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Log cabin beneath dilapidated home gives new owner a window into past

Thursday, July 19, 2007

By Mary Niederberger, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Jeff Heinichen bought an old, run-down house on Greenock-Buena Vista Road in Elizabeth Township at the end of last year, he planned to tear it down and build a new home on the corner lot.

The old home was a neighborhood eyesore, with chipped paint, a crumbling roof, twisted gutters and high grass.

As he prepared for the demolition, he noticed the depth of the door frames and the window ledges and suspected there were other layers underneath. So he called the previous owner to see if he knew anything about the history of the home.

“He said it’s a log house underneath,” said Mr. Heinichen, who lives in Elizabeth Township and owns several rental properties there.

So instead of bulldozing the house, he took it apart bit-by-bit, tearing off the three additions that had been built over the years and peeling away two layers of siding — first aluminum and then wood — and finally uncovering a log cabin.

Most of the neighbors were shocked.

“It’s been attracting a lot of attention. When I’m here working, sometimes it’s hard to get anything done because people keep walking up and saying ‘I didn’t know there was a log cabin under there,’ ” Mr. Heinichen said.

Now he’s trying to put together bits and pieces of the home’s history. One neighbor told him that she had researched the property’s history because she had considered purchasing it and found that Allegheny County records show the home dates back as far as the 1790s.

Thomas Keffer, property and construction manager for the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, said it’s likely the property is that old, given it’s construction and architecture.

“The way the logs were cut and laid and the chinking materials, those are two pretty good indications of the time frame,” Mr. Keffer said. Chinking is the adhesive filling material between the logs that was generally made of clay and mud and whatever other materials the builders thought would help to bind.

Two of the popular items to put in chinking were animal hair and straw, Mr. Keffer said. The chinking between the logs in Mr. Heinechin’s home is full of small hairs he believes are horse hair.

Mr. Keffer said the log house is similar in size and structure for cabins of the late 1700s and that it is one of only about a dozen still standing in the area. Others include the Oliver Miller Homestead in South Park, the Neville house in Collier and the Walker-Ewing House in Collier, he said.

Ron Morgenstern, a former executive director of the Elizabeth Township Historical Society, said the society’s records indicate the cabin was built somewhere between 1790 and 1820 and was originally part of a large farm owned by brothers Andrew and David Kelly.

He said the log cabin survived a tornado in June 1944 that destroyed other nearby structures.

Mr. Morgenstern said he was surprised and happy when the log house was discovered.

“I’m 80 years old and in my lifetime we never knew there were logs underneath the siding,” he said. “It’s quite a find.”

Three additions had been added to the home. One was a large room at the rear that appeared to be used partially as a garage at one point. Another was a front porch that was closed in and the third one was a side porch that had a coal cellar built underneath. The home still has a coal furnace in its basement.

Now that Mr. Heinichen has revealed the true exterior of the home, he’s anxious to get to work inside and tear down the walls to see what’s hidden there. He’s certain there’s a large fireplace since there is a wide brick chimney and a large section of bricks making up part of the rear wall of the home.

Inside, there are walls built around the area where it appears two fireplaces once existed.

The inside also has wallpaper and linoleum floors and ceiling fans, all modern products that were added over the years.

In the basement, large, exposed logs run across the low ceiling and its seems odd to see them next to a fuse box. Another oddity in the basement is a rail from a railroad track that appears to be used as a support beam in the ceiling.

Mr. Keffer said that rail was added later, probably for extra support. “Back in those times, people were pretty thrifty and would utilize anything they could,” he said.

Mr. Heinichen said he plans to restore the home to its original condition on the outside, but modernize it on the inside and he hopes to rent it out.

He’s said he’s had offers from others who want to buy it, but his kids, Matthew, 7, Jeffrey, 10, and Nicole, 11, “want Daddy to keep it.”

He has talked with officials from the Pittsburgh History and Landmark Foundation about the requirements for getting an historic landmark plaque, but he said it’s not necessarily his goal.

Right now, he’s just interested in uncovering more of the history of the home as he takes apart the inside.

Mr. Heinichen said he wished that the walls of the home could talk.

“I bet they’d have a lot to say.”

Mary Niederberger can be reached at or 412-851-1512.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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