While many students have known Old Main as Gannon University’s administrative building, most do not know about its history and significance to Erie.
The history of the mansion began with William L. Scott, who served as mayor of Erie in the late 1860s and later went on to serve as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
He obtained his fortune in the coal and shipping business as owner of W.L. Scott and Co., which owned thousands of acres of coal fields in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. He also ventured into the railroad business, directing 22,000 miles of railroads by the time of his death in 1891.
Shortly before his death, however, he designed and ordered the construction of a mansion on the corner of Sixth and Peach for his daughter Annie and her husband, Charles H. Strong.
Strong, who grew up in Erie, had graduated from Yale University in 1877 and studied law before deciding that he wanted to pursue a business career. By the time he wed Annie in 1881, he was already the vice president of the Youghiogheny River Coal Co. and had established himself as one of the wealthiest men in the city.
By 1893, the construction of the Strong Mansion was completed, and the Strong family, which now included 12-year-old daughter Thora, moved in. There was no building in the region that could quite match the massive, 46-room home of what was arguably Erie’s most powerful couple.
The Strongs lived together in the mansion for years. It is believed that the west wing belonged to Charles and the east wing belonged to Annie, while Thora occupied the third floor along with some of the maids.
As owners of one of the most eye-popping buildings in Erie, the Strongs hosted many visitors, one of whom was 27th President William H. Taft. Charles and Taft had been classmates at Yale, and Charles invited Taft to stay at the Mansion in 1911 while he was in Erie to be a distinguished guest at the Chamber of Commerce dinner at the now extinct Majestic Theater on State Street.
Taft’s visit also started one of Erie’s longest-running rumors, that he had settled down in one of the Strong Mansion’s bathtubs on a hot day and got stuck. While for years Erieites have argued over whether this is true or not, Annmarie George, former professor of music at Gannon, supported the claim in an interview conducted in 1975 by Sandra Kruszewski, class of 1976.
George said that Taft’s male secretary who helped him dislodge from the tub had also been former Yale classmate of Taft and Strong, and had been the primary witness.
As the years went on, Charles and Annie’s relationship began to deteriorate, and after the couple separated in 1918, Charles spent most of his time at the vacation home the two had built in 1895 called the Somewhere Estate.
The Somewhere Estate was a log cabin located on the Strongs’ 47-acre waterfront property east of the Strong Mansion. Other than a caretaker who lived in an apartment-like room separate from the estate itself, for the most part, Charles lived there alone in the years leading up to his death in 1936.
In 1969, the Somewhere Estate and its property were sold to a company that would construct what is now the South Shore Apartments complex after a long bidding process and a lot of arguing over whether the property should have been preserved or not.
Gannon archivist Bob Dobiesz, who became interested in the history of Old Main as a student in the early ‘70s, sought out to find the Somewhere Estate with classmates.
Charles was a man who valued his privacy, and most of what was known about the estate at the time was from word-of-mouth, as the cabin itself could not be seen from outside the property. Dobiesz and his classmates were not able to see the estate until the day it was razed to the ground.
“As a young college student, I was upset by it, but I had no means financially or influence to say, ‘Keep this house,’” Dobiesz said.
At the time of Charles’ death, Thora was the legal owner of the house, as Annie Strong had passed away in 1928 from a cerebral hemorrhage and left her ownership of the mansion in her will. However, Thora despised Erie and had moved to New York City years earlier to start a family with her first husband, Reginald Ronalds, so the mansion was left vacant for years.
Thora Strong passed away only three years after her father and left the ownership to her daughter, Thora Ronalds, who would later become Thora McElroy after marrying Donald McElroy in 1947.
According to information obtained from the Erie Court House by Kruszewski and Dobiesz in 1975, Thora McElroy sold the property to Bishop John Mark Gannon in March 1941. Gannon then sold the property to Gannon College four years later.
Since then, the building has been known as Old Main and has served many uses for Gannon.
In its early days, some of its uses included classrooms for the language department, student lounges and even the school library, but it has mostly been used to house administrative offices such as the president’s office.
Today, the building remains one of Erie’s finest landmarks. Although it may never again serve as a private residence, it will continue to be looked upon as a symbol of Erie’s rich history to those who are lucky enough to live here in 2017.