People traveling through the campus of Gannon University seldom realize that the building which houses the University’s administration is rich in the history of by-gone Erie days.
The Strong Mansion, now known as "Old Main," was purchased in 1941 by Bishop John Mark Gannon to serve as the center of the recently-founded college. The purchase price of the mansion, which had been vacant for many years, was $50,000. The building is currently valued in excess of $7 million.
When Charles Strong married Annie Wainwright Scott in 1881, they united two of the area’s wealthiest families. Local legend has it that the mansion was a wedding gift from the bride’s father, Senator William Scott, but this is not the case. Senator Scott did not begin construction on the mansion until 1890, nine years after his daughter’s marriage to Charles Strong. When Senator Scott died in 1891, he left the unfinished mansion to his daughter in his will. The home was completed in 1893 at a cost of $480,000 and furnished for an additional $800,000. The 46-room mansion soon became the showplace of Erie.
Over the years, many prominent guests were entertained in the mansion, but the most famous guest came on September 17, 1912. President William H. Taft, a Yale classmate of Charles Strong, came to Erie to address a Chamber of Commerce dinner, and stayed at the Strong Mansion during his visit.
Guests arriving at the house were ushered into the marble foyer by two butlers, whose task was to open the massive front solid oak doors. Then the two large brass doors leading to the great hall were opened by two more butlers, whose additional duties were to announce the guests.
To the far east end of the building was the ballroom whose ceiling was hand-painted in the form of a sky with cherubs peering over the clouds. Today, this is the University’s Boardroom where the Trustees and other key committees hold their meetings.
Adjacent to the ballroom was the reception room, which later served as the second college chapel. Richly decorated in fourteen karat gold leaf, and now called the Parlor, that room was adjacent to the well-stocked library, today used as a small dining room.
The west end of the first floor was occupied by the formal dining room. Walls of that room, as well as those in several other rooms throughout the mansion, were richly decorated in hand-fashioned tapestries. The massive dining room table could accommodate 40 guests.
Adjacent to the main dining room was the private family dining room. These two rooms currently serve as the office of the University President.
The basement, which contained the kitchen and servants’ dining room, as well as an extensive wine cellar, was separated from the first floor by 33 inches of oak flooring, steel, wire mesh and concrete.
The second floor contained the sleeping quarters for the Strong family. Annie Strong’s quarters were located at the far east end of the building in three adjoining rooms. Her bedroom, which was entirely encased in mirrors, contained a large canopied bed, while two adjoining rooms served as sitting rooms. Charles Strong had a similar suite of rooms at the far west end of the second floor, while three additional large bedrooms and private baths also were located on the floor. Today, selected administration offices, including those of the Provost and the Vice President for Finance and Administration, occupy the second floor.
The third floor contained eight additional bedrooms and four bathrooms. Presently, the offices of University Advancement (Vice President’s, Development, Alumni, Special Events) and the Communications Office are housed on this floor.
The fourth floor, originally the servants’ quarters, is the site of the Annual Fund’s Telemarketing Center and offices of the Major Gifts Officers.
The Strong family eventually amassed more than $50 million through investments in railroads and utilities. Following Annie Strong’s death in 1928, the mansion was occupied for only a short time and then remained empty until purchased by Gannon.