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Ceiling collapse a puzzler of plaster at Hartwood mansion

By Jerome L. Sherman,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Allegheny County officials still don’t know how 2 tons of Renaissance-style molded plaster peeled away from the ceiling of the Great Hall at the Hartwood mansion in Indiana Township last week and came crashing down on dozens of valuable antiques.

“We have no clue at all how this happened,” said Sylvia Easler, recreation superintendent with the county Parks Department, as she stood under a gothic archway next to the hall yesterday afternoon and watched laborers use a power saw to slice the plaster into small pieces.

No one was injured when the ceiling fell Thursday. A tour group had passed through the hall 20 minutes earlier.

Yesterday, an insurance agent and a preservationist from the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation visited the 76-year-old mansion in Allegheny County’s Hartwood Acres Park.

Tom Keffer, the foundation’s construction manager and superintendent of properties maintenance, said he initially suspected that water damage might have caused the collapse, but he didn’t find any moisture concentration when he examined the ceiling’s remains. He said the building is well maintained.

The 31-room mansion, built in 1929 in the Tudor style of Elizabethan England, was the home of John and Mary Lawrence, whose father, William Flinn, was a powerful state senator.

Mary Lawrence sold the mansion and her 400 acres of property to Allegheny County in 1969 for a little more than $1 million. The county expanded the park to 629 acres and opened the mansion to the public in 1976.

Lawrence’s son, John, who grew up in the mansion and now lives in Grove City, Mercer County, said he would contact some private donors to help raise money for the building’s restoration.

“I feel sick about it,” he said. “The county shouldn’t have to foot the entire bill. This isn’t the end of Hartwood, believe me. We will recover.”

County officials said it was too soon to estimate the cost of the damage, but it likely is extensive.

Some damaged items included two rare Georgian folding walnut game tables, a Flemish tapestry from the 1600s, a Steinway grand piano made in 1901, and an Aeolian pipe organ.

The 400-year-old oak wood paneling that lines the walls is relatively unscathed, as is a large Bijar Persian rug.

Keffer took digital photographs of the ceiling’s elaborate molds of fruits, flowers, oak leaves and other nature scenes and will help the county find ways of reproducing the original patterns.

Tom Donatelli, county public works director, said he will research construction techniques from the 1920s to try to determine why the metal support structures in the ceiling failed. The rest of the house is in good shape, he said.

He hopes to have enough of the repair work completed by the holiday season to allow Hartwood to hold its annual Celebration of Lights festival.

(Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at or 412-263-1183.)

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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