Meason House owners offer to give landmark away if you can dismantle, move it
September 14, 2013 8:00 AM
The original large key that was used in the front door of the entrance.
Diane Kriss stands in front of the fireplace in the kitchen of the Isaac Meason House in Dunbar, Fayette County, in 2001. She and her husband, Terry, found the fireplace hidden behind a wall.
In this 2007 photo, Mrs. Kriss stands on a landing of the grand staircase at the Isaac Meason House. The railing is an unbroken loop.
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
The Isaac Meason House in Dunbar, Fayette County.
Detail from the mantel in the first-floor parlor fireplace.
By Marylynne Pitz Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Most of the furniture, artwork and objects Diane and Terry Kriss have accumulated while living at the Isaac Meason House will be auctioned next weekend at the couple's 20-room mansion in Dunbar, just outside of Uniontown in Fayette County.
Auctioneer Mark Ferry will conduct the three-day sale at the Palladian-style house, which is perched on a hill above a raised circular lawn and behind imposing iron gates. For more than 30 years, the Krisses have fought a series of zoning and legal battles to protect the national historic landmark.
Besides the auction, the Krisses are offering the home for free to any individual or group willing to pay the high cost of dismantling it and moving it out of Pennsylvania. Many individuals and preservation groups have visited the house, but none have been able to find a productive use for it. Over the past several decades, the Krisses' asking price for the property has been $750,000.
"I have been saying for a long time that the best way to save it is to move it and take it away from the dark cloud that sits above it and the evil that surrounds it," said Terry Kriss, a 57-year-old self-employed businessman who has cleaned and restored the 211-year-old house purchased by Peter Kriss, his late father.
"I am offering the Meason House for free to a qualified group or individual who can furnish a plan and guarantee to dismantle, reassemble and utilize it anywhere outside of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," he said.
Masons began building the home of dressed sandstone in 1797 and finished in 1802. By that time, its owner, Col. Isaac Meason, was a Revolutionary War veteran, a successful builder of iron furnaces and the richest man in Fayette County.
The property, one of six national historic landmarks in the county, is one of only two houses in the U.S. built from stone cut true on all four sides and designed in a Palladian plan. The other is Mount Airy in Warsaw, Va.
On Friday, the Krisses will put up for auction collectibles, architectural objects and stained glass culled from outbuildings and a barn. Antique furniture and prints will be sold next Saturday, and Lionel trains and antique guns will be auctioned next Sunday.
In the past, the Krisses have tried variations of their current strategy to find a new owner. In 2003, the couple offered the house on eBay and in June 2005, they placed a half-page ad in the Maine Antique Digest. The headline was "To Be Dismantled' and the ad said: "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."
Since the 1980s, the Krisses have battled with the township zoning board and county commissioners and in county and federal courts. They prevented the construction of a cell phone tower 200 feet from their property and filed a successful lawsuit to limit the severity of explosive blasting by a surface mine operator who later reclaimed the land. For a time, a defense contractor used a shooting range near the property to teach U.S. embassy personnel how to protect themselves. The Krisses have objected to a proposal by local officials to build a $30 million prison just across from the home on Route 119.
More than four years ago, Emmanuel Osagie, chancellor of Penn State University's Fayette County Campus, negotiated a deal to take over the mansion and use it for either the school's journalism department or as a laboratory to teach students the skills needed to do historic restoration.
"We had a very good plan and deal at one point with the previous chancellor of Penn State," said Arthur Ziegler, head of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. "The Krisses weren't interested in the deal."
After Mr. Osagie died in March 2010, his successor told Mr. Ziegler that the university was no longer interested in the deal because of budget restraints.
Mr. Kriss believes the mansion is as important to Americans as Monticello, Fallingwater or the White House.
"After spending 30 plus years ... to preserve and protect this wonderful home, we can take no more. Historic preservation is not welcomed or acknowledged in Fayette County," he said.
Keith Cochran, a Pittsburgh architect involved in efforts to save the house, said other houses have been moved and reused. A Cincinnati, Ohio firm, was paid around $450,000 to dismantle a 1904 limestone church in Middletown, Ohio, and move it to Texas, where it will become part of a shopping area for antiques and architectural artifacts, he said.
"It seems like the way to preserve that house is to remove it from that location. But I would love to see it stay in Pennsylvania or in Pittsburgh," said Mr. Cochran, who recently toured the Meason House.
"The inside is much more sound than the exterior. The windows and the walls and the chimneys and the main stair up to the front door -- all of those things are really suffering from being exposed to the elements," he said.
Bill Callahan, the Western Pennsylvania community preservation coordinator for the state Bureau of Historic Preservation, said the government office "does not have funds for saving historic homes."
Howard Pollman, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Historic & Museum Commission, said owners of private property that are national historic landmarks "may treat their properties in any way they see fit, within the parameters of local zoning and code requirements."
Mr. Kriss said he welcomes written proposals for dismantling and moving the home at his surface mail address: 135 Cellurale Drive, Lemont Furnace, PA 15456.
"What I've witnessed in Western Pennsylvania sickens me to the core of my existence," he said, adding that the only elected official who has consistently advocated for preserving the historic property is Fayette County Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink.
"The shame and blame can be equally divided between Fayette County leadership and the so-called historic preservation groups in Pennsylvania," Mr. Kriss said, adding that the local community "obviously does not care about its own heritage."
Hours for next weekend's auction at the Meason House are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and next Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. next Sunday. Information: www.markferryauctioneer.com.