Inspired by Williamsburg, Shaler man builds Colonial-style smokehouse

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Alyssa Cwanger, Post-Gazette photos
Jim DiNucci is such a big fan of Colonial Williamsburg that he built a replica of Williamsburg's Benjamin Powell smokehouse behind his home in Shaler, and decorated it with an impressive collection of antiques.
Click photo to see interior.

To say Jim DiNucci is a bit crazy about Colonial Williamsburg is something of an understatement.

In his closet, he has an 18th-century English frontiersman's scarlet waistcoat and jaunty tri-cornered hat. He wears it whenever he visits the restored 18th-century Virginia town, which served as the American Colonies' capital from 1699 to 1779. And no, he's not one of those Colonial re-enactors, or even a volunteer. He just likes to wear it.

"That's the best way to get the full learning experience. You go and listen and learn," says DiNucci, who has visited Williamsburg every summer for the past 13 years and often helps out the costumed historic interpreters who work there.

Still, even the most ardent history buff probably wouldn't go to the extreme DiNucci has in publicly declaring his love for Williamsburg. Last summer, the plumbing contractor built a Colonial-style smokehouse in his Shaler back yard.

Not just any smokehouse, mind you, but a replica of the one that sits behind the Benjamin Powell house in Williamsburg's historic area. Constructed sometime between 1793 and 1820, the smokehouse is one of the area's 88 original structures and the only surviving brick smokehouse.

DiNucci's is not an exact copy; his is even better. To begin with, an 18th-century version wouldn't have sported windows. The smoke would have escaped through vents in the upper walls. And in place of

DiNucci's arched brick fireplace and shiny stone floor, a real smokehouse would have had a simple firebox in the middle of a sandy loam and oyster shell floor.

And even though the Powell smokehouse was a lavish use of brick for the times, DiNucci's building is even fancier. Graced with decorative quoins and filled with an impressive collection of antiques, it looks more like an 18th-century tavern than a utilitarian place to smoke hams or small game. In fact, DiNucci has a tavern sign on the side, bearing the name "Bully Hill."

Many of the structure's elements closely mirror the original. It has the same hipped roof and hand-hewn roofing timbers, even the same white pea gravel around the sides to keep mud from splashing on the brick.

Although DiNucci could talk forever about history, he finds it difficult to explain why, exactly, he built his own smokehouse.

"There's just something about Williamsburg," he says. "Today, everyone is so rushed. But back in the 1700s, if you saw someone walking past, you tipped your hat and said good day, and they said good day back. The smokehouse reminds me of those days."

DiNucci had toyed with the idea of building some sort of outbuilding for a couple of years. But he didn't act on it until last summer, when his wife, Sue, asked him to relocate the basketball hoop their four daughters use for practice. Suddenly, there was an empty space next to the Colonial-style brick garage.

"Every day, I can come out here and feel like I'm back in a simpler time," says Jim DiNucci of his Colonial-style smokehouse. "It helps me collect my thoughts."
Click photo for larger image.
The Colonial ambience is evident inside with a collection of antique tools, an antique print of George Washington and horse brasses Jim DiNucci picked up on a trip to England in the 1970s.
Click photo for larger image.

Then he was sitting around one balmy evening with neighbor Ron Klemens, who happened to bring over a book showing Williamsburg buildings. He pointed to a picture of the Powell smokehouse. That "sort of got the ball rolling," DiNucci recalls.

The smokehouse took DiNucci and a group of friends about three months to build. It has a 10-foot ceiling and the interior is 12 feet square. Original plans called for clapboard siding, but DiNucci ultimately decided that wood would entail too much maintenance. Instead, the smokehouse was made from solid brick, with no framing, in a decorative Flemish bond with a grapevine joint. The hand-hewn rafters were gleaned from an 1874 barn in West Sunbury, Butler County.

To add to the building's historic look, DiNucci chose windows made from restoration glass -- a mouth-blown glass filled with pits, bubbles and other imperfections. The paneled plank door is held on by antique iron strap hinges. A pair of reproduction ceramic bird bottles from Williamsburg dress up the eaves.

The interior is equally Colonial. A slant-top desk made in 1730 sits next to the front door and holds a wooden inkwell and leather ledger for guests to sign. Hanging above is a collection of stone, leather and copper beer mugs. Other walls hold a collection of antique tools, an antique print of George Washington and horse brasses DiNucci picked up on a trip to England in the 1970s.

Instead of hams and shoulders, the hand-hewn beams wear bunches of dried flowers and antique pots. .....

"I wanted everything authentic," he says.

The room's focal point is the large fireplace and the hand-hewn log that serves as its mantel. It's both picturesque and functional: When a fire's going, you can feel the heat from several feet away.

The smokehouse is so comfortable that DiNucci and his wife spend a lot of time hanging out there, reading or drinking wine (in a nod to modern-day living, it's wired for cable and electricity). And their daughters often use it for sleep-overs.

"Every day, I can come out here and feel like I'm back in a simpler time," says DiNucci. "It helps me collect my thoughts."

But it's not just about him. In building the smokehouse, DiNucci hopes to reacquaint his friends and neighbors with the township's past. Shaler was among the areas designated as Depreciation Lands given to Pennsylvania's Revolutionary War troops who had received depreciated currency for pay. Early settlers most likely would have had smokehouses for preserving meat.

"You know, no one realized that's the way it was around here," he says. "This is my testimonial to bringing history back to Shaler."

DiNucci declined to say what he spent on the smokehouse. He is quick, however, to name the friends who lent a hand, including Jimmy Filipiak, who laid the brick, and employee Donnie Beyerl, who set the beams inside.

He also credits his father, Anthony, who taught him as a young boy how to use tools and work with his hands.

"He could build anything."

Post-Gazette staff writer Gretchen McKay can be reached at or 412-761-4670.


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