'Cottage' a link back to days of grandeur in Sewickley


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In the 1920s and '30s, Pittsburgh's captains of industry built lavish summer cottages high above the Ohio River to escape the city's smoke and summertime heat.

"Cottage" was something of a misnomer; their Sewickley Heights houses were every bit as opulent as the urban dwellings of these steel, shipping, manufacturing and banking barons and their families. The biggest differences were the size and setting: Separated by large tracts of woods and fields lined with massive stone walls, the palatial estates typically included gatehouses, greenhouses, servants quarters and stables. And sometimes, a playhouse.

Franklin Farm on Blackburn Road was in a class by itself. Built for steel tycoon B.F. Jones in 1899, it boasted more than 120 rooms under its Tudor-syle half-timbered gables and brick chimneys. Architects Rutan & Russell (who also designed the Edgeworth Club) created a house so large that it had its own 200-foot water tower fed by a woodland spring.

In 1926, to celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary, Jones' granddaughter Mary and her husband, William Christopher Robinson, added their own piece to Franklin Farms. Mr. Robinson built his wife an elegant English Gothic playhouse that still stands today, long after the estate house it once adorned has vanished. Too big and expensive for succeeding generations to maintain, Franklin Farm was demolished in the 1960s after pipes burst and the house was flooded.

Only the water tower and playhouse remain, but what a grand piece of the Roaring '20s it is.

Distinguished by a 100-by-40-foot ballroom with a 35-foot-high beamed ceiling and musicians' gallery, the New Place, as it was called, was a jazzy offshoot of the main house in which the Robinsons entertained high-society friends and family. Architect Philip Hiss' design includes a ceiling of delicate floral plasterwork, inlaid hardwood floors, wide Tudor arches and intricately carved crests -- not the kind of place you'd want to drag mud in on your shoes from the outdoors. Unless, of course, you were headed to the basement, where guests could swim laps in a four-lane Olympic-sized swimming pool or hit balls in a full-size squash court. An outdoor pool was built in the front yard, not far from a large brick gazebo/teahouse that looked out on terraced gardens with ancient sycamore, oak and weeping beech trees.

After the main house was torn down in 1963, the stucco playhouse was converted a few years later into a single-family residence by Williams-Trebilcock-Whitehead. It sits on a little more than 5 acres and is now on the market for $2.7 million.

"It truly was an entertainment center," says its current owner, who asked that her name not be used. She says she is selling because she's downsizing.

Recently remodeled with a two-story kitchen/master suite addition, the two-story playhouse retains much of its Gatsby-esque magic. The outdoor swimming pool has long been filled in, but you still can walk two sets of wide stone steps that once led visitors to the main house and are now shaded by mature trees. The water tower also stands despite being hit by lightning and catching fire a decade ago. In 1978, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation named it a historic landmark.

Reimagined as a great room, the ballroom remains the most breathtaking space in the house. Three walls are graced with four sets of original leaded- and stained-glass French doors -- two leading to the front yard and two to a large piazza surrounded by an original wrought-iron rail. Grand but not overly so, this is where the Sewickley Hunt held its annual New Year's Day breakfast for many years.

Previous owners created a formal dining room by building walls under the original bandstand. At one point, the loft above was used as a bedroom; today, it's a home office. The view of the living room below is nothing short of spectacular.

With five bedrooms and 41/2 baths, the house is well suited for a family with children. But it also is the perfect home for entertaining. A 2010 addition, painted in pastels, offers a modern take on luxury. A 10-foot-long marble island in the kitchen separates the gourmet cooking area -- outfitted with custom beech cabinets and a six-burner Viking range -- from a large and comfortable family room. In the corner, a spiral staircase leads to a sunny and airy master bedroom suite brightened by skylights and outfitted with a walk-in closet and laundry. The master bath, originally two bathrooms, has a whirlpool tub and walk-in stone shower.

Downstairs, the pool also has recently been renovated, and it includes a separate dressing room and full bath with original fixtures.

The New Place comes with literary provenance: It was included in Marcia Davenport's best-selling historical novel "Valley of Decision" (1942) about a young Irish housemaid who falls in love with the son of her employer, a local steel mill owner.

The author probably wasn't talking about Robinson, who made his fortune not in steel but in manufacturing. (He founded Robinson and Rea Manufacturing in 1891 and also National Medal Moulding Co., which later became National Electric Products Co.) But he certainly lived the opulent lifestyle depicted in the book.

A bio in George T. Fleming's "History of Pittsburgh and Environs" from 1920 noted Robinson had "little leisure for relaxation but gets out into the open occasionally, enjoying hunting, fishing, golf and tennis." Yet old newspaper clippings suggest he enjoyed a good time as much as the next millionaire.

Founding members of Allegheny Country Club, the Robinsons held scores of dinners and parties at the playhouse during the 1930s and '40s, including one of Sewickley Heights' biggest social events of the year: the famed annual Riding and Driving Party on the day before a large horse show at Allegheny Country Club in early June. As many as 700 people came to their home for dinner and dancing for the event, and guests -- who arrived either in horse-drawn carriages or cars -- often wore costumes.

The Robinsons also hosted several wedding and coming-out celebrations on their estate and, in 1941, a 10th wedding anniversary party for their son William Jr., where guests were encouraged to "attend in their favorite costume of that year."

For a private viewing of the Franklin Farm Playhouse, 845 Blackburn Road, Sewickley Heights (MLS No. 970147), contact Sally Dunbar of Prudential Preferred Realty's Sewickley office: 412-913-1777 or www.prudentialpreferred.com.

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Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published October 18, 2013 8:00 PM


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