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Historic Harrisburg Association Home Tour another success

Though we have to date declined to allow hundreds of strangers to walk through our home amidst the cold weather and holiday cheer, there are one to two dozen other Harrisburg homeowners braver, more open, more comfortable than we who do so, and they are the ones who make the annual Historic Harrisburg Association home tour so much fun.
While seeing people’s fascinating, often perfect, intriguing and tantalizing homes is in itself fun, we also get to see old friends both on the tour and in their homes. It really is a lot of fun.
But let’s face it, though mostly beautiful Harrisburg City is broke, with a completely dysfunctional school district, and has high taxes.
These unfortunate factors artificially suppress home values. This can lead to parts of town where old homes sit vacant until they fall down.
I have lost track of how many times we have heard “If your house was where I lived, it would be worth millions!”
It is true that we have a high standard of living here, with access to fabulous homes at reasonable prices. Investing less up front in the acquisition of the old home provides an opportunity to make improvements that otherwise, in other places, might prove unobtainable or too expensive.
One home we visited was at 2333 North Front Street, the latest residence of Kristine and Alex Hartzler.
Alex and I knew each other at Penn State lo these many eons ago, and we have stayed in touch through the decades, which I find rewarding.
Alex is a guy who was destined to be a friendly but exasperated, overworked, underpaid attorney and lobbyist like so many others, but who in a fit of desperation signed on as legal counsel to a tech start up, which did well, which made Alex financially independent.
Alex now runs WCI Partners, which invests in Harrisburg City real estate.
Yes, that is correct, they invest in Harrisburg real estate.
Maybe it is voodoo economics, but they make it work.
Do you know how to create a five million dollar building in Harrisburg? Build a ten million dollar building in Harrisburg, and overnight it will be worth five million dollars.
Such is the economics of this city.
And yet, Alex and his partners remain undaunted, persevere on, carefully charting new neighborhoods out of old, using historic facades and structures wherever possible, and breathing new life into moribund and frankly decrepit parts of town that are otherwise only useful for briefly accessing hookers and heroin.
Alex and Kristine’s latest home at 2333 North Second Street is fantastic. It is a 6,000 square foot stone home that no one knew was there because of one of those infamously hideous 1960s “improvement” additions that so many beautiful stone homes suffer from all over the area.
Somewhere in the midst of the dopey free love ’60s someone got the bright idea to ruin this beautiful home with a cheesy coverup job. Until the Hartzlers removed it, no one knew the house was even there.
Honestly, I went to the home just to ask Alex what the heck “fenestration” means, a word he used in the written description of the home in the HHA tour brochure.

Must be a twelve dollar word for doorway.

After buying and renovating and living in and then passing on to the next happy owners five other Harrisburg homes, I think Alex is entitled to use fancy words that no one else knows.

Thank you to all the home owners who invited the paying public into their homes.

Here are our gracious hosts Alex and Kristine Hartzler, with long time friend Laura Campagne and the incredible Princess of Patience, Vivian.

Historic Harrisburg gets an A+

Annually, in mid-December, Historic Harrisburg arranges a tour of historic homes around the city.

In the interest of showcasing our wonderful city, participating private citizens open the doors to their homes to utter strangers, who, for the modest price of the ticket, can walk through at their leisure.

Yes, there are docents, volunteers who stand guard over privacy and valuables, but nevertheless, strangers in abundance are in your home. Homeowners exhibit grace and panache, some swilling their umpteenth glass of wine, yes, but they maintain decorum and patience through a six-hour tour that would put me over the edge within an hour. Maybe less. Well, for sure less.

It’s an impressive commitment to place and pride in community displayed by these homeowners. In fact, the tour is a big statement about the sense of close, shared community we all share here in Harrisburg. Although I have lived in a bunch of different places, I have never seen anything like this tour, or this shared sense of belonging. Again: Absolute strangers are in your home, hundreds of them, and it works really well. It is an unusual arrangement. I like it.

Today’s tour was of homes mostly in Bellevue Park, a grand island of landscaping, natural contours, natural areas, and spectacular homes. My grandparents built a beautiful home in Bellevue Park many many decades ago, and I grew up going there for holidays. Summer visits involved playing in the large in-ground pool with my cousins and eating huge amounts of delicious food prepared by our grandmother, Jane. Winter holidays involved eating huge amounts of delicious food prepared by our grandmother, Jane, and then walking it all off around the park, followed up with playing pool in the basement.

My memories of Bellevue Park are long, distant, and misty-eyed. My grandparents were loving people, and we kids felt their love. Oh, how one longs for the simpler days of youth, with innocence and guileless smiles, statements of affection truly meant. Being in Bellevue Park today was like taking a time machine trip back 40 years. In a way, today’s tour was an expression of the same guileless, innocent sharing that we had as kids, but today was between and among adults and families who have previously never met one another.

Trust is the by-word for today’s Historic Harrisburg tour.

As it turns out, many of the older residents whom I met today recalled my family, and recounted trips they had taken with them, pool parties they had enjoyed there, John Harris High School events and teams they had played in together, and political events where the pool evoked then-fresh images of “Mrs. Robinson” and her lifestyle. And I met quite a few former colleagues and acquaintances, themselves taking stock of these updated homes for their own renovation plans, or providing valuable assistance as volunteer docents.

Isn’t that something. Community may always be where you find it, but one place it never disappeared from is Bellevue Park, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. One other similar historic neighborhood I have seen is Squirrel Hill, in Pittsburgh.

It is also important to recognize the many gay men and couples who have ventured further out of the city’s center to bring revitalization to some of the park’s older homes. If there is a ‘down’ side to tolerance, it is that gays are moving ever farther from the urban cores where they have traditionally played a pivotal and leading role in the fight against urban blight by rehabilitating decayed neighborhoods. Now, gays are recognized as exemplary and desirable neighbors in traditional family areas; their colorful sense of style and personal flourishes are valuable, and are just not going to be replicated by anyone else. Surely not by me or my fellow knuckledraggers. Bellevue Park is now home to a large number of gay men. I won’t say it is a gay community, because it is not. It is simply a community with many gay people in it, and it is a great place as a result.

Thank you and an A+ to Historic Harrisburg for a fine afternoon well spent with my wife, who doted on every kitchen, every light fixture, every antique stained glass window, who relished meeting every single person today, and who left the going ga-ga over the omnipresent quartersawn oak all to me. Yes, there was tons of beautiful quartersawn oak in every home. That is pretty much all I remember. Oh, that and the old friends.