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Future of historical buildings precarious

By Craig Smith
Monday, December 24, 2007

The stone house built two centuries ago by John Woods played host to the movers and shakers of its day but stands silent, its windows and doors boarded shut.
Composer Stephen Foster was a frequent visitor to the two-story home in Hazelwood, often entertaining the Woods family and their guests by playing guitar or piano.

“They would be the local leaders of the day — judges, mayors, town leaders. The social register of that period,” said Deane Root, a University of Pittsburgh professor and director of the Center for American Music.

“They would read poetry or sing,” Root said. Foster loved to hear Woods’ daughters sing the songs of the day.

As Pittsburgh readies to celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2008, Root is thankful the vacant Woods house is standing because it is one of the oldest, tangible connections to the origins of the city.
“Why don’t we appreciate that? What’s wrong? Why do we always have to live life as if we were the first ones here?” Root said.

The home, built in 1792, is among 589 sites in Southwestern Pennsylvania that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and one of three surviving 18th century structures in Pittsburgh.

Some of the buildings have been lovingly restored; others never will be. One building — the oldest structure designed by an architect in Pittsburgh — is for sale.

“Competition for restoration dollars is very keen,” said Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which did work to stabilize the Woods house in 2003 in conjunction with the Hazelwood Initiative.

Those looking to buy and renovate a historic structure won’t get any help from the state or federal government, said Bill Callahan, community preservation coordinator at the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission’s Bureau for Historic Preservation.

“There are no monies available for owner/occupied structures for preservation purposes,” he said. “I get phone calls every day about that. I wish I could give them a different answer.”

That leaves communities, local history groups or private citizens scrambling to preserve the buildings.

“We’ve got these gems in the community. It’s interesting what they could be,” said Jim Richter, director of the Hazelwood Initiative.

But the price of restoration is high.

The cost of a historical preservation of the Woods home has been estimated at $600,000. Just to make it liveable would cost $200,000, Richter said. A century-old Carnegie library down the street needs $900,000 in repairs.

Woods, the first surveyor of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, was a state senator in 1797 and elected to the 14th Congress in 1815. He died in 1817 at age 55.

The Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh in 2005 included the Woods home among its top 10 historical renovation opportunities.

“It’s a very important house. It needs a sponsor, a chief advocate,” said Dan Holland, who founded the association.

In Westmoreland County, Don and Cordelia Miller of Irwin bought Brush Hill, one of the first “mansion-style” homes constructed west of the Appalachians, 30 years ago and have been carefully restoring it since.

“You have to love it. I basically work on it full time,” Don Miller said about the home that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Brush Hill was built by Col. John Irwin, the town’s namesake, and was the largest of Irwin’s three plantations. Work on the Federal-style, two-story fieldstone home began in 1792, Miller said.

Materials used in its construction came from the area, he said.

“The stone was quarried here, the nails were handmade,” Miller said.

Living in a house this old isn’t for everyone, said Miller, a retired engineer. Homes of the era didn’t come with bathrooms so finding space to include such modern amenities must be included in the planning, he said.

There are other aspects peculiar to the times.

“Every window was a different size,” Cordelia Miller said.

The Millers have demolished a later addition to the house, renovated the kitchen and removed six inches of carpet, concrete and other flooring to reach the original wood floors. Future projects include replacing a slate roof that was added in the 1800s.

Rich heritage
Southwestern Pennsylvania’s rich heritage is reflected in the number of sites registered as national historic places.

Allegheny County — 207

Armstrong County — 18

Beaver County — 20

Butler County — 10

Fayette County — 72

Greene County — 46

Indiana County — 27

Somerset County — 32

Washington County — 104

Westmoreland County — 53

Source: The Pennsylvania History and Museum Commission

Testaments to the past

The region’s oldest buildings include:

• The Fort Pitt Blockhouse, built in 1764. It’s Pittsburgh’s earliest building and the oldest authenticated structure west of the Allegheny Mountains. The five-sided, two-story building constructed by Col. Henry Bouquet is in Point State Park and administered by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

• The Neill Log House was built about 1787 in Schenley Park. The Neills, who owned 262 acres in the northern section of the park, moved in 1795 to what is now Market Square. After their deaths, the log house and property were handed down to different people before being sold to Col. James O’Hara and his granddaughter Mary Schenley, who gave the property to the city in 1889. The Neill house received a City of Pittsburgh historic designation on Feb. 22, 1977.

• The Burke Building, 209 Fourth St., is the oldest building in Pittsburgh designed by an architect. The Greek revival-style, 3-story structure was built in 1836. The building was designed by William Chislett for Robert and Andrew Burke, attorneys active in land development in Pittsburgh. It has been the home of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy for 10 years. The sale of the building is under negotiation.

• Nemacolin Castle was built in Brownsville by stages between 1789 and 1900 by several generations of the Jacob Bowman family. The 22-room castle features a three-story octagonal tower and a squared third-story tower room. Jacob Bowman operated a trading post at the site and was named commissary to government troops during the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1795, he was commissioned justice of the peace and was named Brownsville’s first postmaster by President Washington. The castle, owned by the county and maintained by the Brownsville Historical Society, is a museum.

• The David Bradford House was built in Washington in 1788. Bradford was one of the leading lawyers and politicians of the area, serving as deputy attorney general for Washington County and as a delegate to the Whiskey Rebellion conferences in 1791 and 1792. The home is owned by the state and is a museum.

Craig Smith can be reached at or 412-380-5646.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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