CRESSON, Cambria County -- In the late 1880s, when Benjamin Franklin Jones built his summer home in the Allegheny Mountains east of Pittsburgh, he was escaping more than the city's heat and humidity. He also was fleeing the deadly soot his Jones & Laughlin steel mill, lining both banks of the Monongahela, helped create.
Today there is little on the landscape to suggest Cresson Springs once was a respite for Jones, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie and other wealthy industrialists. The Mountain House hotel, several blocks long and accommodating hundreds of guests, has been gone since 1916. Many of its 400 acres laced with lawns, gardens and groves long ago were replaced by the homes of year-round residents.
The Queen Anne-style Jones house still stands, cherished but deteriorated, the largest surviving member of the Mountain House community. It could have been demolished as soon as tomorrow, but this week, township supervisors told the building's owner, the Cresson Area Historical Association, they would grant an extension of unspecified length while a building code officer explores what it will take to bring the house up to code.
The historical group has owned the house for the past two decades of its decline, but new officers and reinvigorated members are breathing new life into its long-delayed restoration. The group has held several fundraising events in recent months, including guided tours of the house for about 1,300 people, a chicken dinner and a yard sale, netting $6,000 that will be put toward the $25,000 cost of a new roof.
"Many people from many fields of expertise came through, and architects offered help," said the group's president, Cyndi Hoover, who owns a nearby Mountain House-era cottage. "It just seemed like the general public was behind us and wanting the building saved."
Volunteers have made significant progress, putting in their own time, money and labor to reglaze, caulk and install about a dozen of the original windows, prime part of the exterior, remove a derelict side porch and replace a tattered section of the rear of the building.
Still, the task ahead is daunting. A 2007 preliminary condition assessment report estimated it would take at least $2.7 million to bring the house up to the standards established by the U.S. secretary of the interior. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, the Jones house is significant for its association with its owner and with the resort community that grew up around the Mountain House hotel.
For now, the historical association just wants to rehabilitate the house to the point where it can hold meetings there and interpret its history through tours. But an understanding of exactly what constitutes the house's history has changed considerably over the years.
For decades the house has been known as Braemar Cottage and was thought to have been the summer home of Andrew Carnegie and the place where his mother died in 1886. But extensive research conducted for the National Register nomination discovered the house had been built in 1887-88 by Jones, who used it until his death in 1903, when it passed to his wife, and then out of the family in 1910.
Carnegie's Braemar Cottage is next door, smaller than the Jones house but with rooms of generous proportion; ceilings on the first floor are 14 feet high.
The National Register nomination states the two structures seem to have become confused by Cresson residents sometime in the mid-20th century. The misattribution of the Braemar name and Carnegie ownership to the Jones cottage has appeared in newspaper articles (including two that Donald Miller and I wrote in the early 1990s) and, citing our reports as sources, in Margaret Henderson Floyd's 1994 book "Architecture After Richardson." Some members of the historical association still believe the Jones cottage had some connection to the Carnegies, according to interviews and its newly revised website, http://www.cahainc.org.
However the mix-up happened, it's a confusion this well-meaning historical group perpetuates. A sign identifying the Jones house as Braemar Cottage hangs on the front balcony, and a related Facebook page is titled "Save Braemar Cottage."
The family that's owned the real Braemar Cottage since the early 1930s has never made much ado publicly about living there. They call it the McCartney House, and the descendants of the 11 McCartney children raised there consider it home base and the focal point of family reunions. As it was in Carnegie's day, Braemar Cottage, with its seven ample bedrooms (an eighth was converted to a spacious bathroom) is a great gathering place.
Carnegie occupied a rented cottage at Cresson as early as 1873. That August, he wrote to his private secretary that he planned to build his own cottage the following summer, according to Carnegie biographer David Nasaw. The name he gave it -- Braemar Cottage -- appears on Carnegie's stationery and on the dedication page of his book, "Notes of a Trip Round the World," which he completed at "Braemar Cottage, Cresson, July, 1879."
No account of why he named it Braemar has surfaced, but Carnegie may have been inspired by the Braemar Gathering, Scotland's annual festival of Highland dancing, games and sport.
"That Braemar Gathering is to the Scotch social season what the Horse Show is to New York," wrote Gilson Willets in the National Magazine in 1906. "It opens the season." Royals have attended since 1848.
Now covered with 1950s-era asphalt shingles, Cresson's Braemar originally was a board-and-batten cottage; part of the original exterior can be seen inside the house, where the McCartneys enclosed the back porch into a laundry room.
Louise McCartney Frederick, who grew up in the house and returned to live there with her husband after her mother's death in 1987, has turned one first-floor room, which she believes was the steel magnate's library, into "the Carnegie room," housing books by and about him and materials associated with the Mountain House community.
After his mother's death, Carnegie never again summered at Cresson Springs and gave up plans to build a Scottish castle for her there.
"We're enjoying being in Andy Carnegie's house," said Mrs. Frederick, who in April welcomed Carnegie's great-granddaughter, Linda Thorell Hills of Littleton, Colo., as part of a group from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission. It was the first time a Carnegie descendant had visited Braemar.
Growing up, "I didn't know who Andrew Carnegie was," said Margaret McCartney Kovachik, Mrs. Frederick's older sister. In the early 1930s, "my algebra teacher in high school was the first one who [told us] this was the Carnegie house and that his mother was taken out the window."
Carnegie, critically ill with typhoid fever at Braemar, suspected his mother, suffering from the same illness, would not survive news of his brother's death on Oct. 19, 1886, and asked his doctor, Fred Dennis, to "attend to everything" when she died, wrote James Howard Bridge, Carnegie's literary assistant, in his 1931 memoir, "Millionaires and Grub Street."
"And so it was -- quietly and with muffled feet, we gently carried her out, across the snow, down the hill to the station, and so to Pittsburgh, to rest beside her beloved Tom."
No mention of a window exit to spare Carnegie knowledge of his mother's death, but this oft-repeated story is plausible; Mrs. Carnegie's first-floor bedroom, like her son's across the hall, has a pair of windows that reach to the floor. A photograph of the cottage in Bridge's book identifies it as "The Little Cottage At Cresson Springs, Photographed during Carnegie's sickness."
Despite the outward appearance of the neighboring Jones house, its key features are remarkably intact, including mantels and most woodwork throughout and an impressive entrance hall with beamed ceiling and paneled walls and staircase. The house still speaks of a time when Cresson Springs attracted the wealthy from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Ohio and beyond, and Pittsburgh newspapers covered their arrivals and departures.
"W.W. Willock, of Pittsburg, whose family are occupying a cottage here with B.F. Jones, left with friends for a few days' stay at the seashore," The Pittsburgh Press reported from Cresson on Aug. 5, 1895. "Miss Fleming Jennings and Miss Reba Thomas, of Pittsburg, are at the Jones cottage."
Jones, one of the country's pioneering iron and steel manufacturers, also was chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1884 to 1888. That year in Chicago, he called to order the Republican National Convention. It nominated Benjamin Harrison, who, according to newspaper accounts, visited the Jones cottage in Cresson in early September 1890, during his presidency.
While the architect of the Jones house is unknown, certain features -- the arched, recessed balcony juxtaposed with the rounded corner tower -- show a marked similarity to several other Queen Anne-style houses in Pittsburgh and Washington, Pa., designed by Frederick J. Osterling, who opened his office here in 1888 and had ties with other Pittsburgh steel men. Osterling expanded Frick's Clayton in 1892 and designed the 1893 Braddock home of Carnegie Steel President Charles Schwab, who grew up in nearby Loretto and met Carnegie in Cresson.
There is, fortunately, plenty of history to go around for both Braemar Cottage and the Jones house, and undoubtedly more to discover in years to come.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Aug 2, 2010) Louise Frederick was misidentified in this article on the Braemar Cottage, Andrew Carnegie's summer cottage in Cresson, as originally published July 31, 2010.
Architecture critic Patricia Lowry: email@example.com or 412-263-1590.