I always love checking out local historical society museums when I travel through Pennsylvania, and I’ve visited many of the county historical society museums in PA during my travels. And while I always find them to showcase pieces of history that have interest beyond the local area, I don’t know that I’ve visited any that wowed me as much as the Hagen History Center in Erie, PA.
That’s because, in addition to three buildings of items related to the history of northwestern Pennsylvania, there are also some incredible items that would be of interest to anyone that loves history, including items related to Frank Lloyd Wright, Admiral Oliver Hazzard Perry, and General “Mad” Anthony Wayne.
The Hagen History Center is located in downtown Erie and occupies three buildings in an area once known as Millionaires Row. Two of these buildings are historic homes, while the third is a modern structure that’s attached to a historic carriage house.
Visits to the museum start in the carriage house, which serves as the museum’s gift shop and ticket counter. This is a great spot to pick up Erie-themed items and locally-made art if you’re looking for a souvenir or gift.
Attached to the carriage house is the museum’s New Exhibit Building. While the entire museum is worth visiting, if you only have time to check out one of the three structures on the property, this is the one you won’t want to miss.
Even before you get to the main display area, you’ll encounter some of the museum’s most prized possessions: the scope and sword used by Commodore Oliver Hazzard Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.
While the story of this battle isn’t well-known today, it was one of the most decisive battles of the war and is still a big deal in Erie. In fact, one of the focal points of the Erie Maritime Museum is a recreation of the Flagship Niagara. Interestingly, this recreation is also the Official State Flagship of Pennsylvania.
Just beyond this display, you’ll come to a large room full of displays related primarily to Erie’s architectural design. I found it very interesting to learn about the history of some of northwestern PA’s most historic homes and buildings.
This room also has information about the life and career of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. While Wright didn’t design any buildings in Erie, he did design some in nearby places like Buffalo and the Laurel Highlands.
One of the focal points of this room is a bridge design that Wright made in 1949 to cross the San Fransisco Bay. This design, known as the “Butterfly Bridge” was never built, though, rather interestingly, this model appeared in the film “Die Hard”.
While Erie has no specific connection to Frank Lloyd Wright, the museum itself is home to an item related to Wright: his San Fransisco office.
That’s right, from 1951 until his death in 1959, Wright used this office to design his work, and it was in use by his partner until 1988. And, after being closed to the public for many years, and then sitting on display at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh for several years, the office was moved to this newly-constructed wing of the Hagen History Center.
Walking through this office is a fascinating experience, and, having visited several of Wright’s designs in PA (such as Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob), this office definitely feels very similar to his other works.
Honestly, visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s office is worth the cost of admission on its own, and many visitors come specifically to see that. However, the rest of the museum is full of fabulous displays that are worth checking out as well.
The upstairs portion of the New Exhibit Building just opened to the public in 2022 and is home to a display called “The Story of Us”.
This exhibit highlights the people that have settled in the Erie area, starting with the Native American tribes that lived here, the first European settlers, and all the way up to the many refugees and other immigrants that are settling in Erie in the 21st century.
Through artifacts, photos, and videos, this exhibit really does an excellent job covering Erie’s history and industries through the people that came here from faraway lands, and even being a visitor to this part of the state, I found the information displayed here to be quite interesting.
Outside of the New Exhibit Building, there are two historic homes that also feature some excellent displays.
The smaller of the two is the Wood-Morrison House, which is a beautiful Italianate home built in the 1850s. Many of the items on display here relate to the military history of that area including pieces of wood taken from the original Flagship Niagara, the sword of Erie Native General Strong Vincent (who died on Little Roundtop during the Battle of Gettysburg), and other items related to the thousands of other soldiers from Erie through the years.
The most interesting display in this part of the Hagen History Center, however, is related to General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Wayne was a Revolutionary War general who died in Erie in 1796. I’ll spare you here with what these items are, but suffice it to say, they are quite interesting to see.
The third building on the property is the Watson-Curtze Mansion. Up until recent years, all of the museum’s displays were in this beautiful 1890s home.
The first floor of his mansion is set up much as it would have looked in the late 19th century, which gives a fascinating peek into what life was like for the wealthy during this period of Erie’s history.
The upper floors (which I should note are not handicapped-accessible) contain the types of displays that you typically see at other historic society museums in Pennsylvania. These include items related to fashion, outdoor recreation, the region’s Jewish heritage, and more topics related to how life was lived in Erie County.
The third floor of the home contains more displays, as well as a large ballroom that still has an incredible organ in a loft above the main space.
The displays in this home are all very well done and offer a great look into what life was like in Erie. Plus, the home’s architecture is stunning to look at and has been well-preserved throughout the space.
Overall, as I said above, the Hagen History Center is one of the best historical society museums in the state and definitely a hidden gem that’s worth seeking out if you are looking for things to do in Erie, PA.
Whether you come just to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s office or are more interested in the local history of the region, this is really a fantastic museum to explore.
Looking for even more things to do nearby? Check out the Erie Art Museum, Presque Isle State Park, and the Lakeshore Railway Museum.
Hagen History Center
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday: 10a-5p
Cost: Adults: $10, Children: $7.50
Address: 356 W 6th St