The Milestone on the River Heritage
Now known as The Milestone on the River, the riverfront mansion at 2701 North Front Street in Harrisburg was designed to entertain from its earliest beginnings. It was built in 1925 by Ralph J. and Anna G. Baker, who hosted frequent social gatherings. The Baker family entertained Harrisburg's young entrepreneurs, successful businessmen and women, physicians, scholars, and attorneys. Ralph J. Baker was a 1911 summa cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Law School and was a partner in private practice with the corporate tax firm of Hause, Evans & Baker in Harrisburg. Ralph and Anna resided in the mansion with their children and servants.
The mansion was constructed at a time when Harrisburg was in the midst of a remarkable civic transformation. It was designed by the nationally renowned Philadelphia architecture firm of Mellor, Meigs and Howe. Following World War I, houses like those designed by Mellor, Meigs and Howe were considered among the East Coast's most sophisticated designs. First-hand familiarity with the rural architecture of France served as an inspiration to the architects and the Cotswold and Norman-Influenced houses they built primarily in the Philadelphia suburbs such as Chestnut Hill. The Baker Mansion represents the firm's only commission in the Harrisburg area and is one of the few remaining examples of early 20th century residential architecture that once defined Front Street and River Front Park. Expenses were not spared in the building of this architectural gem including the architect's commission of eight percent which was incredibly high for Harrisburg standards at the time.
The mansion's design shares Medieval English tradition with French Eclecticism and is much admired for its beauty and rarity. The L-shaped property, constructed of stone from a private Chester County quarry, is deftly integrated into the urban setting. It is highlighted by the intersections of steeply pitched slate roofs; half-timbering and stucco in the projecting gabled entrance; irregular placement of ribbons of metal casement windows; and elegant groupings of decorative, double brick chimneys. The interior is well-appointed with five fireplaces, interior hardwood and slate floors, poured concrete steps, arched passageways of carved limestone, white cypress paneling, and commissioned ironwork from the studios of master craftsman, Samuel Yellin. While other examples of similar architecture still remain along Front Street, few as grand and graceful as the property at 2701 North Front Street still exist. The grounds occupy a large (over one-half acre) lot which is rare on Front Street. The large front lawn now fills the space once dedicated to the Baker Family's in-ground pool. Much of the original landscape still exists with mature trees and a terraced lawn which descends to Front Street along River Front Park.
After residing in his riverfront mansion for only six years, Ralph Baker gave up his law practice and accepted a teaching position at Harvard Law School. The property was sold to trucker and furniture dealer John N. Hall. Later, Hall sold the property to Congressman John C. Kunkel. At a later time, Dr. W. Minster Kunkel established the Kunkel Surgical Group on the site and erected a one-story brick building in the front yard. The Kunkel family later deeded the property to the United Way of the Capital Region, which used the home for many years as part of its headquarters.
The building was transformed into a stark, yet routinely functional office building. In the spring of 2000, the addition which was previously built by Dr. Kunkel was extensively damaged by fire and the United Way planned to demolish the entire estate. As the historic Baker mansion was untouched by the flames and remained unscathed, many in the local community spoke out against the planned demolition including the Historic Harrisburg Association (HHA). HHA rallied its membership to the preservation crisis and called on the local community to invest critical time and energy to save the mansion. Most thankfully, many who took a great source of pride in the building and who respect history and the heritage of grand architecture stepped forward and rallied behind the property's fate.
The United Way ultimately retracted its plans to demolish the property and it was then purchased by a local couple who placed the home on the commercial real estate market a short time later. It was then purchased by Sean Adams and Robin Clemens who sought a variance to operate an Inn from the property. The building then underwent extensive historic renovations based on the original blueprints they purchased from the Athenaeum of Philadelphia. As particular attention was paid to historical details, the renovations took nearly two years to complete. The property was subsequently sold in 2011 to the current investor group who has continued to improve the property and have ceased operating the property as an Inn. The property now serves a luxury wedding and special event venue.