Brick by brick, what remains of the Jackson House is being dismantled after a large portion of the historic rooming house that catered to jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald collapsed Thursday.
Construction workers were in the process of buttressing the wall containing a 2017 mural in preparation for a larger project to preserve the building, or at least its exterior.
“The second they put pressure on it, the center of the wall started to buckle,” said Matthew Long, the latest in a long line of owners whose restoration plans went unfulfilled.
German Jackson, the son of a slave who became one of the city’s most prosperous Black businessmen, opened the rooming house off North 6th Street in an era when Black entertainers were regularly booked at nightclubs and theaters downtown but couldn’t stay at the segregated white hotels.
When Jackson died in 1993, he left the property — including the cafe next door — to his friend David Kegris in a will he wrote on the back of a grocery list. That absence of a formal will, however, set up a lengthy probate challenge that ultimately resulted in the hotel sitting empty for decades.
“Me and my brother, we’d flip the mail slot up and yell ‘Mr. Jackson!’ and he’d come down and let us in,” said David’s son, Cory, as he swept up Thursday afternoon. “I remember how nice it was in there. It looked like a castle. Being a little kid, it was like, ‘Wow.’”
Cory Kegris said the lunch rush was interrupted at about 1 p.m. by the sound of a tremendous crash — “Whoosh!” — as bricks from the collapsing wall fell across the sidewalk. According to Long and city officials, no people were injured and no property damaged in the incident.
David Kegris kept the cafe and still operates it as a sub shop but the hotel repeatedly changed hands. At one point, the now-deceased Mayor Stephen Reed planned to turn the entire block into an African-American heritage museum, a costly endeavor that never materialized.
By the time Long came along — with his business partner, NFL star and Harrisburg native LeSean McCoy — the building had repeatedly been vandalized, its roof collapsed and its signature turret listed backward at a 15-degree angle.
Long’s original plan called for preserving the brick facade and a side wall with a mural honoring Jackson and several of his renowned guests while rebuilding the rest as a combination of apartments and commercial space.
“It’s always been a dream to restore it,” Long said Thursday. “You hear all these stories about German Jackson and what he meant. It’s significant; it has to be kept in tact.”
That was not to be.
Long said an engineer’s verdict was final: None of the remaining walls can be salvaged. And because of the precariousness of the endeavor, they can’t be tipped over with an excavator, either.
On Thursday, several construction workers began the process of tearing them down one brick at a time.
Mayor Eric Papenfuse said city code enforcement officials were on the scene and they found no damage to the neighboring restaurant. The rest of the old structure would have to be demolished, he said.
Long, who owns a local construction company and restored another dilapidated building on North Street that now houses Elementary Coffee, said he will have to rebuild the Jackson House from scratch.
Originally, Long had put the cost of the project at about $600,000. Thursday’s collapse will probably increase the cost, he said, but it’s too early to know for sure. He plans to salvage as many of the original bricks as possible, he said, with the hopes of rebuilding the Jackson House as close as possible its previous incarnation.
“We took photos of everything and we took measurements of everything we could safely get to,” he said. “It’s always been a rebuild effort and that’ll be what it is.”
Ted Hanson, a neighbor who knew German Jackson and at one point in the ‘90s tried to buy his rooming house, said the city has lost an irreplaceable piece of its history.
“You’ll still have the stories and all of that but to have the tangible history is quite different,” he said. “We have stories of the hanging gardens of Babylon but no trace of them. That’s what we’ll have here.”
What happened Thursday was predictable, Hanson said. It’s the result of years of incompetence and neglect.
“I’ve been waiting for this day,” he said. “After two years leaving it open to the elements, what do you expect?”
David Morrison, executive director of the Harrisburg Historical Association, said it’s easy to criticize from the outside. Preservation work, he said, requires resources and dedication — both of which Long appeared to have.
“This is not something most investors would come in and do; it’s something being done as a gesture to Harrisburg’s history,” he said. “It was a very challenging proposition from the get-go.”
Such efforts, Morrison said, require the buy-in and interest of the community at large.
“You can’t rely on a handful of people and certainly not on a volunteer, nonprofit historic organization,” he said. “It’s got to be a widespread vision.”
Morrison said several proposals to redevelop the Carpet and Draperies Building on Third Street and the old Hudson Building at Sixth and Maclay give him hope even as the Jackson House falls to rubble.
“It’s a shame that it went through a series of owners and such a period of time without upkeep,” he said. “I think the current owner was really the first to want to undertake its renovation. Unfortunately, he didn’t get his hands on it soon enough.”
Wallace McKelvey may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wjmckelvey. Find PennLive on Facebook.
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