Hagen creates new model for preserving Erie’s historic buildings through creation of Historic Erie Preservation Trust

February 07, 2020

Erie businessman and preservationist Thomas B. Hagen has taken one more step in his ongoing pursuit to preserve Erie County’s historic and architecturally significant buildings by creating the Historic Erie Preservation Trust. Hagen and Michael Batchelor, President of The Erie Community Foundation, announced the establishment of the Trust today, describing it as a supporting organization to the Erie Community Foundation. 

“The purpose of the Trust is the acquisition, restoration, preservation, maintenance and operation of historically important or architecturally significant houses, buildings and other structures located in Erie County and built in the 19###sup/sup### and early 20###sup/sup### centuries,” Hagen said.

Beginning this year, Hagen will donate to the Trust various historic properties he has been acquiring and restoring in accordance with the strict historic preservation standards for buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. His recent efforts have focused on Erie’s West Sixth Street Historic District, known as “Millionaires Row,” named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. 

The historic district was once home to most of Erie’s early industrialists and professionals.  There are currently 101 “significant” (33) or “contributing” (68) buildings in the district that were built between 1825 and 1930, including the Siegel-McDougle House (1905), home of The Erie Community Foundation. This large district is bounded on the east by Peach Street and on the west by Poplar Street.

Hagen said his singular goal is to preserve those structures that stand out in the course of Erie’s 225-year history. He noted that the Trust’s properties are expected to generate sufficient income to sustain themselves; however, additional contributions to the Trust will likely be needed to acquire and restore other historic structures in the future.  The Trust has applied for tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code as a charitable supporting organization, and, when granted, contributions to the Trust will be tax deductible; nevertheless, the Trust intends to pay assessed property taxes on its properties. The Trust has also registered with the Pennsylvania Department of State to solicit charitable contributions from residents of Pennsylvania.       

Inspiration for the Trust stems from the work of the late philanthropist and preservationist Doris Duke (1912-1993) in Newport, Rhode Island, where Hagen and his late wife, Susan, once lived for several years while Hagen served as a young naval officer on a Newport-based destroyer.  It was through Doris Duke’s vision that the Newport Restoration Foundation was founded in 1968.  In an attempt to preserve Newport’s historic colonial-era architecture, Doris Duke and the Newport Restoration Foundation began purchasing blighted and threatened properties over a 15-year period.  Today, the Newport Restoration Foundation has restored more than 70 properties that it leases at market rates with the goal of being self-sustaining.

Hagen became aware of the Newport Restoration Foundation in 2018, and met with its executive director, Mark Thompson, to discuss its model in detail. In addressing Hagen’s latest endeavor, Thompson said, “Tom’s plans are very reminiscent of Doris Duke’s incredible vision. Not only will he preserve significant properties, most

already on the National Register, but he will make a real contribution toward the revitalization of Erie.”  When the Newport Restoration Foundation acquired the majority of its properties in the 1970s, Newport was grappling with the devastating loss of jobs and plummeting property values.  Doris Duke was one of the few people to make major investments during that critical period, and is credited with helping to turn the town’s fortunes around. “Newport Restoration Foundation is a really unique model for historic preservation in the country, and I believe Tom’s version of it can have a similar effect in Erie,” Thompson added.

“Erie’s history was built on strong neighborhoods, and through our grant making, our goal is to create a strong, vibrant downtown. This will attract additional residential growth because a thriving city core strengthens our region,” said Batchelor.  “We are pleased to help Tom Hagen accomplish this laudable benevolent objective. We encourage others who have a love of historic preservation and want to see our downtown thrive, participate in restoration projects.  At The Erie Community Foundation, we help donors accomplish their philanthropic goals.” 

Batchelor also said the Historic Erie Preservation Trust, as a supporting organization to the Erie Community Foundation, is separate from the Foundation and is served by its own trustees. In addition to Hagen, who chairs the Trust, two other trustees are appointed by the Foundation.  They are award-winning historic preservation architect Jeff Kidder, AIA, NCARB, who has been involved with many of Hagen’s restoration projects, and Caleb Pifer, vice president for external relations at Mercyhurst University. Pifer is a former executive director of the Erie County Historical Society, where he worked closely with Hagen to develop the Hagen History Center. Also associated with the Trust, as a counselor, is Michael A. Glass, FCSI, CCCA.  Retired from a 38-year career at Erie Insurance, he served as construction manager overseeing the restoration of more than a dozen historic buildings.  The Trust is located in the historic John Hill House at 230 W. 6th St.   

Connections between Erie and Newport

  • Newport Restoration Foundation Executive Director Mark Thompson went to high school in nearby Ellwood City, PA.  He has visited Erie on a number of occasions over the last 30 years to see an old friend.                  
  • Oliver Hazard Perry, the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie hero who built his fleet in Erie, was a Newport resident and is buried there.  The 1885 statue of Perry located in Newport’s Washington Square was copied with Newport’s permission by Hagen and erected in Erie’s Perry Square in 1985. 
  • Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s reconstructed flagship, the U.S. Brig Niagara, is homeported in Erie, while the tall ship Oliver Hazard Perry is homeported in Newport. The tall ship project was spearheaded in 2009 by the late Vice Admiral Tom Weschler, a prominent Newport resident and Erie native.
  • The late Ernst Behrend, co-founder of the former Hammermill Paper Co. in Erie, and his wife Mary (Brownell), built a Newport summer estate, Sonnenhof, on Indian Avenue in Middletown; this estate now serves as the residence of Campbell Soup heiress Hope Van Beuren.  Mrs. Behrend donated their Erie estate, Glenhill Farm, to Penn State University, becoming Penn State Erie, the Behrend College.
  • Newport’s Salve Regina University and Erie’s Mercyhurst University are two of 10 Catholic Sisters of Mercy institutions.  Sharing a common heritage and mission, many of the buildings at both universities bear the names of former Sisters of Mercy.