A Tale of Two Houses
The story of Schreyer House is actually a tale of two houses. Before it was renamed Schreyer House and became the residence of Penn State University’s president — and, in fact, for the majority of its existence — it was known as Lisnaward.
Built in 1928, the original house — a smaller structure than the one currently standing at 331 E. Park Ave. — was the summer home of H. Walton Mitchell, an Allegheny County judge and Penn State alumnus and board member. As an undergraduate, Mitchell played an integral role in the establishment of both the La Vie yearbook and what would become The Daily Collegian. He was one of the founders of Beta Theta Pi fraternity and the first alumnus to be elected to the Board of Trustees.
He only had two daughters, my mother and my aunt, and his wife died when my mother was only 5, and he raised his two daughters himself. My mother was the only one of his two girls that was married, so my sister and I were always doted upon. It was a small family. When he was there he was so funny, he never would go outside the door without a hat on and usually his cane, and he would oversee the trimming of the trees or if the gardener was there working he would spend hours talking to him. He just had an interest in people.”
Mitchell bought the property not long after he graduated in 1890, and the house, dubbed Lisnaward after the homeland of Mitchell’s Irish family, was built in 1928. It served as a summer home for the Pittsburgh-based family for four generations.
“Basically my grandfather built the house so that we could always be together in the summer,”
Armstrong says. “My sister and I always were taken up the minute school was over and we stayed until Labor Day. It was just a fun place to be because we had repeat guests year after year and all of them were a lot of fun in their own right, and funny things would happen each time they were there.”
Armstrong’s father helped her grandfather put in a small pool, playhouse and tea house, which, she recalls, was made from wrought iron salvaged from the Brockerhoff House in Bellefonte. “The house rang with laughter all the time,” she says.
And that laughter continued long after the patriarch died in 1943. Armstrong’s son, Chris Armstrong, has many fond memories at Lisnaward as well. “When I was a kid, there was no better place,” he says. “In the morning my grandfather would get us up, and the whole family would have a rousing round of horseshoes after breakfast. Then we’d go on to badminton or croquet. That was a day, goofing off all day, playing with whatever toys were there, getting tired, having fun, and then at night either us going out to visit another family from State College or a family coming to visit us, and that’s pretty much every night. It was a lot of fun.”
That was how the house functioned for about 50 years. The land around it, about 130 acres, saw various uses; Mitchell donated a part of it to the university, Armstrong and her sister donated some to what is now Sunset Park, and parts were rented for agricultural uses like corn fields and cow pastures. Even the elms lining the lane were used in forestry classes. “I recall driving the lane and there being 20 or 25 kids repelling from trees,” Chris Armstrong says.
But in the 1980s, after their father and husbands had died, Mitchell’s two granddaughters found the house and property difficult to keep up, and they eventually sold it to the university for $3.2 million. “It was terrible to make that decision,” Jean Armstrong says. “No place will ever mean as much to me as that house, even more than my own house here that I’ve been in for 60 years. That to me was my favorite spot.”
A House in Transition
After Penn State purchased the property — much of which is now The Arboretum at Penn State — the house sat unused for about a decade. In 1995, in between presidents Joab Thomas and Graham Spanier, the university decided to turn the house into the official president’s home, which since 1970 had been located off campus. Architect Robert Hoffman of Hoffman Leakey Architects in Boalsburg was brought in to design the renovation and an addition.
“We started out with a lot of communications with some of the assistant vice presidents, because we didn’t have a president at that time,” Hoffman says. “So I began designing a house and I didn’t know who was going to live in it.”
Hoffman and his team figured out how to work the steeply sloped roofs of the existing Tudor-style country house into an addition that would look as though it had been there all along. “The challenges in the design were not just the exterior and how it blended in but I also tried to use some of the old components of the old house. For instance, this bay window [in the original structure] is mirrored [in the new living room].”
When it was announced that year that Spanier would be the next president, he and Hoffman connected and collaborated on the ongoing project. Hoffman knew the house needed to serve dual functions: a single-family dwelling and a space for entertaining. “Circulation was a key,” he says. “We wanted to create an entry that would allow people to go into the building, be received, and be able to go outside for entertainment without wandering through the whole house. So when you go in, you have this receiving area, the offices are to the left, the old living room is to the right, and you can go straight through and go out to the back patio.”
The renovation and addition, which was funded by a $1 million donation from Penn State alumnus and board member William Schreyer, took about a year and a half, and the glass and concrete solarium was added in 2000, bringing the square footage to nearly 10,000.
For Eric and Molly Barron, moving back to State College was, in some ways, a return home — though of course they were moving into a different house. Having lived and raised their children in the area from 1986 to 2006, they had most recently lived in Florida State University’s president’s home, a Greek Revival filled with period pieces.
“We had the experience of another president’s house,” says Eric Barron, “and everything in it was basically to look like 1851. It felt like a bit of a museum, and nobody sat down, and it was very formal.”
After being named president of Penn State University in 2014, the Barrons knew they wanted something different.
“At Florida State we lived in a compound with gates and you had to buzz people in, and people came in and out of the house all the time,” Barron says. “People were always working on something and you would never know what was going on down there. Here you feel like you’re living in a house. That is certainly nice. The convenience to the university is certainly huge. And the house has character. We decided that in this house it was going to be our furniture and the way we live.”
“We wanted to have seating arrangements and comfort,” says Molly Barron. “We tried to follow the lines of the rooms.”
Starting in the original living room, which retains its original wood paneling and fireplace, the Barrons brought their own furniture into the house.
“We do like a Craftsman look, but that’s partly because we have a couple pieces that match that,” Eric Barron says. Cozy leather chairs form an arc around the fireplace, which is flanked on either side by windows, now just frames in the original exterior stone wall. They look out into the solarium, which holds a piano for intimate arts receptions and chairs where the Barrons typically have their morning coffee. Beyond that lies the new living room, with exposed trusses echoing typical Tudor architecture, though with a brighter look than the traditional dark wood.
“Architecturally I love this room the most,” the university president says. “This is the most casual room, and again it was designed for entertainment. I tell people the key to whether or not we’re successful is when we come in here if people are sitting in the chairs. And they do. In the Tallahassee house they definitely did not.”
In this room, as in all the others, are various rocks on display, artifacts from Barron’s former life as a geologist, geology professor and dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.
“There are lots and lots of rocks here that I collected as a kid or as a student or after that, but now we’re looking at specimen quality and things that have a little bit of artistic sense to them as well as a geological sense,” he says.
Of course, Molly’s touch can be seen throughout the house as well, but perhaps nowhere so brightly as in the dining room, where a red, orange and yellow quilt hangs on the wall.
“That’s the first quilt Molly ever made,” the proud husband says. “Most people can’t do that! She used to make my shirts when we first met, and they were fantastic.”
All those details come together to create, for the Barrons, a space that truly feels like home.
“Whenever we have students, they just come in and make themselves at home,” Molly Barron says. “And that’s what we wanted. That’s exactly what we were trying to accomplish with the way we decorated.”
“We don’t own the walls but we live here — and we feel like we live here,” Eric Barron says. “People are much more likely to just plop down and have a conversation with me, and that’s worth a lot.”
A Lasting Legacy
There is one particular detail of the house that hasn’t changed at all in 89 years. Outside, on the top of the tower door, sits an iron witch. Chris Armstrong recalls that the neighborhood kids he’d play with thought his grandmother and his great aunt — Mitchell’s daughters, who came each summer to the big house at the end of lane — were witches. It was a longstanding rumor encouraged by their silver blue hair and their annual arrival by Thunderbird convertible, and cemented by the mysterious witch on the roof.
But Jean Armstrong knows the genesis of the bewitching ornament. A friend of Mitchell’s who had started a company that made products from witch hazel came to visit one summer, bringing his new logo. “My grandfather was so taken with it that this gentleman said, ‘I will have a duplicate made for you.’ And he put it on top of the tower.”
There she has remained, a witness to — and a part of — the history of Lisnaward. •SCM