The Civic Cub of Harrisburg History
Researched and Written by Jeanne H. Schmedlen, 2016
Downtown Philadelphia has Broad Street’s City Hall, the Union League and on the Schuylkill River, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Pittsburgh has Heinz Hall and the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in the midtown and the Cathedral of Learning on the campus of The University of Pittsburgh. Harrisburg has the state Capitol and the State Museum of Pennsylvania on Third Street and The Civic Club of Harrisburg on the Susquehanna River.
All of these historic structures are exceptional landmarks and symbols of tradition, institution and architectural uniqueness. All are gems that reflect society’s commitment and dedication to creativity, education, historic preservation, public service and good citizenship. The Civic Club of Harrisburg is the smallest in size of these jewels but possesses a deep, rich history of community service and leadership that compares favorably to the larger institutions listed above. The clubhouse is a symbol in every way of “civility with purpose.”
Building Early History
Traced to the early settlers of Harrisburg, The Civic Club of Harrisburg building belonged to William Reynolds Fleming in the early 20th century. He called the home “Overlook” in as much as it sits high on the banks of the Susquehanna River—the only remaining residence on the west side of Front Street in Harrisburg. It is a stately Tudor-style, stone structure, often referred to as a “manor house” in historic documents. Fleming built the home adjacent to “the Waterworks,”
since his firm, Fleming’s Foundry & Machine Works landed the contract to build the pumping station. Architect William Hart Boughton (AIA) of Buffalo, NY, designed both the industrial site and the home. The pumping station was renovated and today houses several businesses and the residence has served as a community meeting place and a site for public and private events for the past century. The club is located on a .463 acre lot.
In 1914, Fleming’s widow, Virginia Hammond Fleming, thought so highly of the club and its mission that she bequeathed the property to The Civic Club of Harrisburg. Full title was given to the club in 1916.
The club has three floors. The first floor features a large, picturesque “River Room” parlor area facing the Susquehanna River containing a baby-grand piano and century-old built-in seating. The windows face west towards the river, offering magnificent sunsets. The area also has a beautiful hand-carved, Flemish oak fireplace, shelving and pocket-doors. A magnificent, large, nine-foot ceiling, mahogany-paneled dining room with fireplace and superb cut glass windows is adjacent to the outsized Entry Hall on this floor. There are two staircases, a study/office, a powder room and a catering kitchen on this level.
Originally, the second floor had six bedrooms and two baths. In 1916 it was renovated and now is an expansive, two-story, hard-wood floor ballroom and stage that has hosted hundreds of formal dances, manners programs, speeches, debates, presentations and other community and private events through the years.
The third floor has a small apartment and bath that are used for storage. The basement is used for storage as well.
Outside features an expansive wrap-around porch and outstanding, three-season English gardens. A stone wall surrounds the property with a vine-covered stone archway and swinging gate at the entry-way. The building is handicapped accessible, with a ramp at the entrance and an inclinator for service between the first and second floors.
Early Club History
The Civic Club of Harrisburg was founded in 1898 to do good works in the community. Its mission today is to promote and engage in civic and social activities which “shall preserve the heritage of the club and its landmark building; encourage cultural and historic interest in the community; contribute to improving the welfare and education of children and youth, seniors and those in need; and, foster relationships with like-minded organizations.”
According to early minutes, on January 21, 1898, a group of women from some of Harrisburg’s oldest families met at the home of Gabriella Cameron Gilbert, 203 Front Street, with the idea of forming a women’s club that would work toward improving their city. It was said that the group was “made up with some of the best ladies of the place.”
Gilbert was elected president. She had moved to Harrisburg from Virginia in 1889 with her new husband, Lyman Gilbert, who also became a noted civic leader and public servant, serving as state deputy attorney general under two governors. He also founded the Naumann, Smith, Shissler and Hall law firm, the oldest law firm in continuous existence in the city.
On February 7, 1898, the women met to adopt a Constitution and by-laws and appoint working committees. When The Civic Club of Harrisburg was formed, it was suggested that it was “merely a fashionable hobby and would die the death of all hobbies; while at the other extreme was the declaration that it was a very clever scheme of women who wanted an opening into politics.”
In the early days the club’s goals were “to awaken interest in the welfare of the city; to suggest methods for its betterment; and to help to test and prove their value; to show the moral value of parks and playgrounds; and to teach the spiritual value of cleanliness.” At one point, the club convinced City Council to adopt a resolution not to spit on city sidewalks, in streetcars and in all public places. The club was granted permission to install small wooden sign noting the prohibition along sidewalks and have the new rule (No. 25) added to the health regulations of the city. Violation of the rule resulted in a fine of no more than $5 and imprisonment not to exceed five days.
In 1900 the club adopted the “City Beautiful Movement” and club founder, environmentalist and activist Mira Lloyd Dock became its catalyst.
The new group at first met at the Y.M.C.A. and then at the Academy of Medicine and Boyd Hall before moving into its elegant, permanent, three-story home.
The club has accomplished much through the years as noted in the chronology section. Its challenge is to continue this good work into perpetuity. The Civic Club of Harrisburg, its Affiliates and its landmark building are an essential and vital segment of Harrisburg’s historyand landscape and integral to Harrisburg’s future success.
Recent Club History
In recent years, The Civic Club of Harrisburg (TCCH) expanded its membership, increased its visibility, and became a major player in the community’s and region’s cultural and educational life. In December of this year, the club will celebrate a milestone 100th anniversary of the clubhouse building, “Overlook,” a gift to TCCH by an early member of the club who appreciated the goals and unselfish service of TCCH’s members.
The club continues to focus on service and education. For example, retired educator Dr. Gail Bishop, of Hershey, served as president for the past two years (2014-2016), bringing her lifelong experience and leadership to the activities of the club. In addition, Judy Imler, also a retired educator who hails from Camp Hill, is the newly-elected president (2016-2018), bringing her professional and non-profit board experiences to TCCH.
Since 2011, the club sponsored non-profit partnerships (501(c)3 organizations) and breakfasts for these groups that nurture and provide civic services to the Harrisburg community. To date, TCCH has over 50 partners, including such groups as Junior Achievement of South Central PA, the PA Breast Cancer Coalition, the PA Humanities Council and the Central PA Food Bank.
TCCH annually hosts two orientation events for new members, publishes a newsletter and a yearbook listing members, upcoming events and the goals and heritage of the club. It also serves homemade meals to its neighbors who are residents of the YMCA just across Front Street.
Members of the club maintain a garden on Front Street close to the club in honor of the the late Judge Genevieve Blatt, a well-known and admired woman leader of the 20th century.
For the past four years the club hosted a “GALA” to help fund its activities, raising over $50,000 to maintain and restore “Overlook.” It also established a scholarship fund for worthy Harrisburg High School seniors headed for college and in 2016, completed a professional preservation plan for its historic property.