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Goodridge center shows York City's Underground Railroad history

Sean Philip Cotter
505-5437/@SPCotterYD

Inside the stately brick facade of 123 E. Philadelphia St., visitors walk over black-and-white tiles down a dignified entryway and through an ornate dining room with burnt-umber walls, into a room that in some ways hasn't changed since the 1830s.

Architectural designer and volunteer Terrence Downs of North York cleans the transom window over the front door while Crispus Attucks construction manager Toby Orwig works on on electrical outlet at the Goodridge Freedom House Friday, May 12, 2016. Workers are preparing the house and Underground Railroad museum for its grand opening May 21 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Bill Kalina photo

Back then, one could have opened a door under the York City home's back staircase and found what, to the uninitiated eye, would have looked like an ordinary cupboard.

Architectural designer and volunteer Terrence Downs of North York cleans the transom window over the front door of the Goodridge Freedom House Friday, May 12, 2016. Workers are preparing the house and Underground Railroad museum for its grand opening May 21 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Bill Kalina photo

But it wasn't.

If the home's then-owner, William C. Goodridge, was with a visitor, he could have shown them how to take out a false panel to reveal a trapdoor, leading down about 10 steps into a hole in the ground — the only Underground Railroad stop in the state run by a black man.

Down in the space, a few people would have been able to stand up and spread their arms out without touching the rough, sloping reddish rock walls on either side of them, but not with much room to spare.

The building's first floor is in the final stages of a renovation that's turning it into a museum called the Goodridge Freedom Center. It will spotlight the history of the Underground Railroad and Goodridge, a former slave who became an influential and wealthy businessman in the York area.

Renovations are continuing at the Goodridge House Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, The center will open for the first time for a "sneak peek" at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 21. Bill Kalina photo

The center will open for the first time at 1 p.m. Saturday for a "sneak peek" of the finished first floor. Eventually there will be more trappings of a museum: a photo gallery of the Goodridge family, for instance, as well as exhibits about the Underground Railroad in a broader sense.

As one might imagine when considering one of the great clandestine operations in American history, there's no documentation of how many black people fleeing slavery came through that space under the back stairs via the Underground Railroad in the decades before the Civil War. In fact, the hole was lost to memory until the latter part of the 20th century, when someone found the still-standing hidden flight of stairs.

Goodridge Freedom House Museum hopes to open by mid-May

The back stairs on the first floor that once concealed the Underground Railroad stop are long gone — in fact, Terry Downs, a local architectural designer who's part of the project, only surmises their existence from a few architectural clues left.

Now, with the building becoming a museum, there's a glass panel that lets visitors look down into the hole, where the original hidden steps down into the hole and landing still stand.

Carol Kauffman, Community Outreach Director of the Crispus Attucks Association, shows the hidden room used in the Underground Railroad at the Goodridge House Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016. The center will open for the first time for a "sneak peek" at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 21, to celebrate Crispus Attucks 85th anniversary. Bill Kalina photo

"We want to take a look at the different meanings of freedom," said Carol Kauffman of the Crispus Attucks Association as she and others continued working on the building Friday morning.

VIDEO: Goodridge House Update

That back room where one can see the hole also will have projectors playing videos about Goodridge, who was born into slavery before eventually being freed. There will also be books available and exhibits about Goodridge's effects on the York area.

Local volunteers will give tours in character. Downs will do so as David Etters Small, another local businessman from the time, and sometimes Goodridge will make an appearance, played by regional actor Kelly Summerford.

The African-American businessman built a house at that address in the 1830s, a two-story colonial, across the street from what at that time was an orchard. Even though much of the building has been changed and torn down over the years — and the orchard's now a parking lot —  Crispus Attucks was glad to accept it as a gift from York Federal Savings and Loan in 1993.

This was one of several properties Goodridge built; he also at various times owned a barbershop, a variety store, an employment agency, a delivery business and a line of railroad cars. Downs and Kauffman said it appears Goodridge used secret compartments in both the railcars and buildings to help escaped slaves to freedom.

"He was basically the mover and shaker of York in the 1850s," said Downs, the architectural designer, who was also working around the building on Friday.

York City Underground Railroad site receives $40K in state funding

The building also has some history apart from Goodridge. In the 1890s, Reinhardt Dempwolf, one of a family of local architects, bought the building and overhauled it, putting in ornate Grecian-revival-style pillars, molding and other woodwork. The front room on the first floor has the best examples of the architect's work, so it will focus on Dempwolf, who lived there for 40 years.

"You'll see Dempwolf at his zenith," Downs said.

Eventually, the second and third floors of the house also will be renovated; the idea right now is to have the second floor host rotating exhibits focusing further on topics such as the Underground Railroad, general black history and York-area history.

After the May 21 event, the center will be open 4 to 7 p.m. every first Friday of the month and from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every third Saturday. Anyone looking for more information or wishing to organize a tour in the off time should call Kauffman at 848-3610, ext. 230.

— Reach Sean Cotter atscotter@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.