Victorian Visitor: Is the lady of the house now the lady of the library?
By Millie Albert
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Wednesday, October 29, 2003
Stories abound of unexplained activity in the house on North Balph Avenue, now home to Andrew Bayne Memorial Library. And some say the odd occurrences really picked up during the time that the centuries-old tree, nicknamed the “Lone Sentinel,” was being
removed from the property.
Many attribute the mysterious happenings to the spirit of Amanda Bayne Balph.
“I know of no one who fears Amanda,” said library director Sharon Helfrich. “We consider her a benevolent, playful spirit who wants to join in the activities.”
Amanda’s husband, James Madison Balph, a prominent Allegheny County architect, built the home in 1875. When Amanda, who was widowed in 1899, died 13 years later, her will stipulated that the home and its four acres be used as a library and park.
The Andrew Bayne Memorial Library opened in 1914, named in honor of Amanda’s father, a member of the 1837 Constitutional Convention who was elected Allegheny County sheriff in 1838.
The mansion is beautifully appointed with marble fireplaces, floor-to-ceiling windows, mahogany woodwork and a transom above the entrance etched with James’ initials. The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation awarded it a Historic Landmark plaque in 1976 and a merit award in 1998.
Here are some of the tales of mysterious events that have been attributed to Amanda’s ghost.
On a cold, October day a few years ago, a group of 30 first-graders were gathered in an upstairs room, silently engrossed in a Halloween story that was being read to them. For no apparent reason, the overhead fan began spinning, chilling the room and disrupting the children, teacher Debbie Scigilano recalled. Scigilano, who is still a teacher at Assumption School in Bellevue, remembers being puzzled. “But not wanting to alarm the class further, we continued with the program. Storytime ended and we went to another room to select books, turning off the fan on our way out. When we returned later to collect our coats, mysteriously the fan began to whirl again. I was later told that employees believe Amanda, who loved children though she had none of her own, turns the fan on to communicate her approval of children’s programs.”
On a balmy evening a few years ago, more than 100 people lounged on the library’s lawn enjoying a live jazz band. Helfrich noticed lights shining through the attic windows. Certain that she had turned them off and locked the building before the concert began, she trudged to the attic while scolding Amanda for playing with the lights.
One year later, a group was assembled on the lawn at dusk watching a movie.
“The equipment was new and had worked perfectly, but it abruptly stopped working on that evening,” Helfrich said. “Again I looked to the attic, and again the windows were illuminated. As I climbed the steps to the attic, I offered a deal to Amanda. I promised her I wouldn’t be angry with her for turning the lights on this time if she would just let the DVD player work. I returned outside and the equipment worked fine for the remainder of the evening and the attic windows remained dark.”
Amanda’s will specified that no trees were to be removed from the estate. But disease claimed all but one of the many stately elms that stood watch like sentinels over the house.
In 1998, the champion elm known as the “Lone Sentinel” became a victim of age and disease and had to have its branches removed and its trunk shortened.
During the work, the number of odd occurrences at the library increased, some said.
“It was during this time that I was alone in the old family parlor, now our computer room, when something caught my eye,” recalled Linda Momper, assistant director of the library. “As I turned, I saw a woman’s torso clad in dark clothing reflected in one of the bay windows. I dismissed it as imagination and continued on with my work for a minute, then turned again to the window. The reflection remained. Three times I did this, and three times the image was evident. The fourth time I checked, it was gone.”
During the same period, Helfrich said, she was filing papers in a small room with the door open when a dark figure silently glided past, continued down the hall and vanished.
“All doors leading to the outside are on an alarm system. Other doors have deadbolts. There’s no way anyone can get in without our knowing it,” Helfrich said.
It was also while the tree was being removed that computers would behave mysteriously.
“There are two computers behind the check-out desk, and I was working at one,” Helfrich recalled. “Alone behind the desk, I heard what sounded like a scanning noise. As I looked at the second computer’s monitor, numbers appeared there. Then just as mysteriously as it started, it stopped. This happened often during this period. There were also reports of a woman wearing a large, Victorian-style hat appearing in the window of Amanda’s bedroom. My opinion is that Amanda was unhappy about the tree and her spirit was restless.”
A crew working after hours to refinish wood floors in the house reported hearing footsteps repeatedly in the room above, Helfrich said. The time was 2 a.m., the workers were alone in the library and all the doors were locked.
Other times, workers who were called to fix malfunctioning phones would find nothing wrong. Then, unexpectedly, the problem would correct itself, she said.
In addition, Helfrich said, “Books would appear in the wrong stack just seconds after I had shelved them in the correct place.”
From 1975 to 1982, Ted Zettle and his wife, Corrie, lived in an upstairs apartment above the library, at a time when the second and third floors were rented.
“We often heard unaccounted footsteps and a metallic beeping,” said Ted Zettle, who now lives in West View. “Incidentally, after our son, Max was born, the sounds became much more frequent. It’s difficult to explain, but there’s a definite friendly presence in the house. We experienced a warm, welcoming feeling there. The house is very elegant, and my guess is that Amanda is happy sharing the home she loves.”
Does Amanda’s spirit move playfully throughout the library as some believe or can the mysterious circumstances be logically explained?
The answer may lie in Amanda’s portrait, which hangs over the fireplace in the parlor where she welcomed guests for more than 30 years. An attractive lady, dressed in dark clothes, with softly coifed hair and a slight smile, her countenance is benign.
“She appears serene, but look closely,” Helfrich said. “There’s a definite twinkle in her eye.”
Millie. Albert is a freelance writer.
This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette