Save the Gate House!Dec 01, 2021 09:00AM ● By Steven McCloskey
Sometimes, a simple gesture has a huge impact. It can ignite a community vision and spirit, bringing people together to achieve something greater than anyone ever believed possible.
For the greater Mansfield area, the initially simple desire of some caring citizens to bring a ray of light to a long-neglected landmark spawned a community-wide drive to preserve an irreplaceable piece of history.
The Save the Gate House Project promises to not only save the last remaining structure of the former Great Mansfield Fair, repurposing it as a community meeting resource and tourist attraction. It will also create a lasting monument to the community’s most historic event by commemorating and detailing the history of the world’s first night football game. It occurred just outside the building’s original stained-glass bay windows 129 years ago.
Sitting at the almost geographical center of the borough, the cottage-style gate house has stood guard over the entrance since 1889, welcoming visitors and residents to historic Smythe Park in downtown Mansfield. During its long history, the Gate House witnessed most of the community’s greatest accomplishments and events, while greeting Mansfield’s most distinguished visitors.
After Smythe Park was sold to the Mansfield School Board in 1957—the school district was expanding its footprint in the area—ending the Great Mansfield Fair, the Gate House still served the community.
In the 1960s, the school district leased the Gate House to the Chamber of Commerce, and the building served as a seasonal tourist information center. Later, during the 1970s, it was home to the Mansfield Art Club and Gallery. Most recently it was the headquarters for Santa’s Gift Bag, a community support organization providing Christmas gifts and health care to those in need.
But for the past decade, the Gate House was mostly empty and dark, fading into the background.
Its darkness stirred the souls of a couple of neighbors who saw beauty in this simple, but somehow elegant building. They contacted representatives from the school district to ask if they could place some candle lights in the windows to brighten the building. They were sure those lights would bring warmth to the neighborhood.
Permission was granted. For the first time in years, the interior of the Gate House was cleaned, the windows were washed, and an American flag and lantern were placed at the entrance. When the lights were lit, the attractive glow suddenly drew the attention of others who could see the potential for the enhancement of the community in preserving the building.
Soon the Save the Gate House committee was formed. Chairperson Brian Barden is a Mansfield native whose ancestral roots go back to Dr. J.M. Barden, a director of the Smythe Park Association when the Gate House was built in 1889.
The first order of business was to discuss the status of the Gate House with the Southern Tioga School District. The timing was fortuitous. The school district had no use for the building and couldn’t justify the expense of providing funding for needed repairs to the roof and foundation. They were considering tearing down the structure, but they were willing to listen to proposals to save the building. But time was short. The increasing deterioration of the foundation and roof was creating a safety issue the district felt obligated to rectify.
“The condition of the building foundation and roof really created a sense of urgency for all concerned,” Brian recalls. “As a group, we had to move very quickly to establish a plan, secure a lease, formulate a budget, and, most importantly, identify and raise money.”
The Save the Gate House committee reacted with urgency, breaking down what seemed like an overwhelming project into pieces that corresponded to members’ areas of expertise.
Over the course of the past eight months, an overall plan was adapted with the help and support of a Mansfield native, construction contractor Matt Neal, who produced a projected budget. The plan now called for not only saving the Gate House, but also replacing the decaying gates of the entrance of Smythe Park and adding a soaring arch spanning the road, identifying historic Smythe Park as the birthplace of night football to residents and visitors.
The school district reached a tentative lease agreement with Mansfield Auxiliary Corporation, which agreed to act as host for the project. The Mansfield Foundation provided guidance for a fundraising strategy and Mansfield area business, Woodhouse —The Timber Frame Company, created and donated project renderings.
The MAC and Mansfield Borough provided initial support, with a Gate House subcommittee implementing a direct-mail postcard campaign and on-site fundraiser. First Citizens Community Bank and Northwest Bank both hosted targeted fundraising presentations. To date, those efforts have successfully raised almost $80,000 of the projected $250,000 project budget.
Early this spring, the roof was replaced. Then the building was lifted off its foundation by Mansfield area contractor Steve Duziba. A new foundation was installed, raising the building by five feet, placing it at street level for enhanced visibility and convenience. By the end of October, the building was lowered back into place and the initial landscaping was completed. The process drew a lot of community attention.
“What has really been rewarding to everyone involved is the remarkable support we have received from area citizens and businesses,” says Brian. “We continue to be amazed that almost everyone seems to immediately see the potential of the project and the impact it can have on creating a point of pride in our community.”
You can find more information on the Save the Gate House project, the history of the Gate House, or how to donate to the project at savethegatehouse.org.