The Unexpected Life and Places of Philanthropist Sarah B. Cochran
When people think about historic buildings in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, perhaps Fort Necessity and Fallingwater are the first structures that spring to mind. But not far away are two buildings from the era when western Pennsylvania’s coal and its lucrative byproduct, coke, contributed a great deal to American industry.
Linden Hall at St. James Park and the Philip G. Cochran Memorial United Methodist Church are two buildings built by businesswoman and philanthropist Sarah B. Cochran. While these two places are on the National Register of Historic Places for architecture, their intersection with Cochran’s story reveals how extraordinary she was, not only as a woman working in a non-traditional industry, but as someone who took her grief and built a legacy all her own.
Becoming a Business Leader and Philanthropist in a Man’s World
In the early 20th century, a woman’s place was thought to be in the home, and business and politics were considered a man’s world. Pennsylvania even barred women and girls from working in or around coal mines at the time, and some miners believed it was unlucky if a woman crossed their paths as they approached a mine.
When Cochran’s husband and only child died in 1899 and 1901, respectively, her husband’s will gave her “full charge, care, and control” of his coal and coke interests in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee. Around that time, just one of her various mining companies employed over 1,100 people. Despite the era’s sensibilities, Cochran’s grief, and her lack of formal education and training, she took her unique role in the industry very seriously.
From her forties through her seventies, Cochran continued to transact business in coal mining and coke manufacturing and was even credited with founding a bank. Nevertheless, the U.S. Census sometimes recorded her occupation as a blank space or “None,” and Cochran’s gender meant that she had to fight with her own directors or explain her presence at an all-male business event.
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Undeterred, Cochran became a philanthropist who empowered others by investing more than $2 million (in 1936 dollars) in causes and organizations that mattered to her. She also quietly financed local people’s college educations and became a trustee of American University and Beaver College (now Arcadia University), and the first female trustee of Allegheny College. She endowed two academic chairs at Beaver College and Bethany College, and built two men’s and women’s dormitories at Allegheny College and Otterbein University. Because her son had pledged Phi Kappa Psi, she was a lifelong benefactor of the fraternity, a “mom” to its West Virginia Alpha Chapter, and a namesake of the Alpha Chapter house.
Supporting Women’s Suffrage
As Cochran’s business grew threefold and her wealth increased, she never left her community in southwestern Pennsylvania. In 1913 construction completed for her $2 million home, Linden Hall. The Tudor-style mansion, designed by Joseph Kuntz, is nestled into more than 600 acres of land in Fayette County’s mountains.
Its grand staircase once featured a magnificent window (that was later sold) created by Tiffany lead designer Agnes Northrop, which depicted the estate’s flower garden in full bloom. With more than thirty rooms and a private train station, the mansion served as a vehicle for engaging with the world and the causes Cochran supported.
For example, in 1915 Pennsylvania was having a referendum on woman suffrage, and fundraisers popped up across the state to influence male voters. That July, Cochran opened Linden Hall to the public to host a major suffrage rally benefiting the local suffrage organization. Ahead of the event, Linden Hall’s rooms and grounds were the subject of newspaper articles describing what a visitor would see at the rally.
Whether drawn by their curiosity about the mansion or suffrage, 500+ people reportedly attended. Before they heard Anna Howard Shaw—a leader in the suffrage movement in the United States—speak, they saw the meeting called to order with a potato masher as a gavel, a visual reassurance for those who believed that enfranchised women couldn’t be domestic.
If there had ever been a line between a woman’s realm in the home and the outside world of politics, the suffrage rally at Linden Hall blurred or removed it. In this case, a home, which could have been as confining as 19th-century ideas about femininity, helped draw people to a political cause.
A Meeting of Methodists
Less than a year later, Cochran used Linden Hall for another cause close to her. A devoted Methodist, she hosted the Methodist bishops of the world for their April 1916 semi-annual meeting. This was reportedly the first time this meeting was held in a private home. During their ten days at Linden Hall, the bishops had the use of the mansion and grounds, preached at western Pennsylvania’s churches, and met local people. A newspaper even reported that entrepreneur H.J. Heinz visited for lunch with the bishops.
At the meeting’s end, Cochran hosted a grand reception where she stood in a receiving line with the bishops. Her role as hostess undoubtedly placed her there but being the only woman in that line might have been a powerful optic at a time when women’s roles were in the process of changing.
A few miles away in the town of Dawson, Cochran had replaced the wooden Methodist church with a brick church that memorialized her husband in 1900. In 1927, she replaced that structure with a larger, Gothic-style church designed by Thomas Pringle.
The Philip G. Cochran Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church, with a 105-foot steeple, colorful stained-glass windows by Henry Hunt, and a Tiffany window from the previous structure, was hardly subtle in a railroad town. And if the church exterior was one surprise, the interior presented another: a large-scale copy of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna.
These buildings remain beautiful parts of Cochran’s legacy in the built environment, but they are more than tangible reminders of one woman’s connection to a place and larger historical movements. They tell the story of a person who engaged with the world and empowered others when she could have been limited by her own comfort or others’ expectations.
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