Old Stone Inn may be oldest building in the city

1793 accounts ledger indicates 1756 date on cornerstone may be accurate


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Twenty years into this nation's history, a man could board his horse at hay, put his wife and child on a ferry and enjoy a "jinn" grog, cherry toddy or bitters by paying one publican in a building that still stands.

Pittsburgh's Historic Review Commission is expected to vote Wednesday on whether to recommend historic status for the Old Stone Inn, a West End landmark at 434 Greentree Road. If the inn is as old as growing evidence indicates, it may be older than the nation, even older than Pittsburgh.

No historic nomination in recent memory has led to such depths of discovery. Researchers have become giddy as they've uncovered the inn's story, which includes at least a peripheral role in the Whiskey Rebellion.

The inn's cornerstone date of 1756 has always been puzzling to historians, who thought it apocryphal.

The Fort Pitt Block House in Point State Park, which was built in 1764, long has been regarded as the city's oldest building. How, historians asked, could a building hiding in plain sight on a busy thoroughfare be older?

Also, stone construction in the region largely came after the 18th century. The late Walter Kidney, an architecture historian for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, estimated the inn was built around 1800.

Art Merrell, a West End resident who last year tried to interest investors in buying and restoring the building to be a tourist attraction, said it resembles buildings found in French-speaking Quebec. He contends early French settlers could have built it.

"I spent last year trying to save it and couldn't get anyone to invest a dime," he said. Last summer, when he discovered the building was for sale and sought to interest buyers who would restore it, he noted that Pittsburgh was celebrating the 250th anniversary of its founding while neglecting many pieces of its past.

For a time, his was a lone voice. Even preservation champion John DeSantis, who nominated the inn for historic status two months ago, said he didn't suspect it had been built before 1800 or was significant.

Then, someone alerted Mr. Merrell that the Carnegie Library had an old accounts ledger from the inn from 1793 to 1796. It is designated as volume N.

"This volume indicates there were 13 account books before it," Katherine Molnar, the city's preservation planner, told the Historic Review Commission earlier this month. That would put the business, if not the building, in existence 40 years earlier, she said.

"That 1756 datestone so many people thought was apocryphal is looking more realistic," said Mr. DeSantis.

Greg Priore, archivist in the library's William R. Oliver Special Collections Room, said he had no occasion to study the ledger until the phone started ringing with requests to see it. It was donated in 1912 and later rebound, but the library has no information about who donated it.

"Nobody as far as I know had looked at it for a long time," he said.

The inn originally was a toll house at the northern terminus of the Washington Pike. Early owners also ran a ferry business and a sawmill and staged entertainment and political events. The inn sold sundries, boarded horses and accepted cash or bartered items such as raccoon skins, rye and odd jobs performed around the inn.

The building operated continuously as a restaurant or bar until two years ago, when Mario Pettica closed it. He sold it in February to Lee Harris, owner of Harris Masonry next door.

In March, Ms. Molnar, Mr. DeSantis, Dru Simeone, of the West Pittsburgh Partnership, Mr. Harris and his two sons toured the building. Mr. Harris had a demolition permit pending when Mr. DeSantis nominated the inn for historic status. Mr. Harris has not returned phone calls, but Mr. DeSantis and others say he is amenable to preservation efforts.

"We get in there, and there's 1970s remodeling of the tap room and bar," said Mr. DeSantis. "Once we got into the basement and attic, though, we were giddy. It was like being Indiana Jones if you're an old-building nerd."

A section of newer ceiling tiles had fallen to reveal the original attic framework, chisel marks in the stone and two original windows that had been covered.

"The more we're shining the flashlights, the more we're seeing an unintentional time capsule," he said. "We're suggesting the owners do nothing" until a state preservation officer and archaeology students get inside to investigate further.

The ledger indicates that the inn bore the footsteps of a slew of famous and infamous people in Pittsburgh's history, including John Neville, John Ormsby, various McKees, Wilkinses and Beltzhoovers, and John Woods, who helped lay out the city and served in the U.S. House of Representatives.

He was also the attorney of John Neville, the large-scale distiller and tax collector whose estate was burned in the Whiskey Rebellion during the early 1790s. Mr. Neville stood to benefit greatly when an excise tax was imposed to burden small distillers at a much higher rate. The rebellion of small distillers and distributors prompted the federal government to dispatch the military to quell it.

John Woods was in the tavern and used the owners' ferry the night before the raid on John Neville's estate in what is now Scott. In the ledger, beside Mr. Woods' name, is written the word "spy."

Hugh Henry Brackenridge managed the inn and ended up mediating between the rebels and the government. Mr. Brackenridge, a founder of the Pittsburgh Gazette, had to talk his way out of being hanged because of a misunderstanding of his role in the mediation.

Michael Shealey, a local amateur historian who has been researching the inn's history, said further research may determine if the rebels plotted the raid on Neville's home or other events of the Whiskey Rebellion at the inn.

"But once we index the ledger, we will see more connections to a lot of things," said Mr. Shealey, who believes the inn probably was built in the 1780s on the site of an earlier log structure.

The ledger is about 3 inches thick. Its amber pages feel like leather. The script, in handwriting resembling that found on the Declaration of Independence, lists expenses and revenues for grog, rye and oats, room and board, breakfast and ferry passages. Many words were variations on today's spellings, such as "jinn."

Among the entries: "Sundrie expenses for self and horse."

"Loaf of shugar, 1 pair of mittins, three iron hoop'd barrels."

"Horse at hay, three quarts of oats, glass grog, dinner and ferry," reads another.

"26 bushels turnips, 3 bushels corn, 25 bushels rye, 1 stack hay, wintering two steers."

One patron's bar tab reads, "Toddy lost at cards."

Several patrons are identified as "son of," and their father's names are listed on the other side of the ledger as having paid their bills.

The ledger also identifies patrons as stocking weavers, surveyors, butchers, bakers, tavern keepers, schoolmasters, coopers and haymakers.

One cheeky reference to a patron called "the United States" includes names unfriendly to the small distillers and their rebellious cause.

Mr. Shealey said the ledger promises to enrich the inn's history even more as historians interpret its entries.

"So few buildings in Pittsburgh are pre-Civil War" vintage, he said. "An 18th-century building is in a class by itself."

"This may be the only building still standing that the French built, when most residents were Native Americans," said Mr. DeSantis. "And to think it might have become a parking lot."

Mr. Merrell's dream of a complete restoration and a stream of tourists -- even an interpretation center and gift shop -- "are all much more likely now," said Mr. DeSantis. "This has been a heck of an adventure. Exciting doesn't happen much anymore."


Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Also visit her neighborhood coverage online in "City Walkabout" at www.post-gazette.com/local .


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