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Hartwood mansion ceiling falls down, 76-year-old home closed indefinitely

By Jerome L. Sherman,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Saturday, August 13, 2005

On Thursday afternoon, Susan Gallant was one of 14 people admiring two rare antique European card tables from the 1800s during a tour at the Hartwood mansion in Indiana Township.

About 20 minutes later, those card tables and dozens of other priceless objects in the mansion’s Great Hall were crushed when two tons of plaster fell from the ceiling in one piece.

“I was terrified,” said Gallant, 46, of Boston, who was on the tour with her father and her 9-year-old daughter. “We were upstairs and we heard this really strange crackling sound.”

No one was injured at the mansion, which is owned and operated by Allegheny County and is located in Hartwood Acres Park.

The 31-room English Tudor is closed indefinitely, but all other facilities at the park are open.

The county parks department won’t be able to start estimating the extent of the damage until Monday, when representatives of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation visit the mansion.

Sylvia Easler, recreation superintendent with the parks department, said county workers need to wait for preservation experts with the landmarks foundation to examine the molded plaster, an original part of the 76-year-old structure, before they remove it.

Yet many antique items likely were destroyed or heavily damaged, including a Steinway piano, a handmade needlepoint sofa, a Flemish tapestry from the 17th century, and a brass chandelier that fell with the ceiling.

“Our goal is to get the building opened again as quickly as possible,” Easler said.

The mansion was built in 1929 for John and Mary Lawrence, whose father, William Flinn, was a powerful state politician and owner of a construction company that completed the Liberty Tunnels in Pittsburgh and the Holland Tunnel in New York.

In 1969, Mary Lawrence sold the mansion, most of its contents, and 400 acres to Allegheny County for a little more than $1 million. It opened to the public in 1976.

The mansion is a popular destination during the winter holiday season, when it gets as many as 400 visitors a week, Easler said.

It’s also known for hosting weddings and the occasional high tea in the Great Hall, the largest room.

Andy Baechle, county parks director, said the hall’s ceiling hadn’t received any restoration or repair work. No one had noticed any problems that needed repair.

“It was a complete surprise to the county,” he said.

When the tour passed through the hall on Thursday, some people saw a bump in the ceiling, Gallant said.

“Our knees were trembling” after the collapse, she said.

“We are counting our blessings that no one was in there,” Easler said.

(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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