For years, it sat empty and unused along the eastern edge of Penn State Behrend‘s campus in Harborcreek Township.
While the township’s oldest brick house — built in 1838 — crumbled outside, squirrels scattered walnuts inside. In earlier times, the building that Behrend dubbed Federal House had been a stagecoach stop and a safe house on the Underground Railroad.
Now, 34 years after Larry and Kathryn Smith donated the property to Behrend, the 184-year-old structure has a new look and a new purpose.
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Following a $6.6 million restoration and expansion, the house where cobbler Thomas Bonnell and his wife Eva raised nine children is now the home of the Susan Hirt Hagen Center for Community Outreach, Research, and Evaluation or C.O.R.E.
Named for and endowed by the late Susan Hirt Hagen, a long-time board member of Erie Insurance, which was co-founded by her father, H.O. Hirt, C.O.R.E. was formed in 1998 to address concerns about teen pregnancy in Erie County.
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New building, broader mission
The mission has been expanded along with the building, said James Hodge, an assistant professor of psychology and director of C.O.R.E.
The program, which had been located in a ranch-style house on Jordan Road, has moved into a new headquarters formed by the marriage of that 19-century brick house with a modern steel-and-glass structure to create an 11,000,square-foot complex.
Erie Insurance Chairman Thomas Hagen, whose late wife endowed the program, joined forces with Penn State Behrend to fund the renovation and expansion.
Behrend Chancellor Ralph Ford said Hagen asked that no details be provided about the exact amount of his contribution.
“He was the major donor on this project,” Ford said. “Without his support and without his vision it would not have happened.”
Hagen not only supplied funding, he provided the idea, Ford said.
“The building has sat here on campus and we have been looking for a use for it for over 30 years,” Ford said. “We had thought about it before he approached us, but we did not have the right vision.”
Ford said he likes that the building is one of the first things drivers see as they pass by on the Bayfront Connector. He also likes what the program says about a campus often known for its engineering and business programs.
“It means a lot,” Ford said. “It’s one of those great projects that has been great from beginning to end. This highlights the great work that is being done by the Susan Hirt Hagen C.O.R.E. Center.”
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Important to the family
Hagen, whose portrait hangs in the conference room, said he stands by the program’s mission.
“It’s been important to our family and to my wife, who was really the founder of it,” Hagen said. “It was something that was very near and dear to her. It’s really blossomed over the years since.”
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Today, C.O.R.E. is focused on a broader mission, to study and develop “things that youth need to grow up and function at a high level,” Hodge said.
That’s done through mentoring programs in Erie County middle and high schools.
In most cases, “We take the show on the road. We have school districts that will sign up and we will write a year’s worth of curriculum to mentor students,” Hodge said.
“We work with schools and nonprofits,” he continued. “Let’s say they want to know does it work or what improvements could be made over time. They contract with us to learn about the program. We develop and design measures, collect data, and share findings.”
The program’s research component adds another layer. Hodge said.
“It’s an in-shop research team where we can look at the efficacy of our own programming,” he said.
C.O.R.E’s mission won’t change
The new building won’t change C.O.R.E.’s mission, but it will provide space to host events and welcome participants onto campus. The new complex includes a conference room, informal gathering space, a large multipurpose room, and a sprawling workspace for students.
The new headquarters for C.O.R.E., which offers sweeping views of Station Road and the green space that surrounds the building, has space to double the current staff of eight people.
“We were challenged from the start to build for the future, kind of a “Field of Dreams” concept,” Hodge said. “It was important to the donor that we were are not at max capacity and we could grow.”
Hagen saves another one
Hagen, who is well known for his preservation efforts, said he has long believed that Federal House should be repurposed. Years ago, Hagen said, he helped convince former Behrend Provost John Lilley to take steps to preserve the building by replacing the roof, restoring the masonry and installing new windows.
But it was only recently that the building was pressed into service.
“I think it’s a good marriage,” Hagen said of the old brick building that’s now connected to the modern structure. “I think that they have done a good job with it.”
One piece of living history, a black walnut tree located near the brick Federal House, had to be removed to make way for the new. But the tree lives on in Federal House, now configured as a large conference room that’s open to the second floor.
The tree has been cut and milled into giant slabs to build a conference table, cover the floor with dark hardwood planks and shroud steel beams with wood.
“Taking out the second floor was something that would never have occurred to me,” Hagen said. “I am very happy with how it turned out.”
Ford said he has been impressed by the transformation.
“It was in very bad shape,” he said. Even after doing the work needed to stabilize the building, “There was no floor. You could look down in the basement except for a few floorboards. It was in terrible shape.”
The renovation and expansion have changed that.
“While the addition is modern and the Federal House is old, we think we came up with a winning combination,” Ford said. “I think it’s been very well done.”
Jim Martin can be reached at [email protected].