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Canonsburg landmark gets new life

By Lori Humphreys
The Almanac
Serving the South Hills of Pittsburgh
December 5, 2007

If Historical and Architectural House Preservation had a mascot it would be turning cartwheels at the news that Canonsburg’s John Roberts House will be saved from demolition.
Thanks to a band of intrepid Canonsburg residents and business owners, the architecturally and historically important 17th and 18th century stone and brick Georgian style home, nominated to the National Register, will be restored and gain a new identity as an arts education center. It will be owned and managed by the recently formed not for profit corporation the Washington County Cultural Trust (WCCT).

The Roberts House rescue began in December 2006, when Canonsburg resident and WCCT trustee Andrew J. Tarnik purchased the property. Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation bought the property from Tarnik and will hold it for one year while the WCCT raises money to restore the home. Landmarks will retain an easement on the home’s exterior which will preserve its architectural integrity for future generations.

President of the WCCT Board of Trustees Ellen Sims is described by fellow trustee and Secretary – Treasurer Joe Gowern as the ‘glue that holds us together’. She shared the organization’s vision for the house and property.

“The restored Roberts House, a Canonsburg and regional landmark, will be an art center bringing nationally and internationally recognized artists to Canonsburg to teach and exhibit. We organized as the Washington County Cultural Trust so that in future we can help preserve other Washington County landmarks for use by the arts,” she said.

Canonsburg artist James Sulkowski and WCCT trustee looks ahead to the day when the home will attract artists, students and visitors. He helped to develop a business plan for a Center for the Arts.

Mayor Anthony L. Colaizzo and WCCT trustee is excited about the opportunity a restored Roberts House offers.

“This is another milestone making our community attractive for our residents and visitors,” he said.

Other officers and members of the board of trustees are: Vice President Joseph P. Salandra; Canonsburg councilwoman Jean Popp; Joseph Solobay, Marge Dellorso, James P. Liekar, Esq., The Honorable Katherine Emery, Canon – McMillan School District Superintendent Nick Bayat, and Mike Melone.

There is a fortuitous symmetry between the home’s proposed future and past. Though named for John Roberts who owned it from 1808 – 1815 and had a store and post – office there, it is more closely aligned with Jefferson College. It was a residence for Jefferson College presidents, vice -presidents and faculty for over 30 years. The ties to Jefferson College extended to the early 20th century. According to local historian James T. Herron, Jr., Bettie and Natalie Snyder, the daughters of Henry Snyder, Jefferson College professor, resided here.

The home continued as a place for learning. Catherine Munnell Croker, organist at the First Presbyterian Church lived and taught piano lessons there.

The Roberts House is intertwined with Canonsburg’s development, from John Canon, the town’s first developer and namesake to today’s plans for its future. Canon first sold the land in 1796 to Rev. John McMillan, educator and pastor of Chartiers Hill Presbyterian Church. Their names continue into the present combined as the Canon – McMillan School District.

As important as the John Roberts House is historically it is also one of the most significant architectural landmarks in the region. Renowned Pittsburgh architect Charles Morse Stotz records the house in The Architectural Heritage of Early Western Pennsylvania.. His book first published in 1936 and republished in 1966 is the bible of regional homes and buildings of architectural interest built before1860. The House is also featured in the 1975 Washington County History and Landmarks Foundation publication Preserving Our Past.

In photo and drawings Stotz detailed the homes important features like the classic doorway with its half circle fan light, that has not changed materially since the 1936 photo. He also drew interior woodwork including doors, banisters, balustrades and fireplaces. According to Simms the woodwork is intact. However, the living room and dining room fireplaces are missing.

“If anyone knows where they are and would like to donate them we’d love to have them,” she said.

The WCCT is planning its campaign to raise money to repay Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation and fund the restoration. The group has received a $5,000 seed grant from Pennsylvania through the offices of State Senator Barry Stout and State Representative Tim Solobay.

The WCCT application for 501 C3 tax exempt status is pending. The goal is to have each person in the community take part in not only preserving the last symbol of Canonburg’s great educational and cultural heritage but making the Roberts House the newest symbol of the town’s vibrant educational and cultural present. Checks can be made to WCCT/Roberts House, P.O. Box 45, Canonsburg, PA 15317.

Copyright Observer Publishing Co.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633