Dennis Lapic's calling is restoring Harmonist homes


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Dennis Lapic lives in a 1970s split-level house in Industry, but Harmonist houses are his true calling. He has painstakingly restored three of them -- log, woodframe and brick. The latter, built in 1826 or 1828 and used by a Harmonist family until the late 1800s, is the one that earned him an honorable mention in last year's Renovation Inspiration Contest, organized and judged by the Post-Gazette and Community Design Center of Pittsburgh.

Although it was a pure restoration rather than a renovation, the judges felt it deserved an award along with an old Harmonist inn belonging to the Wise family. Mr. Lapic, a master sergeant in the Army Reserve, spends much of his free time restoring buildings in Ambridge's Old Economy Village, a 13-block national historic district.

"Sometimes you wonder what your purpose in life is," he said. "Nobody is restoring these houses."

Old Economy, a state-owned historic property, opens just a few of its buildings to the public for tours. Many of the others are privately owned and sometimes sell, unrestored, for as little as $23,000. Mr. Lapic, who rents the houses he restores, doesn't do it for the money. He's simply fascinated by the Harmonists and awed by their workmanship.

"You wonder: 'Why did they do this? Why this floorplan?' And when you find something like original windowsills, well, that's the best part."

One of his discoveries is the simple way the Harmonists locked the sashes of their double-hung wood windows. A sturdy square-headed nail inserted through a hole where the sashes meet holds them in place.

To re-create the fireplace mantel in the main room, Mr. Lapic and carpenter Jason Korvick studied other examples around Ambridge and the shadow lines left in the plaster wall. Mr. Korvick and Mr. Lapic's son, Justin, worked on all three houses.

"We spend a lot of time here," he said, laughing.

His father, who studied building preservation and restoration technology at Belmont College in St. Clairsville, Ohio, has learned much about the Harmonists both from books and careful observation. He believes houses like this one with woodframe additions were used by families, an odd notion considering Harmonist Society members were supposed to be celibate. Then again, a community doesn't last nearly 100 years on converts alone.

Mr. Lapic finds much to admire in these hard-working humble people whose legacy he has continued. "Nothing is signed -- they didn't want to promote themselves."

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