The Histories of Penn State
Penn State Intercom......March 21, 2002

(For a longer version of this story, go to

From pickles to pilots
to Penn State, oh my!

Penn State Harrisburg grew
to meet varied community needs

Editor's note: Most people know the history of Penn State as that of a school chartered in 1855 at the request of the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society to apply scientific principles to farming. Since that time, Penn State has grown from that one campus at University Park to 24 locations statewide, and each of those other locations has its own history. Throughout this academic year, Intercom plans to highlight those histories.

Harrisburg at a glance

By Valerie Duhig
Penn State Harrisburg Hburg_bathtubrace

In the late 19th century, the land on which Penn State Harrisburg presently stands was known in Middletown as "the pickle farm." The H.J. Heinz Co. owned it and shipped the cucumbers and other vegetables to its Pittsburgh processing facility. Part of the land became an army camp during the Spanish-American War. In 1917, ground was broken for an Army Air Corps field, which still later became Olmsted Air Force Base.

The Olmsted Building opened in 1960, an Air Force administrative center for an area encompassing 11 states and seven nations. When the University took over the land, its military history was interwoven, as is evidenced by the names of the buildings and roads. Olmsted itself was named for Lt. Robert Olmsted, an aviation pioneer killed in 1923 when his hot-air balloon was struck by lightning in an international race over Holland. A huge building with 189,000 square feet of usable space, it originally housed almost all functions of the college: administrative, instructional and academic.

The Air Force built modest duplex homes to house married officers and named them Meade Heights. Now, 292 resident students are waiting avidly for the new residence halls, with 72 four-single-bedroom apartments to open in fall 2002. The new halls are designed architecturally to complete a college "green," a focal center for the campus to include buildings built after the last "Taps" were heard over the land and the Air Force departed: the Science and Technology Building and its new addition; the Campus Bookstore; and the Capital Union Building with recreation and fitness facilities. The new 115,000-square-foot library opened in 2000, underscoring the physical evolution of the campus.

The two residence halls, Church and Wrisberg, named for pilots killed in 1960 when their C-123 crashed during a test flight in York County, served as enlisted men's dormitories and were then used for students until resident students were moved to Meade Heights. Church Hall was renovated and now houses the Institute for State and Regional Affairs, site of: the State Data Center (established in 1981 by Executive Order of the governor to be Pennsylvania's official source of population and economic statistics); and the centers for Survey Research; Economic Research and Training; Geographic Information Services; Quality of Working Life; and the Program to Improve State and Local Government.

The Educational Activities Building was the base's bachelor officers' quarters, became married student housing and was renovated to provide space for Continuing and Distance Education and additional classrooms.

The military leitmotif of the land spanned the period from the Spanish-American War through both world wars to the Cold War, when Olmsted was in "The Doomsday Blueprints," according to an article that appeared in Time magazine on Aug. 10, 1992. The article described how in the mid-1950s, an elite unit of helicopter pilots and crew, the 2857th Test Squadron, posing as an area rescue team, staunchly hid its real mission -- to rescue the president in the event of a nuclear attack. They were to pluck the president and first family from the nation's capital and fly them to a safe haven. The helicopters were equipped with decontamination kits, crowbars and acetylene torches to break through the walls of the presidential bunker beneath the White House. Hburg_plaza

The continuing fluidity and adaptability of the campus reflect the startling originality of its inception, beginning as part of a University whose overarching mission as a land-grant institution has been commitment to dynamic response to the needs of its communities. While this mission is reflected in each of its locations throughout the Commonwealth, no better example of this can be found than in the history of the Capital College, begun in 1966 in what then-President Eric Walker called, "A striking example of a pragmatic response to a fluid situation." This fluid situation was the result of three significant occurrences preceding the founding of the Capitol Campus.

First, in 1963, the Pennsylvania Community College Law was established, creating an affordable, accessible route to higher education for high school seniors whose options did not include matriculation at traditional four-year colleges. Thus was a large population of students created who had completed the first two years of college Hburg_1969olmsted and who wanted a baccalaureate degree.

Then, in 1964, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara gave official announcement that the Olmsted Base in Middletown would be closed. A major employer in the region, its loss threatened the entire economic climate. Also in 1964, the Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC), a trendsetter in higher education, had just opened as the first public community college established after the Community College Law. HACC was strongly supported by the community, and competition with that college was identified as a no-win situation.

Lastly, in 1965, the newly created State Board of Education was developing a master plan for higher education, recognizing competition between the new community colleges and the existing University campus system, which had burgeoned in the previous two decades. The plan predicated a greater need for graduate and professional studies in the commonwealth. At that time, the University had no stated intention of establishing any additional units, nor was an upper division college envisioned. The University was already cooperating with four other institutions through the Harrisburg Area Center for Higher Education, with graduate studies provided through the Susquehanna Valley Graduate Center, another consortium, whose students transferred to Capitol the next year.

Then-Gov. William Scranton appealed to President Walker ("in anguish," as Walker recalled) to explore establishing a Penn State presence that could be situated on the now-defunct Air Force Base to aid the area economy, offering the University 178 acres of the land and its 16 existing buildings. It took the University only one month to develop an internal report recommending that the new institution take the form of a upper division college combined with a graduate school; by the end of that month, the proposed structure of the present college had been identified, and the Capitol Campus was endorsed by the Board of Trustees in January 1966.

The original strongly interdisciplinary structure emphasized the ties among social and basic sciences, technology, humanities and other disciplines, and organized the academic programs into three divisions: Engineering and Technology; Humanities, Social Sciences and Education; and Administration, Business and Regional Planning.

In 1980 the present structure was reorganized to reflect the current five schools (Behavioral Sciences and Education; Humanities; Science, Engineering and Technology; Public Affairs; and Business Administration) and the library division.

Even then, other colleges and universities around the state were casting glances askance at the University, which already had 20 campuses. Scranton acknowledged fears about legislative favoritism for a Penn State presence at the seat of government, and insisted the new college be called "Capitol‚" rather than "Capital," indicating that "capitol" is only a building, while "capital" is where the government (power) is located.

The first class, consisting of 18 undergraduate and 165 graduate students, arrived on campus in September 1966 to work with an initial faculty of eight instructors. The graduate students came from the Susquehanna Valley Graduate Center, which the University had joined a year before to respond to the area need for graduate and professional studies. In June 1968, 12 students, the first to receive Capitol Campus diplomas, traveled by bus with then-Director Coleman Herpel and a handful of faculty and staff to Beaver Stadium to receive their diplomas.

The Susquehanna River, which flows at a remove from the campus, is beautiful, but topographical, geological and climatic conditions make it treacherous at times. In 1972 Hurricane Agnes hit Central Pennsylvania, causing the worst flooding in its history. Although Capitol was spared, the campus became a refuge for more than 1,000 displaced people; almost every level surface was used as sleeping quarters. Seniors chose instead of a graduation ceremony to spend their time working with other students, faculty and staff to assist the newly homeless. Eventually trailers were brought in and were placed in front of Olmsted, where 100 families lived for almost a year in what they affectionately called "Flood Village."

In 1989 the Penn State Downtown Center, directly across from the Capitol Complex, opened, making the University's educational and research services more convenient to legislative offices, government agencies and the general public. In 1991 the college opened the Eastgate Center, a second outreach facility, with classrooms, a computer lab and other resources within walking distance of the Capitol.

In 1997, in a University-wide reorganization, Penn State Harrisburg and Penn State Schuylkill, 60 miles to the northeast, merged to become the Capital College, opening new opportunities to address economic and educational needs of both locations.

Valerie Duhig can be reached at

Harrisburg at a glance

* Madlyn L. Hanes, provost and dean

* 218-acre suburban campus located eight miles east of Harrisburg in Middletown

* Total enrollment of more than 3,200

* 150 full-time, 90 part-time/adjunct faculty

* Student/faculty ratios of 19 to 1 undergraduate; 14 to 1 graduate

* 27 baccalaureate, 19 master's, two doctoral programs

* Two centers in downtown Harrisburg