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Hartwood mansion getting some repairs

Pittsburgh Post GazetteMonday, July 02, 2007
By Ann Belser,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Talk about your fixer-upper.

Last year, when the molded plaster ceiling at the mansion at Hartwood Acres collapsed, the cost of restoring just the ceiling was $189,000. The furnishings and woodwork brought the total for the disaster repair to nearly $300,000.

For instance, repairs to the piano — an unusual art-case Steinway grand piano with eight hand-carved legs and inlaid woodwork — cost $11,000.

Now that the great hall is back together, and the house has been reopened for tours, there’s still a lot to do.

Anyone who owns an old house can sympathize.

The slate roof needs to be replaced, which could cost about $1 million.

And then there are the basic repairs from decades of wear to the furniture and rugs.

Sylvia Easler, recreation superintendent of the Allegheny County Parks Department, has been caring for the mansion for the two decades she has been working for the county.

Like anyone with a home, she can wander from room to room pointing out the work that needs to be done: a silk Chinese handmade rug in the servants’ quarters needs to be rebound; the carpet in Mary Flinn Lawrence’s room is wearing down, and a former servants’ room, which is now used for storage, needs to have the plaster repaired after the room is fixed.

Much of the deterioration of the furnishings, the home’s records and fabrics can be slowed by installing a climate control system. The home does not have air conditioning, but the county is trying to obtain a grant for the project.

In the stable, the woven-wheat mats in front of each of the stalls have deteriorated and Mrs. Easler has not found anyone who knows how to duplicate the way the Lawrences had them woven so the heads of the wheat were included in the weaving.

The good news last week was when Jim Dugan, a seasonal worker at the park, showed her that the toilet in the stable had been replaced and was working.

Mr. Dugan is spending a portion of the summer cleaning and oiling the wood in the stable.

“They kept the barn neater than the house. This was a showplace,” he said.

One of the most historically interesting projects on the home’s horizon is restoration of the 1908 Aeolian house organ.

Jim Stark, the treasurer of the national Organ Historical Society, said his organization is planning its annual convention in Pittsburgh in 2010 and one aspect of that convention may be to restore the mansion’s organ.

The organ was given to Mrs. Lawrence before the mansion was built in 1929, a gift from her father, state Sen. William Flinn, when she was living at home with him in Highland Park.

Mr. Stark said the organ has had some repairs over the years, but the leather, which was used for the bellows and to open and close the valves on the pipes, has dried and cracked so it no longer functions. “That has to all be redone.”

Mrs. Easler said the estimate to have the organ professionally restored 15 years ago was $115,000. Mr. Stark said the society can do it for about $45,000, which is the cost of parts.

Mr. Stark said while the organs at the Carnegie Libraries in both Braddock and Homestead also need to be restored, the organ at Hartwood is a better job for his group.

“The house organ at Hartwood is small enough that it is something we can take on.”

The organ, he said, was “rich folks’ home entertainment” in the early decades of the 20th century.

The organ at Hartwood is especially interesting because it is the only house instrument by the Aeolian company to have survived in Western Pennsylvania and because it is a player organ for which the rolls are still at the mansion.

Mr. Stark said the plan is to restore the organ, which is in the basement (the sound comes up through panels in the living room wall that open when it is played), and install a parallel electronic system that can play the organ through a computer.

“I’m so excited and they’re so excited,” Mrs. Easler said.

(Ann Belser can be reached at or 412-263-1699. )

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