Meason mansion owners seek patrons to save historic home

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The Isaac Meason house in Fayette County dumbfounded preservation experts from around the country during a recent tour, not only because it's a pristine example of 18th-century Georgian style but because local preservation groups are doing little to help save it.

Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette photos
The Isaac Meason mansion in Dunbar, Fayette County, emerges from the surrounding hills in the light of a spring morning last month. Finished in 1802 and made of hand-cut sandstone and limestone, the Georgian manor sits atop a hill named Mount Braddock near U.S. Route 119.
Click photo for larger image.

"It's definitely worth saving. If Fallingwater can be as successful as it is, the combination of seeing the Isaac Meason house and then Fallingwater is a mind-blower. It's the most wonderful yin and yang of architectural expression you could get," said Penny Hunt of Philadelphia, executive director of the Decorative Arts Trust.

Last month, 40 members of the organization visited the 20-room mansion, oohing and aahing over its hand-cut brown sandstone and gray limestone, period details such as a 10-foot-tall case clock and the structural integrity of the only seven-part Palladian Georgian villa in America.

David Dvorak, a builder from Carpinteria, Calif., said the house was much more structurally sound than some termite-ridden Southern mansions he's seen reinforced with steel beams.

"It's an incredible house. Western Pennsylvania ought to realize that it's a gold mine for the tourist industry because of the proximity of Kentuck Knob and Fallingwater and Fort Necessity and Fort Ligonier," Mr. Dvorak said.

Over 30 years, owners Diane and Terry Kriss have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore and maintain the house and 4-acre property while battling a neighbor who operates a nearby auto body shop.

Out of frustration, the Krisses tried unsuccessfully to sell the property on eBay for $750,000 in 2003. The highest bid during the internet auction was $500,000, but the cost of disassembling, moving and rebuilding the home was prohibitive -- between $4 million and $8 million.

Mrs. Hunt believes Pittsburgh's philanthropic community should take the lead in preserving the house, which was designated a national historic landmark in 1990.

"There's quite a bit of wealth in the Pittsburgh area. Those foundations might be able to help support the house, get it in shape and send it on its way."

During its April symposium in Pittsburgh, the Decorative Arts Trust raised awareness about the Meason mansion through its tour, newsletters sent to members nationwide and its Web site. But the 30-year-old organization based in Philadelphia will not be the house's financial savior.

"The trust does not become actively involved in preservation issues," Mrs. Hunt said.

Maintenance and means

As Mr. Kriss led the tour in April, he emphasized original features such as the foyer's dentil molding and the box locks with stirrup-shaped handles.

"Everything in the house is a true survivor," he told his guests.

Maintaining a 205-year-old home is costly. In 1994, the couple spent $100,000 to restore a 310-foot-long semi-circular stone wall that frames the raised front lawn. A nonprofit the Krisses set up, the Mount Braddock Historic Preservation Trust, received $5,000 for that project from the Juliet Lea Hillman Simonds Foundation, as well as grants from the Southwest Heritage Preservation Commission and Preservation Pennsylvania.

For more than two decades, staff members at Preservation Pennsylvania as well as the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation have offered the Krisses advice but little financial assistance.

Foundation President Arthur Ziegler said a major obstacle is the Krisses' asking price, $750,000. The house's appraised value is $450,000, he said.

Although Pittsburgh foundations contributed to the restoration of Fallingwater, he said, "foundations here don't generally take on projects outside [Allegheny County]."

"We do not have funds to go and save it," Mr. Ziegler said.

Those comments angered Mr. Kriss, who noted that the last appraisal is five years old.

"Arthur Ziegler has never gotten personally involved. He's never come here to negotiate. He can't save a one-of-kind national historic landmark? I don't buy that," he said, adding that the foundation has a substantial endowment from the sale of Station Square.

Landmarks Financial Corp., a nonprofit subsidiary, granted $2.17 million to the foundation in 2005. The money, according to a 2005 federal tax return, funded the foundation's education and restoration projects. Landmarks Financial Corp. listed assets of $93.3 million on its 2005 tax return.

Harley Trice, a Pittsburgh lawyer and longtime champion of the Meason house, said it makes no sense to allow a national historic landmark of this caliber to deteriorate for lack of $300,000. The house is one of five national historic landmarks in Fayette County; the others are Fallingwater, Kentuck Knob, Friendship Hill and Searight's Toll House.

The Krisses have tangled with Fayette County and their neighbors over the house almost from the day that Mr. Kriss and his late father, Peter, bought it in 1977. They have spent more than $100,000 in legal fees alone to limit the operations of a coal stripper, stop construction of a cellular phone tower and compel their neighbor, the owner of an auto body repair shop, to remove junky cars and farm equipment from his property.

At a zoning hearing June 13, Fayette County's zoning hearing board will hear testimony about whether the mechanic, Joseph Cellurale Jr., has complied with operating conditions the board imposed in 2000. Mr. Cellurale was ordered to rid his property of old cars and farm machinery, erect a privacy fence, and operate only from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"I'm not holding my breath," Mr. Kriss said. "Unless the county is serious about tourism or historic preservation, they're not going to do a damn thing. If the county isn't going to hold him to the rules and regulations of its ordinances, why have them?"

The Carnegie of iron furnaces

Life was a lot less complicated in the 18th century when Mr. Meason, a native Virginian who became the Andrew Carnegie of iron forging, carved his fortune from Western Pennsylvania's coal and iron reserves. The father of five children, Mr. Meason supplied iron for the first iron suspension bridge in the world, built over Jacob's Creek in Westmoreland County.

Mr. Meason, a veteran of the American Revolution, began building his home in the 1790s atop a knoll called Mount Braddock. Christopher Gist, an explorer and trusted wilderness scout to George Washington, met Washington there in 1753 to plan the first permanent English settlement west of the Alleghenies.

Mount Braddock derives its name from British Maj. General Edward Braddock, who camped here in 1755 on his way to his fatal defeat at the Battle of the Monongahela. The Native Americans who annihilated Braddock's troops forged trails through these mountains and valleys.

To build their house, Mr. Meason and his wife Catherine brought Adam Wilson, a Scottish architect and builder, and a crew of 50 men from England for the four-year project, completed in 1802. Mr. Wilson's formal design was inspired by the work of 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, who drew upon ancient Roman classical principles.

"This architectural gem was literally carved out of the wilderness by the power of hand and the mind to create elegance without the benefit of machinery," Mr. Kriss told his visitors.

The house was the first west of the Alleghenies that was designed by an architect and formally landscaped. There is a two-story stone carriage house that once housed seven slaves and a three-story stone smokehouse.

The Meason mansion has 11 fireplaces, three of which work. Its four chimneys have weathered and weakened, but Mr. Kriss is reluctant to repair them.

"Why do I want to spend $100,000 ... if no one is going to clean up around my house?

Authenticity and sweat equity

As the Krisses showed off their house, trust members enthused about its craftsmanship.

"Look at the size of those sandstone blocks. You can see the chisel marks,'' said Jonathan Fairbanks of Westwood, Mass.

In the home's original dining room, visitors admired a 10-foot-tall case clock made by Benjamin Campbell of Uniontown. Mr. Meason commissioned the clock, which originally stood on the first landing of the elegant 50-step staircase; its waist fit exactly into a notched chair rail and its finial nearly touched the ceiling.

"I've never seen an American clock that tall," marveled Peter Patout of New Orleans.

Across the room from the clock is a Prussian marble fireplace whose carved mantel, made by Robert Welford, shows Lady Liberty and an eagle eating out of cup.

During their early restoration efforts, the Krisses took 10 days and 10 gallons of paint remover to strip the battleship gray paint from the oak tongue-and-groove floors in the dining room.

"The paint was nearly an eighth of an inch thick. The fumes were unbelievable. You can't orbital-sand the floor because you would ruin it," Mr. Kriss said.

Angela Zimmerlink, a Fayette County commissioner, became a fan of the Meason mansion after she toured it.

"I thought it was an underappreciated historic asset, like many other assets here in Fayette County that are underused, underappreciated and not well known," she said.

Mr. Kriss said few other county officials seem to share her interest. If they won't enforce their zoning laws, he'll sell his possessions and dismantle the house, he said. It's a threat he's made before.

"If they want a junk yard, they're going to get a junk yard. I'll have a big auction here. I'm going to take the stone apart and the wood and I'll build a lodge in the mountains in Westmoreland County. That will be the end of the Meason house.

"I'm 51 years old. I'm not going to sit here for 30 more years and beg people to help this place."

Owner Diane Kriss, left, leads visitors on the Decorative Arts Trust tour through the main hallway at the Isaac Meason mansion in Dunbar, Fayette County. Mrs. Kriss and her husband, Terry, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to save the home but now are looking for patrons to further preserve it.
Click photo for larger image.

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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