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Neville house, Old Economy give a glimpse of Christmas past

By Gretchen McKay
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Saturday, November 23, 2002

With Christmas just weeks away, Woodville, the Virginia plantation-style home that John Neville built in Collier in the late 1700s, stands decorated, ready to receive guests.

Pine branches intertwined with bits of holly and dried flowers wind their way up the staircase in the entry hall. The mantel in the formal dining room is hidden beneath a colorful assortment of fresh fruit, pine cones and branches and bumpy, softball-sized monkey balls, also known as Osage oranges.

There are, however, no brightly wrapped gifts on the Federal-style tables or fragrant balsam wreaths dressing the doors. Conspicuously absent is the most prominent symbol of Christmas in modern American society, a gaily decorated evergreen tree.

That’s because the property, whose annual holiday tour runs today and tomorrow, accurately depicts the way Christmas would have been celebrated in the 1700s. Any holiday decorating in Neville’s time — if people decorated at all — would have been understated and would have consisted of whatever natural materials looked most attractive at this bleak time of year — evergreens, berries, popcorn and forced blossoms.

“People are always surprised it’s so simple,” says Nancy Bishop, president of Neville House Associates, a volunteer group that helps maintain the property as a historic house museum.

At Old Economy Village in Ambridge, a German religious and communal society built in 1824 by the Harmonists, site director Mary Ann Landis is faced with the same challenge: How to faithfully re-create everyday life in the early 19th century when the public expects red-cheeked Santas and woolen stockings hanging over the fireplaces?

Old Economy, the third (and final) home for the Harmony Society, also celebrates the season with special events, including a “Christmas With Belsnickel,” the German Santa Claus, on Friday and “Christmas at the Village” Dec. 7 and 8.

Like the folks at Woodville, the costumed docents aim to do it as accurately as possible. But while the Harmonists acknowledged Christmas, they celebrated it as a religious holiday, and as such, “there wasn’t a whole lot of decorating,” says Landis.

Letters and diaries, in fact, show that Dec. 25 was no different than any other winter day in this tiny Beaver County community. Members still butchered steers, shod horses and cobbled shoes, though church services and perhaps a musical concert in the Great Hall would have taken precedence.

That said, both historic sites are worth a visit if you’ve ever wondered about early American life or simply appreciate the beauty and unassuming elegance of 18th- and 19th-century furnishings and architecture.

Built between 1775 and 1786, Woodville (or Neville House, as it is also known) is the only surviving 18th-century house and garden in Allegheny County and a National Historic Landmark. The two-story yellow clapboard house originally sat on 400 acres; today, the farm — which remained in the Neville family through marriage until 1973 — comprises less than two acres.

When Gen. Neville, a Revolutionary War hero, built the house, it had just four rooms and a kitchen. Son Presley, who moved into the house when his father relocated to nearby Bower Hill, added two more bedrooms in the rear to accommodate his 14 children. (The father moved back in with his son after Bower Hill was burned by angry farmers during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. As a revenue collector for southwestern Pennsylvania, the elder Neville was charged with collecting the hated federal tax on whiskey.)

The latticed verandah and Gothic windows in the second-floor dormers were added sometime in the 1800s.

In near ruins when the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation bought it in 1976, the house has been completely restored to its original grandeur and is furnished with period antiques.

The focal point of the green dining room is an elegant cherry table dating from the early 1800s. What appears to be one large piece of furniture is actually two American Federal drop leaf tables pushed together. A silhouette of Gen. Neville — his only known portrait — hangs above the mantel. The anglonaise reverse-painted Federal mirror to the left of the fireplace once graced the Shaw house in Glenshaw. Made in 1800, it features 12 gilded wooden balls.

The Federal tall case clock in the hallway was crafted by Thomas Perkins of Pittsburgh in 1806 with inlaid cherry and mahogany veneer. Just as interesting are the century-old signatures and brief messages scratched by guests into the window panes overlooking Route 50, which during Neville’s time was known as Catfish Trail.

Old Economy, which contains 17 restored historic structures and garden built between 1824 and 1830, is similarly furnished with period antiques, many of which were crafted on site. Having emigrated from Wurttemberg, Germany, the Harmonists were familiar with Christmas trees, and as such, several of the rooms on the holiday tour boast small table-top trees strung with popcorn, cranberries, dried apple and scherrenschnitte — decorations cut from paper. There are also a few Moravian “pyramid” trees wrapped with greens.

In the George Rapp House dining room, red and green streamers tied to a small gold hunting horn hang over a table set with blue-and-white Clews china depicting the landing of Lafayette. A silver-plated epergne in the middle would have held the evening meal of sweet meats, fruit and beef or chicken. Outside in the hall, a three-dimensional Moravian star crafted from paper dangles from the ceiling.

The Reception Room is set up for a holiday concert with 1820 gesangbuchs, or hymnals, laid on the hand-painted wooden benches; a table against the wall holds treats of pretzels, rolls and fruit. There will also be live Harmonist music in the Trustees’ Room, where Bass Otis’ copy of “Christ Healing the Sick” (originally painted by Benjamin West) hangs above two Nunns & Clark square pianos.

WOODVILLE’S “HOLIDAYS AT THE HOUSE” runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and noon to 4 p.m. tomorrow at 1375 Washington Pike, Collier. Cost is $5 per person or $10 per family. Information: 412-221-0348 or

Gretchen McKay covers homes and real estate for the Post-Gazette.

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

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