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Winchester Thurston needs expansion space at its Hampton campus – This barn free for the taking

By Jill Cueni-Cohen
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Since opening its doors in 1987, the Winchester Thurston School in Hampton has retained the feel of a charming little farm.

“This area used to be an old horse farm, and the upper field used to be the outdoor arena,” said Nancy Rogers, director of the campus on Middle Road, which houses kindergarten through fifth grade. “The farmhouse holds our fifth-grade class, and they’re known as the Farm House Gang. [The property] also has a springhouse. … We had it renovated, and it’s used as an auxiliary science center, now called the Pond House because it’s down by the pond.”

A white, 4,000-square-foot Dutch-style barn with a gambrel roof completes the pastoral scene.

But it won’t be there for long.

Eighty pupils attend the Hampton location of the independent day school, which has its main campus in Shadyside. But more are expected, so the school plans to expand — and the barn has to go.

Rather than tear it down, though, school officials are offering to give it away — as long as the taker complies with several requirements, the most important being that the barn is dismantled and removed from the site in its entirety.

Although the barn is used only for storage, the pupils enjoy having it on their campus and have been preparing for the loss by drawing pictures and writing poems about it, Rogers said.

“Everyone’s attached to the barn because it’s part of our landscape and is visually nice to look at,” she said. “One day there was a science class going on, and our janitor was in the hay loft, helping them do an egg-drop experiment. It was such a cute thing to see.”

Inquiries about the barn, which was built around 1940, have come from as far away as Oklahoma in response to an e-mail that was circulated by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, said Eric Harrison, program and construction manager for both Winchester Thurston campuses.

Gwyneth Windon, culture and heritage programs manager at Oklahoma’s tourism department, said the group was hoping to save the barn from destruction.

“We love barns, but we don’t have the money to move it,” she said. “I wish I was a philanthropist and could just say, ‘Move it here,’ but it’s not old enough to be of interest to certain people. I called because I just wanted to see if there was a chance we could help.”

The majority of the inquiries have been from local people. “Most are people who need a barn for their working farm,” Harrison said, “and some are parties affiliated with the Amish, who are experts in this field.

“One individual has a cut-flower business and wants it to become a part of their operation; another lost his barn in a fire and needed it to be replaced,” he added. “There’s a whole spectrum of people in the business of agriculture and commerce that need it to fulfill some of their business requirements. The response we’re getting indicates that people are seeing a great deal of value in the barn.”

Harrison said Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, who has a farm in the northern suburbs, called him about the possibility of removing the barn. Indiana Township engineer Jim Mitnick considered but then dismissed the notion of taking the barn. “I looked at the barn, but because it’s 100 percent nailed, it would be [too difficult] to take down and rebuild. It’s also made of nothing but 2x4s and 2x6s, and there’s absolutely no value there.”

Mitnick added that he has had some experience in barn relocation, but it’s preferable to work with a barn that’s been assembled with a combination of pegs and nails. “With a peg barn, you can pull the nailed members off easily and disassemble the barn. It took my barn four days to take apart. It would take four months to get all the nails out of the barn [at Winchester Thurston], and you would end up ruining 50 percent of the wood.”

Mitnick said he thought the school should bulldoze the structure and be done with it. “There’s nothing historical about it and not one decent piece of wood in the entire barn.”

Despite Mitnick’s assessment, Harrison is still optimistic that the barn will find a good home.

“It has a second floor and a first floor, which opens onto grade,” he described, “and its condition is rated from good to excellent. There’s been no penetration of the elements to cause deterioration in the structure, and no break or deterioration in the frame work or the roofing. I think it’s very attractive, and with some work, it can be made even more so.”

The school plans to construct a building that will contain a large multipurpose room, a music room and a glass-enclosed art room that will overlook the pond.

“This is part of the construction we have planned for both campuses,” Rogers said, adding that the school expects it to be finished for the 2004-05 school year.

The new building will retain rural, country elements, she said.

Jack Miller, director of gift planning for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, commended the school for trying to save the barn.

Miller said that the foundation, which runs a rural preservation network, looked at adapting the barn to become a visitor center for its historic Neville House in Collier, but its style was not of the right period.

“We saw that we couldn’t make an adaptive use for the barn, but we didn’t want to see it destroyed,” said Miller. He and the foundation’s preservation expert went through the barn and did not see any problems with the wood, which could be used in a number of ways.

“Wood is expensive,” he said. “And if the structure can be adapted, who’s to say you shouldn’t do that? Who cares what anyone says?”

“Harrison has received all these calls, and my guess is that someone will take him up on this offer. For decades, people have told us that historic preservation doesn’t make sense, and for years we’ve been proving that it does,” added Miller, noting that Station Square, the location of the foundation’s home, is a perfect example of preservation gone right. “If a person can find a creative way to use something, it makes sense to encourage them.”

Miller said it’s heartening to hear how many people are interested in saving the barn. “Just the fact that there’s a barn left [in Pittsburgh] is amazing. What this tells me is that people have a sense of the significance of preservation. Adaptive use is really the key to our future.”

(Jill Cueni-Cohen is a freelance writer.)

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633