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Architecture detectives on the case

By Violet Law
Sunday, August 14, 2005

Moisture may be the culprit that caused the ornate plaster ceiling in the Great Hall of Hartwood Mansion to come crashing down, a restoration expert said Saturday.

Tom Keffer and other specialists at Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation plan to play architecture sleuths today to determine what caused the collapse. Keffer said yesterday that the high humidity that has prevailed this summer could be a culprit.

“I won’t know that for sure until I get out there,” said Keffer, the preservation group’s construction manager and superintendent of properties maintenance. “I may not know even at first glance.”

The Great Hall, about half the size of a football field, has been buried under several tons of plaster that crashed from the ceiling Thursday afternoon — narrowly missing a tour group that had just passed through.

While it is not unusual to see caved-in ceilings in dilapidated historical homes, Keffer said, “I haven’t seen anything like that in something as diligently maintained” as Hartwood Mansion.

The stately Tudor built in 1929 was purchased by the Allegheny County Parks Department in 1969 and is a popular venue for concerts, theater and weddings. The 629-acre property straddles Hampton and Indiana townships along Saxonburg Boulevard.

All scheduled events inside the mansion have been canceled.

Last spring, Keffer helped reglaze 37 steel-framed casement windows in the cottage section of the mansion and on the first floor. He saw no signs of problems in the Great Hall ceiling, which contained hand-cast motifs of thistles and flowers.

Salvage and restoration work is to begin as soon as possible. Among the items damaged by falling plaster were a chandelier, a 1901 mahogany Steinway grand piano, an Aeolian pipe organ, early Georgian gaming tables and a large Flemish tapestry.

“We’re going to decipher what we can repair and what is beyond repair,” said mansion Manager Sylvia Easler.

Friends of Hartwood, a volunteer group dedicated to rehabilitating the mansion, plans to raise money to help restore the antique furniture and any damage not covered by insurance, said Amber Bierkan, the group’s president.

Restoring the Renaissance-style ceiling to its original grandeur could be time-consuming, Keffer said. He plans to take close-up shots of the debris and collect a small sample of the plaster for analysis.

“Hopefully we can find enough of the medallion pieces to duplicate them,” said Keffer. “I’m almost scared to look.”

For Easler, who has overseen the mansion for 20 years, it might be as if the sky has fallen on her head.

“I just love this house. Everyone here does,” Easler said. “We are kind of consoling each other.”

Violet Law can be reached at or (412) 320-7884

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review © Pittsburgh Tribune Review

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