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O’Hara log cabin deemed historical landmark

By Tawnya Panizzi
Staff writer
Friday, October 19, 2001

O’HARA: The red metal-sided exterior of Margaret and Andrew Weil’s home belies the historical treasure inside.

Passers-by likely would not guess that the interior of the home along White Gate Road is true to its 1797 log cabin construction, down to the choppy ax marks embedded in the wood.

“We think of this as a great treasure, we always thought so,” said Margaret, who with her husband has lived in the James Powers Homestead since 1958.

The Weils’ 18th century-era cabin might be the oldest, and perhaps the only home of its kind remaining in the Lower Valley.

That has earned it a place in the history books. The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation named the home, and its 14-acre site, as one of 27 significant historical structures chosen in 2001. An Historic Landmark plaque will grace the property in hopes of spreading, or at least, securing its story.

Powers is thought to be the first settler in the Fox Chapel area. He, as were many soldiers after the Revolutionary War, was given a depreciatory land grant after returning from battle. His brother, John, built a log cabin, which has since been demolished, on nearby Field Club.

“So few older buildings exist,” said Cathy McCollom, director of operations and marketing for the Landmarks Foundation. “The fact that it is an authentic log cabin is really special. There are a lot of reproductions. This is the real thing.”

The Historic Landmarks committee reviews as many as 50 nominations each year. The program was founded in 1968 to recognize structures and landscapes throughout Allegheny County as vital pieces of local heritage.

Eligibility hinges on architecture, renovation and age. The Weils’ home was eligible for the honor because the construction imparts a sense of history, few alterations have been made and it is over the required 50-year mark.

“It is very worthy,” said Margaret, who plans to erect the plaque on a granite stone in the front yard. “It means something to the neighborhood, and to the city. Few people know, now it’s written down.”

Although the front road is paved and an oven has replaced the fireplace as a means of cooking, the couple never allowed renovations that would detract from the story behind the home.

Ironically, it was commonplace in colonial days to hide the workmanship and tell-tale signs of a log cabin.

“Ladies then didn’t want log cabins,” Margaret said. “They covered them up with air space and plaster.”

The first home along White Gate Road fell in line with the times. It was covered with a burnt sienna metal siding and no one would guess the detailed work underneath.

The only giveaway is the stone chimney that rises from the original fireplace, which was used to heat the cabin and cook for Powers and his eight siblings. Margaret said the stone rising is similar to homes in historic Williamsburg.

It took little work to restore the interior to its authentic look.

Prior owners ripped down wallpaper and removed plaster, and behind the air pocket, the log cabin stood pristine.

“People come in and stop in their tracks,” Andrew said. “There, they’re standing in a 200-year old log cabin.

“When you think back to that time, there were Indians living here then. Nine children were raised in this 20-by-20-foot room.”

There have been four previous owners of the home, from which you can hear the waters of Powers Run trickling.

In fact, several members of the Powers family have paid visits and reminisced with the Weils about how the cabin was maintained as part of a farm during the World War II-era.

One such visit came last year, after one member of the Powers family, home for a school reunion, knocked on the door.

“He was about 80,” Andrew said. “He talked about being born and raised here, and he was very pleased that we’ve kept it.”

It was the Weils’ intention by nominating it for historical designation to preserve the homestead for future generations.

The Landmarks Foundation has bestowed 400 historical designations throughout the county.

The marking offers no legal protection from those who would want to alter or demolish the structures. What it does is tell the world that the building is significant, McCollom said.

It is a public acknowledgment that would hopefully cause a future owner to think about the changes they make.

“We know there is a risk, but we hope that whoever buys the property will feel as keen about it as we do,” Andrew said.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. © Tribune Review

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