The name Schenley has been immortalized all over Pittsburgh, but if Mary Elizabeth Croghan Schenley were alive today, no doubt her name would be in the headlines for every celebrity gossip site. A descendant of one of Pittsburgh’s most illustrious families, Mary Elizabeth Croghan was born in April 27, 1826, in Louisville, Kentucky, to William Croghan, Jr., and Mary O’Hara. Mary O’Hara was the daughter of Colonel James O’Hara, a Pittsburgh pioneer and businessman. During the Revolutionary War, General George Washington appointed him Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army. After the war, O’Hara established the Pittsburgh Glassworks and the Pittsburgh Point Brewery. He invested heavily in ironworks, shipbuilding, sawmills, and salt businesses. In addition, he speculated in land, accumulating massive tracts near Pittsburgh. His name is attributed to streets in Pittsburgh and O’Hara Township, but even his distinguished name would be eclipsed by his granddaughter’s.
Mary Schenley’s parents, Mary O’Hara and William Croghan Jr., had two children, William and Mary Elizabeth. Her mother died in 1827, a few months after her birth, and her brother died the following year. The widowed William Croghan and his daughter, Mary Elizabeth, moved to Pittsburgh where he was admitted to the bar and began to practice law. As her mother’s only living heir, Mary Elizabeth inherited her mother’s vast estate, which included all the land amassed by her maternal grandfather, Colonel James O’Hara, making the young Mary Elizabeth the largest landowner in Allegheny County.
In 1830, William Croghan built a 22-room Greek Revival style mansion in the Stanton Heights area of the city, where he and Mary Elizabeth would live. Like many wealthy families of that time, Croghan sent his daughter to finishing school on Staten Island. While at Mrs. McLeod’s School, Mary Elizabeth met McLeod’s brother-in-law, Capt. Edward W. Schenley, who was 43. Mary Elizabeth, who was only 15 at the time, fell in love with the British officer and eloped with him in 1842. It was Schenley’s third elopement. His previous two wives were deceased and were also from distinguished families. Many considered Schenley a fortune-hunter.
When William Croghan heard of his young daughter’s elopement with a man nearly three times her age, it is reported that he fainted. Theirs was an elopement heard around the world. Croghan demanded that the federal government in Washington, D.C., intercept their ship and that the Pennsylvania General Assembly in Harrisburg intervene. The newly-married couple’s ship was not intercepted as Croghan had hoped, and according to a clipping housed at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the clever Schenley stopped en route to England on an island, which many believe to be Bermuda, to avoid interception.
Ministers and newspapers denounced the elopement. The March 4, 1888 issue of the Pittsburgh Dispatch stated: “When the news of Mary’s elopement reached Pittsburgh, it created a profound sensation in society and other circles. Dr. Upfold denounced the school and the governess that would permit, if not arrange, for elopements, and Mr. Bissell, Mr. Bayard, and other Pittsburghers who had their daughters there were not slow in summoning them home. It resulted in the breaking up of the school…” Mrs. McLeod’s school failed. Croghan was eventually successful in spurring the state legislature to pass a bill, signed by the governor, which placed all of Mary’s inheritance in his hands and, upon his death, in the care of trustees “who are to pay at their discretion for her support.”
This side of the Atlantic wasn’t the only place in an uproar over the elopement. In England, Queen Victoria refused to receive the couple at court.
Alone in his expansive mansion, Croghan’s heart softened over time toward Mary and her husband, and he eventually visited them in England. The Schenleys were living under dire financial circumstances. The merciful Croghan bought a house in London for the couple, as well as arranging an allowance for them. He implored the couple to return to Pittsburgh and live with him in the mansion, which he called the “Picnic House.” He even had a large addition built onto the mansion that replicated their home in London. Ultimately, the Schenleys did come to Pittsburgh, but only for a visit. Mary was asthmatic, and at that time, the air in Pittsburgh was heavily polluted. It was difficult for her to live in the city.
Mary and Capt. Schenley had seven children. Her father died in 1850, not long after their marriage, and it was then that Mary came into her inheritance. It was valued at a staggering $50 million, most of it in real estate. Picnic House was never permanently inhabited again. Elizabeth Koehler remained there until 1912 as its caretaker.
Although Mary visited the home several times, she remained in England. One of her holdings was the slum area at The Point, the condition of which she was heavily criticized. For unknown reasons, or perhaps to salve her conscience, Mary Schenley subsequently donated land for the site of West Penn Hospital, Western Pennsylvania Institute for the Blind, the Newsboys Home, a $10,000 subscription for Riverview Park, and a gift of the Block House at The Point to the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Her largest gift to the area came after the death of Capt. Schenley in 1889. For decades, the city of Pittsburgh had its eyes on Schenley land for a park in Oakland. Edward Manning Bigelow, the “Father of Pittsburgh Parks,” was the first Director of Public Works for the city. He got wind of news that a land developer was heading to London to approach Mary Schenley about making a deal for her land. Bigelow quickly dispatched an attorney, who arrived before the developer, and persuaded Mary to donate her land to the city. She did so with two stipulations: that the land be used for a park that would be named after her, and that the land never be sold.
Schenley donated 300 acres, giving the city the option to buy another 100 acres. She died in 1903 in England. Her New York Times obituary observed, “The death of Mrs. Mary E. Schenley, which occurred at her home in Hyde Park, London, was made known in Pittsburg [sic] to-day. Mrs. Schenley has been Pittsburg’s benefactress for many years…. Mrs. Schenley was the heroine, sixty years ago, of the greatest romance in Pittsburg’s early history… The affair created an immense social sensation at the time, and the house was preserved for many years in precisely the shape that it was in at the date of the elopement.”
To express its gratitude to Schenley, the city memorialized its benefactress with a beautiful fountain in what is now known as Schenley Plaza. The Mary E. Schenley Memorial Fountain, entitled A Song to Nature, was dedicated on September 2, 1908. In 2008, the 100th anniversary of the fountain, the City of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy restored and lit it.
In 1909, the Stanton Heights Golf Club leased the land of the Croghan Estate, sometimes holding events in Picnic House. In 1955, the mansion was torn down by its purchaser and steel company owner, William Miller, but not before Miller could have the mansion’s ballroom and oval foyer dismantled and rebuilt in the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. In 1982, the Croghan-Schenley rooms were completed and remain
a major attraction. There are rumors that the rooms are haunted with the spirit of Mary Schenley residing behind a false fireplace.
Whether Schenley’s spirit resides in the Cathedral of Learning is debatable, but she no doubt left her mark on the city. In addition to Schenley Park, the Schenley Fountain, and the Block House, she is remembered with Schenley High School, Schenley Hotel (now the University of Pittsburgh’s Student Union), Schenley Bridge, Schenley Plaza, Schenley Quadrangle, and the Schenley Tunnel. Time has been kind to Mary E. Schenley. The girl who once scandalized the nation and England became an important philanthropist upon whose gifts a great American city has flourished.