Time is running out on historic Meason house
By Patricia Lowry,
Sunday, July 31, 2005
Somebody do something, quick.
Because if nobody does anything, one of the most important historic houses in the country could be taken apart stone by stone, sill by sill, and sold for parts.
“To Be Dismantled,” reads the headline of a half-page advertisement in the June issue of Maine Antique Digest. Beneath it is a photograph of Fayette County’s Isaac Meason House, with the following caption: “This is no joke! I want to sell you this architecturally significant, ‘one of kind,’ 18th-century, cut-stone Palladian mansion, located in southwestern Pennsylvania. Accepting offers on stone, millwork, hardware, etc., etc.
“Please visit our website to view the many details. Quality Corvettes, Muscle and Classic Car Trades Considered. no dreamers please.”
It has come to this. Terry Kriss, the man who has performed painstaking research and restoration on the 20-room house, the man who has spent more than $100,000 in legal fees to protect it, now seems to be the No. 1 threat to its preservation.
How can you dismantle a house that you have loved so well for so long? “Nowhere in my wildest dreams would I ever think I would be advocating for the demolition of this home,” Kriss said recently at his kitchen table, next to the massive stone fireplace where a kettle hangs from its original crane.
“People who see my ad are appalled, but when they hear my story, they understand.”
Decades of battling encroaching commercial interests and two years of battling prostate cancer have left Kriss, a classic car and antiques dealer, ready and willing to do the unthinkable: Take apart the house he and his father saved from certain ruin.
But is Kriss serious, or is this just a ploy to get the attention of the media and preservationists? Articulate and passionate, Kriss is convincing when he says it’s time for him and his wife, Diane, to move on.
Two years ago, they listed the house on eBay and hired a public relations firm to promote it. That move garnered national media attention and rankled preservationists who had worked to save it.
At the end of the monthlong auction, the Krisses had interest from two men, but neither of their offers met the million-dollar reserve. Kriss estimates it would cost the buyer another $2 million to $4 million to disassemble and relocate the house.
With the fortune that built the house long ago dissipated, his prayers “for that one Meason descendant” to come to the rescue are unlikely to be answered.
A learning lab
Diane Kriss places a stack of studies, appraisals and plans almost a foot tall on the kitchen table.
“The house has been studied to death,” her husband says. “We know its paint colors throughout its history. Do something with all this knowledge!” Six years ago there was an idea, a good one, and it came from Fallingwater’s executive director, Linda Waggoner: Make the house a laboratory where students from a local university could learn restoration techniques in a new program designed to train master craftsmen.
Waggoner was a member of the Meason House Working Group, which also included representatives of the National Park Service, Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, Preservation Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, as well as historian Eliza Smith Brown, philanthropist Lea Hillman Simonds and lawyers Hannah Leavitt and Harley Trice.
The group’s plan was to give the Krisses a nonrefundable $45,000 for a yearlong option on the house, during which time members would try to raise $1.5 million. From that kitty, it would purchase the house for $450,000 and give a university the million-dollar endowment it would require to establish the new program.
But Kriss, whose parents bought the house in 1977, thinks it’s worth $750,000, and that’s the figure he held out for.
“I take offense to being low-balled out of my house,” he said in rising tones.
“It’s very hard for a nonprofit to justify paying more than an appraisal, and he just never seemed to appreciate that,” Waggoner said.
But $300,000 isn’t all that separated the preservation groups and the Krisses from coming to an agreement. Terry Kriss, under siege from illness and in a nonsupportive community environment, felt that a year was too long to wait.
Frustrated, he put the house on eBay in May 2003. On May 22 of that year, representatives of Preservation Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation issued a tersely worded press release stating that if the Meason house is lost, “it will not have been for lack of effort on the part of Pennsylvania’s preservation community.”
A standout building
When Isaac Meason’s house was completed in 1802, Thomas Jefferson was president, Meriwether Lewis was preparing for his cross-country river trip and iron manufacturing was the largest industry in Pittsburgh, a village of about 2,000 people. Blacksmiths made tools, kettles, pans and other objects for immigrants to take west, using iron smelted in outlying regions by iron masters like Meason.
The richest man in nearby Fayette County, Meason also owned two saw mills, a grist mill and 6,400 acres of the finest coal and iron land in Western Pennsylvania that once were part of the short-lived plantation of George Washington’s guide, Christopher Gist.
The house Meason built was an expression of that wealth, a building that rivaled the best houses of the British Isles. Likely also influenced at least in part by Philadelphia’s Cliveden, it went one better, with cut sandstone and limestone on all four sides; Cliveden is rubble stone on all but its facade.
But while Cliveden today is operated as a historic house museum by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in serene Fairmount Park, the Meason house is surrounded by an auto body shop and a shopping center. For years a strip mine operated just a stone’s throw from its back yard.
The house outlasted the mine, but the damaged chimneys are in danger of tumbling down. The Krisses won a court battle with a cell phone company that wanted to erect a tower near the house, but he lost a zoning fight. The county permitted a change from agricultural to commercial zoning to allow the auto body shop to continue to operate just yards from the mansion’s iron gates, and in the process expanded the commercial zone from half an acre to 29 acres.
Yet within the bounds of its 4-acre site, the house remains a breathtaking example of Palladian architecture in a Georgian landscape. Cliveden has lost its dependencies, but the Meason house is flanked by six: carriage house with slave quarters, kitchen, pantry, hall, office and smoke house. The house and four dependencies are set on a raised, circular lawn enclosed by a stone wall.
“I know of no other such feature in America, and have only seen it a few times in the very greatest houses of Britain, notably [Robert] Adam’s Kedleston,” wrote preservation consultant and University of Pennsylvania architectural historian George Thomas in a report on the house in 1990. With workmanship that “may well be the best in America of that time,” the Meason house is “the standout building of its time” in the United States.
“Many Georgian double-pile houses [with four rooms of equal height on two floors] were built after Meason’s mansion, but none exceeded this masterpiece in sophistication of design,” write Deborah S. Burns and Robert J. Webster in their 2000 book “Pennsylvania Architecture,” which documents the work of the Historic American Buildings Survey and features the Meason house on its front and back covers.
Its architect and builder was Scottish-born Adam Wilson.
“It is regrettable that we do not know more about Wilson; but if the spirit and quality of his one remaining work, the Meason House, are any true reflection of the man, he was a person of rare good taste, who conceived his scheme ‘in the grand manner’ and executed its detail with exquisite refinement,” architect Charles Stotz wrote in his 1936 book “Early Architecture of Western Pennsylvania.”
Today, preservationists who worked to rescue the Meason house are as burned out as the Krisses and at a loss for what to do next.
“If I had that magic answer, we might be well on our way to saving it,” said Susan Shearer, president of Preservation Pennsylvania. “But as we say, preservation really is a local activity. There has to be that local will to care about place.”
Waggoner agrees. “Given the lack of interest in the community, maybe the best solution is that it be dismantled and moved to somewhere where people will appreciate it.”
“I wish I knew” what to do next, said Arthur Ziegler, president of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and a vice president of Preservation Pennsylvania. “I think it’s one of the most important houses in Western Pennsylvania, and I think it is that in its setting, with the Chestnut Ridge to its back. I have never been in favor of moving the house.”
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which operates 26 historic sites and museums and has a history of advocacy for the Meason house dating to 1987, has no plans to purchase it due to a lack of funds, said spokeswoman Jane Crawford.
The situation “is very disappointing to us,” said Bonnie Halda, manager of the Preservation Assistance Program of the northeast regional office of the National Park Service, which also has had a long involvement with the house. She believes the preservation trades program is still the most viable re-use of the house, because it involves a university as a long-term partner and because, by training future preservationists, “the benefit would extend beyond the preservation of the house.”
The Meason house has been a National Historic Landmark since 1990, one of fewer than 2,500 in the county. If it were to become a national historic site owned and operated by the National Park Service, the process must begin in Congress, with the commissioning of a study that would examine its suitability as a site, Halda said. But such a study is not in the works.
A few local philanthropists, including Fayette County Commissioner Joe Hardy, have been approached, but no one has made a direct appeal to Gov. Rendell or former Gov. Ridge for emergency funding to save the house. “Without a clear plan for its future, I doubt [the governor] would be interested,” Waggoner said.
Yet the importance of the Meason house cannot be overstated. If its present circumstances seem tragic and hopeless, look beyond the present acrimony and consider the long view. The auto body shop and shopping center must be seen for what they are: temporary intrusions on a historic landscape that can be restored. The Meason house, on the other hand, was built for the ages. It should still be standing 200 years hence to tell the story of the region’s early iron and steel industry, of slave-holding in Western Pennsylvania, of the Gists’ occupation and the land’s association with the English conquest in the 1750s.
If the Meason house were in Philadelphia, Virginia or South Carolina, it would have been rehabilitated and opened to the public long ago, and it’s an embarrassment to Fayette County, the region, the state and the nation that it has not.
When the National Trust for Historic Preservation and co-sponsoring Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation hold the trust’s annual conference in Pittsburgh next year, will the Meason house be a must-see stop on its tour list, or will it be forgotten and ignored? Waggoner’s plan deserves to get further than it did, and only a sale can make that happen. In the spirit of compromise, perhaps the Krisses can accept less for the house and the preservation community can find a way to re-engage and offer more. Having a new caretaker in the house will buy time to work out the details of a plan.
Somewhere, somehow, the money must be found to save this house and its landscape.
Is anyone listening? Does anyone with the will and the wherewithal to make a difference care?
(PG architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1590.)
This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette