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. Part 1 was published on Saturday.
James C. Tarr, the builder of the Tarr Mansion, was the grandson of George Tarr, a German immigrant farmer, the original spelling of the name being Derr, Doerr or Duerr. George (1768-1847) settled along Oil Creek in Cherry Tree Township sometime during the first three years of the 19th century.
His son, John (a veteran of the War of 1812), expanded the farm to about 1,000 acres, with each of his sons inheriting part of this larger acreage. His son, James, grew up on the original farm site on the creek south of Titusvillle, and following the success of Col. Drake’s oil well in 1859, the Tarr farm became a major center for the extraction of “black gold.”
The first oil leases for the Tarr property were purchased in 1861 by a man named Janes for $60,000. Tarr was able to buy back part of those leases, eventually amassing a fortune of more than $3 million, including the sale of the whole property for $2 million in gold in 1865. It was part of this money which built the Tarr Mansion in Meadville. James and Elizabeth lived in the Walnut Street side of the house, and the other side was meant to be the residence of Tarr’s sister.
Mrs. Elizabeth Tarr was about eight or nine years older than James. Her family, the McClintocks, had also farmed near the Tarrs on Oil Creek and experienced the same good fortune from the oil industry. It was her brother’s family who built the 1874 McClintock-Fuller house on Chestnut Street in Meadville, once also an apartment house, but now returned to its original impressive appearance as a single family home. Elizabeth had been married twice before, known as Mrs. McLane and then as the Widow McClelland, her status on marrying James Tarr.
Unfortunately, the Tarrs did not enjoy their new home for long, as Elizabeth died in 1870 and James in 1871. Elizabeth’s will gave their residence to her daughter, Nannie, and the other side of the house to her daughter, Sarah. The house remained under separate ownership until 1953, when the whole building, by then divided into apartments, was purchased by a couple named Scott. It then passed on to the Miceli family as owners and then to the Ed Sternbys, the present owners.
Beginning in 1975, inspired by the Bicentennial of the United States the following year, a committee was formed by the Crawford County Historical Society, its purpose to identify important architectural buildings in Meadville. The chair of this committee was Virginia LeSueur, herself a resident of an apartment in the McClintock-Fuller house. Ginny made it her “career” to identify what she termed Meadville’s “heirlooms.” An archive of her extensive work, including deed searches, photographs and family histories, may be found in the collection of the Crawford County Historical Society’s headquarters on Chestnut Street in Meadville and in the press releases of those years in The Meadville Tribune.
In a press release of 1977, LeSueur said this:
“It is hoped that the identification of community heirlooms — an ever-diminishing commodity — will generate the public and governmental awareness which alone can protect these heirlooms from the misuse, abuse or destruction which have been the fate of countless other community heirlooms. It is felt (by this committee) that the ‘quality of place’ which such heirlooms contribute satisfies a human need which cannot be satisfied by the all-new: the need for traditions and for a sense of continuity in a world of ever-accelerating change.”
It is in the spirit of this message that I am urging the Crawford County commissioners to rethink the proposal for demolishing the Tarr House. So much history of this county and this community will be lost along with the bricks and mortar.
Author’s note: Because the Tarr Mansion is within Meadville’s Historic District (established in 1984), the threat to the house has been relayed to the Pennsylvania State Bureau of Historic Preservation in Harrisburg, a section of the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission. The bureau’s western Pennsylvania representative, William Callahan in Pittsburgh, is in touch and is also communicating with the Crawford County commissioners. In addition, the notice of “At Risk” for the Tarr Mansion is being posted on the website of Preservation Pennsylvania, the only statewide nonprofit organization promoting historic preservation, of which this author is now an adviser.
Stewart and Moore. Around Meadville. 2002.
Stewart, Utz and Graham. Meadville’s Architectural Heritage. 2005.
Moore and Sherretts. Oil Boom Architecture. 2008
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.