Croghan-Schenley Ballroom: Pitt’s Forgotten Gem

From Stanton Heights to Oakland, the legacy of the Schenley family lives on. Once part of the “Picnic House”, the lavish 19th century Croghan-Schenley Ballroom can now be seen inside the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.

Location: 4200 Fifth Ave, Pittsburgh,PA 15213

1st Floor, Cathedral of Learning

Phone Number: (412)624-6001

Hours: Summer: Mon-Fri 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Sunday 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

All other seasons: Sat. 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sun. 11:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Access: This room is not open to the public and I would recommend calling ahead to get access to the room.

Price: Adults: $4 Under 18: $2. Under 7: Free

Places to visit nearby: Nationality RoomsPhipp’s ConservatoryConflict Kitchen

Situated within The University of Pittsburgh’s renowned Cathedral of Learning lies a room that is not well-known by most. Although most people who visit The Cathedral of Learning come to see the Nationality Rooms, there is another treasure hidden within. The “Picnic House”, as it came to be called, was built in 1835 in a neighborhood which is now called Stanton Heights. William Croghan Jr., father of Mary Croghan Schenley, called this his home. Unfortunately, in 1945 the mansion was demolished to make room for a housing project. The University of Pittsburgh’s chancellor, John Bowman was given an offer he could not resist, the Ballroom and oval room of the 19th century mansion would be excavated and restored in chancellor Bowman’s very own pride and joy, The Cathedral of Learning. Upon request, visitors can stand in the very room that once belonged to the Pittsburgh famous Schenley family. Inside the room, one can find a beautiful chandelier, a dinner table, and portraits of both William Croghan and Mary Schenley, formerly Mary Croghan. There is also a fireplace within the Ballroom that is said to have led to a secret tunnel at one point in time. Who knows maybe it still does, you will just have to find out for yourself. It has been said that the ghost of Mary Schenley herself haunts this room. The obscureness and scandal behind the room are two of the aspects that make it so intriguing. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the Ballroom is truly a sight to behold. The state of the room has been preserved to appear as it did 180 years ago. If you do decide to visit the room, make sure to familiarize yourself with the Mary Schenley scandal and why her story is so intriguing and mysterious. Knowing the history behind “Picnic House” makes the whole experience that much more surreal.


The Scandalous Legend of Mary Croghan and William Schenley

By Dakota Downing

Throughout the later part of her childhood, Mary Croghan lived with her father, William Croghan Jr., in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately her mother and brother had previously passed away during the time that the family was living in Kentucky (“May-Dec. Romance.”) The family was very wealthy for their time period, having had inherited a lot of money from Mary Croghan’s paternal and maternal grandfathers. Her maternal grandfather, James O’Hara, was one of Pittsburgh’s very first industrialists. As such, he was very well-known around Pittsburgh during his time. He was also Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army. Her paternal grandfather, William Croghan, was a trader and soldier in the Revolutionary War. As a teenager, Mary was sent to an elite boarding school in New York. This is where she met the love of her life, Captain Edward W. Harrington Schenley. The details in every version of this love story change with every re-telling, so it is difficult to decipher what was gossip and what was fact. We do know, however, that Mary did meet an older man while attending boarding school and quickly fell in love. Much to her father’s dismay, the two eloped. Shortly after, they secretly boarded a boat to England, where Schenley’s family resided. This was so scandalous at the time that the occurrence was printed in newspapers and talked about all around Pittsburgh. It was well known that her father was far from pleased. As story travels from person to person, the details change with each account. There are accounts of Mary ranging anywhere from 13-16 years old when they eloped and Captain Schenley being as old as 40-60 years old. It is also known that Captain Schenley had two previous wives before Mary, whom were both deceased (Salisbury 347.)

Figure 1. Portrait of Mary Schenley, located in the Croghan-Schenley Ballroom.

Mary wrote her father frequently, due to the fact that they had been very close and were each other’s only living relatives, however she never got a response in return. Here is an excerpt from one of her letters to her father on September 3rd 1842:

   My dearest Father: I can no longer be patient; Seven months have I been away from home; & have but one letter from my dear father; I have prayed to be contented and say “it is all for the best,” but still no letter; oh pray tell me, why will you not write to me? … Mr. Schenley is still what he has always been – a devoted, kind, affectionate & every thing that is good husband. (qtd. in Salisbury 353.)

There are two different versions of what happened next: In the first version William Croghan desperately misses his beloved daughter, his only living child. He expands his house into an extravagant mansion, hoping to bribe his daughter and her husband to return to Pittsburgh and reside with him. The house came to be known as “Picnic” because William Croghan was said to have thrown a large number of parties there. At the same time, Captain Schenley wrote letters to Mr. Croghan begging for his acceptance of their marriage and forgiveness. Eventually, they do come to visit and amends are made. In some versions of the story Mary and Captain Schenley stay with her father for a year, in other versions 5 years, before returning to England. Unfortunately, soon after their return to England, William Croghan passes away.

Figure 2. Picnic House. William Croghan House (Picnic House), exterior. 1932. Senator John Heinz History Center. MSP0021.B001.F10.I01

In the second version of the story, William Croghan and Mary never make amends. After finding out about their journey to England, Mr. Croghan sent a ship to stop Mary and Captain Schenley, with the order to kill Schenley (McCullough.) He had built an entire mansion to please her, with her very own ballroom, but she never got the chance to dance in it. In this version of the story, Mary is said to still be haunting that very ballroom to this day. People have reported that the chandelier can be seen swinging on its own. Some even say that her ghost resides in the secret passageway behind the fireplace. This ballroom is now located within the Cathedral of Learning.

Figure 3. Inside the Croghan-Schenley Ballroom.
Figure 4. Mantle of the Ballroom fireplace, inside The Cathedral of Learning.

In yet a third version of the story, parts of each of the above stories are said to have occurred. In this version, after Mary and Captain Schenley eloped, William Croghan quickly worked with Governor Porter to ensure that Mary would not be able to access her inheritance, as her father did not want any of it going to Captain Schenley (“Schenley Story.”) At first he had no correspondence with his daughter, but after endless letters from Mary, Captain Schenley, and their acquaintances, he gave in and went to London to visit the couple and his two grandchildren. After returning home, he busily remodeled “Picnic” in hopes it would entice his family to come and live with him. They decided to move to Pittsburgh, however, returned to England a few years later.

Although it is difficult to determine what actually occurred, I think it is even more fascinating how much of a stir Mary Croghan and Captain Schenley caused during that time period. To fully grasp the significance of their elopement, here is an excerpt from N.Y. Express, reprinted in The Pittsburgh Mercury and Democrat February 16, 1842,

A young Miss, in her 13th year, from the West, perhaps the richest heiress in the whole West, whose property, too, was in her own right, recently left this city for Liverpool with a man about sixty. The young lady left by her father at a boarding school near this city, where the gentleman became acquainted with her, and it is believed that a marriage ceremony was performed before they left. The news must be most painful to the parents, who donated upon this, his only child.

If there was really a marriage ceremony in this case, as it is believed, who should be glad to know the name of the clergyman or magistrate who performed it, for such an act should not go unnoted, if, under the sanction of the law, it can go unpunished (2.)

Not only was the elopement reported in the paper, but the opinion of the general public is made very clear in the article.

Edward and Mary Schenley went on to have nine children. In Mary Schenley’s will, she donated much of her land that she had inherited from her grandfather to Pittsburgh, which now includes Schenley park, among many other establishments. This made her “America’s first land philanthropist” (McCullough.) Although nobody knows for certain which version of Mary Schenley’s story is closest to the truth, it is certain that her story and her actions in life made a huge impact on the city of Pittsburgh.

Works Cited

“The Croghan Estate.” The Mercury and Democrat [Pittsburgh, Pa], 25 March 1842, p.3 col. 2.

Love, Gilbert. “Schenley-A Mighty Name: Land Gifts Perpetuated Family’s Memory in Pittsburgh.” The Pittsburgh Press, 22 Feb. 1934, p. 19.

Love, Gilbert. “Schenley-A Mighty Name: May-December Romance Brought Name to Pittsburgh.” The Pittsburgh Press, 21 Feb. 1934, p. 25.

“Mary Schenley, A Benefactress of Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 1911, p. 8.

McCullough, Hax. “Schenley Park & Mary Croghan Schenley.” Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1995.

“A Painful Affair–An Elopement.” The Mercury and Democrat [Pittsburgh, Pa], 16 Feb 1842, p. 2 col. 2.

Salisbury, Ruth. “Pittsburgh’s Great Romance.” Darlington Library at the University of Pittsburgh. October, 1964. p. 343-354.

White, William A. “Captain Schenley.”

White, William A. “Schenley Story.”

William Croghan House (Picnic House), exterior. 1932. Senator John Heinz History Center. MSP0021.B001.F10.I01