The Captain William Vicary Mansion
Sitting atop a gentle knoll overlooking the Ohio River in what is now Freedom, Pennsylvania, sits the stately old mansion built by Captain William Vicary. Long a source of wonder, its unusual construction and elegant style speak of the wealth and status of its former owners.
Captain Vicary, a retired Philadelphia merchant sea captain and land speculator, moved with his family to his land near Big Sewickley Creek. Looking for land deals, Vicary most likely scouted this area of Beaver County in which to construct his family home. Finding the correct spot, Vicary purchased 604 acres of land, lots #33, 34 & 35, from Mark Wilcox on February 18, 1826 on which to situate his mansion.  Within a few months following the purchase, Vicary hired John Moore to do the actual construction. The original contract called for Moore to erect a stone dwelling measuring fifty two feet long by thirty eight feet wide along with a stone smokehouse, necessary, and spring house to be finished in December of 1826 for the sum of $2,450. He was also to construct a barn for an additional $650.
On the first of April, 1826, Vicary made several additions and changes to the original contract where he asked for the walls of the mansion to be made of cut stone with parapet walls; that the walls should be coped with cut stone; that there should be an ash house and oven of cut stone with partitions in the kitchen along with other revisions to both the house and barn. All of the buildings were to be completed by April 1st of 1827, and were to eventually cost an additional $1,435.
The mansion was not completed until November of 1829 because Vicary, unsatisfied with Moore ’s lack of progress and quality of work, took possession and paid his own people to complete the contract. This led to a dispute as to final payment between Vicary and the builder that resulted in a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case (Vicary vs. Moore Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Western District). Although Vicary eventually won, the case dragged on several years following his death. It is from this case that we find many of the details of the above contract.
Consisting of twenty rooms, the final product boasted eight main rooms each eighteen feet square with red oak floors supported on hand hewn beams. The inside walls were brick finished with plaster, and the main entrance door was made of solid oak two inches thick and supported by heavy iron strap hinges. The outside walls were of two foot thick cut sandstone blocks that were “faced” or smoothed.
Vicary lived here until his death in 1842, and Mary, his wife, continued living in the mansion with her children until her death in 1853. Upon their passing, the mansion was inherited by their only living child, Hannah and her future husband, Dr. T. F. Robinson. As with all new occupants, changes to suit their tastes and needs are inevitable and the Robinsons were no exception. One major addition made by the Robinsons was the creation of a stone mausoleum built for their daughter Leonora who died at the age of four years. The mausoleum was described in an article written in the Pittsburgh Sunday Dispatch in 1899 by Laura Withrow as follows:
“The mother’s heart was broken. She wanted her child still to be near her, even though death had come between. Thus was conceived the idea of building a family vault on the lawn near by the house. The remains were temporarily interred in the garden and the vault was constructed, the designs being furnished by Dr. Robinson.
The entire vault is covered with earth, thus forming an immense mound back of the ornamental front. The vault is built of massive stonework. Benches are at either side of the interior, an especially large one being in the rear end….. The great mound is a bead (sic) of myrtle and violets. Arbor vitae trees form a perfect circle around the vault. An iron fence, the double gate being hung on stone pillars, incloses (sic) the front… On the urn, surmounting the whole are two beautiful figures. One is that of a kneeling woman, wringing her hands in sorrow for her dead. The other, in the guise of a woman, is an angel of light hovering over the sorrowing one with a message of comfort.”
With the death of Leonora, the Robinsons’ only surviving child, Anna M.V. Robinson inherited the mansion in 1880. Following the untimely death of her first husband Tobias Hetchie, Anna married and shared the mansion with James Harvey. As with their predecessors, the Harveys also made some changes and additions to the mansion. These changes included: adding the large front porch that is still visible today, adding a smaller side porch, removing a large stone wall from the yard, and placing glass in the large oak entrance door.
Sometime around 1912, the Harvey family packed their belongings and moved to Los Angeles, California. The empty mansion was rented to a prominent Freedom family named Bischoffberger. In a letter written to Mrs. Alton Bonzo by Margaret Schuldt, a daughter of the Bischoffbergers, in 1979, Mrs. Schuldt talks about some of the changes made by her family:
“…Papa fixed the large room in the attic as our party room. He had a beautiful hardwood floor laid. There were two good sized bedrooms off the large room. …Papa had made an apartment above the kitchen & laundry. There was an outside stairway going from the apartment over the kitchen.”
Surprisingly, even though they were renters, the Bischoffbergers made changes to the house and must have expected to buy it at some point. One of the true enduring mysteries of the mansion is why it was never sold to them. According to Mrs. Schuldt:
“You see my Dad wanted to buy the house & was told he could have first chance on it when we lived in it but it was sold, you might say, right out from under him& that was their reason for moving out to one of our own houses on Eighth Street ….Which made them quite unhappy….”
During the Bischoffbergers’ residence, the mansion was nearly lost to a fire. Apparently Mr. and Mrs. Bischoffberger were away in Erie attending a funeral of Mr. Gottlieb Walters, an uncle of Mr. Bischoffberger, and the children had walked into town. According to an article in the Daily Times dated Tuesday, December 19, 1916 titled Big Fire Damage:
“Fire at the residence of E.J. Bischoffberger in East Third avenue , Freedom, Saturday night about 9 o’clock resulted in damage to the structure and furnishings estimated at from $500 to $600.
The family was from home at the time and the fire which is thought to have originate at or near the furnace in the basement was discovered by an engine crew in the Conway yards who gave the alarm by blowing the locomotive’s whistle. The fire ladies responded with their big motor fire truck and by good work confined the fire to the main hall on the first floor to which it had eaten its way by the time they arrived.
Mr. Bischoffberger arrived home from Erie about one o’clock Sunday morning and could not be censured if he regards the happening in the light of a rather costly “house warming”.”
In any event, the mansion was sold to Freedom resident Joseph Nannah in 1924 for the princely sum of $10. Nannah made his own changes by removing the large stone fireplace in the kitchen because it was not useful. Also, in 1925, the stone mausoleum was dismantled and the bodies removed to Oak Grove Cemetery in Freedom where they now rest. At this point, it is unclear as to who was actually responsible for the removal of the mausoleum.
Once again, the mansion was passed on to an only daughter, Hazel, a teacher for the Freedom, Conway and Monaca school districts for 45 years. In 1948, a victim of rising costs and maintenance problems, Hazel placed her own “stamp” on the mansion when she divided it up into three apartments in order to help pay the bills. In the 1950’s, Miss Nannah had the wooden floor of the large porch removed and replaced with the concrete floor that you see today. Miss Nannah and her various tenants lived here until the land was appropriated by the state for the construction of Route 65 in the late 1960’s.
Faced with the impending destruction of this historical structure, a one-woman letter writing campaign was begun by Mrs. Mildred Arbutina Pappas. A former Freedom resident, Mrs. Papas conducted her campaign from her new home in Washington , D.C.. Thanks to her efforts, and help from local organizations and governments, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation built a retaining wall to save the mansion. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 18, 1974, ownership of the land was transferred to Beaver County in the mid-1970’s, with the mansion being purchased from Nannah heirs, Gerald and Aloha Fehr Phillips, for $41,000 in 1982. In February of 1999, the William Vicary Mansion became the official home of the Beaver County Historical Research & Landmarks Foundation. Today, the mansion is being restored to its former grandeur and is open to the public for all to enjoy.
“Captain William Vicary – The Legend” by Laura Withrow, Pittsburgh Sunday Dispatch, February 19, 1899 .
Deed – Mark Wilcox to William Vicary dated February 18, 1826 . Beaver County Recorder of Deeds. Vol. G Page 388.
Deed – Anna M.V. Harvey to Joseph Nannah dated November 19, 1924 . Beaver County Recorder of Deeds.
“Freedom Home is Rich in Historical Lore” , The Beaver Valley Times, March 26, 1955 .
Letter from Margaret Schuldt to Mr.s Alton Bonzo dated September 24, 1979 . Beaver County Research & Landmarks Foundation.
“Vicary Changes Proposed Under County Option Plan” by Debra Utterback, The Beaver County Times, February 22, 1987 .
Vicary Vs. Moore, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania , Western District, Pittsburgh .
“Big Fire Damage”, The Daily Times, December 19, 1916 .