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Restoration completed on Great Hall at Hartwood

By Jerome L. Sherman,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thursday, May 04, 2006

Last summer, several tons of molded plaster fell from the ceiling of the Great Hall at Hartwood mansion and crushed dozens of valuable antiques. The debris-filled room, a centerpiece of Allegheny County’s Hartwood Acres Park, resembled the aftermath of a powerful earthquake.

The bizarre incident pushed county Chief Executive Dan Onorato to start devising a wide-ranging plan for funding capital projects in the county’s 12,000 acres of public green space.

Yesterday, he said, was a first step in that process, as he and other officials unveiled an almost fully restored Great Hall, with an exact replica of the room’s Renaissance-style ceiling now in place. The restoration, including repairs of antiques, cost about $260,000 and involved a team of skilled craftsmen.

“This is really the beginning of a lot of park investment that we’re going to be rolling out soon,” Mr. Onorato said.

The chief executive gave few details, but all nine county parks — North, South, Settler’s Cabin, Deer Lakes, Round Hill, Boyce, White Oak, Harrison Hills and Hartwood — are likely to benefit.

Mr. Onorato hopes to use some money from Growing Greener II, a program that will provide $625 million in state funds over the next six years for environmental cleanup and conservation projects throughout Pennsylvania.

A top priority in Allegheny County, Mr. Onorato said, is to find funding for a $7.7 million dredging project in North Park Lake. The federal government had promised to cover the bulk of the cost, but, so far, it hasn’t followed through on that promise.

Mr. Onorato said he has been working with state officials to find the money. He thinks the county will be able to start the project, which would remove 400,000 cubic yards of sediment from the lake, by the end of the year.

The chief executive also said he would soon unveil a plan for raising money from private foundations, corporate entities and individual donors.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy already taps similar funding sources for the city’s public park system.

A sizeable chunk of the cost for restoration work at Hartwood mansion came from insurance money, county officials said.

The ceiling collapsed on the afternoon of Aug. 11, just 20 minutes after a tour group had passed through the room. Initially, parks officials estimated the ceiling’s total weight to be about 2 tons. But Dan McClelland, of McClelland Plastering, said as many as 6 tons of plaster fell to the floor.

It took him and his employees more than five months to recreate the ceiling at a workshop in Washington Township, Westmoreland County, and affix it to the 20-foot-by-40-foot hole in the mansion’s main hall.

They used pieces of the original ceiling to match molds of elaborate nature patterns. In total, Mr. McClelland’s company created about 700 molds.

The new ceiling is more secure, he said, because it weighs much less than the original and is anchored to the second floor with materials that weren’t available when the mansion was constructed almost 80 years ago.

More than a dozen other contractors helped restore some of the room’s antiques, including a Steinway grand piano from 1901 and an Aeolian pipe organ.

A textile conservator in Ohio is repairing two rare Georgian folding walnut game tables and a 17th-century Flemish tapestry, items worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The 31-room Hartwood mansion, built in the Tudor style of Elizabethan England, was the home of John and Mary Lawrence, who sold it and 400 acres of property in Hampton and Indiana Township to Allegheny County in 1969 for a little more than $1 million.

On Saturday, the Hartwood mansion will be open to the public, at no charge, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Some craftsmen will be available to discuss the repairs.

(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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