Sehner-Ellicott-von Hess House: Home to the surveyor who helped define America

Gotlieb Sehner

Gottlieb Sehner built this 2.5 story Georgian townhouse between 1787 and 1789, serving as his private home. Sehner was a master carpenter and second-generation Lancasterian. In fact, the Sehner family helped to build Lancaster’s Masonic Hall in 1795 and Fulton Opera House in 1852.

The residence possesses excellent examples of Georgian architectural features including keystones over the windows, triangular pediment over the door, a belt line, and a water table designed to deflect water away from the foundation.

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Click here to purchase a copy of this print.

Sehner lived at 123 N. Prince Street with his wife Sabina, his widowed mother, an unmarried brother, and, depending on their birth and death dates, between four and six children. When Sehner died in 1799, he had outstanding debts. To make ends meet, Sabina rented out the home to Major Andrew Ellicott.

Andrew Ellicott

Ellicott would go on to become the building’s most famous resident. He rented the property from 1801 to 1813 after he was appointed Secretary of the State Land Office by Pennsylvania’s first governor, Thomas Mifflin. At the time, Lancaster was the state capital.

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Ellicott was a busy man. Period.

He completed the plans for the nation’s capital at Washington D.C. after Pierre Charles L’Enfant gave up. Ellicott spent four years surveying Florida for the United States government. For Pennsylvania, he mapped the Commonwealth’s northern boundary with New York State, which was a difficult task through rugged country. Ellicott was responsible for laying out the Pennsylvanian cities of Erie, Meadville, and Franklin. He also completed the surveys for the Mason Dixon Line and a portion of the Canada–United States border.

Lewis & Clark

On July 4, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase. This $15 million land deal added an additional 828,000 square miles to the United States. The next step was to survey the mostly unknown territory.

Ellicott, then too old to undertake the proposed wilderness expedition, agreed to instruct a young Army captain by the name of Meriwether Lewis with the necessary skills. Over Ellicott’s lifetime, he had both devised and adapted from conventional equipment specialized survey instruments.

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Meriwether Lewis

Lewis spent several weeks at 123 North Prince Street as a guest of Ellicot to complete his training.

Sounds a bit like Luke visiting Yoda on Dagobah.

In 1812 the United States started a military academy at West Point. Despite being almost 60 at the time, Ellicott was asked to serve as the Commandant of the West Point Military Academy. He also taught mathematics at the new school. Ellicott served in these roles until his death in 1820 at the age of 65. Ellicott is buried on Academy grounds.

Louise Steinman von Hess Foundation

Several times in the past different groups have wanted to tear down the Ellicott House. In 1962, urban renewal plans called for the building to be demolished to make room for the adjacent Prince Street parking garage. A local citizens group, which would inspire the formation of the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, was formed to oppose the demolition.

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Main staircase to the second floor inside the Sehner-Ellicott-von Hess House.

The home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. A year later, it was purchased from the city by the Trust. It was then purchased again in 1977 by the Louise Steinman von Hess Foundation. A restoration effort was made to make both inside and out look as it did when Gottleib Sehner built it in the late 1700s. The doors, woodwork, window frames, fireplaces, and cupboards were all restored.

In 1996, the property was donated back to the Trust. Today the building is called the Sehner-Ellicott-von Hess House.

The Sehner-Ellicott von Hess House
The Sehner-Ellicott von Hess House

Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County

Since 1962, the Trust has used the building for its offices. In the past, the upper floors of the building have sheltered The Otters Lodge social club, Lancaster County Bicentennial Commission, Historic Lancaster Walking Tour, and Senator Lloyd Smucker’s District Office.

The Trust uses a variety of methods to encourage and facilitate preservation throughout Lancaster County that goes beyond merely keeping important buildings from being torn down. You should consider following the Trust on Facebook or visit their blog for the latest information.

If you are on Prince Street, take a moment to peak inside their side yard garden. It’s a beautiful spot with several interesting, nearly hidden architectural pieces.

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Planning Your Visit

Both the home and the gardens are open to visitors by appointment. You can find the Sehner-Ellicott-von Hess House at 123 North Prince Street, Lancaster.

Gallery

Sehner-Ellicott House Blueprints 

Resources

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Sehner-Ellicott-von Hess House: Home to the surveyor who helped define America

    1. Yes, tours are available during special events and sometimes on First Fridays. COVID has put a temporary halt on that though.

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