and programs,” Burcat recently said, adding: “I know that the neighbors are happy with the facility, as well. It really is a plus for Harrisburg because it is one of the first things you see when you are travelling into the city from the north.”
For the next quarter century, “DUC” oversaw the 23rd-largest university system in the world, continued to host collegiate course offerings from Pennsylvania institutions, and made itself an accessible facility for a wide range of community uses and functions. Alas, as systemwide enrollment declined (from nearly 120,000 in 2010 to 95,000 in 2019), and as plans were formulated for consolidating some of the fourteen universities, in 2020 the decision was made to put DUC on the market.
Noting that the future of the campus had been threatened before by commercial development, wary Academy Manor neighbors, including Burcat and others, began having Zoom meetings with Historic Harrisburg Association’s Preservation Committee to discuss preservation advocacy strategies. But before the group had time to formulate battle plans, battle plans became unnecessary.
On October 8, 2021, The Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg announced, “It was with the complete support of the Alexander Grass Foundation that we won a competitive bid for this property.” The Federation’s new home will be called the Alexander Grass Campus for Jewish Life, “acknowledging the Alexander Grass Foundation for its generous support and honoring a legacy of commitment to the past, present, and future of Harrisburg’s Jewish community.” The move will bring elements of the Federation from the current Jewish Community Center at Front and Vaughn Streets, as well as from satellite locations.
Federation Board Chair Abby Smith said she is inspired by what is possible in the Harrisburg Jewish community, and that this campus “will be a vehicle for deeper collaboration and revitalization.” She noted the long tradition of participation by the community at-large; for example, 70% of the senior citizen program participants is non-Jewish.
Smith noted that the Federation was already exploring a move. “No matter what, it was time to seek a new home,” she said. “The State has accepted our offer to purchase, and we are hoping to close in January. This is an exciting new chapter!”
The announcement was positively received by numerous constituencies, including those involved in Federation programs as well as those in Dixon’s Academy Manor neighborhood. It is expected that the move to the new campus will be completed in 2022.
David Morrison is the Executive Director of The Historic Harrisburg Association and a frequent writer and lecturer on local history topics. This article, written for the November 2021 issue of “Harrisburg Magazine,” is based on a lengthier history of Dixon University Center penned by Morrison about twenty years ago. It is reprinted here with the permission of all relevant parties.