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A Victorian Beauty Finds Fulfillment as an Alumni Center

You wonder, if houses could talk, what Breezedale would say.

Breezedale

Once its eastern windows looked out on a tree-dotted lawn that rolled down to the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. Many times a day, and sometimes through the night, passenger trains and freight trains passed by on their way to uptown warehouses and the station that stood where the Indiana County Court House is now. Today there are no tracks—no Pennsylvania Railroad for that matter—and even if there were, the view from Breezedale would be blocked by Whitmyre Hall.

To the north, from beneath a high porte-cochere, the house gazed toward School Street, to which it was connected by a drive lined with trees. Behind the house, on its western side, huge, beautiful oak trees sheltered toolsheds and stables and “a gymnasium.” Today, to the north and west, there is only the vast brick barricade of Elkin Hall: Breezedale can’t see out, and Breezedale can’t be seen.

The best view today is toward the south, through the stained-, leaded-, and beveled-glass windows of the law library. At one time, Breezedale was separated from Keith—after there was a Keith—by Washington Street. Today there is a patio outside the law library and a gently sloping lawn. What can be seen of Breezedale from the main part of the campus is really the side of the house, but it’s the best view there is.

The Reception Room

At the one side of the main hall is the original library, which now serves as a reception room for various meetings and other functions held on the first floor.

If houses could talk, Breezedale would probably say it’s pretty lucky. Three times in its life—in the late forties, in the early seventies, and finally in the eighties—it has been saved from Doom. And if the house’s views of the outside have been gradually cut off, the view today of the inside is best described as, “Wow!”

Take a tour of Breezedale 

When the story of Breezedale began, it wasn’t called Breezedale. In the late 1860s, James and Sarah Cook Stansborough Sutton built their brick mansion in the Italianate style then in vogue. The house may have been designed by architect James W. Drum of Pittsburgh, who planned the first building for the Indiana State Normal School, or by J. P. Leach, a local architect and contractor who was awarded contracts for buildings in Indiana designed by Drum.

In terms of size, nothing of the original house has been lost. Even the cupola, often an early casualty in the war between Victorian houses and the elements, is intact. The front porch, facing Whitmyre, was replaced, first by the Elkins and later by the university. But the house as it stands today, at least from three sides, is remarkably like it was when the Suttons built it.

James Sutton lived in his house only a short time, dying in 1870 at the age of fifty-eight. Mrs. Sutton survived her husband by many years, and in 1899, when she died, the house was sold for sixteen thousand dollars to John and Adda Prothero Elkin.

The Parlor

The parlor features a striking white marble mantel in the style known as Second Empire. The portrait above the fireplace is that of Sarah Stansbury Sutton, wife of James Sutton, the original owner of the home.

John Elkin was close to forty at the time he bought the house. He, too, would die in his fifties. Perhaps he had some premonition that his was not to be a long life. That he was in a hurry to get on with things is evident in the fact that he campaigned for, and was elected to, the Pennsylvania legislature while still a law student at the University of Michigan.

Elkin, who grew up in Smicksburg, Pa., and graduated from Indiana Normal School, served two terms in the legislature and was appointed state deputy attorney general in 1895. In 1902, he was appointed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for four years. He later returned to practice law in Indiana and now rests in the mausoleum bearing the Elkin name that overlooks Route 286 from Oakland Cemetery.

The gung-ho attitude with which Elkin apparently conducted his professional life was echoed in the attention that he and Mrs. Elkin lavished on Breezedale (the name they bestowed on the former Sutton house). Architectural historian James Van Trump has written that, through the efforts of the Elkins, “Breezedale was destined to be a house of even more importance in the community than it had already been. It was to extend itself, to blossom, to shine, more brightly than it had.”

Spacious verandas sprouted from the east and north facades as the original, smaller, front porch was torn away. The main access drive to the house was changed from the east to the north, and a porte-cochere was erected at the new main entrance. And an elegant law library-solarium was added to the structure’s southern face. The latter is the only one of the Elkin exterior alterations that remains today.

Inside, the change was just as dramatic. Van Trump writes that with the Elkin touch, “The ‘old house’ is still ‘the old house,’ but it has also very grandly become the Edwardian estate, the setting for a much larger, more expensive, ‘smarter’ social life.”

The Turkish Room

Of all of the rooms in Breezedale, the Turkish Room is the most captivating. "Smoking" rooms such as this were quite popular in the late nineteenth century, reflecting the trend toward romantic, often exotic, decor. Among the features of the room: a carved mahogany fireplace and a three-sided alcove seat.

Take the Turkish Room, for instance. From what had been a cozy study in the Suttons’ time, the Elkins fashioned an exotic example of turn-of-the-century chic. Turkish Rooms were often places where guests, particularly men, went to smoke. This may have been so, even though the Elkins’ Turkish Room had no outside ventilation. What it did—and does—have was lavish parquetry, a decorative loveseat, and a mahogany fireplace.

In the oak-beamed ceiling an art nouveau skylight is inscribed with the names of famous jurists—Solon, Marshall, Gibson, and Blackstone—as well as with the emblems of four Renaissance printers. On the western side of the room, blindfolded Justice, encumbered with books and a scale and standing on a serpent, is rendered in opalescent glass.

The Elkins also made big changes in the dining room, adding an elaborate parquet floor, heavily paneled oak wainscoting, and a massive oak-beam ceiling. The Sutton-era fireplace was modified with a massive oak mantelpiece in the Edwardian style.

The law library

The library features an oak beamed ceiling, a skylight, wall-to-wall bookcases and a commanding view of the IUP campus to the south.

A few steps down from the Turkish Room is the law library-solarium, replete with oak paneling and lots of glass: stained glass, leaded glass, beveled glass, clouded glass, and clear glass. Some of the original features have been removed, but enough remains to impress even the most sophisticated visitor.

After Mrs. Elkin’s death in 1934, only parts of the house were occupied at any given time. What once had been a carefully groomed landscape surrounding the house became a “jungle” much prized by small boys of the neighborhood for war games and cowboy-and-Indian reenactments. Rumors abounded that the house, which at intervals stood vacant, was haunted. Surreptitious visits to the structure by Indiana State Teachers College students were not uncommon.

Weather and time were taking their toll. The house seemed doomed. To the rescue, on May 20, 1947, came the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which paid sixty-five thousand dollars for Breezedale and the surrounding acreage.

To a postwar era that built millions and millions of ranch-type houses, Victorian and Edwardian were not styles particularly cherished. What the state teachers college at Indiana primarily needed at the time was space. Men were flocking to the school on the GI Bill, and they needed a place to live. Many of them found it at Breezedale.

The Elkin verandas were removed, and a small front porch was installed. In ensuing years, several academic departments conducted their business beneath acoustical ceilings and hanging fluorescent light fixtures. Sometimes, unattractive changes had to be made in order to comply with safety standards. Other times, they were made for the sake of “modernization.”

By the early 1970’s, the last academic occupant had departed to take up residence in the campus’s new brick and metal classroom buildings. What was to become of the bastardized Breezedale, part Victorian, part Edwardian, part Commonwealth of Pennsylvania?

A committee was formed to preserve the place. Money was raised from alumni, faculty, and friends of the school. A four-stage plan for renovation and restoration was drawn up. The first and second stages, which included installing a new roof and downspout system and cleaning and repointing the brick, were completed at a cost of thirty-five thousand dollars. Wallpaper was chosen, other refurbishing plans were made, and then the whole thing came to an abrupt halt.

What stopped the restoration of Breezedale was the news that the state planned to demolish John Sutton Hall to make way for a new library. Breezedale committee members rushed to the aid of the campus’s other Victorian structure, but not before they had insured that at least the outside of Breezedale would be preserved. The inside would have to wait.

And wait it did, until its recent restoration became a project of the IUP Alumni Association and a goal of the university’s first-ever comprehensive capital campaign. With the funds and attention recently lavished on it, the house itself may be more beautiful than ever. This fact, and the fact that it has survived at all, are tributes to the university’s administration and to the campaign’s donors.

The restoration of Breezedale was a labor of love for the university staff members who hammered and papered and sanded and painted. Their admiration for the house’s original craftsmen mingled with their own resolve to create something that would tie the past to the future as few projects could.

The building has been totally renovated, with the goal of preserving the best of the past and providing the best of the present.

In the heat of summer, the Elkins had to repair to their verandas to catch the cool breezes. Now there is air conditioning. It was always hard for disabled people to visit and tour the house. Now there is a ramp at the north entrance and an elevator inside.

Today Breezedale houses the Office of Alumni Affairs on its upper floors. The first floor is used for meetings and gatherings.

You wonder, if houses could talk, what Breezedale would say. The likeliest possibility: “I’m all of a hundred and twenty years old and, hey, I’m beautiful!”