Meadville Tribune

Local News

June 7, 2014

Local says Tarr Mansion is an important piece of Meadville history

MEADVILLE — Editor’s note: The Crawford County Board of Commissioners is considering a plan to expand the Crawford County Courthouse, which would likely require the purchase of additional property. One of those properties, which may be turned into a parking lot, is the site of the historic Tarr Mansion on Diamond Park. In this two-part series, architectural history adjunct Professor Diane Shafer Domnick recounts the architectural and human history of the mansion as she urges others to join in the effort to preserve the structure.

This study is presented as part of an appeal to the Crawford County commissioners and to this county’s citizens to not allow the destruction of the Tarr Mansion on Meadville’s Diamond Park. The building is being threatened as part of an expansion project for the Crawford County Courthouse. This is also part of an effort to find an acceptable alternative solution to such expansion without the loss of this 150-year-old structure.

Built between 1865 and 1867, the Tarr Mansion is actually a double house. Known architecturally as a “semi-detached,” the Diamond Park face (west) of the house is designed to appear as a single residence, with two separate entrances facing the park. The low hipped roof is crowned by a cupola, also with a low profile. Both the form of the roof and the presence of a cupola are hallmarks of an “Italianate Villa” design. This architectural style was originally promoted by architect and author Andrew Jackson Downing in 1840. This grand “style” appealed to newly wealthy families of the post-Civil War era. In this case, these were newly wealthy oil producers from the Crawford, Venango and Warren counties’ oil fields.

Built of brick, the three stories of the Tarr house, the first two of double the height of the third, are also of Italianate forms. The long, narrow windows of the first and second floors, each topped by a segmental arch and crowned with an architectural “cap,” also imitate forms popular in the warm climate of Italy. Decorative details, well maintained over the life of the house, include scrolled wooden brackets on the window caps as supporting elements for the overhanging roof and as “capital” forms on the pillars of the entry porches. The roof brackets imitate the beam ends, which protrude under the roof of an Italian villa of the Renaissance period, and the “capital” scrolls echo the Classical form of an Ionic column.

The plans or the layouts of the two houses are identical, with the exception of a longer addition behind the Walnut or north side of the structure. Currently without the benefit of architectural plans, it is thought that the cupola is actually a skylight over a central stair hall, which would originally have been accessible to both sides of the building.

Also without original records, the identity of the architect of the house cannot be definitely given here, as additional research is required. However, there are at least three possible candidates, all of whom worked in Crawford County during this post-Civil War and “oil boom” era.

The first candidate is Enoch Curtis (1826-1907), a native of western New York state who maintained his architect’s office in Titusville from the late 1860s, as well as his home and office in Fredonia, N.Y. His works in Titusville include an 1874 restoration of the 1871 Winsor house for the McKinney family. He is best known, however, for post-1875 buildings in the later French “Second Empire” style.

The second candidate is Hiram Smith (c. 1840-post 1880), also a New Yorker whose first career was as a carpenter in Chautauqua County. He also moved to Titusville in the late 1860s. He is identified as the architect of the 1870-1871 Johnson House, bought in 1872 by the Parshall family and known by that name until its destruction in the 20th century. The element in the Johnson house design which may be related to the Tarr Mansion is the presence of a three-story, central-curving stairway that could be accessed from all parts of the brick house.

The third candidate as architect of the Tarr Mansion is Joseph M. Blackburn (1813-1891) of Cleveland. He was the designer of the 1868 Gideon Mosier house on Chestnut Street in Meadville (later a Delamater home and now the site of the Imperial Gardens apartment complex). Like the Parshall house in Titusville, the Mosier house was a transitional style, being of Italianate form and decoration, but topped with the newly fashionable French mansard roof. Blackburn was also associated with the Parshall family, as he designed and built the Parshall Hotel and Opera House in Titusville in 1870, topping the Parshall residence with an identical roof structure and cupola to that on the Mosier house.

The site of the Tarr Mansion had been chosen by James and Elizabeth (McClintock) Tarr as being across Walnut Street from the home of the Hon. G.B. Delamater. Delamater was also the beneficiary of oil wealth, becoming a trusted banker to many in the same position, likely including the Tarrs. In 1864, G.B. bought an Italian style villa at the corner of Walnut and North Main, being at the northeast corner of the Diamond. This is the present site of the repurposed Meadville High School of 1923, now known as Parkside Commons. This Delamater also commissioned the Delamater Block at Chestnut and Water streets, the building later housing the Lafayette Hotel.

The Tarr Mansion replaced two small houses, each belonging to a craftsman, one who made spinning wheels and one being a silversmith. To the south, next to the Tarr site, was the earlier house of Rev. John Van Liew Reynolds, long-time minister of the Meadville Presbyterian Church and the brother of William Reynolds, the sometime owner and renovator of the Baldwin-Reynolds House on the Terrace. The Reynolds also had family connections to the oil region, located in Cherry Tree Township, Venango County. This was close to the Tarr farm, and there is some reference to the possibility that the Tarrs were related through marriage to the Reynolds.

Another fortunate oil region family who moved to Meadville at this time were the Shryocks. They established a dry goods building, which still exists as elder housing on lower Chestnut Street, originally across the street from the Delamater block. The Shryocks built their own Italianate home (still extant as the Shryock apartment house) on the Terrace in Meadville from 1865-1867, and a daughter later married into the Reynolds family.

Diane Shafer Domnick has a Ph.D. in the history and theory of art and architecture. She grew up in Meadville and is a graduate of Allegheny College. She is currently an adjunct professor of art and architectural history at the University of Pittsburgh at Titusville and at Allegheny College. She lives in a restored early 19th century house in Vernon Township.

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