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History's Headlines: Jim Thorpe's Harry Packer house

History's Headlines: Harry Packer mansion

JIM THORPE, Pa. - It was the fall of 1984 and Robert Handwerk and his wife Pat had recently purchased Jim Thorpe's Harry Packer Mansion, built in 1874, a decaying, dowdy train wreck of a Victorian era dwelling; the ultimate real estate white elephant fixer-upper.

Staring down from its sloping perch over a town once known as Mauch Chunk, its windows looked so dark and vacant it was easy to imagine the mansion, the home of the son of Lehigh Railroad founder Asa Packer, as haunted.

Even without visitors from the supernatural, the Harry Packer mansion had plenty of other drawbacks. For example, it leaked and had no plumbing or electricity. For another, its location was still regarded by outsiders as a dying coal town that had lost the industry that had made it important and had not found anything to replace it.

But where most people might have seen only an endless chain of plumbing and electric bills, the Handwerks saw opportunity. Their idea was a bed & breakfast, a relatively new concept in the U.S. then.

They had already had guests, adventuresome types mostly from New York or Philadelphia. Two couples had even rented out the second floor for a Victorian weekend. "They got dressed up in nightcaps and old fashioned pajamas and had a great time," Handwerk said in 1984.

Fast forward 30 years to 2014. Bed & breakfasts are no longer a novelty. Jim Thorpe today is a thriving tourist town. Its rich history, magnificent location and seasonal events have helped put it on the map. As for the Harry Packer Mansion, it is not only still there but thriving. Decorated with antiques and done in the same exterior paint color of Harry Packer's time, the Handwerks are still in charge. "Today we run it as an inn rather than a bed & breakfast," says Pat Handwerk, "although we do try to keep some things in the spirit of a bed & breakfast."  Working with Bob and Pat is their son Taylor and his wife Kristen. The mansion's web-site even notes that it was used as the model for Disney World's Haunted Mansion.

But the Harry Packer mansion is nothing without its history and that distinction adds to its allure. It begins with Asa Packer (1805-1879), the rough around the edges Connecticut Yankee carpenter who made a fortune as the owner of a fleet of Lehigh Canal boats and in the 1850s the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

Working with him was Robert Sayre, a civil engineer who oversaw Packer's industrial empire. Eventually it would include Lehigh University and what became Bethlehem Steel.

About 1860 Packer built a house in Mauch Chunk. It was in the then popular Italianate style, based on what Americans of the day thought a villa in Italy should look like. With its wide porches and antique furniture, it is still popular for tourists who come to tour it today.

Along with running his railroad, Packer fathered four children that survived into adulthood, Lucy Packer Linderman (1832-1873), Robert Asa Packer (1842-1883), Harry Eldred Packer (1850-1884) and Mary Packer Cummings (1839-1912).

A modern father Asa Packer was not. To judge from the evidence that exists he alternately spoiled and over disciplined his offspring. As a poor boy who became rich, Packer apparently wanted his children to have the things he never had. In 1869-70, "the boys," as they were invariably known in Sayre's diary, traveled to Europe with steelmaker John Fritz. While he toured steel mills Robert and Harry were taking in the Art's Students Ball and other notorious Paris "flesh pots."

At the same time Packer could be the strict controlling Victorian father. When Harry was ready to marry in 1872, it was his father who picked the architect and who paid for the house. And he apparently kept him on a short leash in other ways by requiring Sayre to discipline him.

Whatever his failings as a parent, Asa Packer picked an excellent architect for Harry's mansion. Addison Hutton (1834-1916) was a Philadelphia Quaker whose father was a carpenter. As was common in that day he taught himself to be an architect and joined with Samuel Sloan to build homes for the new rich of Philadelphia. Packer used him often, in particular with Lehigh University's Packer Chapel.

In Jim Thorpe Hutton is said to have built the old Opera House and annex to St. Mark's Episcopal Church. He also probably designed the old Lehigh Coal and Navigation building, the Lehigh Canal company headquarters that was later converted to apartments.

Several reference sources refer to Hutton's "restrained handling of High Victorian modes." But when it comes to Victorian architecture, "restrained" is surly a relative term. When it came to Harry Packer's mansion it had all the bells and whistles, including a coffin shaped bathtub.

When their father died in 1879, it didn't take long for Robert and Harry Packer to go after their old disciplinarian, Sayre. With little knowledge of running a railroad they quickly began to contradict Sayre at every turn. "The boys have come for me and have brought the hatchet," he wrote in his diary. Finally the Packer boys had forced him out.

They did not have long to savor their victory. Both brothers died before the decade of the 1880s was out.

Harry perished of Bright's disease a kidney related aliment. He was 34 years old. His wife Mary Augusta Lockhart Packer (1845-1911) lived in the house until her death and raised several adopted children there. Shortly after Harry's death, Asa Packer's nephew, Elijah Packer Wilbur, brought Sayre back to work for the railroad.

The Harry Packer mansion passed to a number of owners, but being impossible to keep up, it was abandoned until it found a fruitful second life in the hands of the Handwerks. "It has exceeded our wildest expectations," says Pat Handwerk.                            

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