Passions stirred anew for an old log house

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You could walk past the boarded, wood-frame house in Lawrenceville and never look twice, but it might be the oldest log house that continued as a residence into the 21st century in any major American city.

That's what Keith Cochran thinks. An architect who lives a short walk from this 185-year-old, two-story house at 38th and Charlotte streets, Mr. Cochran has been part of a small group hoping to buy and restore this slice of history.

Nobody ever could come up with the money, though, and a North Hills real estate agent bought the vacant house -- most recently a rental property -- in April for $43,000. Sarah Ann Madia says she has no immediate plans for the place.

It sure doesn't look special. The previous owner stripped off the asphalt siding, and the painted clapboards, themselves pre-Civil War, are peeling. Mr. Cochran and Carol Peterson, Pittsburgh's pre-eminent house historian, showed me how one could see the old logs through a gap in the clapboards.

The ancient wood is squared off, not rounded like Lincoln Logs. This is a house, not a cabin, and more than one architect has estimated the cost of full restoration at $200,000 beyond the purchase price, a number that would have freaked out the Lincolns or the Boones.

Lawrenceville has come a long way since its founder William Foster -- father of songwriter Stephen Foster -- sold the land beneath this house to Henry McBride in 1822 for $250. When this home was built a short time later, it would have been one of a handful of homes in the village rising around the Allegheny Arsenal.

Today, a newly revived Butler Street is lined with cafes, restaurants, antique shops, galleries and hipster bars, and nicely restored homes are within a stone's throw of this old house.

Not knowing Ms. Madia's plans has made log house fans antsy. The long dormant Log House Committee of the Lawrenceville Stakeholders, a group of residents and business owners, has feared the house could be demolished if a new owner decided to build new.

Late in 2006, the Lawrenceville Historical Society had architect Mike Gwin draw up a preliminary cost model to restore the house as a history museum, but the quarter-million-dollar cost of purchase and construction killed that idea.

The previous owner ripped out the interior to expose the logs. The plumbing and heating systems are also gone, Mr. Gwin said.

Nonetheless, "the power of that original structure kind of takes you by surprise,'' Mr. Cochran said of the interior.

Michael Connors, a historical society member, has been inside the house and likes to think those logs came from "trees standing when a young George Washington fell into the river.''

Arthur Ziegler, president of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks, said it would be nice to save the house, but the cost is daunting. Alterations since the 1830s, with windows cut through logs, make full restoration tricky because "a lot of logs would have to be new logs.''

Ms. Peterson disagrees, saying those modifications date from 1859 and have their own historical significance. On the morning of Sept. 17, 1862, Catherine Burkhart, 15, left this home to work at the arsenal and died that afternoon in the explosion that killed more than 70 other school-aged children, most of them girls.

Other log houses are scattered around Allegheny County and Western Pennsylvania. Some are older, such as the circa 1790 Neill house on the Bob O'Connor Golf Course in Schenley Park. But if there's another one that has endured within the streetscape of an American city as big as Pittsburgh, nobody here has heard of it yet.

Mr. Cochran thinks its best use is as a single-family house, and he showed examples of handsome log home restorations from New Harmony, Ind., to Lititz, Pa. The historic potential may be hard to see, he said, but Ms. Madia "is sitting on a gold mine and might not realize it.''

He has emailed her his congratulations and hopes to talk with her.

"I'm hoping and praying she doesn't have plans to tear the building down,'' Mr. Cochran said. "That would be a big loss for Lawrenceville.''


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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