Preservationists want to save crumbling mansion that others see as an eyesore

Lost cause in Cresson?

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CRESSON, Cambria County -- A red Queen Anne-style mansion that represents the Gilded Age lifestyle of industrialist Benjamin Franklin Jones has deteriorated for three decades. But a small historical organization still hopes to save the National Register landmark.

There's a new fence around the 14-room home called Braemar Cottage, and a white banner with blue lettering declares, "This Place Matters." The question is, to whom?

One answer is the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which allocated $1,600 from its emergency fund this year toward $3,200 worth of repairs to stabilize the house's leaking roof.

While the roof's interior has already been patched, the contractor is waiting for a boom truck to arrive to work on the exterior, said Brenda Kalwasinski, president of the Cresson Area Historical Association.

Tax-deductible contributions to save Braemar Cottage can be mailed to Preservation Pennsylvania, 257 North St., Harrisburg, PA 17101.

"They have to roll tar paper over the top of the roof," said Mrs. Kalwasinski, who lives on a farm outside Cresson.

The cost of that effort is being funded by a $1,000 grant from the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies in Johnstown.

The 42-member group of preservationists bought the property in 1990. Some local residents envision the house as a bed and breakfast, a conference center or a site for receptions. Near the mansion are a dozen other cottages that were built during the 1880s, including a smaller house next door where Andrew Carnegie's mother died.

The B.F. Jones house needs major restoration, Mrs. Kalwasinski admitted. But she remains hopeful.

"With the right attitude and the right motivation, it can be fixed up," she said.

Other Cresson inhabitants see the property as an eyesore that is too far gone. Last month, a county judge in Ebensburg agreed with Cresson Township's solicitor that the house is a nuisance and ordered it destroyed. The local historical group appealed to Commonwealth Court. Soon afterward, Cresson officials agreed to delay demolition until May 15.

While that reprieve bought some time, bad news arrived recently when the Allegheny Foundation, based in Downtown Pittsburgh, rejected an application for a $150,000 grant. The Cresson Area Historical Association had hoped to use those funds to stabilize the entire house.

The grant application was submitted after Pittsburgh lawyer Joe Lawrence, who with his wife, Heidi, has restored two B.F. Jones homes on the city's North Side, visited Cresson last spring and toured the mansion.

Built in 1887-88, the imposing, three-story house is set on a rise; its roof features the hips, gables and round turrets that distinguish the Queen Anne style. There are also four brick chimneys with decorative corbels at their tops.

It is the "grandest ... survivor of a group of cottages from the late 19th-century resort community which developed around the Mountain House," according to the National Register nomination, submitted in 1994.

For decades, locals have called the mansion Braemar Cottage and believed it belonged to Andrew Carnegie. Reputable biographies of Mr. Carnegie by Joseph Wall and David Nasaw use the name, too, but don't explain how it came to be associated with the structure. Deeds show the Cresson Springs Co. sold the property to B.F. Jones in 1887 and that he bequeathed it to his wife in 1903.

Mr. Jones, who was born in 1824 in Claysville, Washington County, co-founded Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. He introduced the sliding wage scale concept, which tied workers' wages to the market price for iron. In the 1870s, he became the first Pittsburgh iron master to build a Bessemer converter, several years before Mr. Carnegie erected the Edgar Thomson Works.

In 1888, an Ebensburg newspaper reported that Mr. Jones was building a $35,000 cottage in Cresson. Trout fishing, clean air and scenic mountains drew America's elite there. They believed the waters from Cresson Springs were beneficial to their health.

Braemar Cottage was placed on the National Register because it reflects the Gilded Age, was occupied by one of that era's major industrialists, and has a distinctive design.

"The most impressive remaining room is the entrance hall, its paneling and staircase," Mr. Lawrence said.

Mr. Lawrence, who grew up in a Victorian-era home in the Fayette County town of Perryopolis, believes firmly in preservation because he has seen firsthand how the practice has transformed North Side neighborhoods. One example is the B.F. Jones carriage house that he and his wife restored at 820 Chapel Way, which sold for just under $600,000 in 2004.

Asked why Braemar Cottage should be saved, the lawyer replied, "What's the value to the community of tearing it down? Saving it has independent value. It's a public recognition that our history matters."

Mrs. Kalwasinski is grateful to Mr. Lawrence for assisting the Cresson Area Historical Association with preparing the grant application to the Allegheny Foundation.

"He did this out of the goodness of his heart," she said.

A few years ago, at the request of township officials, the National Park Service asked architect Tom McGrath and structural engineering firm McMullan & Associates Inc. to assess the cost to restore the house. The firm's 2007 report, which found extensive water damage, estimated restoration costs at $2.7 million to $4.1 million.

Mr. Lawrence, however, believes it could be restored for $1.2 million and that a federal historic tax credit of $240,000 could be used to partially finance the project.

At Mr. Lawrence's request, Pfaffmann + Associates, the Pittsburgh architectural firm, donated its services and created a timeline for stabilizing the mansion, estimating the cost of that first phase at $150,000. Architect Rob Pfaffmann and preservation planner Jeff Slack toured the house last summer.

"The roof has failed in many places. We have seen and we have restored far worse. Structurally, the bones of this building are sound. It is not going to fall over," Mr. Slack said.

A sensitive restoration "could certainly be achieved for less money" than $4.1 million, he said.

Another organization that's lending a hand is Preservation Pennsylvania, a Harrisburg-based nonprofit that ranks the 14-room mansion on its 2009 list of endangered properties. Preservation Pennsylvania has an agreement with the Cresson Area Historical Association to manage any money that's contributed to save the house. Erin Hammerstedt, a field services representative for Preservation Pennsylvania, said that contributions are tax-deductible.

Pittsburgh artist Ron Donoughe has made his own contribution by capturing the house in oils on canvas. He grew up in nearby Loretto and painted Braemar Cottage last February because he feared it would be torn down.

"I've been watching the sad decline of this thing for a long time. These small towns were mining villages. There's nothing that stands out. When you see something like this, it's like, wow! There's not much of that history that's left that shows that influence," Mr. Donoughe said.

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at or 412-263-1648. First Published December 5, 2009 5:00 AM


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